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Society for Social Studies of Science

Rachel Carson Prize

2017 Rachel Carson Prize: Adia Benton

The 2017 Rachel Carson Prize goes to Adia Benton, for HIV Exceptionalism: Development Through Disease in Sierra Leone (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). The Award Committee reviewed 68 nominated works, to identify the strongest book in terms of its relevance to Science and Technology Studies, its overall scholarly quality, and its social or political relevance. We found HIV Exceptionalism to be exemplary on all three of these criteria.

Benton's work draws on tools of ethnography, medical anthropology, and STS to connect global health policy to the shaping of subjectivities and practices on the ground in Sierra Leone.  Critics of health policy use the term "HIV exceptionalism" to describe the charismatic status of HIV/AIDS, implying a misappropriation of resources, mismatched with the actual distribution of disease and suffering. The term certainly applies in Sierra Leone, with its array of high-profile programs funded by international organizations and governments, despite its low HIV prevalence. 

But Benton's aim is not primarily to criticize the misappropriation of resources the wealthy countries devote to health problems of the developing world. Through her perceptive and fine-grained ethnography, we find that HIV exceptionalism is not simply a misallocation of resources. It is also a symbolic misallocation. Benton shows vividly how flows of resources through the policy of HIV exceptionalism shape the ways that state agencies, caregivers, local NGOS, patients and their kin do HIV/AIDS. Through the exceptionalist structuring of services, those diagnosed with HIV perform rituals of disclosure, suffering, and responsibility to self and nation. While the book stands as a sharp critique of the coercive features of exceptionalism, Benton also shows us how Sierra Leoneans actively appropriate symbolic and material resources for their own tactics in the pursuit of dignity, recognition, and survival.

HIV Exceptionalism provides a powerful way of understanding the effects of global health policy on the lives of those who are its nominal beneficiaries. As a political intervention, it will inform struggles for a health policy that better reflects the desires and priorities of those beneficiaries.


Acceptance Statement, Adia Benton


I was floored by the committee’s decision to award HIV Exceptionalism the Rachel Carson Prize this year. The book project grew out of nearly two years of fieldwork in Sierra Leone, and a few years more, working in health and development programs here in the US and in so-called developing countries. The book was an attempt to look simultaneously at systems and ideologies governing state care practices and the experiences of people living with HIV/AIDS. Working and living alongside my friends and colleagues in Freetown, Sierra Leone, opened my eyes to the predicaments and challenges they faced as they rebuilt their lives in a country devastated by a protracted conflict. Their ability to make a life, I observed, was also influenced by seemingly unremarkable, everyday practices of non-governmental and state agencies tasked with delivering care. These practices and their effects are open to anyone who dares to listen to individuals articulate their struggles, strategies and aspirations – and to anyone willing to endure the vagaries of navigating health bureaucracies and their material culture. I was fortunate to have been afforded the opportunity to be one of those anyones looking at this issue, and to have this opportunity transformed into reality. Among those who helped this transformation: my immediate and extended families; the University of Minnesota Press’ Quadrant Fellowship; colleagues at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Advanced Study who provided support during writing; and my former colleagues and students at Brown University and Oberlin College. I am also grateful to the committee who chose to recognize this work via the legacy of a scholar whose work has enjoyed enduring political and social relevance. Thank you.


Adia Benton is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and African Studies at Northwestern University, where she is affiliated with the Science as Human Culture Program. Her current research is on the role of ideology in global health, using as a case study the growing movement to fully incorporate surgical care into commonsense notions of “global health.” Her other writing has touched on the politics of anthropological knowledge in infectious disease outbreak response (and most recently, the response to the West African Ebola outbreak), racial hierarchies in humanitarianism and development, and techniques of enumeration in gender-based violence programs. She has a PhD in social anthropology from Harvard University, an MPH in international health from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, and an AB in Human Biology from Brown University. She has held a postdoctoral fellowship at Dartmouth College and visiting positions at Oberlin College and in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. 

Honorable Mention:

The Carson Prize Committee would like to extend an Honorable Mention to Lundy Braun for Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics (University of Minnesota Press, 2014). Braun’s book is itself surprising in showing how race is constructed by means of a mundane measurement instrument. It demonstrates the potential of technology studies to yield powerful insights about the establishment of racism and to inform action to dismantle it.

