Immunity in Context: Science and Society in Dialogue

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THEORIA. An International Journal for Theory, History and Foundations of Science, ISSN: 0495-4548, Vol: 31, Issue: 2, Page: 207-224

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Alfred I. Tauber
UPV/EHU Press, Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea / Universidad del PaĆ­s Vasco
Arts and Humanities
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According to immunology's prevailing paradigm, immunity is based on self/nonself discrimination and thus requires a construction of identity. Two orientations vie for dominance: The original conception, conceived in the context of infectious diseases, regards the organism as insular and autonomous, an entity that requires defense of its borders. An alternate view places the organism firmly in its environment in which both benign and onerous encounters occur. On this latter relational account, active tolerance allows for cooperative relationships with other organisms in the larger ecological economy. These contending orientations -one derived from biomedicine and the other from the ecological sciences- have drawn the attention of social scientists and culture critics. On the one hand, feminists have portrayed immune theory as based upon borrowed social notions of identity that reflect male aggressive values and thus distort more balanced accounts of immunity; and, on the other hand, other commentary projects immune theory as a framework in which analysis of Western societies putatively reveals analogous patterns of 'self' and 'other' interactions, where autoimmunity and immunization are understood as expressions of the insular understanding of identity. Here, a meta-interpretation is presented that shows how these critiques place the immune self on a spectrum stretching from its formulation as an autonomous agent, a modernist conception of the independent individual, to a postmodern portrayal in which this conception of selfhood has been deconstructed. Accordingly, immunology is drawn into a wide-ranging debate about agency, where differing interpretations of immunity serves as a template in which competing understandings of human social intercourse is modeled.

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