Somatosphere is an online forum focused on medical anthropology, as well as the humanities and social sciences of health and medicine more broadly. The site aims to raise critical questions, debate and commentary about contemporary and historical matters of science, healing, illness, and the body. One of our key goals is not only to publish engaging essays, reviews, and new research in medical anthropology and social science, but to incorporate the flexibility and networking capabilities of digital media, generating new and rich links in and among ideas and across disciplinary boundaries. While there are a number of such disciplinary links and boundaries that we have actively worked around over the years, the relationship between medical anthropology and science and technology studies (STS) is among the most significant for us.
The site was founded in mid-2008 by a small number of then-fledgling medical anthropologists, including Erin Koch, Anne Kelly, Stephanie Lloyd, Todd Meyers, Matthew Wolf-Meyers, and me. We were impressed with the success of general anthropology blogs such as Savage Minds, and we all felt that medical anthropology needed a distinct space online. But it was also the case that most of us were inclined to a particular kind of medical anthropology: one that was closely engaged with questions of epistemology, history, and politics. For many of us neighboring disciplines and problem areas such as STS and the history of medicine were not only vital sources of inspiration, but domains in which we were interested in developing closer engagements and conversations. For some of us, working on the site also became a way of exploring both how medical anthropology was situated in a wider landscape of medical humanities and social sciences and thinking about what it could become.
Of course, by 2008 the relationship between anthropology and STS was well-established. Indeed, the relationship had been decades in development. Pioneers in feminist science studies included anthropologists like Emily Martin and Rayna Rapp, and anthropologists of biomedicine such as Allan Young and Margaret Lock were already engaging with science studies literatures in the early 1980s. If the 1990s had still seen the publication of works with titles like David Hess’s “If You’re Thinking of Living in STS….A Guide for the Perplexed” (1998) by the late 2000s many anthropologists were familiar with key STS scholars and texts. The broader project was no longer one of establishing connections but of asking new questions and developing new approaches on the basis of a medical anthropology which had one foot firmly set in the STS world. Indeed, new kinds of inter- and trans-disciplinary work was being proposed and carried out at the time, such as the Critical Neuroscience project, which drew partly on the tools of STS to enable both critique of and active engagement with the neurosciences. This kind of orientation to the horizons of medical anthropology has shaped the direction of Somatosphere from the beginning.
In the early days, the problem of finding contributions for the site was solved largely by drawing on our own networks of colleagues and friends, but as the readership for the site grew, we were increasingly able to use methods such as open calls for contributions and social media to reach scholars who had no prior connections to us. We also worked to expand the size of the editorial team. In 2014 we established an Editorial Collaborative of scholars who work together to develop the overall vision for the site. We now have an editorial team of some 50 rising and established scholars, and have published the work of some 500 contributors in all. We have one paid position, that of Managing Editor, currently occupied by the indefatigable Gregory Clinton, but otherwise all of the work put into Somatosphere is volunteered, part of the gift economy of the scholarly world.
While the website runs a range of pieces or posts, at its core are a variety of substantive pieces written by anthropologists and other social scientists, including research or fieldwork reports, conceptual pieces, interviews, and conference reports. And of course we publish many book reviews, thanks to the hard work of Seth Messinger, our book reviews editor. Substantive pieces are generally more polished than a typical academic blog post, with many undergoing several rounds of revision prior to publication. The site also runs monthly summaries of the latest academic literature in the social sciences of health and medicine (in a section currently edited by Anna Zogas) and a web round-up series which focuses on a different theme every month (edited by Lily Shapiro). Another popular series include “Top of the heap”, (currently compiled by Hannah Gibson) in which we ask scholars to recount what they have been reading or what they intend to read. Somatosphere has also increasingly taken on the task of facilitating current discussions and debates on the methods, arguments and politics of social science, both by extending discussions that occur at academic conferences as well as by publishing point-counterpoint pieces. Finally, in a series that was conceived of and is edited by Todd Meyers, we have been organizing book forums in which several contributors write open-ended responses to a recent book and the author responds. This has proved to be a very productive genre and we hope to run many more of them in the future.
I see the site as also providing a space for experimentation with form and genre at a moment when the ecology of academic publication and communication is rapidly changing. Particularly successful series in this regard have included “Commonplaces” – a series of short reflections on medical “keywords” written by leading scholars edited by Tomas Matza and Harris Solomon, and “The Ethnographic Case” – a series of short essays on the tensions between the general and the particular in the production of ethnographic knowledge, edited by Christine Labuski and Emily Yates-Doerr. Both of these series present relatively short, carefully written and edited reflections which are compelling to our specialist readers, but also, judging from the feedback we have received, very accessible to a range of non-specialists as well. We’re hoping to continue exploring the possibilities for online publication, especially in regard to the potential for employing multiple media, including image, video, and sound. Recent work that the journal Cultural Anthropology has been doing in this area is especially inspiring.
The speed of online publication allows Somatosphere and other similar venues to respond to unfolding events of concern in a way that is more challenging for traditional academic publications. To take one notable example, during the Ebola outbreak of 2014, Somatosphere ran a series of posts titled “Ebola Fieldnotes”. One of these pieces, a co-authored post by Almudena Marí Sáez, Ann Kelly and Hannah Brown, a group of anthropologists involved in conducting ethnographic research on the social, cultural, and material conditions shaping the outbreak, was picked up and reported on in an NPR (National Public Radio) Weekend Edition story titled, “The Experts the Ebola Response May Need: Anthropologists”. The Somatosphere piece was also later translated and published at La Marea, a Spanish-language news site. The reach of this piece highlights the site’s particular strengths: namely, as a web-based platform, Somatosphere is able to facilitate scholars’ interventions into public debate over compelling contemporary events in a timely way. The example of this piece about Ebola also speaks to the role of the site as a one of the public faces of medical anthropology and its neighbors. Many of our readers are non-specialists—whether scholars in other disciplines, clinicians, undergraduates, or simply readers interested in the perspective the site offers on issues of medicine, health, and society. In editing our posts, we try to keep in mind non-specialists and we encourage our contributors to write in a way which engages such readers.
In addition to our efforts to engage across disciplinary and specialist boundaries, we’ve made an effort to build a global academic community and facilitate conversation across national and regional boundaries in medical anthropology and adjoining fields, pushing against the insularity of many scholarly networks. I should add that this project is very much a work in progress. Most of our initial contributors were based in North America, and while we’ve made a concerted effort to assemble a geographically diverse Editorial Collaborative, and to solicit posts from scholars in a range of countries, there is still much work to do. We hope especially to expand our links to scholars in East Asia, Africa and Latin America, while continuing to work with those based throughout Europe. In addition to regular contributions, one of the ways in which we have attempted to do this is with a series called “Foreign Correspondents” edited by Stephanie Lloyd, which features reviews of significant books published in languages other than English.
While many of the pieces which appear on Somatosphere are invited, we always welcome unsolicited proposals for posts of various kinds, including (but not limited to) thought-pieces, essays, research reports, conference reports, interviews, photo essays, videos, and other multimedia projects. Not only are these great opportunities for students and young scholars to circulate their ideas and to begin publishing, writing a piece for Somatosphere can also be a first step toward developing an idea into a journal article. Indeed, a number of pieces which first appeared on Somatosphere were later reworked into articles for peer-reviewed journals or into book chapters for edited volumes. If you’d like to write a piece for Somatosphere, send us a brief proposal to firstname.lastname@example.org.