chapter  3
22 Pages

Culture, order and disease in late nineteenth-century British dairying

Disease is usually thought of as a thoroughly natural phenomenon, hence properly the object of biological science and pathology. Insofar as it is allowed that disease has a social dimension, this is usually strictly separated from its biological, natural aspects. On the one hand, we have the sociology of health, on the other, epidemiology, each sealed into its own conceptual domain. Thus one may study at will the relationship between health and social class, analyse the changing discourses around disease and its prevention, or study the effects of particular policies, but as soon as one entertains the notion that disease itself may be a social phenomenon, rather than merely a natural one which is relationally distributed, discursively understood and politically managed in deeply social ways, then one quickly encounters a yawning chasm revealing the conceptual limit of social science, the selfimposed horizon of its modernist imagination.1 But what could be more social than disease? To be sure, disease is every bit as collective as language, indeed more so, for it speaks the universal language of matter, recognizing no linguistic boundaries and excluding no-body from its community. But if disease in itself constitutes a social relationship, quite over and above the social relations of disease, then it is a relationship that profoundly challenges our inherited conception of the social. It is a material relation between bodies, but one which elegantly undermines the Cartesian notions of human meaning and agency that so often underpin sociological discourse on the body, leaving us with a corporeality that is still stubbornly social but which refuses to be reckoned back into some form of idealist, linguistic, semiotic, in short narrowly ‘cultural’ conception of the social.