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Ethnographies of Science

Ethnographies of Science

In a 2001 themed issue of Cultural Anthropology, "Anthropology and/in/of Science," editor Daniel Segal noted a scarcity of ethnographically grounded accounts of the practices of scientists. In this collection we aim to highlight ethnographies of science, with particular attention to those that are concerned with the tools and epistemic objects of the sciences and are grounded by research conducted in and around laboratories and other scientific institutions. Taken together, the five essays collected here provide a platform from which to consider the theory and practice of ethnographic science studies. The articles point to different mechanisms by which the very act of investigation shapes its object, they provide a variety of perspectives on how the ethnographer is positioned with respect to their scientist interlocutors, and they trace how social categories become embedded in the practice and the products of biomedical and life sciences research.

In their different approaches to the study of knowledge production in the biomedical and life sciences, these pieces also demonstrate different ways that anthropologists might construct a fieldsite in and around scientific institutions. Mette Svendsen and Michael Montoya trace biological matter and data as they move through and between laboratories, clinical settings, and markets. Andrew Lakoff's analysis is grounded outside the laboratory entirely, focusing on other sites of expertise where knowledge about pandemics are developed and implemented. The articles also point to some of the practical considerations of doing science ethnography. Eva Hayward, for instance, provides a usefully transparent description of her entry into the marine laboratory, and Stefan Helmreich's article contemplates how scientists' perceptions of the culture concept shape scientific and ethnographic practice alike. Together, these articles offer multiple perspectives on how ethnographers become entangled in the logics and discourses of scientific practice, and how ethnography can illuminate the laboratory's relationship to broader social and moral contexts.

In addition to putting the articles themselves in conversation with one another, this collection includes commentary from each of the authors about their research and the nature of science itself. In this forum, Hayward, Helmreich, Lakoff, Montoya, and Svendsen consider the theory, practice, and stakes of the ethnography of science. Carlo Caduff, in turn, offers a commentary on the five authors' responses and the collection as a whole.


Lakoff, Andrew. 2008. “The Generic Biothreat, or, How We Became Unprepared.” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 3: 399–428.

Hayward, Eva. 2010. "Fingeryeyes: Impressions of Cup Corals." Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4: 577–599.

Svendsen, Mette N. 2011. "Articulating Potentiality: Notes on the Delineation of the Blank Figure in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research." Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 3: 414–437.

M'charek, Amade. "Beyond Fact or Fiction: On the Materiality of Race in Practice." Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 3 (2013): 420–442.

Montoya, Michael J. 2007. "Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research." Cultural Anthropology 22, no. 1: 94–128.

Helmreich, Stefan. 2001. "After Culture: Reflection on the Apparition of Anthropology in Artificial Life, a Science of Simulation." Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 4: 612–627.

Image Credit

 Photo by jarmoluk.


Created by Nicola Bulled and Anna Zogas, 2012.