I am interested in philosophical and ethnographic issues regarding how bodies, media, viruses and bacteria, narratives and songs, and race constantly get mixed up, sometimes fatally. I have engaged these issues by investigating epidemics of cholera and rabies in Venezuela, collaborating with patients, parents, doctors, nurses, healers, and epidemiologists to figure out why so many people die from preventable diseases. My concern with infectiousness spreads from microbes to narratives, to thinking about how stories about cholera, rabies, H1N1, Ebola, diabetes, and COVID-19 are produced and ways that their social lives shape the imaginations of policymakers, clinicians, journalists, and publics.
Much of my recent work has centered on communicability, constructions of the circulation of pathogens and representations of them. I have focused on how clinical and public health professionals view communicability as the production of knowledge in laboratories, clinics, and epidemiologists’ offices, its circulation through clinical encounters, health media, health communication, and social media, and its reception by lay publics invested with a governmental obligation to assimilate this “information” and transform it into corporeal changes.
The COVID-19 pandemic constitutes probably the most extensive example in which viruses move in complex relationship with scientific and medical findings, journalism, public health guidelines, forms classified as “conspiracy theories” and “misinformation,” and online networks in which patients collaboratively contribute to understanding a virus that is hard to contain, discursively or epidemiologically.
I am now deeply engaged in a large study of the effects of the pandemic on peoples’ lives, work, and fundamental conceptions. I am interviewing physicians, psychiatrists, nurses, dentists, public health officials, journalists, community-based organizations, elected officials, judges, educators, religious professionals, firefighter/paramedics, police officers, and a wide range of laypersons, largely in California, New Mexico, and Montana, even as I conduct remote and in-person ethnographic work in a variety of spaces.
Exploring conceptual quagmires surrounding issues of language, poetics, and performance led me to collaborate with Richard Bauman in rereading work in philosophy, linguistics, history, politics, anthropology, folklore, science, and other fields from the 17th-20th centuries. We discovered that models of language and tradition often provide the unannounced foundations on which new political epistemologies are launched and social arrangements naturalized. Our Voices of Modernity (2003) won the Edward Sapir Book Prize.
A cholera epidemic killed 500 people in Delta Amacuro, Venezuela in 1992-1993. Clara Mantini-Briggs, a Venezuelan public health physician, and I researched global medical profiling, following ways that germs get linked to constructions of racialized bodies. Our Stories in the Time of Cholera received the Bryce Wood Book Award from the Latin American Studies Association and the J.I. Staley Prize from the School for Advanced Research. A Spanish expanded edition, Las historias en los tiempos del cólera, is now available open source (http://oskicat.berkeley.edu/record=b23213458(link is external)).
When Mantini-Briggs and I returned Delta Amacuro in 2008 to bring income from royalties and awards to rainforest residents, we encountered a mysterious epidemic that had killed thirty-eight children and young adults. Leaders Conrado and Enrique Moraleda asked us, healer Tirso Gomez, and nurse Norbelys Gomez to join them in creating a novel knowledge-production process that included the parents' personal narratives, vernacular healing, laments, clinical medicine, and epidemiology. Two book projects have emerged from it. Published in Argentina in 2015, Una efermedad monstruo: Indígenas derribando el cerco de la discriminación en salud (A Monster Disease: Indigenous Peoples Breaking Down the Wall of Health-Based Discrimination) emerged from 60 hours of conversations. Experimentally presented as a dialogue between team members, the book mirrors the dialogic process that resulted in a clinical diagnosis—rabies transmitted by vampire bats—and the broader goal of demonstrating how indigenous peoples can generate innovative perspectives on global health problems.
The second is Tell Me Why My Children Died: Rabies, Indigenous Knowledge and Communicative Justice, co-authored by Clara Mantini-Briggs. Part I juxtaposes narratives told by grieving parents, doctors, nurses, healers, epidemiologists, and journalists. Each chapter of Part II offers a new conceptual framework for rethinking issues of narrative and health, bodies and knowledge production, the work of mourning, and the mediatization of health. The book explores how rights to produce and circulate knowledge about health are co-produced with unfair distributions of care and disease, tying health inequities to health/communicative inequities.
Reflections on how Venezuelan journalists reported cholera in 1991-1992 gave rise to collaboration with media/journalism scholar Daniel C. Hallin and building a Latin American network that includes Eduardo Menéndez in Mexico and Hugo Spinelli and Anahi Sy in Argentina. In Making Health Public, Hallin and I focus on biomediatization processes through which health and media professionals co-produce basic understandings of health and disease. Using content analysis and ethnography conducted in clinics, public health offices, living rooms, and a wide range of media venues, we focus particularly on H1N1 ("swine flu"), Ebola, pharmaceutical and biotech corporations, and how race and health are co-produced in health news. We are currently planning a new edition that brings the book’s insights to bear on COVID-19.
A 2021 book entitled Unlearning: Rethinking Poetics, Pandemics, and the Politics of Knowledge brings together the analytic foundations of my recent work on the politics of knowledge, coloniality, disciplinary boundary-work (particularly that separating anthropology and folkloristics, linguistic and medical anthropology), pandemics, and mediatization. Its title reflects recognition of ways that I have come to focus less on a possessive accumulation of knowledge than, thanks in part to provocations emerging in decolonial collaborative teaching projects, to ways that an unlearning curve is expanding my ability to question the foundations of what I considered to be knowledge. The book includes a psychoanalytic and decolonial rethinking of work conducted with Richard Bauman on poetics and performance.
