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

  • Introduction
  • Establishing the Concept of Local Biologies
  • Epistemic Developments of Local Biologies
  • Local Biologies, Environmental Epigenetics, and Beyond
  • Local Biologies Out of Euro–North American Constructs
  • Biological Anthropology’s and Geography’s Contribution to the Debate

Anthropology Local Biologies
Maurizio Meloni
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0288


In her 1993 comparative study of the experience, symptoms, and meanings of menopause in Japan and North America, anthropologist Margaret Lock used “local biologies” as a concept to capture “the ongoing dialectic between biology and culture in which both are contingent.” Lock’s findings were innovative. She was not so much highlighting that language, or even different moral systems, shape or construct different experiences of disease. Nor was she merely shifting biology into the symbolic (as, for instance, in the parallel usage of local biologies by anthropologist Atwood Gaines—see Gaines 1992, Gaines 1995, cited under Establishing the Concept of Local Biologies). Lock, more ambitiously, argued that there are some actual embodied differences in the experiences of aging between Japanese and North American women, possibly in response to the way normative discourses (emotions, interpretations) or local physical factors (diet, stress, pollution) are differently incorporated into their minds, brains, and bodies. As Bieler and Niewöhner 2018 (under Establishing the Concept of Local Biologies) notes, in Lock’s ethnographic work, she “noticed striking differences in the way ‘menopause’ was experienced by Japanese women compared to women in North America,” and, “most obvious, perhaps, was the absence of ‘hot flashes’ as a symptom of hormonal changes so regularly reported by North American women. Rather than reducing this differential experience to either culture (different discourse) or nature (different bodies), Lock weaves a thick ethnographic narrative that . . . draws together differences in media reporting and public discourse, women’s accounts of experiences, body images and genealogies of ‘aging’ narratives within a broader analysis of cultural and political context, including the role of the medical system. The result is not so much an explanation of cross-cultural differences in individual bodily experience but rather an ethnographic account of the diversity and contingency of female aging.” Lock’s move challenged the mainstream debate of the time, caught as it was between the abstract and universalizing body of biomedicine (bodies are biologically the same regardless of time and space) and a certain understanding of social constructionism that made material bodies disappear in the web of signs, meaning, and language with little or no attention paid to their embodied and ecological dimensions. “Local biologies” was then introduced to capture how human experience does not sit well within the polarized opposition of biology and culture, nature and nurture, local and universal, natural or historical. The different lifestyles or diets that Lock analyzed between Japan and North America are a good example of this crisscrossing of biocultural binaries, as they both impacted differences in symptom reporting and actual longevity, according to the analysis of Lock and Kaufert 2001 (under Establishing the Concept of Local Biologies). To account for this dialectic of biology and culture is not enough to resort to the usual network of meanings and norms, discourses and narratives rooted in knowledge/power. One needs to move further, at the intersection of ecological, social and embodied factors, to reach that often hidden or silenced agential power of things - the level of sugar in the blood, the quality of breathed air, the availability of fresh food, or (today) the microbiota within human tissues - that make the “experience” of the body possible in certain ways rather than others. As Lock 2001 (under Establishing the Concept of Local Biologies) again claimed, this means the assumption of a universal biological body upon which sociocultural variations are added like layers is a fiction. The concept of local bodies, instead, asks us to look at the contingent and contextual production of culturally intelligent bodies and embodied cultures. Finally, it is important to notice that, more recently, Niewöhner and Lock 2018 (under Establishing the Concept of Local Biologies) moved the concept of local biologies to that of situated biologies to capture all the processes that shape embodiment and environment/human entanglement “in a time when displacement and disruptions among human groups” are increasingly determined by global phenomena, including migrations and climate change. In conclusion, beyond anthropology, Lock’s move has to be understood as happening at the juncture of a major shift in social science and social theory after the polarizing debates of biology vs. social explanations in sociobiology first and evolutionary psychology later. On one side, evolutionary theory increasingly emphasized the entanglement of biological and environmental factors. This is the case for instance of evolutionary philosopher Susan Oyama and colleagues in the so-called developmental systems theory that challenged the notion that biology exists before the social as a universal and timeless substrate to human activities (see Oyama, et al. 2003, under Establishing the Concept of Local Biologies). Oyama and colleagues also aimed to entangle biology with its material network of environmental contexts, from the cellular to the wider ecological level, rather than taking for granted that biology is immutable or less contextual than cultural factors. Lock 1993 (under Establishing the Concept of Local Biologies) and Oyama and colleagues’ moves were not the same, but both concurred to think biology and the environment or culture are not in a causally hierarchical relation but on the same causal or ontological ground. While biology was being increasingly understood as a porous and dynamic matter, always contingent and marked by developmental time, rather than mere genetic sequences, a significant group of social theorists were questioning some of the binaries of language and matter, experience and embodiment, that they saw typical of past social constructionist approaches. Coole and Frost 2010 (under Establishing the Concept of Local Biologies) is well representative of this wide shift across the social sciences and (post)humanities that aims at re-engaging with matter as always and inextricably imbued with meaning and agency. This new positioning within theory (exemplified by the work of other authors, such as Karen Barad, Anne Fausto Sterling, Liz Wilson, or Sam Frost, to name a few) offers a significant conceptual companion for the work of anthropologists like Lock and colleagues.

