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Ethnographies of Science: Commentary by Carlo Caduff

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Ethnographies of Science."

It is a great privilege to comment upon the insightful author interview that the editors of this collection, Anna Zogas and Nicola Bulled, have conducted. There is much food for thought in this exchange on the theoretical, methodological, and ethical challenges for current ethnographies of science. Studies of scientific practices have become one of the most vibrant areas of contemporary research in anthropology and the conversations assembled in this collection will provide readers with valuable insights. I will try to highlight a few here.

In their contributions, Eva Hayward, Stefan Helmreich, Andrew Lakoff, Michael Montoya, and Mette Svendsen insist that generalizations about science are utterly misleading. There is no such thing as science. There are scientific discourses and practices, and there are powerful scientific institutions that impact our existence. Yet for these anthropologists, the rejection of generalization is not the endpoint of inquiry; it is, on the contrary, the starting point of ethnography.

In contrast to many other forms of scientific knowledge production, ethnography does not come with the promise of a miracle drug or magic bullet. It has never been the aim of ethnography to make our social, political, and ethical lives more easy. On the contrary, ethnography makes our lives more challenging, not least because it forces us to acknowledge the diversity of scientific practices and recognize the problems and contradictions, which result from such diversity. Rather than to search for unity, ethnographies of science allow us to better understand the epistemological commitments, experimental procedures, working objects, material cultures, moral economies, social interactions, technical infrastructures, political interests, and market logics that are shaping the production of knowledge in a particular place at a particular time. Exploring these various forces and their complex interactions, ethnographies of science illuminate the broader fissures and fractures that constitute our world today.

Another issue that seems to be particularly acute has to do with the fact that more and more scientists are making extravagant claims about the problems that they are trying to fix. The kind of science that is currently celebrated in newspaper articles and radio reports is obsessed with catastrophic threats and technological solutions. It seems that high-profile scientists are increasingly eager to exploit the negative dialectics of threat and promise in order to succeed in the multibillion-dollar game stimulated by the financial investments of giants like Chevron and BP, Novartis and Hoffmann-La Roche, Apple and Microsoft, DuPont and Dow Chemical, the Pentagon and the Department of Energy. Due to these investments, the political economy of science has changed significantly over the past few decades, as Melinda Cooper, Cori Hayden, Nikolas Rose, Kaushik Sunder Rajan, and many others have argued. Concerns with food, water, energy, health, and life itself are playing a prominent role in today’s economies of exchange, and the question of power appears to be as important as ever.

For Michael Montoya, it was the very question of power that attracted him personally to the ethnography of science: "Food insecurity in the United States politicized me," he explains in his moving response. "I wanted to understand power and ignorance and social reproduction." Science matters for our lives, as scholars and citizens, because it has become an important source of power. Ethnographies of science allow anthropologists to study carefully today’s entanglements of science, knowledge, and power. But for Montoya, the question of power is not only an analytical, but also a political one. Invoking the Boasian tradition, Montoya reaffirms anthropology’s original commitment to human equality and justice, and he underscores its critical potential "to place a wedge in ideological frameworks that perpetuate inequities." The crucial question, of course, is how, where, and when to place that wedge.

Andrew Lakoff, too, addresses the question of power head on. He explores the threat of pandemic influenza, demonstrating how a new way of thinking about infectious diseases emerged in the United States. Following Michel Foucault, his approach is genealogical, a methodological-epistemological operation that seeks to shake the false self-evidences of our taken-for-granted understandings. Lakoff analyzes how American experts currently perceive infectious diseases and he reveals the multiple processes that have made these perceptions possible and acceptable at a particular moment in history. Genealogy, as a critical form of what Stefan Helmreich calls "denaturalizing power," is intriguing and illuminating, but it can become problematic analytically. For it seems to be based on the general presumption that the political rationalities under investigation are indeed rational (even if historically contingent and culturally distinctive). Yet the effort to produce and maintain coherence is not always necessarily coherent. The risk of a genealogical account of political rationalities is that it might inadvertently contribute to the rationalization of power. Another limit of the genealogical operation is that it considers the politics of life primarily as a problem of technological governmentality rather than as a question of meanings and values, as Didier Fassin has recently observed.

