A multi-species understanding of health

Following our 2018 grant call, Kone Foundation has awarded 26 million euros in grants to bold initiatives in research and art. In all, 277 individuals, organizations or work groups will receive funding. Sociologist Salla Sariola's project brings together a multidisciplinary group of new bold makers.
Jenni Saarenketo, Tiina Vaittinen, Johanna Nurmi & Jose Cañada Photo: Katja Tähjä/Kone Foundation

Shouldn’t social scientists leave the study of microbes to researchers of medicine or microbiology? In a project led by Adjunct Professor of Sociology, Academic Researcher Salla Sariola, microbes are not considered separate from social and structural factors, i.e. the ways in which we share our lives with them. For example, antibiotic resistance, which threatens the health of people and animals worldwide, is a result of our attitudes to microbes. The members of Sariola’s research teamJose Cañada, Johanna Nurmi, Jenni Saarenketo, Tiia Sudenkaarne and Tiina Vaittinen – believe that social research on microbes is necessary.

“There are far-reaching consequences to the way humans share the earth with microbes: whenever we have tried to get rid of microbes, it has caused us health hazards. Only recently has the importance of microbes as a neighbour community that promotes human health been recognised.

We are interested in a new multi-species understanding of health and how it challenges current views of it. Every day, new information is produced on microbes and antibiotics, and researchers and various biohackers are experimenting, for example, with fermentation to learn more. At the same time, they are redefining many conceptions prevailing in society about cleanliness and expertise, among other things. Ethical reflection is desperately needed because the study of antibiotic resistance, for example, is heavily geared towards seeing certain geographical areas as the instigators of the problem and others as the victims of the spreading resistance, which often reinforces the existing geographical inequality.

When we share our ideas with people outside our ‘bubble’ of researchers interested in microbes, the reaction is usually bafflement. A question we often hear is ‘what do the social sciences have to do with microorganisms?’. But as social scientists, we are not so much trying to make microbes visible to the eye as examining this phenomenon, which is usually studied in laboratories, from a new point of view. Microbes are made ‘visible’ by studying the places and networks where the practices and discourses related to them are produced. Luckily, every member of our team is lovely: slightly loony with a great sense of humour – qualities that will come in handy when digging about in poo, sewers, trashcans for organic waste and laboratories.

We don’t want to keep the fruits of our research to ourselves, though. That is why we are organising workshops open to everyone as part of our project and introducing traditional fermentation cultures in them. By no longer preserving food by fermenting it, we are losing important traditions relating to microbes. Our workshops aimed at the scientific community aim at creating a new language which would allow us to talk about microbes without dichotomising between nature and culture, living and dead, or human and animal. We also want to generate dialogue about the ethical issues involved, not just with researchers but with health care professionals and decision-makers.”

Suvi Korhonen