In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Zoonosis

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Zoonotic Disease and Human Evolution
  • Anthropologies of Zoonotic Science
  • Biosecurity Interventions and Multispecies Ecologies
  • Agrarian Change and Its Microbial Risks
  • Global Health: Postcolonial Geopolitics and Social Vulnerability
  • Historical Perspectives
  • Collaboration and “One Health”

Anthropology Zoonosis
Lyle Fearnley
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0286


A zoonosis is a disease that spreads by infection from animals to humans: zoon (animal) + nosos (disease). More than 60 percent of new or “emerging” diseases since the 1940s are zoonoses, including HIV, influenza, Ebola, and Covid-19. As a subject of anthropological inquiry, however, zoonosis is best approached not as a novel topic with medical urgency, but rather as a zone of problematization within which several reconstructions of contemporary anthropology meet. First, the anthropology of zoonosis furthers the ethical and epistemological displacement of medical anthropology from the clinical encounter toward the collective scale of epidemics, biopolitics, and the political economy of health—a process initiated by the anthropological responses to HIV/AIDS (though HIV was not treated by anthropologists as zoonosis until more recently). Second, it participates in the renewed anthropological interest in nonhuman animals that has accompanied disciplinary lines of flight such as science and technology studies, posthumanism, and multispecies ethnography. In short, anthropological studies of zoonosis reflect two distinct but overlapping changes of object: from individual to public or global health; and from human to nonhuman illness and disease. As a result, the anthropology of zoonosis is an intensively interdisciplinary and collaborative field—not only forging new links across subfields within anthropology, such as between medical anthropology and animal studies, agrarian studies, biological anthropology/primatology, archaeology, and environmental anthropology, but also building collaborations across disciplines including co-research alongside epidemiologists, virologists, and veterinarians. From a position of adjacency to zoonosis research in virology labs and veterinary fields, anthropologists are providing cultural insights to improve zoonotic disease prevention and control, while also seeking to critique the ways that biosecurity interventions are configured with a variety of modes of interspecies living. Given the above, this review is not restricted to works published by anthropologists (disciplinarily) proper, and also includes anthropological studies of diseases that are not technically zoonoses, but articulate similar problematizations, such as vector-borne diseases and animal infections that do not spread to humans.

General Overviews

Review essays and programmatic statements chart out the significance of zoonosis for an anthropology of the contemporary, as well as the importance of anthropology for the study and control of zoonotic diseases. Barrett, et al. 1998 challenges older models of epidemiological transition to argue that new zoonotic diseases reflect a contemporary age of re-emerging pandemics. Though focused on bioterrorism rather than emerging diseases, Collier, et al. 2004 introduces an anthropological approach to biosecurity that inspired many subsequent studies of zoonosis (see Lakoff and Collier 2008 in Anthologies). Muehlenbein 2016 argues that anthropologists are best suited to study the cultural drivers of zoonotic disease emergence, Sodikoff 2020 situates zoonosis within anthropogenic environmental change, and Hinchliffe 2015 argues that zoonotic diseases reflect the “patchwork” variability of human-environment interactions, all suggesting that anthropologists or like-minded social scientists will benefit from research on this topic. But with increasing numbers of anthropologists studying zoonosis, several different methodological or conceptual approaches have been proposed to manage the inclusion of nonhuman or noncultural factors in anthropological research. Kleinman, et al. 2008 proposes a “biosocial” approach, Brown and Kelly 2014 suggests that anthropologists can build collaborations around the concept of the viral “hotspot,” and Nading 2013 introduces the concept of “entanglement.” Finally, Faas, et al. 2020 responds to the Covid-19 pandemic by proposing an anthropological research agenda rooted in applied research on disasters.

  • Barrett, Ronald, Christopher W. Kuzawa, Thomas McDade, and George J. Armelagos. 1998. Emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases: The third epidemiologic transition. Annual Review of Anthropology 27:247–271.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.27.1.247

    This review article contests the model of epidemiological transition developed by A. R. Omran in the 1970s by arguing that emerging infectious diseases now constitute a “third epidemiologic transition,” rooted in contemporary social and ecological conditions, and suggests that anthropologists can play an important role in contributing to the understanding of disease emergence.