Lundy Braun is a Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Africana Studies at Brown University, where she is also a member of the STS Program.

2017 Carson Prize Committee:

Daniel Breslau (Chair, Virginia Tech), Shobita Parthasarathy (University of Michigan), Tania Pérez Bustos (Universidad Nacional de Colombia).

About the Carson Prize

The Rachel Carson Prize is awarded for a book length work of social or political relevance in the area of science and technology studies. Nominations that provide a new perspective, or a feminist or minority voice, are especially encouraged. The author(s) receive(s) an engraved plaque and cash prize.

"Science and technology studies" is an interdisciplinary field, so the range of eligible books is very broad.  It includes, but is not limited to, the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, political science, economics, education, geography, and psychology as well as works combining or outside of the traditional academic disciplines.  It includes studies of knowledge, policy, government, R&D, the uses of expertise, feminist and gender studies, technological controversies, technology transfer, rhetorical and literary analyses, and studies of specific technologies.  Further, it includes works addressing science and technology for the public and for educational audiences.  The main criterion is that the substantive content of the work be framed by a social science or humanities perspective of science and/or technology and, in the case of the Carson Prize, that the book also has social or political relevance.

The Rachel Carson Prize is named after writer, scientist, and ecologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964), author of numerous books including The Edge of the Sea (1955) and Help Your Child to Wonder (1956).  In Silent Spring (1962) she challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government by advocating for a shift in how humankind perceived and interacted with the natural world. Carson testified before Congress in 1963 on the misuse of pesticides and her work continues to shape environmental studies and polices that champion a healthy ecosystem.


Committee: Membership on the book prize committees consists of Council members and appointees by the President.

Nominations: Publishers, authors, and members of the Society may submit nominations (author, title, publisher) to the prize coordinator, at To facilitate the process, nominations are requested by 1 February. Publishers are then contacted in early February and invited to submit the books nominated by the Society.

Eligibility--Books Due May 1: Each year the committee will review books with publication dates from the 3 prior years. For example, during the 2017 meeting, the committee will consider books with copyright dates of 2014 - 2016. Books may be re-nominated until their eligibility expires. Publishers or authors are responsible for sending review copies to each member of the committee by May 1 to be considered for that year's prize. Reprints, second editions, edited volumes, reference works and similar volumes are ineligible for consideration for the Fleck Prize. Multiple-authored books are eligible where they represent original work.

Short List: Through the procedure above, committees will designate a preliminary short list and meet during the 4S annual meeting to determine the winners. Awards are to be granted solely on the basis of merit as determined by the members of the committee, without reference to book reviews or recommendations by outside members. If a consensus winner does not emerge, a secret ballot will determine the winner, with honorable mentions as appropriate.

Award: The Carson Prize Chair will inform the winner(s) after the decision of the committee to insure that the winner will be present at the award ceremony and available to participate in an Author-Meets-Critics session at the following annual meeting. The Chair of the prize committee organizes the Author-Meets-Critics session for the winning book. The prize includes a cash award to help defray the costs of attending the annual meeting to receive it.

Journal Review: In addition the prize committee is encouraged to identify book clusters (theoretical or thematic) to forward to ST&HV for the solicitation of review essay as part of their narrowing and selecting process.

Past Winners

2016. Gabrielle Hecht. Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade

2015. Gwen Ottinger. Refining Expertise.  How responsible engineers subvert environmental justice challenges

2014. Robert Proctor. Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition. 

2013. Tim Choy, Ecologies of Comparison

2012. Stefan Helmreich, Alien Oceans

2011. Lynn M. Morgan, Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos. (University of California, 2009)

2010. Susan Greenhalgh. Just One Child

2009. Jeremy Greene. Prescribing by Numbers

2008. Joseph Masco. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico

2007. Charis Thompson. Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies

2006. Joseph Dumit. Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity

2005. Nelly Oudshoorn. The Male Pill

2004. Jean Langford. Fluent Bodies

2003. Simon Cole. Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification

2002. Stephen Hilgartner. Science On Stage: Expert Advice as Public Drama.

2001. Andrew Hoffman. From Heresy to Dogma: An Institutional History of Corporate Environmentalism.

2000. Wendy Espeland. The Struggle for Water: Politics, Rationality, and Identity in the American Southwest.

1999. Steven Epstein. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge

1998. Diane Vaughan. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA