Distraction Free Reading

Platypod, Episode Three: Disability, Toxicity, and the Environment

Orange Platypus with black headphones


In this episode, Platypod presents a conversation between Elizabeth Roberts (the University of Michigan) and Sophia Jaworski (the University of Toronto). They discuss the complexities of corporeal life in toxic environments.

This episode was created with the participation of Elizabeth Roberts (the University of Michigan, speaker), Sophia Jaworski (the University of Toronto, speaker), Svetlana Borodina (Columbia University, host, producer), Gebby Keny (Rice University, host, sound editor), and Angela VandenBroek (Texas State University, CASTAC web producer).

The transcript of their conversation is available below. We thank Sophia Jaworski for her work on editing the transcript for comprehension.

Elizabeth Roberts (hereafter ER)
Hi, my name is Elizabeth Roberts, Liz. I’m a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan.

Sophia Jaworski (hereafter JS)
Hi, I’m Sophia Jaworski, and I’m a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto in anthropology.

Gebby Keny (hereafter GK)
Thank you both so much for being here with us. We really appreciate it. And to kind of jump right in, we’ll start with an intro question. Please tell us a little bit about your research on toxicity, environmental degradation, and disability and how you came to study what you study.

In my ethnographic fieldwork and ongoing research, I work with people who have become chronically ill and disabled through environmental exposures and sensitivities. I’m interested in tying these experiences to petrochemicals and different kinds of atmospheric environmental pollution, specifically with attention to volatile organic compounds. They’re in a lot of consumer products and off-gas at room temperature. In North America, people are inhaling them and spending 90% of their time indoors. This has different effects, depending on housing contexts. Part of my work also focuses on low-income rental housing and different negotiations of access in those spaces.

To answer the question about how I came to study what I study, I came to this work in part through my own experiences (they definitely add a whole other layer to my fieldwork) and in part through the teachings of people who have shared their experiences of environmental illness, lack of housing accessibility, and housing insecurity with me. I have also had the amazing opportunity to be mentored and work with environmental clinicians at a clinic focused on treating these types of chronic environmentally linked illnesses. It was only really after doing chart review, pretty far into my fieldwork, that I started noticing a lot of the patterns linking back to petrochemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in particular.

To refer back to the word “toxicity” in the question–I’m sure Liz has a lot to share and a lot of insights about this–but, in my work, toxicity doesn’t always work how Western science imagines it to work. There are a lot of combinatorial exposures and a lot of long-term exposures that often deviate from toxicological ideas about dose-response and the notion of exposure thresholds. I’ll leave it there. I could nerd out for longer, but I’d love to hear Liz’s answer to this question.

So this was a really exciting invitation to receive because I have been working collaboratively with environmental health scientists who do research through a birth cohort study in Mexico City for about ten years now. And I’ve been thinking for a very long time about the terms exposure and toxicity, and I think a lot about health and disease and bodies. But actually, until this invitation, I haven’t really thought that much about disability. So I feel like I’m here to learn from all of you who are thinking through disability. And the invitation helped me think a lot more about why hasn’t disability become a keyword in my research.

And another kind of, well, we could call it more personal, but of course, nothing is really personal, and so a political thing that really drew me to this invitation is that in the last few years, I have become disabled in the way that I think I always have kind of classically thought about disability, which is, I can’t really walk very well anymore for a series of complex reasons. And so my relationship to the world and how I get around is really different than it used to be. I was a very physically active person, and I’m not anymore. And I hope it’s not a permanent disability, but I don’t know. And so, this invitation also helped me reflect more on why disability is a word that’s emerged in my life, but it’s not so preeminent in the fieldwork that I do in working-class neighborhoods in Mexico City, where I lived for a year in 2014-15, and then have done ongoing research with, and there’s plenty of disability all around. But I think I can use this conversation to think much more capriciously about disability and what it means.

I can say a little bit more just broadly, I think we’ll get into these later, but a lot of my work is about how standard categories of exposure and toxicity as deployed by environmental health scientists, both in the US and in Mexico, don’t really adequately convey how people are living in relation with chemicals and other kinds of substances that might both do harm to people, but also help people engage in forms of collective pleasure making. So that might seem a little bit cryptic, I can go into the details later. But, you know, the toxicity and exposure have been to where it’s really on my mind, and I’m really appreciating this opportunity to add disability to think those two things.

Svetlana Borodina (hereafter SB):
Awesome, thank you so much. Our next question is: Why is it important to explore toxicity ethnographically? And what’s unique or challenging about studying toxicity as an object of anthropological inquiry?

There’s been an explosion of research on toxicity and anthropology for all kinds of reasons that you’re probably all familiar with. The deeper connection between anthropology and medical anthropology and Science Technology Studies is one of them. But another one is that we’re living in a world where we’re thinking about the impacts of chemical exposure in all kinds of new and horrifying ways. So there’s the chemical turn in anthropology and other kinds of critical social sciences. It’s one of these things that is a great thing to study ethnographically because so much of what we think about in terms of exposure and toxicity exceeds many of our understandings of what we can study because for us, meaning those of us doing this kind of research located potentially in the United States or Europe, this is something that doesn’t seem tangible. And I would say that in many ways, it is like how the study of things like religiosity or spirits are things that we think we can see have been studied. I think that there’s a lot of room to make stronger connections between the study of things that are not usually understood as seeable or knowable or graspable through sense perception and how scientists and folks in the life sciences can study things. So it’s a challenge if you’ve been raised in worlds where we think seeing and perceiving are based on certain senses to do work on things that are not understood to be seeable.

I can really only talk about the work I’ve been doing in Mexico City, where I can pay ethnographic attention to both how the environmental health scientists and their research staff sense toxicity and sense exposure through gathering biomarker data and doing surveys and questions, and doing forms of chemical some sampling, and then pay attention to people who became my neighbors in working-class neighborhoods where participants in this long-term birth cohort study live and to try to apprehend and understand the sense how they live in and amongst chemicals. A huge part of that work has been realizing that in most of the neighborhoods I work, the chemicals are experienced in all kinds of ways, including often positively in surprising ways that I can talk more specifically about again later. This way of living doesn’t assume the capacity to enclose one’s body from chemicals, and that chemicals, in some ways, are not all that different from other kinds of things that permeate bodies all the time, like deities, religious figures. As people move through the world, they’re being permeated constantly by a host of things, including jealousy from neighbors and chemicals, and religious deities. And this is not in some tiny little village far away, but this is in Mexico City, that’s incredibly urban and where people are living deeply affected by transnational processes. And that’s another thing that I think folks in these neighborhoods are helping me understand and theorize better by talking and understanding themselves as completely permeated by these processes. It’s a way to get at how these models of permeation are so different than environmental health scientists, models of toxicity that we can imagine as being something that hopefully can be kept outside our bodies, but that in these neighborhoods, people are just assuming permeation at all time and, I would say, have maybe more capacity to grapple and manage what it means to live in permeation at all times, which is, actually, I would argue, a much more realistic way to live than coming up with exposure and toxicity models that imagine that at some point bodies can be separated from the world and the land around them.

So about what Liz was saying–I was rapidly taking notes. This is where I’ve been inspired by your work, Liz, especially the ways that you were talking about categories of exposure and toxicity and how they’ve been taken up in anthropology, med anth, and science and technology studies (STS). There needs to be work that is thinking about questions of materiality, ontology, sensitivity, and sensing of atmospheres, that is [ethnographically] working with folks. Thinking about the other kinds of [community-based] knowledge that are needed about petrochemicals and the harms that they can cause that is adjacent to models of permeation. This definitely doesn’t mean doing away with that kind of science, as you practice in your own work. You’re showing how it’s possible to combine them. The folks that I’ve worked with use a lifetime exposure history, and it’s majorly qualitative in a way that frustrates and confounds a lot of other medical specialists and GPs. Some people spend even five or ten years being bounced around before they are linked up to the people that are taking this approach of lifetime exposure histories. This is where I think quantitative methods are super important. To answer the part of the question about what’s challenging, I would say definitely grappling with the politics of evidence of [long-term exposures] and the desire for particular types of data. And then, as Liz was mentioning, returning to centering how the people that we work with are creating knowledge based on their own sensation. It’s important, for me, to study toxicity ethnographically to get at this question of disability justice (that idea is coming from the group Sins Invalid) and think about accessibility in this fully permeated world. I agree in terms of what you’re saying about purity politics. It’s not possible, and there’s a violence to purity. But at the same time, when you’re trying to create atmospheres that are accessible, that are shared and collective, how do you go about that?

Just to add to what you just brought up, Sophia, about purity politics, I think so many of us working in this [field] are terrified, or at least have some good reason to be fearful of purity politics. But at the same time, we don’t want to be advocating for anyone, including the people we work with, to live in more damaging worlds. And so, Where do you go from there? It is this question that I keep coming up against all the time and that people ask me in terms of my work.

That helps me remember that I didn’t say something about my work earlier, which is, besides working with folks in these neighborhoods, where there’s this density of participants in this long-term birth cohort study, the other commitment I have is to try to develop this thing I call bioethnography, which is working with the environmental health scientists and now other people like environmental engineers as well (that includes a whole host of different disciplines within it), to try to actually make better knowledge. I think that actually gets at this question of how you don’t engage in purity politics, but you are trying to figure out collectively with people who mostly generate quantitative data about what the world looks like, sense it in that way. I think about it as helping them generate better knowledge. I don’t think we’re going to move away from using quantitative data to try to do things and have effects on the world. In fact, I’m pretty convinced that’s not possible. So one of my commitments is to try to make those numbers better. I want the environmental health scientists I’m working with or the environmental engineers to actually asked the right questions, which would potentially generate better or the right numbers that would help us understand what might be ways to move forward. Those ways to move forward are always going to be complex, and they’re going to be much more complex when you’ve actually asked the right questions. But that feels like a way to potentially move out of this “and then what do we do?” I’m quite interested now in doing what got called very derogatorily in the past “applied anthropology.” I want it to be done in a collaborative way that actually takes the insights of critical social science front and center. It feels like a lot of us are feeling a lot of urgency about the world today. I’m really interested in using all of the resources that we have in anthropology and other allied critical social sciences to think harder and better about the ways that science and technology are so reductionist and how to make them less reductionist and to work against reductionism, but I’m really interested in working with environmental health scientists and other scientists. I was just doing a symposium with microbiologists yesterday about how you could use bioethnography to ask better questions. So I’m very committed to that. It’s very challenging, and it’s very imperfect, and there is no purity involved. But it seems like it relates to these questions about toxicity and disability.

There’s a lot to say about the collective figuring out of making better knowledge. The collective piece is pretty high stakes. In terms of a question about the words illness versus disability – I don’t think they’re quite mutually exclusive. But coming from a place where I’m trying to think about sensing chemicals as knowledge and capacity, part of that also involves resisting how illness individualizes exposures rather than pointing to how they’re structured into the settler colonial project in North America, racial capitalism, and fossil fuel extractivism. That’s a scale that I’m really interested in linking the macro view of my work to. There’s such a long and rich history of crip theorists and feminists talking about the medicalization of disability, and that when people get referred to occupational health contexts, often environmental exposures become couched as nonspecific illness as opposed to a focus on accessibility and responsiveness in creating an accessible space framed in something like design justice. Design justice is something people like Aimi Hamraie and Sasha Costanza-Chock are talking about. So in this sense, illness can reentrench a lot of ableism. Using the word disability and being able to actually get compensation related specifically to disability financially is a really big thing for people.

In terms of how that informs my theorization of toxicity, and the notion that we’re permeated fully, actually there are really important fluctuations in day-to-day life from a functional perspective [important fluctuations in functioning in everyday life related to chemical disability]. So, in terms of making an atmosphere accessible, yes, we’re always already exposed to all the things to some extent [but these exposures are unevenly distributed]. There are also really simple, relational, ways of collectively building access in atmospheres. These make a huge difference for a lot of people. And so a lot of it is getting folks who are not disabled by atmospheres to think about that and to think about their own relational politics.

Wow, that was great, really interesting, and I can’t wait to hear about and read more of your work. I was excited about this conversation because, you know, disability just hasn’t been one of the axes that I’ve been developing this work on. I need to start working out through as well and thinking about the difference between disability and illness. So maybe what I’ll do here is I’ll just step back for one moment and then maybe give some examples.

