Morality In Action: Risking Death And Caring For Life In American Food Allergy Worlds

Other Titles


This dissertation investigates the social effects of the food allergy "epidemic" in the contemporary United States, a state of affairs which activists publicize in highly moral terms, based on multi-sited ethnographic research conducted from 2013 to 2016. I argue that the moral framing of this apparent threat to health by mothers, sufferers, and activists is strategic, leveraging gendered obligations to provide care for the young, sick, and disabled, pharmaceutical and food industry approaches to marketing that make moral appeals to customers, and American political sensibilities about who is deserving of accommodations and concern to gain public recognition for food allergy as a life-threatening disease. Situated at the interface of science and technology studies (STS) and medical anthropology, this dissertation brings together risk theory, the anthropology of ethics and morality, STS and anthropological understandings of medical technologies, disability studies, and feminist theory and research on gender and caretaking. This text brings to light how patients and caretakers balance the risk of harm and death posed by a highly allergic body with the desire to live a "normal" social life, how the pursuit of the "hygienic sublime" to minimize risk intensifies the moral stakes of caretaking and self care work, and what is at stake socially, morally, and financially in positioning food allergy as an easily manageable condition versus a serious disability. Shared experiences, including the use of elaborate hygienic techniques to ensure the safety of foods and environments and reliance on biomedical tools like epinephrine auto-injectors, and a shared fear of death unite adult sufferers and caretakers of allergic children with other stakeholders to engage in legislative advocacy and public awareness campaigns to ensure the safety of people with food allergies. The resulting food allergy advocacy community is emblematic of the role played by patient advocacy in healthcare today: through complicated alliances with physician-researchers, the highly professionalized patient advocacy industry, and deep-pocketed pharmaceutical companies, food allergy activists seek to make the formerly private and shameful problem of food allergy a matter of shared, public responsibility.

Journal / Series

Volume & Issue



Date Issued




science and technology studies; medical anthropology; food allergy


Effective Date

Expiration Date




Union Local


Number of Workers

Committee Chair

Lynch,Michael E.

Committee Co-Chair

Committee Member

Welker,Marina Andrea
Pritchard,Sara B.

Degree Discipline

Science and Technology Studies

Degree Name

Ph. D., Science and Technology Studies

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

Related Version

Related DOI

Related To

Related Part

Based on Related Item

Has Other Format(s)

Part of Related Item

Related To

Related Publication(s)

Link(s) to Related Publication(s)


Link(s) to Reference(s)

Previously Published As

Government Document




Other Identifiers


Rights URI


dissertation or thesis

Accessibility Feature

Accessibility Hazard

Accessibility Summary

Link(s) to Catalog Record