, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 179–204 | Cite as

Performativity and a microbe: Exploring Mycobacterium bovis and the political ecologies of bovine tuberculosis

  • Philip A. RobinsonEmail author
Original Article


Mycobacterium bovis, the bacterium responsible for causing bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in cattle, displays what I call ‘microbial performativity’. Like many other lively disease-causing microorganisms, it has an agency which is difficult to contain, and there is a need for fresh thinking on the challenges of dealing with this slippery and indeterminate microbe. As a practising veterinary scientist who side-stepped mid-career into a parallel training in the social sciences to view bTB from an alternative perspective, I create an interdisciplinary coming-together where veterinary science converges with a political ecology of (animal) health influenced by science and technology studies (STS) and social science and humanities scholarship on performativity. This suitably hybridized nexus creates a place to consider the ecologies of a pathogen which could be considered as life out of control. I consider what this means for efforts to eradicate this disease through combining understandings from the published scientific literature with qualitative interview-based fieldwork with farmers, veterinarians and others involved in the statutory bTB eradication programme in a high incidence region of the UK. This study demonstrates the value of life scientists turning to the social sciences to re-view their familiar professional habitus—challenging assumptions, and offering alternative perspectives on complex problems.


Bacterium Bovine tuberculosis Microbial ethnography Performativity Political ecology of health Veterinary science 



Grateful acknowledgement is given to Prof. Peter Atkins, Prof. Gavin Bridge and Prof. Divya Tolia-Kelly for their support throughout the course of my doctoral research. The paper was first presented at the Lived and Material Cultures Research Cluster workshop entitled Locating Performance and the Political in the Geography Department of Durham University, and the comments of the organisers and participants, particularly Prof. Paul Langley, are gratefully acknowledged. I also sincerely thank the editor and reviewers for their very helpful comments on the paper. I dedicate the paper to the late Dr Sydney Neill—a bacteriologist who knew M. bovis better than most.


This research was generously funded at Durham University by a doctoral scholarship from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in N. Ireland. Additional funding for fieldwork expenses was provided by the Dudley Stamp Memorial Fund through the Royal Geographical Society.


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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Animal Production, Welfare and Veterinary SciencesHarper Adams UniversityNewportUK

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