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Ethnographies of Science: Interview with the Authors

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

Anna Zogas and Nicola Bulled: In 2001, Daniel Segal suggested that the scarcity of ethnographically grounded accounts of the practices of science might be explained, in part, by the difficulty of knowing a science well enough to write about it and simultaneously maintaining a critical distance. Using your Cultural Anthropology article as a point of departure, can you reflect on the contributions anthropologists have made to understanding science studies or the tools and epistemic objects of the sciences? What do examinations of science institutions contribute to larger understandings of social dynamics?

Eva Hayward: I cannot claim to know the genealogy of anthropological studies of science, since my article emerged through other transdisciplinary engagements. As a professor of media studies (documentary and experimental film) and a student of animal studies, I used ethnography methodologically to understand something about what Cary Wolfe calls the "zoontology" of epistemological pursuits. Approaching marine science through the aperture of textual analysis, I found myself focusing on the details of experimentation—the way I might read the composition of a scene, its use of lighting, mise en scène, cinematography, editing—as a way to approach the narrative of scientific questioning in the laboratory. At its heart, my project was about destabilizing the anthropocentrism embedded in the intentionality of scientific investigation: that is, how are nonhumans coproducers of knowledge that is not only about them but with them? Following Stefan Helmreich, Donna Haraway, and Eduardo Kohn, I used an ethnographic form in an effort to foreground nonhuman actors as informants in their own investigations and as consequential forces in the ways researchers know/learn.

Stefan Helmreich: The anthropology of science in the last decade has revealed that the tension between "knowing a science well" and "maintaining a critical distance" calls upon a false opposition. Certainly ,to write about a science well one must, as with all anthropology, "know the language." But this does not mean that one becomes monolingual. Nor is any science itself monolingual. Since 2001, when I wrote my contribution to this collection, ethnographers of science have increasingly spotlighted the multiplicity of scientific discourses and explored how our own social-scientific and interpretative languages and practices overlap with those discourses. Think of Mike Fortun's 2008 Promising Genomics, in which he uses the figure of the chiasmus, "a couplet of terms that are conventionally taken as distinct or even opposed, but which in fact depend on each other, provoke each other, or contribute to each other," to write about the molten indeterminacy that divides and conjoins ethnographic distance and ethnographic complicity (in, for example, his chapter "DistanceXComplicity" [where X marks the chiasmus]). Fortun argues that there is no way to position oneself outside the political and ethical volatility that constitutes the still unfolding history of genomics. Think also of the work of Marilyn Strathern, Sarah Franklin, Margaret Lock, and many others, who once upon a time were outside analysts of bioethical practice and who in the last decade have joined in framing policies and ethical guides (as with Strathern's work with the Nuffield Council on Bioethics). Yes, the analytic of what Paul Rabinow has called "adjacency" is still useful—we are not identical to our interlocutors—but more compelling, at least to me, are recognitions of entanglements. This is a term that Mei Zhan uses in her 2009 Other-Worldly: Making Chinese Medicine through Transnational Frames to write of the translocal folds that constitute the California-China-and-beyond making of "tradition" in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Entanglement also has a family resemblance to collaboration in Michael Montoya's (2011) Making the Mexican Diabetic. In my own work, in dialogue with Fortun's chiasmus and Bill Maurer’s use of "lateral reason" in his 2005 Mutual Life, Inc., I've experimented with the idea of working "athwart theory," tacking back and forth between treating theories as explanatory tools and approaching them as phenomena to be examined. That’s quite different from the dynamic I described in "After Culture," in which I wrote about how my 1990s notion of culture (as about power, inequality, and language games) differed from my interlocutors' vision of culture as a homeostatic system of information processing. To be sure, I was reporting on the sociological fact that many of the scientists with whom I spoke had familiarity with a 1960s style of anthropology—as cultural-ecological, as systemic—that looked out-of-date from where I sat. I've become less interested, I suppose, in these generationally out-of-phase moments and more interested in sites of surprising overlap and superposition.

Andrew Lakoff: My article is not in ethnographic in any classical sense of the word: there is not a clearly circumscribed ethnos at its center; its empirical material does not come from participant-observation; it does not seek to make a general claim about culture. So in what sense is it anthropological? Perhaps in its attempt to articulate the implicit styles of reasoning that underlie expert practices in a given domain. The article begins with a question: how has the problem of disease come to be understood in a certain way, and how does this differ from past understandings? Its central methodological tool is genealogy rather than ethnography, since its goal is to identify critical moments when a novel understanding of disease—as a problem of preparedness—emerged. I think the article shares with a growing body of work in the anthropology of science, technology, and medicine the sense that in order to understand these critical sites of modernity, new analytic tools and methodological approaches must be invented or earlier ones reconfigured. From this body of work it is clear that if anthropologists are interested in understanding contemporary transformations in fields like security, health, the environment, or the economy—those fields concerned with the management of collective life—they must engage closely, if nonetheless critically, with the concepts and practices of scientific and technocratic experts.