Establishing the Concept of Local Biologies

Lock’s groundbreaking work was developed over the course of decades and with work by other medical anthropologists, ethnographers, and scientists studying biomedicine, psychiatry, biology, evolution, and environmental science.

  • Bieler, P., and J. Niewöhner. 2018. Universal biology, local society? Notes from anthropology. In The Palgrave handbook of biology and society. Edited by M. Meloni, J. Cromby, D. Fitzgerald, and S. Lloyd, 641–662. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-52879-7_27

    The chapter offers an overview of how the relationships between the human material body and social practices are currently being explored. A study of the “body-in-action” as a boundary object in emerging research, in both biological and social sciences, is proposed to assess complex entanglements of material bodies with the assembled environment rather than searching for decontextualized measurements or variables.

  • Coole D., and S. Frost. 2010. New materialisms: Ontology, agency, and politics. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780822392996

    Key interdisciplinary collection showing the re-engagement of social and feminist theory with matter, including biology, as always lively and meaningful, and agency as embedded and situated within micro and macro material forces and social structures.

  • Gaines, A. D. 1992. Medical/psychiatric knowledge in France and the United States: Culture and sickness in history and biology. In Ethnopsychiatry: The cultural construction of professional and folk psychiatries. Edited by A. D. Gaines, 171–201. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    The chapter introduces the notion of local biologies to understand cross-cultural changes in ethnomedicine as moral systems while addressing biology “as a symbol rather an ultimate reality.”

  • Gaines, A. D. 1995. Culture-specific delusions: Sense and nonsense in cultural context. Psychiatric Clinics of North America 18.2: 281–301.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0193-953X(18)30055-8

    A cross-cultural analysis of the distinction between normal and delusional thinking aimed at challenging taken-for-granted notions of a universal psychiatric standard.

  • Lock, M. 1993. Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Seminal cross-cultural analysis of menopause and aging in Japan and North America. The polysemy of the Japanese experience of kōnenki escapes the biomedical and physiological changes associated with menopause in North America, not just for different symbolic and normative expectations but also for the biological effects of local behaviors and diets.

  • Lock, M. 2001. The tempering of medical anthropology: Troubling natural categories. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 15.4: 478–492.

    DOI: 10.1525/maq.2001.15.4.478

    Reviewing feminists’ and medical anthropologists’ contribution to the literature on medicalization and resistance, and debating questions of moral economy of scientific knowledge, the article introduces and further refines the concept of local biologies to suggests a coproduction of biologies and cultures into embodied experience, which, in turn, shapes discourse about the body.

  • Lock, M., and P. Kaufert. 2001. Menopause, local biologies, and cultures of aging. American Journal of Human Biology 13.4: 494–504.

    DOI: 10.1002/ajhb.1081

    A further engagement with cross-cultural biological variations in the experience of menopause to highlight the impossible universality of assumptions in mainstream biomedicine.

  • Lock, M., and J. Farquhar, eds. 2007. Beyond the body proper: Reading the anthropology of material life. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    The book provides a key selection of works on anthropology of the body organized around concepts like science, gender, and everyday life, which moved debates toward notions of situatedness, embodiment, and beyond Eurocentric assumptions.

  • Lock, M., and V-K. Nguyen. 2010. An anthropology of biomedicine. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Important anthropological companion to support the mutual constitution of material bodies and local contexts. It aims to open the black box of material bodies and sees their health in connection with global and local dynamics of power, access to health, medical technologies.

  • Niewöhner, J., and M. Lock. 2018. Situating local biologies: Anthropological perspectives on environment/human entanglements. BioSocieties 13.4: 681–697.

    DOI: 10.1057/s41292-017-0089-5

    The article develops the notion of “situated biologies” to expand local biologies to a mobile world marked by displacement and disruptions among human groups and ceaseless migratory phenomena.

  • Oyama, S., R. D. Gray, and P. E. Griffiths, eds. 2003. Cycles of contingency: Developmental systems and evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    An alternative evolutionary view to the dominant modern synthesis of neo-Darwinism on which many notions of universalized biology and human nature are built upon. One key element, besides contingency of processes, is the parity thesis between genes and other nongenetic factors in development. In this sense, this book is a good theoretical companion for local biologies.

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