Intersecting Discourses on Tropicality and Disease Causation: Representations of Réunion's Mosquito-borne Epidemics in the Scientific Literature

In: Asian Journal of Social Science


In this paper we examine whether discourses of tropicality were affected by paradigm shifts in Western thinking about medicine. If tropicalist thinking reflects latent Western assumptions about the 'Other', tropicalism should persist through major shifts in Western thought. Here we explore whether or not such persistence is evident in representations in the scientific literature of mosquito-borne diseases on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion and where discrete epidemics occurred before, during and after a paradigm shift in Western thinking about disease causation. Late in the 19th Century, miasma theory (epidemics caused by unhealthy air) was replaced by microbial theory (epidemics caused by transmission of microbes) as the dominant scientific understanding of disease causation. We analyse representations of mosquito-borne epidemics in the contemporaneous scientific literature about Réunion for evidence of both tropicalism and a shift in the scientific paradigm. In pre-microbial representations, the unhealthy tropical environments thought to be responsible for miasmatic disease transmission are associated predominantly with the non-white population; in microbial representations non-whites are directly blamed for the spread of tropical infections. The paper argues that the persistence of tropicalist thinking through a major paradigm shift in the Western understanding of disease causation supports Said's (1979) contention that 'Othering' is a generalisable ahistorical phenomenon, and discusses issues of economic exigency that may have supported an ongoing tropicalist influence on public health practice in French overseas departments.

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