The Asthma Files

Asthma incidence has increased dramatically in the United States and globally in recent decades, making asthma one of the most common chronic diseases in the world. It is estimated that around 300 million people in the world currently have asthma; estimates could be considerably higher with less conservative diagnostic criteria.  Asthma incidence is also uneven, affecting poor and minority communities in greater numbers.

Significantly, it is also widely acknowledged that available models of causation cannot explain current rates of asthma.  Researchers from many different disciplines and perspectives, in many different geographic and organizational contexts, have tried to figure asthma out, but it remains elusive.  Asthma sufferers and caregivers also struggle daily to make sense of asthma, trying to understand the rhythms of incidence, triggers, and effective modes of care and prevention.  The Asthma Files project aims to bring all these groups into conversation.

The Asthma Files is an electronic archive of text, still images, video and audio that illustrate multiple perspectives on asthma– from the vantage point of affected people in different locales and communities, heath care providers, and scientists from many different disciplines. The Asthma Files include, for example, images of lungs annotated to describe how respiratory researchers think about lung function, and how asthma sufferers experience an asthma attack. The Asthma Files also includes images of how genes express in allergic asthma; images of air pollution correlated to asthma hospitalization rates; and images that convey the extraordinary and socially uneven prevalence of asthma in different locales today. Explicated, one can see very different logics and scales of analysis in play. Physicians for Social Responsibility, for example, have linked link escalating asthma rates to global warming. WeAct, an environmental justice organization in West Harlem, links asthma rates and incidence to local sources of diesel pollution.   The Asthma Files brings these perspectives together, aiming to leverage what historian of science Evelyn Keller calls “explanatory pluralism.”

We aim to use The Asthma Files to promote collaboration between different kinds of people working to understand and care for asthma.  We hope to develop ways to use The Asthma Files to promote interdisciplinary scientific research on asthma, for example.  We also hope to reach out to people in legal and policy arenas responsible for addressing increasing asthma incidence, and to people suffering with asthma and trying to manage it in their daily lives.

These outreach initiatives will depend not only on the descriptive richness of The Asthma Files, but also on creative communication initiatives.  Our research collective thus includes artists and new media experts, as well as historians and cultural anthropologists.

See The Asthma Files under construction at

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