So it’s a great one to think about terms and categories and what they do, and that feels also very related to what is the power of numbers and quantifying things in terms of telling a story or making an impact or making a change like this number of people are affected in this way or this number of people we can classify as this thing. In terms of my work with health scientists (a lot of them are located in schools of public health or public health institutions), it feels to me more and more that all I’m trying to do is really simple – I’m just trying to get them to understand that anything they want to do in the world to create change around health, or illness, and maybe disability (I don’t know for sure), I’ll think about that, is not going to come from them designing more individualist behavioral health campaigns. Approaching any of these problems as getting individuals to change their behavior is simply not going to be what does anything in terms of mitigating health inequality. It will do things in the world, it’s productive in that way that many people have gotten us to think about for years. It produces more class division, or it produces the capacity for transnational corporations to sell things to individuals to get them to fix themselves or not. But individual health behavior campaigns are not going to be the way that we’re going to dramatically change our mitigated health inequalities. So that said, I think that what I’m trying to do by both learning from people in these working-class neighborhoods in Mexico City and working with environmental health scientists is to try to come up with ways to think and to do and to act that would potentially give us models for bringing about change. Labels become things that are always double-edged but that could be useful. Numbers are the same thing. I’m just going to try to give an example, I’m hoping I can keep it short but still have it makes sense. So one of the big things that I learned and I’ve been writing about lately, but I haven’t published much just yet on it, is about lead and lead exposure and the effects of lead exposure. The birth cohort study I worked with got it started looking at lead exposure. They’re interested in the developmental effects of lead exposure over the life course. The main source of lead exposure in Mexico City is lead-covered dishes (lead’s in the glaze). People eat off these dishes and lead leeches. And also, lead is said to make foods sweeter as it combines with the dishes. So I now have a lot of material from people in these neighborhoods that I work with celebrating both these dishes and the lead itself for having the power and capacity to bind people together collectively in a whole host of ways. The dishes don’t do it in one way. One way is that these dishes have had a presence, not the individual dishes, but this kind of dishes, for long periods of time and families and help them continue the connection between the countryside and the city. And there are a lot of ways the actual material qualities of the dishes are much better at connecting people than, say, Teflon, which is another set of dishes that have chemicals in them through the way that they keep foods and cook them slowly. They will talk about how lead itself is part of the binding because of the sweetness that it gives to food. And that sweetness congregates people in powerful ways. Many of the people that I’ve spent a lot of time with no doubt know that these lead dishes are something that public health experts or the researchers that they interact with say cause damage over the long term. So I’m really interested in the way that they manage and grapple with both the dishes and the lead and express a form of defiance against public health experts who are telling them not to use these dishes, and they are very clear. It’s a completely political and economic critique of the public health experts saying not to use the dishes because they will say, “Look at the world all around us. It’s polluted, and states and governments are not doing anything about it, and they’re not trying to control the pesticides that US agribusiness is bringing to the countryside, and our vegetables are now grown with pesticides, and that’s damaging why isn’t there focus on that, and instead, they’re telling us not to eat off something that gives so much pleasure and allows our collectivities to be stronger.” And so lead and lead exposure there and the kind of disability or disease it might bring – that’s when you’re getting into those labels aren’t necessarily all that useful. And this understanding that we live in permeation and we need to really think about how to manage the permeation, but we’re never going to get away from it, is very powerful.

On the other hand, I think it’s really powerful to work with environmental health scientists to do more creative things to measure blood levels. So I have done that in terms of getting them to think beyond individuals and to start thinking about blood lead levels by neighborhood. My experience in doing that with environmental health scientists allowed them to see that maybe individuals aren’t the only unit of study and that you can see that different neighborhoods have different levels of toxicity. And of course, this is what gets into a lot of the kind of work Sophie is doing where, you know, we’re thinking about housing at a broader scale than an individual house or a choice to buy a house. But then, at the same time, I can use what I’m learning from living in these neighborhoods. And when we get that lead level differential that’s based on a label and an idea about the kind of disease or disability that high blood lead could cause, especially in children in terms of cognitive function or other kinds of things over the long term, having me around and working with them, I could say that those blood lead levels are also indicative of forms of collectivity that we don’t necessarily want to extirpate or get rid of. And so, if we’re thinking about trying to change the relations of the world, how can we think about various forms of interventions that preserve the collectivity while mitigating the impacts of lead in blood? But not doing it through these individual health behavior campaigns that say “Don’t eat off lead play ceramic dishes,” which, as the people living in these neighborhoods point out, is ridiculous, given all the saturation of toxicity all around.

After doing long-term ethnography in these neighborhoods, where collective relationality is being hammered into me constantly by people in these neighborhoods, that’s what I have to bring back. Going into doing any kind of fieldwork, if you take any medical anthropology classes or have any training, you’re going to have a critique of the individualistic and reductionist nature of biomedicine and life science research. But living in neighborhoods like this (and I would say in a lot of other places where people are disenfranchised through class, race, ethnicity, caste), the importance of various forms of collectivity for survival and flourishing. What I think as an anthropologist I can bring and say is, “If you want to change the relations of these chemicals here, we need to take into account the collectivities and think about what that’s all about instead of just deciding we’re going to remove lead in this individualistic and reductionist way.”