Michael Montoya: Science and scientific institutions are both unique and very ordinary social and cultural forms. They are unique in that the knowledge required to formally participate in science is presumed by most to be a very special kind of behavior reserved for very special people: to wit, those with intellectual gifts and years of specialized training. Practitioners of this cultural form embody this imaginary in their vigorous defense of the boundaries of good science, institutional reward structures fortify it, and publics largely defer to the experts and accept, passively, the form in its own terms.

Of course, this ignores the armies of science-makers who never appear on publications and are rarely considered essential to the scientific enterprise. I refer to, among many others, the lab technicians, those who care for animals, those who clean up, those who copyedit manuscripts, or those who care for the physical needs of the researchers in myriad ways. These are just a few kinds of labors that are concealed by the fantasy of "science." However, without this army, science could not be carried out. While you could read this as a kind of division-of-labor argument, you could also read it as a kind of intellectual honesty about what it takes to make what is called a scientific claim.

What anthropologists have done, in my mind, is approach science as one among many cultural forms. So, for instance, what I have tried to illustrate in the case of type 2 diabetes genetics is that we can understand this scientific assemblage just like any other assemblage. That is, we can understand the conditions that make it possible, those forces that reproduce and enable it, and those conditions—historical, political, ideological—that might nudge it in new directions.  In my contribution to this collection and in my more recent book, Making the Mexican Diabetic (2011), we learn that genetic epidemiology is part of a large apparatus of human variation science and practice that has a long and particular history. That the big science of nuclear physics and then space exploration made possible the human genome projects because publics were primed to pin our futures on what Mike Fortun calls the promissory notes of all things technoscientific. We also learn that race and racialization as a fundamental aspect to (in this case) American sensibilities of human variation deeply informs the ways diabetes genetic scientists think about molecular life worlds, etiologies of diseases, and blood sugar irregulation especially among ethnoracially labeled people. Finally, we learn that there are of course competing epistemological frameworks for thinking about diabetes, about science, about race, and about epidemiological trends that only weakly pierce through the apparatuses of power that keep genetics, for now at least, an ascendant imaginary. Thus, anthropologies of science have contributed to understanding the particular ways science is neither more nor less constructed than any other cultural or social form, and that its materiosemiotic assemblages operate much like every other.

Mette Svendsen: If we think of anthropology not as a single disciplinary island but as part of the social sciences, I don't see a scarcity of ethnographically grounded accounts of the practices of science. In particular, the field of science and technology studies (STS) offers rich ethnographic accounts of scientific practices and, personally, I like to be part of the fields of both anthropology and STS.

The strength of ethnographically grounded accounts of science studies is the way these accounts approach the scientific field as any other social-cultural-material field. This goes directly against the common understanding of science as being different from and privileged other kinds of knowledge (such as lay knowledge, religious knowledge, and practical knowledge). The contribution made by ethnography is that it explores the processes through which something becomes known and consequently understands knowledge not as a substance, but as relational and situated. The personal, social, political and ethical dynamics of the scientific fields are opened up.

In studying ethnographically the practices of fact-making anthropologists have not delimited themselves to the field of the laboratory, but explored science as part of society rather than a field apart. In my own work this comes to the fore as an effort to understand the life sciences as practiced in relationships between the laboratory, the clinic, and patients or citizens’ lives. Hence, in my contribution to this collection the scientific practice of embryonic stem-cell research is studied by stepping into the fertility clinic and into patients' lives; here, I explore aspects of clinical and patient life that are crucial in creating the raw material of science, yet could easily have remained invisible had I adopted a common-sense understanding of science as solely located in the laboratory.

In focusing on the interaction between science and society, ethnographic accounts link scientific practices to wider social practices and values. I have been very inspired by Sarah Franklin's work, in particular the way she illuminates the cultural understandings and practices of kinship, capital, and nation that are at stake in the scientific field of genetic and reproductive technologies. In my own work I have been fascinated with how the attempt to create embryonic stem cell lines in the laboratory coevolves with articulations of the potentiality of embryos that actualize cultural tropes of waste and cultural repertoires associated with kinship. Given that science is a privileged truth producing institution in Western societies, examinations of science institutions are studies of how truth claims are stabilized, destabilized, and coconstituted with larger cultural understandings and moral horizons.

