Migrants and Microbes: Politics of the Immune System in Contemporary Europe

Cristiana Giordano is an associate professor of anthropology. Her project, which seeks to start a conversation between scientific and political discourses with regard to migration, was awarded an ISS Individual Research Grant in 2015. She provided this update in November 2016.

What motivated you to pursue this project?

When my first book (Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy) was published in 2014, I planned to shift focus away from the issue of migration, and from Italy generally. But the advent of the Mediterranean “refugee crisis,” with Italy on its frontlines, and the social panic it engendered, proved to me that I was still very much interested in these issues of foreignness and otherness.

I was increasingly interested, too, in immunity—in bodies and antibodies. When I encountered scientists from the College de France (based in Paris but looking to conduct research on Lampedusa, an Italian island off the North African coast where many people on the move and rescue boats land) who aim to map the microbiomes of both incoming/migrant and native European populations, I saw an opportunity. This intersection of biology and politics in discourses of difference and otherness struck me as an interesting new way to think about what it means to be foreign—what it means to be human.

How has it progressed since you received an ISS Individual Research Grant?

Unfortunately, the group was initially unsuccessful in securing the funding it needed to proceed. In the meantime, I began to meet with Jonathan Eisen, a prominent microbiologist here at UC Davis. We have started a fruitful conversation on the microbiome. He is very open to the idea of collaborating with anthropologists, and hopes to establish a microbiome center on campus. 

I also spent the summers of 2015 and 2016 conducting ethnographic research at various ports of entry in Sicily. I worked closely with Emergency, an Italian humanitarian NGO. Through mobile clinics at ports and shelters, Emergency provides what it calls ‘primary care in situations of emergency.’

I focused in particular on the moment of disembarkation. After the Ministry of Health checks for critical cases and infectious diseases, and the Red Cross conducts triage, the Emergency clinics represent the third phase of the mandatory health checks provided to incoming people. Overall, Emergency finds those who arrive in Italy to be very strong and healthy, mostly because to attempt the crossing requires incredible strength in the first place. Even those who arrive with scabies or pneumonia recover very quickly.

What notable or surprising findings can you share at this point?

In science, the proliferation in debates and discourses around the microbial composition of the human body points to a growing preoccupation about the relationship between bacteria and human health. In the social sciences and the humanities, these research findings raise questions about what constitutes the “human” and the body as we have known them until now. Recent research in the U.S. and Europe has shown that the human body hosts for every human cell ten microbial ones. According to this understanding, the body is ten percent human and ninety per cent microbes. This population of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microscopic creatures inhabiting the human body constitutes the microbiome, another vital “organ” which is all over and inside the body. These microbes play a central role in the functioning of the immune system and the ability to fight disease. Scientists claim that there are different kinds of bacteria; some cause disease and others live in the body without causing any harm and instead protect the immune system. This in itself is fascinating to me.

I think that scientists introduce a new politics of difference that counter the raising of right wing and anti-immigrant politics in contemporary Europe and the West more broadly. The question that immunology asks in the laboratory –and the kind of human that emerges from it—becomes a larger political and social issue of how the composition of our microbial flora changes the configuration of what constitutes health and politics in the context of contemporary migrations and Europe.

I was also interested to learn from Emergency doctors and nurses that many men and women who are hosted in shelters often present what the health practitioners call ‘symptoms of excessive care’—that is, they capitalize on the health care offered to them upon arrival by seeking treatment for non-life-threatening conditions which in the past they might simply have ignored. This is in part due to the fact that many resources are made available to the newly arrived when they are recognized as part of a state of “emergency,” but they can rarely remain within these networks of support. Soon after their arrival, they enter the same bureaucratic processes and care practices that characterize the lives of many Italians under the poverty threshold.

What is the next step?

I aim to create a conversation between scientific, medical, and political discourses to broaden our understanding of movement and difference. If scientists from the College de France are unable to secure funding, I would still like to interview its members in depth—to explore how scientists think about the interplay of migration and health. So my project may yet become an ethnography of the conception of a scientific project.

Meanwhile, I hope to continue to collaborate with Jonathan Eisen, and to continue applying for NSF, NEH, Wenner-Gren, and other grants that will enable me to take this project forward. 

Learn more about Cristiana Giordano at her faculty webpage.