Review of Gut Anthro: An Experiment in Thinking with Microbes By Amber Benezra. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2023. 282 pp.

Reviewed Book

Gut Anthro: An Experiment in Thinking with Microbes By Amber Benezra. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2023. 282 pp.

Cover of Gut Anthro (2023)

Andrew Flachs

Purdue University

Long a solitary field, anthropologists are working more in teams. Yet teams with different disciplinary standards and definitions of data are also hierarchies where the qualitative findings of cultural anthropologists are less likely to land in Nature and Science or garner millions of dollars in grant funding. Any professional anthropologist decides when to partner with institutions and when to criticize them from arm’s length. Most of us do both. Sometimes we are unpleasant collaborators, as when our impulse to critique makes our collaborators feel belittled, judged, or threatened. But we are also good at observing the complex constructions of daily life. In a big data world, our skepticism of quantitative data that does not attend to context illuminates the unquestioned colonial-capitalist assumptions of discovery, commodification, and extraction celebrated in many scientific disciplines.

Amid these important academic discussions, people still get sick. And so, if people with expert knowledge are invested in understanding how to help with a problem that has both biological and social components, those experts ought to get along and combine their efforts. Human landscapes shaped with and through sociopolitical relations and microbiomes are prime sites for this kind of inquiry. Amber Benezra’s Gut Anthro is an innovative and insightful look at why ethnography matters for scientific health research, how disciplinary collaborations get pushed to their breaking points, and why it is important to try nonetheless.

Cleverly split into five thematic chapters rather than a chronological or geographic arc, Gut Anthro explores interdisciplinary collaboration through Benezra’s time as a staff researcher and outsider anthropologist working with the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. One element of her project, squarely within a lab-ethnography mode, asks how scientific knowledge about the microbiome is constructed by a research group manipulating health data statistics, managing biological specimens, and experimenting with gnotobiotic mice models. A second element of her project is at once more innovative and more existentially taxing. As a member of the lab, Benezra travels to Dhaka to work with the International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh. There, she speaks with mothers in their homes to gain a richer understanding of the conditions under which people participating in the microbiome study eat, work, and live. Gripping, entertaining, insightful, and rigorous, this remarkable book should be read by anyone working at the intersections of biological and cultural questions.

First, theoretically, the book asks if science can work otherwise. How might a feminist, anticolonial, antiracist anthropology act with and produce a microbiome science that resists the patriarchal, colonial, and racist legacies of scientific research? Microbiomes have no races, and yet Benezra shows how race appears through the implicit assumptions of microbiome researchers who work with data separated from sociopolitical context. The abstraction of human stools, blood, vaginal swabs, or breastmilk into metagenomic data distances microbiome data from the lived experiences that gave rise to it, even as the bodies chosen for microbiome research are explicitly raced and sexed, a point also raised by Natali Valdez’s (2021) study of pregnancy trials. Delving into microbiome literature, Benezra shows how “traditional” practices become coded as nonwhite or Indigenous, with the conclusion that these “wild” microbiomes become sites of elite capture, novel discovery, or blatant commodification to be sold back in the metropole, whose “salvation will be to return to preindustrialized microbiota. Seeking answers to current Western woes in the idealized purity of the past and primitive gut, in turn, instrumentalizes brown and Black bodies in the service of white health” (186). This uncritical approach to microbiome research is racist. Further, it makes a classic error in seeing race as an a priori biological fact of a microbiome, missing a chance to probe the conditions by which racism, colonialism, and poverty, not race, impact the structure and function of a microbiome and subsequent health outcomes.

These observations lead to Benezra’s second key contribution, that microbiome research is worth doing and that anthropology can help. Benezra employs a creative discussion of kinship to ask about human-microbe relationships across generational and evolutionary timeframes, drawing from Indigenous, feminist, and environmental scholars who see such relationships as fundamentally “bio-socio-enviro-exposo amalgamations, not separate from the science that defines microbiomes” (111). Not just an individual responsibility, there are levels of sociopolitics (colonialism, capitalism), cultural meaning (good food, good caregiving), infrastructural integrity (water and fuel function), and transgenerational evolution (commensalism between Lactobacillus bacteria and humans producing milk) that combine to form these microbial ecologies. Importantly, microbiology and anthropology align in this work. Metagenomic analysis can describe these ecologies with great accuracy. Ethnography, attending to lived experience in historical context, can explain how they form in the first place. In the best cases, Benezra shows how this attention to local detail reveals how all life is relationally bound through social and ecological ties. In the worst cases, social and biological scientists fail to recognize each other’s contributions as meaningful.

These frustrations and rare triumphs mark a third contribution, an ethnography of collaboration itself. Benezra shares personal and professional struggles with blunt, generative reflexivity. Some of the book will feel familiar to anyone who has done anthropological fieldwork: plans go awry, there are confusing power relationships, and research topics shift. Benezra feels extra pressure as an anthropological ambassador to microbiology, musing in a line typical of her combination of raw, insightful, and funny: “what if I fucked it up” (35)? Highly personal, I often wished for more ethnographic data from her interlocutors to give a wider sense of how people produce both knowledge and microbiomes. Luckily, her peer-reviewed articles contain plenty of this (e.g., Benezra, 2021). As a reader working across disciplinary lines in microbiome research (Flachs & Orkin, 2021), I felt my hackles rise in solidarity when she discusses how anthropologists get tacked on by projects wondering if this culture thing is relevant to the “real” science; how the funding and writing structure requires us to translate ethnography into quantitative scientific terms but never the other way around; how potential collaborators ignore our findings not out of hostility but because they can’t envision how our data are useful—all the more ironic for projects interested in probing the quotidian microbial influences of a lived experience.

Collaboration requires a range of disciplinary and ontological sacrifices in the name of a truly co-constructed working together. Within anthropology, we sometimes insist that scientific collaborators transform their norms and assumptions while rarely conceding that we anthropologists must also undergo transformative change. It’s hard. Theoretically rich without being alienating, Gut Anthro achieves this balance: a book useful to students curious about ethnography and health at undergraduate levels, scholars embarking on collaborative research, and a wider public of science readers curious about the microbiome. In advocating for collaboration, Benezra convincingly shows why ethnography is useful and necessary for the bigger picture issues of health and wellbeing in a changing world: not because it shows who is more clever in their theoretical argumentation but because it is a surer path toward a more curious and just world.


Benezra, Amber. 2021. “Microbial Kin: Relations of Environment and Time.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 35(4): 511–528.

Flachs, Andrew, and Joseph D. Orkin. 2021. “On Pickles: Biological and Sociocultural Links between Fermented Foods and the Human Gut Microbiome.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 17(1): 39.

Valdez, Natali. 2021. Weighing the Future: Race, Science, and Pregnancy Trials in the Postgenomic Era. Berkeley: University of California Press.