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Durham University

Department of Anthropology

Honorary Titles

Publication details for Dr Megan Wainwright

Wainwright, M. (2017). Sensing the Airs: The Cultural Context for Breathing and Breathlessness in Uruguay. Medical Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Illness 36(4): 332-347.

Author(s) from Durham


The sensory experience of breathing, particularly the sensation of breathlessness in the case of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a rich though understudied topic in medical anthropology. Fieldwork in Uruguay made it clear to me that to study the sensorial experience of breathlessness, I would also have to study the widely shared cultural conceptualizations and practices surrounding air, breath, and health. In this article, I illustrate ethnographically how the experience of breathing and breathlessness is closely tied to perceptions of air outside the body – in particular humidity, temperature change, wind, and contamination. In conceptualizing breath as the mechanism and air the medium for environmental embodiment, I bring together sensorial medical anthropology, anthropology of the body, and the anthropology of wind and climate. My findings, in light of similar findings across contexts, suggest that a body transformed by COPD is hyperperceptive and hypersensitive to changes in air.