The question of meanings and values is explicitly addressed by Eva Hayward in her ethnographic study of the changing interactions between research scientists and laboratory animals in Santa Cruz, California. In her article, Hayward shows how different species sense and apprehend one another. The concern with power here appears primarily in relation to normative descriptions, which continue to hide the labor power of nonhuman actors. In this case, the aim of ethnography is to open up the black box of science and foreground the hidden actors involved in the production of knowledge. The result of such an account is an effective displacement of the anthropocentrism embedded in today’s dominant scripts of scientific discovery. As Hayward convincingly argues, nonhumans actors, like cup corals, are coproducers of a form of knowledge that "is not only about them, but with them." Yet the limits of such an effort of revealing hidden actors in the production of scientific knowledge might be that it ultimately ends up reproducing a form of ideology critique despite itself.

This gesture of critical analysis also appears in Mette Svendsen’s contribution. Exploring the social relationships between physicians and patients in a fertility clinic in Denmark, Svendsen seeks to challenge "common-sense understandings and categories" and explore "the social worlds that common sense produces." Ethnographies of science offer narratives that are "different from the ones being told in the science fields themselves." Common sense, and the critique of common sense, of course have a long and complex history. A provocative question that Svendsen implicitly prompts is whether the critique of common sense in fact requires the objective social science that Pierre Bourdieu so vehemently defended. As long as the specter of ideology critique continues to haunt the analysis of common sense it finds itself confronted with a difficulty, an obstacle, a resistance. The challenge is not to overcome the difficulty, obstacle, or resistance, but to allow it to function as a productive irritation at the heart of the critical endeavor itself. Svendsen’s narratives are of course not just critical, but also engaged, and they are engaged "because anthropological narratives are grounded in a direct interaction with the scientific fields." As Svendsen rightly maintains, "we are part of the field that we analyze"— an important insight that could prevent the critique of common sense to end up in the hubris of the sociologist who believes that he has escaped the illusions of ordinary human experience through rigorous scientific inquiry.

In his contribution, Helmreich also affirms a sense of ethnographic complicity. He specifically refers to Michael Fortun's work on genomics in Iceland, urging anthropologists to actively explore the "indeterminacy that divides and conjoins ethnographic distance and ethnographic complicity." Here, a range of alternatives to Bourdieu's presumption of epistemological sovereignty have been suggested over the past few years, ranging from Paul Rabinow's "adjacency," to Michael Montoya's "collaboration," Bill Maurer's "lateral reason," Mei Zhan's "entanglements," and Helmreich's own "athwart theory." These terms point to a sense of complicity and complexity, of being part of a messy field rather than an objective outside observer. Such a sense of complicity and complexity also points to a broader ethics of ethnography, not in the sense of an ethical system with a set of predetermined ethical principles, but in the sense of an ethical field which opens up the difficult question of how to transform oneself into an ethical subject in the first place. Significantly, the ethical subject and its formation in the scene of ethnography are tied to the social relations, whether felicitous or not, that constitute the substance of anthropological fieldwork. The ethics of ethnography is always relational.

The perspective that anthropologists engage is neither a perspective from above nor from below; anthropologists study objects and problems sideways and are thus able to demonstrate how "unsteady and mutable the links between knowledge, politics, and representation are." Helmreich's insight is compelling, but we might push it a bit further here and relate it more explicitly to the haunting question of power. For it might  well be that contemporary forms of power are so effective because they have become unsteady and mutable, and perhaps even nervous. Power has become ungrounded and its exercise increasingly seems irregular, confused, and chaotic, shifting abruptly from minimal regulation to spectacular and dramatic intervention. Power has become ever more experimental, improvisational, and speculative. It appears that ethnography is particularly well suited as a form of empirical inquiry to investigate the unpredictable exercise of such a tense and turbulent form of power, a form of power that is systematically escaping the stability of a form. Conceptually, power has become almost unrecognizable. If the term aesthetics, in Marilyn Strathern's use, referred to all constraints of form, then today's political economy of science seems to suggest that we need an anesthetics of power. At its best, such a concept of the anesthetic would reflect the extent to which power and its exercise have become insensible to the conceptual.


Thanks to Nicola Bulled and Anna Zogas for editing this collection and for inviting me as a commentator. I am grateful to Eva Hayward, Stefan Helmreich, Andrew Lakoff, Michael Montoya, and Mette Svendsen for their insightful responses. My thanks to Hanna Kienzler for her suggestions and comments.