A book in production at Duke University Press is entitled Incommunicability: Toward Communicative Justice in Health and Medicine. It takes a decolonial approach to analyzing how notions of language and communication and of medicine and health are tied to White supremacy, colonialism, and the production of racial hierarchies. Proceeding philosophically, analytically, and ethnographically, it provides a new analytic framework for rethinking two sites in which attention to communication and health converges, doctor-patient interaction and health communication in global health. Drawing on Black feminist and other anti- racist approaches, it details ways that received theory and practice in these areas thwarts communication and increases what I refer to as health/communicative equities by stigmatizing subjects as incommunicable—as incapable of participating in dominant communicable practices. Chapters on knowledge production and care in the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States provide insights into why such things as masks and vaccines became flash points and how issues of care often divided health professionals and laypersons, even as they both faced enormous challenges. I am currently writing a public-facing book that focuses on the spectacular failure of COVID-19 health communication and the social divides that have emerged in its wake. I currently serve, with Clara Mantini-Briggs, MD MPH, as the Co-Director of the Center for the Study of the Health of Latinx Communities. Under the auspices of the UC Berkeley Latinx Research Center, we are working with Berkeley students to document the contributions of Latinx-centered social movements, particularly in California, to fighting for health justice.
(2014). Dear Dr. Freud. Cultural Anthropology 29(2):312-343.
(2017). Towards Communicative Justice in Health. Medical Anthropology 36(4):287-304.
(2019). Language, Justice, and Rabies: Notes from a Fatal Crossroads. In Case Studies in Language and Social Justice, Netta Avineri, Laura R. Graham, Eric Johnson, Robin Riner, and Jonathan Rosa, eds., 109-118. London: Routledge.
(2021). From Progressive Extractivism to Phyto-Socialism: Trees, Bodies, and
Discrepant Phytocommunicabilities in a Mysterious Epidemic. Ethnos 86(2):207-227. DOI:10.1080/01459740.2020.1765168
(2021). Against Methodological Essentialism, Fragmentation, and Instrumentalism in Times of COVID-19. American Anthropologist 123(4):054-956.
(2022). The Politics of Communicability. In A Companion to Medical Anthropology,
second edition, Merrill Singer and Pamela Erickson, eds., 388-405. Oxford: Blackwell.
(2022). John Austin and Pandemic Performativity: From Cholera to COVID-19. In
Philosophy on Fieldwork: Case Studies in Anthropological Analysis, Nils Bubandt and Thomas Schwarz Wentzer, eds., 66-83. London: Routledge.
(2023). Communicative Justice and Health. In The New Wiley Blackwell Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, Alessandro Duranti, Rachel George, and Robin Conley Riner, eds.New York: Wiley.
Interviews are ubiquitous in modern society, and they play a crucial role in social scientific research.
This book examines the relationship between media and medicine, considering the fundamental role of news coverage in constructing wider cultural understandings of health and disease.
Esta obra explora las desigualdades sociales sufridas por el pueblo warao del Estado Delta Amacuro en Venezuela: desde conflictos de poder masculino y femenino hasta la resistencia a la dominación de Estado.
Cholera, although it can kill an adult through dehydration in half a day, is easily treated. Yet in 1992-93, some five hundred people died from cholera in the Orinoco Delta of eastern Venezuela. In some communities, a third of the adults died in a single night, as anthropologist Charles Briggs and Clara Mantini-Briggs, a Venezuelan public health physician, reveal in their frontline report.
Tell Me Why My Children Died: Rabies, Indigenous Knowledge, and Communicative Justice (Critical Global Health: Evidence, Efficacy, Ethnography)
Tell Me Why My Children Died tells the gripping story of indigenous leaders' efforts to identify a strange disease that killed thirty-two children and six young adults in a Venezuelan rain forest between 2007 and 2008.
Entre 2007 y 2008, una enfermedad misteriosa mató a 38 niños, niñas y jóvenes indígenas warao en Delta Amacuro, Venezuela. Médicos, epidemiólogos y curadores fracasaron en diagnosticarla.
This study asserts that conscious development of new ways of thinking about language had a crucial role in modern history, particularly the discovery of how differences between languages legitimated social inequalities.
A provocative theoretical synthesis by renowned folklorist and anthropologist Charles L. Briggs, Unlearning questions intellectual foundations and charts new paths forward. Briggs argues, through an expansive look back at his own influential works as well as critical readings of the field, that scholars can disrupt existing social and discourse theories across disciplines when they collaborate with theorists whose insights are not constrained by the bounds of scholarship.
Eschewing narrow Eurocentric modes of explanation and research foci, Briggs brings together colonialism, health, media, and psychoanalysis to rethink classic work on poetics and performance that revolutionized linguistic anthropology, folkloristics, media studies, communication, and other fields. Beginning with a candid memoir that credits the mentors whose disconcerting insights prompted him to upend existing scholarly approaches, Briggs combines his childhood experiences in New Mexico with his work in graduate school, his ethnography in Venezuela working with Indigenous peoples, and his contemporary work—which is heavily weighted in medical folklore.
Unlearning offers students, emerging scholars, and veteran researchers alike a guide for turning ethnographic objects into provocations for transforming time-worn theories and objects of analysis into sources of scholarly creativity, deep personal engagement, and efforts to confront unconscionable racial inequities. It will be of significant interest to folklorists, anthropologists, and social theorists and will stimulate conversations across these disciplines