Revistes Catalanes amb Accés Obert (RACO)

Following poisons in society and culture (1800-2000): a review of current literature

José Ramón Bertomeu Sánchez, Ximo Guillem Llobat


This paper offers an overview of recent historical studies on toxic products. First, we offer an introduction to the literature and the principal academic groups, describing the major trends in four different areas of scholarship: history of crime and forensic science, history of food quality and adulteration, history of occupational and public health, and environmental history. Second, we suggest avenues for future research by highlighting three meeting points: protagonists, spaces and proof. We also discuss some challenges of the historical narratives: the agency of human and non-human actors; the integration of material, human and environmental effects; and the combination of the socio-cultural analysis of historical cases with the current understanding of poisons. While avoiding the unforgivable sins of anachronism or, even worse, of technological determinism, we want to encourage historical narratives with a bearing on current affairs. This is the last point discussed in the final conclusions. We claim that the history of toxic products can raise long-term debates, decenter the current focus, look for hybrid and complex causations, deconstruct the technocratic discourse of experts, empower victims, question legal standpoints and received cultural constructs, or point out the difficulties of democratic decision-making processes in matters regarding toxic products, particularly in a world marked by an uneven distribution of power and risks. In this sense, we claim that a history of toxic products can create new links between historians and social movements, academic research and activism, while enlarging the opportunities for fostering the uses of history in policy-making. In order to follow this promising path, we argue the need of crossing disciplinary borders of the history of crime, the history of occupational health, and food and environmental history, while moving outside academia and engaging in public debates.

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