Social Representations of Pathogens at the Frontiers between Species

Frédéric keck

Nationality French

Year of selection 2012


Country France

Risk Health

AXA Projects

3 years

The uncertain boundary between human and animals

You may show your passport when you travel internationally, but infectious diseases do not respect borders. They do not always respect even species boundaries: over 200 zoonoses, diseases naturally transmissible between humans and animals, are known. And every time a new avian flu virus, for instance, is seen killing many birds, the first question we ask is: could it spread to humans?
While microbiologists are constantly at work on this subject, the issue involves much more than the microorganisms responsible for disease. Anthropologist Doctor Frédéric Keck leads a team conducting the first study comparing social factors in different cultures and contexts that influence animal-human disease transmission. They are exploring the frontiers between species: rather than an impermeable barrier, this is a zone where people exchange and interact with animals.
By training ethnographers to consider zoonoses, Keck hopes to benefit from these specialists’ expertise of local culture to enrich our understanding of pathogen transmission. This may include knowledge of daily practices bringing people into close contact with animals, but also more abstract conceptions of species frontiers, where pathogens, animal spirits and human dead are thought to pass. Involving science historians will allow the team to understand how such animal/human distinctions have changed over time. Ethnographic studies in three cultural areas of Asia (Mongolia, Southeast Asia and Australia), will also reveal how they vary in space.
Acting as translators between different groups confronting these emerging diseases, Keck and colleagues analyze how global health surveillance systems are received on a local level, with the goal of establishing a dialogue between the two. Religious rituals or animal protection movements, for instance, may come into conflict with disease prevention measures that reaffirm species divisions. In this case, the moral foundations of those measures will be reassessed as well.
The goal is to have anthropologists at work on sites around the world, acting as “sentinels,” agents on the ground who signal the presence of pathogens, but also as facilitators of an almost cooperative interaction between animals and humans. This work could bring us closer to effective global management of many largely preventable, but often neglected zoonoses.

To add or modify information on this page, please contact us at the following address:

Articles in the media

Coronavirus: why the WHO no longer targets containment but the mitigation of the epidemic

Published on February 25, 2020 and translated from The Express article

Read the Article

Why shutting down Chinese ‘wet markets’ could be a terrible mistake

Article from The Conversation

Read the article

Dr. Keck discusses the origins and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic

Listen the podcast