A Genealogy of Epidemiological Reason: Saving Lives, Social Surveys and Global Population

David Reubi, 2017, BioSocieties, doi: 10.1057/s41292-017-0055-2.

Metrics have become all pervasive in global health today. Instead of highlighting their advantages or shortcomings, this article builds on Hacking’s notion of historical ontology and explores their political, conceptual and material conditions of possibility. Drawing on research on the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use in Developing Countries, one of the largest international efforts to address the non-communicable disease epidemic in the global South, the article starts by introducing the notion of epidemiological reason – a thought style associated with modern epidemiology that undergirds the metrics permeating the global health field and which is made of a multiplicity of elements, from the ethical imperative to save lives to the social-scientific technique of the survey and the concept of global population. The article then goes on to explore the genealogy of this thought style, arguing that three epistemological ruptures have been critical to its development: the reconfiguration of power articulated around a biopolitics of population in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries; the twentieth-century shift in medical thought marked by the emergence of surveillance medicine and the idea of lifestyle; and the re-organisation of world health informed by globalisation theories at the start of the twenty-first century.