This makes me think more about questions of collectivity and what it would mean to take an anti-oppressive stance towards [different local] environments. Well, as Liz was saying, focusing on questions of pleasure, flourishing, and desire, there’s been a lot of conversations also about Eve Tuck’s idea of resisting damage-based frameworks for research. There’s a flip side to collectively figuring out shared atmospheres when people want to be a part of shared spaces. For the people I work with, it’s really tricky. A lot of people end up engaging with a lot of substances that they know make spaces inaccessible because they want to be a part of sharing space [for a variety of reasons ex. To stay in a job, to stay in secure housing, to have friends]. One of the big issues with low-income rental housing is sharing [building-wide] atmospheres. When chemically-based consumer products off gas [in spaces with various kinds of ventilation], a lot of them affect people’s breathing, their cognition, and their nervous systems. Many exposures are supermundane and everyday and affect different people differently. There’s more of a focus on scent-free environments, but diving more into what scent is really depends on the person. For some people, it’s things like diesel exhaust, and also cigarette smoke, cleaning chemicals, as well as perfumes, and fragranced dryer sheets. And then, a lot of the time, it can be a whole bunch of other stuff, and you’re not really sure where it’s coming from, but you can tell that you can’t breathe or think. So there are multiple ways to enter into understanding what an accessible atmosphere is and what it might look like. It’s not [necessarily] about removing all of the things permanently, it’s often just not possible. There are so many things. I’m sure, with some of the quant stuff you do, Liz, thinking about all those variables and how to factor them in is hard. And so if you’re not a quant scientist in your everyday life, you’re going to try and identify sources of exposure that you’re able to figure out affect you the most [in order to make spaces accessible]. It’s an order of operations. I hope that gives you a bit of a better sense of where and what I’m talking about.

Yeah, it does. I think one of the things that was exciting also about this invitation is thinking about the ways that the neighborhoods I work in Mexico City would be understood in the US and by many people in Mexico as toxic chemical nightmares. I don’t know anyone from living there that would ever talk about themselves being chemically sensitive. There’s cement dust all over the place. There are sewage smells. People use these things as a way to keep out other kinds of harm like the police or something like that. And you’re giving me a lot more to think about comparatively between how people experienced their bodies and then what various kinds of disease or disability are then experienced or expressed. It’s just a really interesting question to think about. How many people are there in Mexico City who have experienced themselves as living with chemical sensitivity? It’s very powerful here for me to think about it in terms of, you know, what’s allowable for people in these neighborhoods to talk about as having an impact on them. I can’t imagine anyone ever saying, “A space isn’t accessible to me because of smoke.” That’s middle-class people or elites that look down on neighborhoods like that. They would say, “It’s filthy, you’re unhealthy to go there.” But that’s not something I experienced for people in these neighborhoods. But I think I have a lot more thinking to do about that. Also, we always need to be careful about thinking something isn’t there just because that’s not the way people completely organize themselves. So there might be ways that that’s been expressed or something similar has been expressed that I haven’t been paying attention to. I also constantly have my own issues around (and this gets back to the question Gebby, you had about, I don’t know labels and attributions) folks in public health attributing various kinds of damage to people who live in these communities or neighborhoods, which I think gets overladen with class-based moralism. So they’re saying, “Oh, they’re suffering from lead exposure.” The other big substance is sugar – they’re eating too much sugar and they’re actually literally disabled for they have diseases like diabetes and that can lead to disability. And I’m more framing things in terms of the ways that people in these neighborhoods are telling me, “No, these substances are also powerful and productive and useful” and are kind of defiantly saying, “There might be individual bodily damage, but that’s not the important thing here.” It’s about the collective power to congregate, and sugar and lead do that.

