Tasting toxicity: bodies, perplexity, and the fraught witnessing of environmental risk in Sri Lanka’s dry zone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


In Sri Lanka’s dry zone, a mysterious form of chronic kidney disease has inspired myriad interventions to improve rural health. Chief among these are strategies to promote more ‘healthy’ consumption practices among residents by reconfiguring the dry zone’s water supply and agricultural systems. This article examines how these ongoing schemes to improve kidney health reorder the visual, haptic, and olfactory cues that residents use to measure environmental toxicity. While my analysis finds that these attempts to retune embodied knowledge are transformative, I demonstrate how they also inadvertently re-inscribe pre-existing social differences, generate new uncertainties about environmental risk and inspire situated critiques of state interventions. I argue that residents’ encounters with improvement schemes are thus increasingly characterised by ‘sensuous perplexity,’ an optic that encapsulates how practices of embodied witnessing (re)produce ambivalence and uncertainty about what harms and what heals. By shedding light on residents’ complex patterns of resource use, while also revealing the limits of schemes which seek to enact health through governing consumption practices, the article posits that the concept of sensuous perplexity can extend current theorizing on the experience of living within toxic spaces.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1555-1579
Number of pages25
JournalGender, Place and Culture
Issue number11
StatePublished - Sep 23 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Fieldwork in Sri Lanka was funded by the Social Science Research Council, American Institute of Sri Lankan Studies, National Science Foundation (Award no. 1633991), and the Society of Woman Geographers. The thoughtful and incisive comments of three anonymous reviewers greatly improved the focus and clarity of the manuscript. Earlier versions of this manuscript were also greatly strengthened by careful and generous reads by Ingrid Behrsin, Brian King, Karen Paiva- Henrique, A. Marie Ranjbar and Jen Sedell. I also wish to thank Katherine Brickell for her guidance during the revision of the paper. The empirical material on Sri Lanka was informed by numerous conversations with local government officials, and the people of Padaviya and Sri Pura who were all incredibly gracious with their time, insights, and stories. Thanks, as well to Brittany Waltemate for her help designing the maps in this article.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Dry zone Sri Lanka
  • embodied knowledge
  • environmental risk
  • health geography
  • mystery kidney disease
  • perplexity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gender Studies
  • Demography
  • Cultural Studies
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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