From ‘war’ to ‘negotiation’: first steps on a human-microbial PhD research

Since immemorial times we (those who call themselves humans) have been at war with disease. But disease is an elusive enemy, it can take many shapes and names, and, for a long time, it did. Then Pasteur came and took the germ theory to a whole new level, giving a face to the disease that we still recognise nowadays: microbes. We had a target, and we acted fast: hygiene interventions, sanitation, disinfection, and, finally… antimicrobials. We found what we thought were our best weapons against microbes and, funny thing, these weapons came from the microbial world. But they worked, at least most of the time, and we thought, we really thought we could win. Antimicrobials became one of the pillars of industrialised societies, which have turned progressively more sterile.
Hands and soil
Photo: Gabriel Jimenez, Unsplash

But here is the problem: microbes are not the ruthless foes that we thought they were. They are everywhere and they are part of everywhere. Including us. Eradicating microbes is pretty much the same as eradicating life. Luckily for them (and probably, for us), they aren’t that easy to kill. Alongside the spread of antimicrobials came the resistance to them – it’s only partly our fault, microbes have always been able to resist. We just boosted the process by taking that microbial dynamic and putting it inside us. And on us. And around us, in the soil and the water and the air. We call this phenomenon antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and, today, tackling it is one of the toughest battles that we are trying to fight.

Here is where I come into the story. Hello. My name is Paula, and I have been fascinated with microbes and AMR for a while. I’m an anthropologist, which makes a lot of people wonder ‘why?’, ‘what does anthropology have to do with microbes?’, ‘isn’t it something about humans, and cultures, and such?’. Well, yes, it is. Anthropology is about relations, about connectedness. And we are connected with microbes as intimately as it’s possible. I came to know about AMR after researching how people managed epidemics of infectious diseases in the Global South – where some of those, like antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, are taking many lives. I started to think that the war we are waging against microbes is a war that we can’t win.

This war has other consequences, collateral damage, if you like. Urban, ‘modern’ lifestyles are ending our contact with biodiversity, making our immune systems weak and undertrained. When killing the ‘bad’ microbes, we also kill the ‘good’ ones. The ones that we need to survive. Microbes are responsible for ruining our harvests, making us sick, killing us – but they also make us alive. In a way, they are us. Our feud against microbes isn’t good for anyone. But what if there wasn’t a war?

That question has become the centre of my PhD research. What do you do when you don’t want to fight? The answer came relatively easy – you negotiate. It might not be easy (we don’t even know how to communicate among humans, how are we going to do it with microbes?), but it’s worth a try. Communication across species is not as impossible as it sounds – don’t we do it all the time, when feeding our sourdough, taking vitamin C to keep viruses away, trying to grow bacteria in a lab? In my research, I want to see how people navigate the tensions with threatening microbes, but without starting a war. By cooperating, forming alliances, negotiating, and creating space for themselves. I decided to look at it in the context of soil in alternative agriculture (permaculture, agroecology), where it is more evident the importance of microbes – and the dangers they pose.

The beginning of my journey took me to Oslo, to the Nordic STS conference in June 2023. I decided to go and talk about my ideas, test the waters, and get some comments back. I presented my research plan in the panel “Soil Repair: Recuperating Human-Soil Relationships”, where people talked about soils as lively, soils as alive. Soils as sites of relations, where political interests are exerted and where identities are created. Where people enter in contact with microbes, and microbes partner with plants, and full ecologies exist. It seemed the perfect environment for me to present my project. And the response was overwhelmingly positive. Fellow academics, some of them senior researchers with a lot of experience on the ground, seemed to find my proposal intriguing and worth pursuing. Their questions and comments polished my thoughts and pushed me forward, to the next steps of my enquiry.

What next, then? There is a full world of people researching the relations between humans and microbes, although it still feels such a new concept. It isn’t an easy task, microbes are tiny, complex and elusive – they exist in such a different scale than us. But we will keep thinking about it, walking, crawling, and jumping from time to time. Moving on what we think is the right direction. We will learn how to communicate, with microbes and with the rest of the more-than-human world. We will find alternatives to war, not because we’ll only survive together… but because we’ll only thrive together.


Young brunette woman with colourfull scarf and black shirt
PhD researcher
History, Culture and Communication Studies
University of Oulu

Paula Palanco Lopez studies human-microbial relationships in the context of antimicrobial resistance. Her research interests include communication (especially within the more-than-human sphere), soil ecologies, biodiversity, and global health. Although she normally relies on traditional ethnographic methods, she's also keen on methodological innovation: arts and audiovisual approaches, creative writing, and/or practical experimentation, such as what can be found in a lab or food garden.