'A Thousand Ghost Maps' Knits Complicated Story Of How Disease Spreads

Apr 25, 2014

A symposium is planned for Monday at the University of Vermont to look at the intersection of disease and society. The event brings together experts with diverse backgrounds including anthropology, epidemiology and medieval history. The idea is to look at the social and historical causes of modern disease, rather than just how the pathogens of disease are spread.

UVM professor of anthropology Jonah Steinberg organized the symposium. "Part of what I hope for is that people can come to see health, illness, life and death as part of the confluence of a lot of forces at once," says Steinberg, "instead of just a compartmentalized aspect or domain of life.”

The event is called ‘A Thousand Ghost Maps’. The name refers to a research project by Steven Johnson called ‘The Ghost Map’ that examines an 1854 cholera outbreak in London. That work now serves as model for understanding how political forces, cultural values and disease pathology all contribute to how epidemics spread. 

Steinberg says he sees these ideas in his own field work with runaway children in India. "One of the things that struck me there is that people get hurt, and get sick and die because of forces of history." Some of the forces Steinberg includes in that matrix are deforestation and pesticide use, and economic pressures than can be traced back through 200 years of colonialism. "[Forces] they can’t see, but that are really active and materially real."

Steinberg talked with Vermont Edition about multidisciplinary approaches to understanding epidemics.