By Alex Broom and Stephanie Raymond 

On March 2nd we launched a new Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) Social Science program at The University of Sydney’s Marie Bashir Institute (MBI) for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, the focus of which is furthering the social science of AMR across contexts and continents. Our new ‘Node’ of the MBI launched with a workshop entitled: The Social Life of Antimicrobials: Practices, Economies, Contexts and Futures, with keynote addresses and contributions from national and international experts in fields as diverse as anthropology, sociology, political science, history, bioethics, global security, infectious diseases, and the veterinary sciences.

A key point of difference – other than our excellent AMR cookies! –  is our collaborative, interdisciplinary and translational focus, that aims to ensure the steady flow of ideas from social theory right through to implementation. This work began almost a decade ago with a small unfunded study of doctors in Australia (published in 2014 in Social Science and Medicine), which morphed over time into a multi-country, interdisciplinary program of AMR social science with over 50 partners in Australia and internationally. The surge in interest probably mirrored the surge in resistance more broadly, as 2010-20 witnessed an exponential increase in awareness regarding the growing impacts of AMR locally and globally. The initial response to AMR also suffered from a behavioural emphasis (i.e. surveillance, correction, restriction), without an adequate focus on the social, cultural, economic and political dimensions of the growing threat of AMR. This new initiative will further elevate the emphasis on AMR as emergent from the social world, rather than as a mere technical problem or drug supply issue.

What makes this endeavour significant? Our recent work, much like the AMIS programme at the LSHTM, has focused on the question of AMR as entangled in complex and evolving value systems (see our recent overview in Critical Public Health), as well as deeply embedded in forms of cultural practice (see our recent work in India in Qualitative Health Research). The social emerges, from this lens, as productive of AMR vis-à-vis merely a context within which it operates. In this sense, the social must be harnessed – as must the arts and social sciences – to respond to AMR. The establishment of a ‘Node’ within the Marie Bashir Institute (MBI) fosters the ongoing ‘conversations’ between STEM and Arts and Social Sciences researchers, and works to push against the silos that have often created divisions in the academic community in relation to AMR. It is clear that if we do not do this, the same problems will emerge regardless of our technical innovations, meaning that AMR can only truly be addressed through an interdisciplinary approach, and with concurrent social, political, economic and health service change. This positions the social sciences at the forefront of the global endeavour to develop AMR ‘solutions.

What do we plan to do? The social science of AMR requires sustained global collaboration, as well as local consolidation of (often diverse) expertise across disciplines. The arts, humanities and social sciences have pockets of expertise in AMR and related issues, but can lack interdisciplinary dialogue, collaboration and thus impact. Further, there is often a disconnect with directing the flow of these ‘social’ perspectives into applied, clinical settings (and vice versa). Our core aim is thus one of connection and consolidation of expertise, and fostering interdisciplinary conversations/collaborations. Without collaboration, neither social science nor STEM disciplines can succeed to addressing AMR.

How can you get involved? We have many international partners, whether individual academics or organisations, and are always keen to establish new connections and collaborations. AMR is a global problem and collaboration also needs to occur at all scales (local, national and international). We will host events that span across these contexts and institutions for those we know are interested, but we would also like to hear from potential partners and collaborators interested in this type of AMR research. Among other node activities, we plan to launch a ‘Global AMR Collaboration Hub’ that will provide a dedicated forum – and virtual infrastructure – to link international collaborators.

But I’m not a social scientist? Our group at The University of Sydney further builds on the strengths of the arts, humanities and social sciences as well as those from public health, clinical medicine, veterinary medicine and so forth. The Marie Bashir Institute more broadly has experts across fields as diverse as precision infectious diseases, OneHealth, zoonosis, antifungal resistance, the ethics of infections and much more (see here). Collectively, we are working toward better understandings of the multidimensional and escalating problem of AMR across global contexts, based on the many ways it is entangled across social, political and economic lines. With collective, interdisciplinary action, we can ensure than both proposed and future solutions to AMR recognise and respond to these sociotechnical entanglements in truly productive ways.

The AMR Social Science leadership team includes: Alex Broom, Katherine Kenny and Sarah Bernays. Enquiries about node activities at The University of Sydney can be directed to: