Sunday, April 10, 2005

Susan D. Jones: Body and Place

Body and Place
by Susan D. Jones
Envronmental History


Environmental history offers much to other historical sub-disciplines, to the broader study of the past, and to other fields of inquiry. Scholars have plumbed the ecological sciences for theory, using ideas about climax and succession and material flows, for example. From Frederick Jackson Turner to Cold War rhetoric, these theories have found social and political purchase, yet they represent only the tip of the iceberg. Indigenous or "street level" knowledge of the environment and the cycles of living things has long informed the social practices and cultural beliefs of peoples throughout time and around the world, and these theories deserve the attention that more formalized "scientific" theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have drawn. Methodologically, environmental history reminds historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and others that nonhuman actors have played important roles in "making history," influencing cultural practices and determining the shape of social institutions. These theoretical and methodological contributions have been particularly useful to the increasing number of scholars engaged in transnational and interdisciplinary studies.

One such interdisciplinary study lies at the intersection between health, disease, and environment. Historical events and ideas associated with health typically have been the province of historians of medicine and public health, who have focused on human bodies and populations. Recently, some historians have departed from this approach by "ecologizing" their examinations of health and disease in humans and animals (although this idea is hardly new). Recent scholarship (the 2004 issue of the research journal Osiris, for example) focuses on occupational health, colonial diseases, zoonotic diseases, and resultant public health policies. By including places as well as bodies in their work, these historians seek to understand health and disease as notions embedded in the lived experience of the sufferers in their daily environments. These analyses also often depend on non-human actors (such as microbes, tsetse flies, and cattle) that have altered our understanding of the role played by disease throughout social, cultural, and political history. The importance of environmental notions of health does not end with disease outbreaks; as scholars such as Conevery Bolton Valencius have shown, the very identities of historical actors were comprised in part by their linked perceptions of their health and the landscape in which they lived. Metaphors of environment and disease—weeds "spreading like cancer" or ill urbanites living in "miasmatic" conditions—remind us of the power of these linkages. Methodologically and theoretically, environmental history and the history of health and disease have a great deal to offer one another. This example represents but one path for historians to extend the reach of environmental history

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