The temporality piece is super important. Part of why I’m inspired by Liz’s work is that she is also thinking through a birth cohort and in frames that are intergenerational to some extent. That piece – in order to look forward, you have to look back – is super important to me. I’m thinking specifically about some of these questions around lifetime exposure history and the actual generationality of the people I’m working with. They grew up when a lot of these petrochemicals were believed not to last, when people were spraying DDT inside on their pets, putting it on their bookshelves, and eating all kinds of stuff with other chemicals in it. That isn’t something to leave out of this conversation. This should be a huge part of the conversation, especially in terms of historicizing petrochemicals and also talking about questions of accountability. Getting back to the structural inequality piece–it started somewhere, it was designed this way. Petrochemical exposure is quite new. We’re talking mid-1950s, post-World War II rollout of a lot of these. Petrochemicals come from a genealogy of the military-industrial complex. I think intergenerational questions about the future are equally as important. A lot of this work also involves getting really specific about the genealogies of the knowledge produced about petrochemicals, including what [structures of power] have influenced regulatory perspectives [and made them what they currently are]. Another angle of some of my work is thinking about pollution control in the Toronto context and how atmospheres have historically been imagined [in a settler colonial space] and then contrasting that with the current situation [including chemical disability] and thinking about how we got here.

The concept of forever chemicals is so interesting. I think you know a lot more about the history of them, Sophia, than I do, but I think the phrase itself feels like it comes out of a surprise that we can’t keep the world out of our bodies, this reductionist surprise. I happen to work with some graduate students and others on how the concept of PTSD has changed over time. And I have a student Lamia Mognieh who is now done with her Ph.D. that had this great insight when she was working on how development workers were trying to bring PTSD to Lebanon. One of the pushbacks from people in Lebanon that were supposedly going to be diagnosed was that there is no “post” there, there’s not going to be a point where this is over. And so you can’t have PTSD. This question also helps me think through this distinction I’m trying to make between what I’m calling enclosed exposure, where there’s this assumption in the standard environmental health models that we can do different things, we can model chemicals as a single chemical in relation to a single body, and we can do things to actually enclose bodies from chemicals. And the big shocker is you can’t. We can talk about there being a category of chemicals called “forever chemicals.”  Antibiotics, which have been around longer than them, have dramatically changed the biota of the world and forever impact in all kinds of ways. And I think enclosed exposure is the model that produces a thing that we’re surprised that chemicals might stick around forever and have long-term impact. And in the stuff I’m writing right now, I’m juxtaposing this enclosed exposure model with permeation, which I don’t know if it’s a permeation exposure model (I don’t know if exposure is even the right word for the folks that are sharing and I’m learning about permeation from). They would just assume in a way that we’re permeated by this and you can do different things to mitigate, but the forever aspect isn’t a surprise. If you do things to land, bodies are going to be affected, and if you do things to bodies, land is going to be affected. And so I know that it’s very important to pay attention to the specificity of chemicals and ones that lasts longer in the world. But I think again, some models have been in place to make it possible to make things that would become a forever chemical, you know, it’s narrated as a forever chemical later after people realize the impact. But these enclosure models made them think, “Oh, it was possible to put all this stuff in the world and not have a very long-lasting impact.”

And then the other thing I want to say about this intergenerational question, and maybe this feels a little off-topic, but I think it seems related. I’ve been working with the birth cohort study that recruits mothers and children. That, of course, replicates all the kinds of things that many of us are trying to think more carefully about and against: about the vertical transmission of heterosexual gene lines or you know, things…There’s a lot of pushback about that kind of work. But working in these neighborhoods, there are all kinds of things to say about the power and importance of intergenerational thinking among people who experienced themselves as permeated. This ends up allowing us to do really powerful things through our ways of thinking. I have mixed feelings about calling the way they do intergenerational work “queer” — it’s not a term they would use. But there are all kinds of ways that when they’re thinking about the relationships of land to body and the long-term impacts. They’re thinking in ways that are not just about individual daddies and mommies and babies, there are all kinds of things like plants and animals and even machines that are part of their thinking about what is affected in constant permeation and how that carries out over the long term, and the stakes of this are very high. It’s very easy to say, “Intergenerational transmission, as we standardly think about it, isn’t that important when we look at how what gets called families protect and reproduce themselves over time.” But that’s in worlds where social safety nets are maybe more robust, and people can experience themselves as individuals who can manage these things over the life course without a host of beings, like animals, plants, gods, machines, and various kinds of family members over time. So I think that there are all kinds of ways of thinking about toxicity ethnographically. We can also think about what an intergeneration is or what the reproduction of intergenerations is ethnographically and be very, very careful that we allow for the capaciousness of that to emerge with whoever we’re working with.

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