Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

This is an inspiring quote. It resonates whenever we have the opportunity to work with others to address ‘wicked’ health problems.

This week in Sydney, a ‘thoughtful and committed’ group met to explore ways in which ethnographers and applied social scientists might work with epidemiologists to address the threats posed by infectious diseases.

Among perspectives shaped by our disciplines, desires and experiences, we found some common ground.

  • We recognise that disease is not simply a biological phenomenon: social, cultural, economic and political factors are equally important in understanding how and why disease occurs…and figuring out how best to take action to improve health.
  • We appreciate that people have different perspectives, different priorities and different understandings about the causes of diseases.
  • We accept that people differ in the beliefs or evidence that they consider valid in informing decision and actions.
  • Perhaps most importantly, we agree that a richer understanding of people, cultures, context and ‘why we do what we do’ will help us achieve better health outcomes, locally and globally.

However, we also identified some impediments to working across disciplines and challenges in moving from multi-disciplinary projects to true inter-disciplinary collaboration.

  • Ethnographers and epidemiologist may hold different assumptions and beliefs about what is reality and the nature of knowing.
  • There are practical constraints and competing priorities in our day-to-day work.
  • Ethnographic research takes time, yet policy-makers and outbreak responders may demand insights with a sense of urgency.
  • And there is the perennial challenge of communicating our ideas to audiences outside our discipline.

These challenges and constraints are not trivial, but we are excited by the opportunities that interdisciplinary collaboration provides. To paraphrase Margaret Mead; thoughtful, committed collaboration between social scientists and epidemiologists (and others!) may be the only way to understand infectious diseases in ways that lead to effective, sustainable and culturally acceptable actions to improve health.

This meeting was part of a larger multidisciplinary project on Ethnography meets One Health Epidemiology led by anthropologist Dr Holly High, infectious disease paediatrician Dr Phillip Britton and veterinarian/epidemiologist Dr Ed Annand. The project is hosted by the University of Sydney (USYD) Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity (MBI) and Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC).

Jonathan Happold, an epidemiologist and Senior Consultant at Ausvet, is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Sydney.