Ebola, Emerging: The Limitations of Culturalist Discourses in Epidemiology

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Jared Jones


In this paper, I offer a critique of the culturalist epidemiology that dominates the discourse of Ebola in both popular and international health spheres. Ebola has been exoticized, associated with “traditional” practices, local customs, and cultural “beliefs” and insinuated to be the result of African ignorance and backwardness. Indeed, reified culture is reconfigured into a “risk-factor.” Accounts of the disease paint African culture as an obstacle to prevention and epidemic control efforts, at times even linking the eruption of the disease to practices such as burial traditions or consumption of bushmeat. But this emphasis is misleading; the assumption of African “otherness,” rather than evidence, epidemiological or otherwise, underpins dominant culturalist logics that “beliefs” motivate behaviors which increase the likelihood of Ebola’s emergence and spread. Conspicuously absent from both popular and official rhetoric has been attention to larger structural determinants of the course of Ebola epidemics. Yet global forces condition the emergence of Ebola far more than culture does. Inequality and inadequate provision of healthcare, entrenched and exacerbated by a legacy of colonialism, superpower geopolitics, and developmental neoliberalism, are responsible for much of Ebola’s spread. Certainly, structural force alone cannot account for the destruction Ebola has wreaked on the lives of victims and their families. Culture does matter. But the focus on culture comes at the expense of attention to sociopolitical and economic structures, obscuring the reality that global forces affect epidemics in Africa. In this paper, I seek to map the discursive contours of Ebola’s emergence, contextualize these trends within a larger debate about the role of anthropology in epidemiology, and question the simplistic link between culture and Ebola through a critical examination of structural-level forces.

Article Details

epidemiology, ebola, otherness
Original Research
How to Cite
Jones, J. (2011). Ebola, Emerging: The Limitations of Culturalist Discourses in Epidemiology. The Columbia University Journal of Global Health, 1(1), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.7916/thejgh.v1i1.4924