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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From a different point of view
Seldon Watts embarked on a very difficult and higly political issue. You may agree or disagree that imperialist powers used contagious diseases as yet another weapon but everyone has to agree that this is a new perspective in viewing history. For example, i was amazed by his analysis in Leprosy and found it to be logic, even though i don't have his sources available...
Published on October 4, 2005 by Proteus

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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Good Research Does Not Always Produce a Good Book
Watts' book is a series of related essays about the social construction of 6 major diseases. He has poured years of research into this work. The thesis of each chapter is fascinating, and most may well be correct. For example, he posits that biblical leprosy was not Hansen's Disease, and further that medieval leprosy was a social category, and that the "lepers" of that...
Published on January 14, 2006 by J. D. Halabi


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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars From a different point of view, October 4, 2005
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Proteus (Athens, Greece) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism (Paperback)
Seldon Watts embarked on a very difficult and higly political issue. You may agree or disagree that imperialist powers used contagious diseases as yet another weapon but everyone has to agree that this is a new perspective in viewing history. For example, i was amazed by his analysis in Leprosy and found it to be logic, even though i don't have his sources available. Sometimes the scientific data seem a bit weak but if you want details on each and every disease there other books to consult. This book talks about politics.

I see this great book as a cry from a scientist of the ''Third world'' who reminds that science (and charity) is not as neutral as we sometimes consider it to be. Personally i believe it is a ''must'', even if you disagree with the author politically.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Epidemics and History, March 6, 2014
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This review is from: Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism (Paperback)
Sheldon Watts’ Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism argues that diseases and disease Constructs were used as tools to reinforce imperialist power. Watts defines a disease Construct as a perception “arrived at through a complex of cultural filters… [that] determined what – if anything – should be done in an attempt to limit disease transmission.” (p. xv) Positing that diseases spread as an “unintended consequence of [imperialistic] Development” and were often used to justify social policing, he concludes that epidemics were utilized as a route to power legitimization. (p. xiv)

According to Watts, those in power used disease Constructs as tool of social discrimination and ostracization. He posits “accusations [of disease] were merely a ploy to put inconvenient people out of the way.” (p. 48) For example, the Construct of leprosy justified the imprisonment of those on society’s periphery to leprosaria during the Great Leper Hunt, and Watts concludes that a majority of those imprisoned were erroneously condemned. Later archeological studies have shown that the bones of the condemned had no lesions consistent with Hansen’s disease. The bubonic plague also legitimized elitist execution and consolidation of power. The plague allowed for “the growth of interventionist agencies” which violently repressed Jews, regulated burials, and mandated then new quarantine procedures. (p. 24)

Watts also argues that disease Constructs created jobs and were used to justify imperial policies. During the period of The Great Leper Hunt, the clergy was expanding beyond the needs of existing congregations. Conveniently, the growing number of leprosaria “provided jobs for thousands of priests who otherwise would have no altars before which to perform their sacred rites.” (p. 53) Further, Watts maintains the Construct of cholera allowed for imperial administrators to avoid improving conditions for indigenous laborers in India. He argues that imperialists were only concerned with profits and resource extraction at the expense of properly housing and feeding workers. “Accompanying these murderous policies,” he writes, “government officials very often claimed that few, if any, Indians actually died of starvation.” (p. 204) Instead, administrators claimed that the indigenous workers suffered from ‘cholera’ and the government could not easily prevent these deaths. Additionally, Watts argues imperial administrators used the Constructs of malaria and yellow fever “to justify the continuing economic and social subordination of blacks.” (p. 215) Subsequently, the continual need for healthy productive workers in areas of endemic malaria and yellow fever encouraged the black slave trade.

Watts further argues that imperialistic financial considerations promoted an absence of response to a disease unless it threatened the existing social order. One instance he details is the results of the Berlin Leprosy Congress. He writes, “Colonial rulers everywhere had to consider the financial implications [of treatment]. After doing their sums, some decided simply to ignore their leprous populations.” (p. 68) Another example holds that imperialists in India refused to implement the findings of John Snow in cholera control. Watt’s argues “capitalists and their medical supports in India did not see Snow’s explanation as particularly well justified to their own needs” and “drainage ditches were, one assumes, a straightforward engineering problem… which it just happened that profit-minded Britons ignored.” (p. 169 and 207) Thus, the treatment of diseases was never pursued so long as it could undermine profits. However, Watts posits that costs were ignored once a disease threatened imperialists and workers alike. For example he writes, “what finally tipped the balance in favor of human intervention against smallpox was the shocked realization that in its newer virulent forms the disease was not properly respecting distinctions of hierarchy and rank.” (p. 114)

I find Watts’ arguments of imperial control and disease Constructs compelling. He successfully analyzes several epidemics to support his Foucauldian conclusions that diseases were used as an expression of power and social control. However, I find his strong anti-imperialist sentiments undermine his arguments. Watts’ forcible denunciations are unnecessary as his analyses lead readers to the same conclusions. In my opinion, a balanced approach that is free of strong presentist judgments, such as accusing imperialists as being “terrorists,” is preferable to a clearly biased dialogue. (p. 96) Regardless, Watts establishes that disease Constructs served to legitimize policies and inform imperialistic agendas.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Good Research Does Not Always Produce a Good Book, January 14, 2006
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This review is from: Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism (Paperback)
Watts' book is a series of related essays about the social construction of 6 major diseases. He has poured years of research into this work. The thesis of each chapter is fascinating, and most may well be correct. For example, he posits that biblical leprosy was not Hansen's Disease, and further that medieval leprosy was a social category, and that the "lepers" of that time did not have the disease. There could be something to this.

But this book cannot do better than raise the questions. There are both scientific and historical aspects to this book, but the editing did not bring the writing close to scientific standards. Many generalizations are based on a single piece of evidence. Primary sources are cited without considering that the author's comments may have been self-serving.

Epidemics and History loses its way badly when it tries to intuit the intentions of groups of people, rather than letting their actions speak for themselves. A word count would reveal unusually high frequencies for "desire," "intention," "understanding," "perception," and so forth. I wonder to what extent groups of people through history have been aware of themselves as groups, as the book assumes throughout. Further, it tries to inflame with unnecessary emotive language. Pity.

Academic anti-imperialism was the wrong voice for this work. Watts' research is interesting, theses provocative. But the writing is all wrong. Where were the editors?

If you are interested in the history of disease, you do want to know what Watts says. But the flawed writing makes this a frustrating read.
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Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism
Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism by Sheldon Watts (Paperback - November 10, 1999)
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