JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: The Regulation, Circulation and Experiences of Novel Nutritive Substances: Rational Governance and the Gut in Contemporary South Africa. This doctoral dissertation research improvement grant--by the Science, Technology & Society Program at NSF--supports a project that seeks to understand how South Africans interpret concepts of nourishment amidst contestation over the place of science in the postcolonial democratic order. In the midst of a crisis of nourishment and health in the presence of HIV/AIDS, novel nutritive and curative substances have proliferated across South Africa. The substances draw on ideas of immune system functioning and micronutrient supplementation, as well as on a history of symbolic logics about the body that entangles diverse and syncretic African systems of healing. The study tracks the legal processes and political debates around the regulation of nutritive substances. The substances have provoked national controversy and brought constitutional rights concerning access to health care, customary authority, and cultural difference into tension with science and "evidence-based decision making" in the post-apartheid political order. Further, by exploring the everyday practices of self-care in one locality in rural South Africa, the project traces the movements of the nutritive curatives as they traverse legal and scientific terrains, markets, and domestic spaces.
The research project is an ethnographic enquiry into the construction of knowledge around nutrition, health, and the role of the gut. It examines a variety of actors--scientists, social activists, pharmacists, consumers and the objects themselves. As the project follows the substances and the questions they raise across multiple sites in South Africa, it focuses on the role of the nutritive substances in the everyday lives of individuals in the Umkhanyakude district of KwaZulu-Natal province. The research draws on a range of ethnographic methods, including archival research, ethnographic interviews, and participant observation. Tracing the ways science, political debates, and everyday practice shape ideas about sustenance and pharmacological action on the body will provide broader impacts in understanding the gaps between health governance and everyday health behavior.