Review: Gut Anthro

Amber Benezra is a sociocultural anthropologist researching how studies of the human microbiome intersect with biomedical ethics, public health/technological infrastructures, and care. In partnership with human microbial ecologists, she is developing an “anthropology of microbes” to address global health problems across disciplines. 

Her book, published by University of Minnesota Press in 2023, Gut Anthro: An Experiment in Thinking with Microbes, is the first ethnography of the microbiome. Based on fieldwork at a preeminent U.S. lab studying the human microbiome and at a scientific field site in Bangladesh studying infant malnutrition, the book examines how microbes travel between human guts in the “field” and in microbiome laboratories.

As lab scientists studied the interrelationships between gut microbes and malnutrition in resource-poor countries, Amber Benezra explored ways to reconcile the scale and speed differences between the lab, the intimate biosocial practices of Bangladeshi mothers and their children, and the looming structural violence of poverty. In vital ways, Gut Anthro is about what it means to collaborate—with mothers, local field researchers in Bangladesh, massive philanthropic global health organizations, the microbiome scientists, and, of course, with microbes. It follows microbes through various enactments in scientific research—microbes as kin, as data, and as race. Revealing how racial categories are used in microbiome research, Benezra argues that microbial differences need transdisciplinary collaboration to address racial health disparities without reifying race as a straightforward biological or social designation. Gut Anthro is a tour de force of science studies and medical anthropology as well as an intensely personal and deeply theoretical account of what it means to do anthropology today.