AZ and NB: Can you help us reflect on the relationship between anthropology and institutions of science? How do scientists respond to being studied as a cultural group? What does (or might) ethnographic methods contribute to examinations of science?

EH: This is a difficult question, and requires much more nuance than I can offer here. But generally, and in the context of my article, there were complex interplays of identification and disidentification at work in the laboratory. Initially, Allison Gong and Cris Vaughn were unclear as to why I wanted to study their laboratory. They wondered what knowledge is in the lab beyond the pursuit of a biological hypothesis: do cup corals change sexual strategies in different environments? I am oversimplifying the issue, but in general we differently identified critical questions, which made it important to find shared ground. Because I had been a student of Gong's in a course on invertebrate zoology course and had previous experience at a whale research center in Maine with DNA testing and photo-identification, Vaughn felt that I could work as a research volunteer. Working together in the lab contextualized our interactions and allied our attentions even as our questions remained other to one another. Both Vaughn and I were zoomed in on the corals and the apparatus of their investigation, but mine was a study in reverse of the scientific practice. By foregrounding the wayward effects of multispecies interaction, I was able to suggest something about troubles inherent in the integrity and cohesion of experimental reasoning.

SH: Cultural anthropology is, among much else, a social science: an enterprise dedicated to discerning regularities in the social world around us, using methods that, even if not always strictly replicable, can be recounted and accounted for. Biological anthropology, of course, has long been in the domain of the natural sciences. I have come to disagree with those of my colleagues who bemoan the contingent history that has put cultural and biological anthropology into the same boat; it seems to me that anthropology's fight against, say, racism in the United States has needed the specific expertise that biological anthropology has developed. And that's become newly urgent in recent reanimations of old racial categories in genomic clothing. So, with all due respect to biological and physical anthropologist Jonathan Marks, who in his 2009 Why I Am Not a Scientist explains why he is "not a scientist" (I think he is one), we in our field badly need the link to social science and to natural science alike.

How do scientists respond to being studied as a cultural group? It really varies! And I can only speak from my own experience. My early work was very much a critique of naturalizations within scientific models of dominant gender, racial, and economic orders. Some of my informants hated my work. Others liked it because they thought it aided in what they called the "self-correcting" process of science. Still others—and this surprised me; perhaps I was naïve—found my claim that artificial life was "cultural" to be useful in their own attempts to discredit their frenemy colleagues! In my newer work, I've taken up a much less adversarial position—and, as it happens, have been writing about a science, marine microbiology, that has not had the kinds of legitimacy struggles that the sciences of simulation turned out to have had back in the 1990s (I think I didn't, at the time of my first work, realize how tenuous artificial life as a scientific formation would be). That said, I have still been concerned to track the politics of scientific institutions and knowledge production—following debates between academic and industry scientists about biological objects as intellectual property, keeping an eye on how new scientific visions of the ocean do or do not align with local and/or indigenous apprehensions of the marine world. Most of the people I write about in Alien Ocean have been curious to read what I've said, and have even invited me to speak in their classrooms and colloquia. The book was reviewed in Nature and Microbe Magazine (which not only reassured me that I had learned the "language," but also indicated that my subject scientists might be reading the book). I've had a very, very few people angry about the analysis, feeling that I've given too much representation to one side or another (anything about indigenous politics is always a live wire). The ethnographic method continues to help me see how unsteady and mutable are the links between knowledge, politics, and representation. It is also adaptable, I think, to transformations in what counts as the field and fieldwork, when differences and distances between here and there have in many cases been radically reorganized if not completely collapsed. I was interested to note, when I was doing fieldwork among marine biologists that they, too, were encountering a transformation in what counts as the field and fieldwork. Oceanography, like ethnography, is increasingly multisited, multimethod, and multimedia'd.

AL: There is no single answer to the question of how scientists respond to being studied by an anthropologist. In many cases, individual scientists turn out to be quite enthusiastic for an opportunity to discuss their work, its challenges, its possibilities, with an interested and engaged observer from the outside. As for most of us, there are few such opportunities to be seriously listened to. There may, however, be impediments to developing this relationship: for example, a biotech or pharmaceutical company may be concerned about its intellectual property; a major space science center may be closed off for reasons of security; or, more prosaically, a high-profile scientist may be simply too busy to sit down for regular conversation. Moreover, the anthropologist may decide that a circumscribed (laboratory, field, or clinical) setting is not by itself an adequate venue for understanding the context that shapes scientific knowledge production or the broader implications of scientific innovation, and so may begin to venture out to conferences, training settings, public discussions, or the history of the field. Such improvisation, if the anthropologist is lucky, may lead to useful (even original) insights about the practice of science, the ethos of scientists, and/ or the conditions of possibility for the production of certain kinds of truths.