  • Brown, Hannah, and Ann H. Kelly. 2014. Material proximities and hotspots: Toward an anthropology of viral hemorrhagic fevers. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 28.2: 280–303.

    DOI: 10.1111/maq.12092

    Proposes the concept-object of the “hotspot” to capture the “mundane interactions that create the conditions of pathogenic possibility” (p. 282), including multispecies interactions but also “convergence of rainfall, political designs, cat populations” (p. 281), etc.

  • Collier, Stephen J., Andrew Lakoff, and Paul Rabinow. 2004. Biosecurity: Towards an anthropology of the contemporary. Anthropology Today 20.5: 3–7.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0268-540X.2004.00292.x

    A programmatic essay that identifies bioterrorism and biosecurity as “appropriate objects for an anthropology of the contemporary” (p. 3) because they reveal a problematization in the regime of governance that Michel Foucault called “biopolitics,” and outlining a direction for collaborative research that inspired several early studies of zoonosis.

  • Faas, A. J., Roberto Barrios, Virginia García-Acosta, Adriana Garriga-López, Seven Mattes, and Jennifer Trivedi. 2020. Entangled roots and otherwise possibilities: An anthropology of disasters COVID-19 research agenda. Human Organization 79.4: 333–342.

    DOI: 10.17730/1938-3525-79.4.333

    Drawing on experience of applied anthropologists’ work on disasters, this paper calls for anthropological research on the interconnections between social systems and multispecies networks as root causes of the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • Hinchliffe, Steve. 2015. More than One World, more than One Health: Re-configuring interspecies health. In Special issue: One World One Health? Social science engagements with the one medicine agenda. Edited by Susan Craddock and Steve Hinchliffe. Social Science & Medicine 129:28–35.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.07.007

    While supporting the interdisciplinary vision of “One Health,” this article challenges its universalist “one world metaphysics” by foregrounding how health is shaped by situated “patchworks” of practices.

  • Kleinman, Arthur M., Barry R. Bloom, Anthony Saich, Katherine A. Mason, and Felicity Aulino. 2008. Introduction: Avian and pandemic influenza: A biosocial approach. The Journal of Infectious Diseases 197: s1–s3.

    DOI: 10.1086/524992

    Proposes a biosocial approach to understanding zoonotic influenza, and critiques existing scientific accounts for their inattention to the cultural, social, economic, and political context of flu in Asia.

  • Muehlenbein, Michael P. 2016. Disease and human/animal interactions. Annual Review of Anthropology 45.1: 395–416.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-102215-100003

    A review by a biological anthropologist with public health training, this article argues that anthropologists will play a key role in documenting the cultural variation in human-animal interactions that condition risks of zoonotic spillover.

  • Nading, Alex M. 2013. Human, animals and health: From ecology to entanglement. Environment and Society 4:60–78.

    DOI: 10.3167/ares.2013.040105

    This review article identifies the intersections of human and animal health, including zoonosis, as an important area for medical anthropological research, and articulates a key contrast between biosecurity interventions and the ecological entanglements of human-animal relations.

  • Singer, Merrill. 2014. Zoonotic ecosyndemics and multispecies ethnography. Anthropological Quarterly 87.4: 1279–1309.

    DOI: 10.1353/anq.2014.0060

    Singer proposes that the emerging field of multispecies ethnography is well-suited to take up the topic of zoonotic diseases, and adapts his own concept of “syndemics”—the aggregation of two or more epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS and drug abuse—to understand “ecosyndemics,” in which disease interaction is facilitated by changing environmental conditions.

  • Sodikoff, Genese Marie. 2020. Zoonosis. In Anthropocene unseen: A lexicon. Edited by Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian, 529–534. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv11hptbw.89

    A short encyclopedia-like entry that links zoonotic disease with the anthropogenic environmental change of the Anthropocene.

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