Can modern immunology resolve anthropology's primary impasse, the persistence (despite all we know to the contrary) of the Enlightenment dialectic of Self–Other?1 Does anthropology need immunology to think its way out of a theoretical conundrum? Conversely, does immunology need social anthropology to think its way beyond its unconscious reliance on a folk model, a “culture-bound conception of a wholly autonomous self?” Anthropology begins with the recognition that while the self–other binary is foundational to Western epistemology it may be unique to it.2Clifford Geertz argued that the Western conception of the person “as a bounded, unique … integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action … is a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world's cultures” (1974:31). And, depending on one's philosophical conceits, the self–other dialectic is also of recent historical vintage. Scheper-Hughes and Lock (1987) posited the 1690 publication of John Locke's “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” as the first detailed theory of the person that identified the “I” with an individuated human consciousness that was unique to the “self” and amazingly stable through the life span and biophysical changes (incl. mental debility and deterioration) until death (Ronch 1996; Tappen et al. 1999). Foucault goes back to the Greeks in tracing a genealogy of the self that continues to have a strangle hold on us even though Foucault's project was motivated in part by a desire to defeat the self and to provide the conceptual tools to defamiliarize the concept and thus to obliterate it (Fillion 1998).
Napier's reflection on modern immunology suggests that the implicit (scientific, biomedical) paradigm of the self as an organic entity based on recognition and elimination of difference is in fact antithetical to behavior at the cellular level where the courting of risk and danger through the incorporation of difference is intrinsic to the lifecycle and survival of the organism. So, the “metaphors we—both anthropologists and immunologists—live by” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980) and “think with” are incompatible with the emerging science of the human–anthropos and biological life. Immunology may provide us with new ways of thinking about human sociality and vice versa (162-163).
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. "The Other Who is Also Oneself: Immunological Risk, Danger, and Recognition." Cultural Anthropology 27.1(2012): 162–167.