MM: Anthropologists, in our dogged effort to simply get the science right, to understand in it in its own terms, and then to render it intelligible to certain others, have clearly demonstrated that science is not special. Nor is science, I would argue, all that more difficult to study well than any other cultural form. There are languages to learn, institutional arrangements to analyze, historical forces to account for, and then of course, practices, objects, and processes to capture, interpret, and explain. As a radical inductionist, I am not so concerned with the systematic comparisons of facts and findings for the purposes of making a universal claim. Though on the face of it, I am not categorically opposed to such attempts.

I believe a radical inductionist approach affords discovery far more interesting than those narrowly prescribed by a fact-building enterprise some would recognize as science. Not only is this a seventh-grade notion of science, for in practice humans are a lot more interesting, innovative, and contradictory than the myth of objectivitym but our knowledge and understanding is only as good as our analytic, which is only as good as the care with which we attend to our research questions and means to acquire information about them. This is the measure in my mind of good science, of good ethnography, of anthropology, and of social science writ large.

Of course, for me, good is a locatable quality. In my view, the pretense of a view from nowhere, following Donna Haraway and others, substitutes rigor with privilege, making a claim without concern for context, conditions, or consequence. A good analytic worries about all these and more. It can be judged for its insight into the life worlds the claim attempts to explain because it has tried to engage with that life world as it is, not as it has been constructed to be imagined. (See also Stefan Helmreich's concept of transduction for a kindred analytic.) The opposite of situated knowledge is scientism, which is a faith-based acceptance of cultural ignorance. And I argue that this is what anthropology aids us in overcoming, for science, for globalism, for finance, or any other cultural form.

As for how scientists respond to being studied, science is unique in that the interlocutors that ethnographers of science relate to can speak back, can banish us from their worlds, and can correct our numerous ignorances on the go. Not that this does not occur in all ethnographic field projects; it does. However, scientists have a unique competitive advantage relative to ethnographers at least, in the very public tournaments for accepted theories of the way the world is and works. Additionally, since many publics are steeped in biomedical imaginaries, and the more training you have, the more you think you know, the more pushback the ethnographer is likely to get.  For this reason, anthropologies of technoscience should be read as studies in power in the same way Gramsci has been read as a study in political theory that could get past the censors.

As for scientists’ reactions?  It has been my experience that our epistemological frameworks largely don’t overlap and thus, ethnographers are mostly ignored. Or, as Helmreich and I both mention in our work, sometimes we are even ridiculed.

MS: My relationships to the scientists and clinicians that I follow in my different research projects are characterized by contrasts. On the one hand, we are colleagues in the sense of belonging to the same organization (the University of Copenhagen, say, or various externally financed research groups) and attending and presenting our work at the same meetings. In such interdisciplinary settings, social science and qualitative methodology often belong at the lowest end of the epistemological hierarchy. To put it bluntly, such meetings may give rise to the contradictory experience of being underdog in a foreign world and colleague and peer at the same time. On the other hand, the scientists and clinicians are my informants; they are the object of my study. This again reinforces an asymmetrical relationship between us and them, yet contrasts the one between quantitative and qualitative methodology. In particular, in writing up this difference between subjects and objects is actualized and may give rise to tension. Scientists and clinicians are used to be the ones doing the work of objectification and it can be quite an unusual experience for them to see themselves objectified in the work of the anthropologist.

I do not see the differences in power and epistemology that I experience as problems to be solved but as ongoing issues that can be addressed in productive ways when presenting my work, putting questions to their work, and letting the scientists and clinicians I collaborate with comment on my drafts. If they challenge my descriptions or conclusions I am forced to reflect once again upon my own fact-making process and on the epistemological differences between us, which are also parts of a larger landscape of knowledge politics.

What the scientists most often find intriguing about my analyses may be summarized in three points: 1) an awareness of all the social relationships and invisible work that are crucial in the scientific practices and yet not part of the protocol, work descriptions, and ethical procedures; 2) an understanding of the processes through which categories taken as natural facts: for instance, the category of the same embryo is created in socio-material processes, and 3) an attentiveness to ethics as practice and relationships and not simply a formal procedure to live up to. The latter was central in my work on embryo donation. While the clinicians were very aware of the necessity of facilitating an informed consent for the couples, my analyses would locate ethics not so much in the formalized document of the informed consent but in the articulations of potentiality in clinical encounters and in the relationships between clinicians and patients in which donation was practiced.

I usually experience scientists' interests in my work as encouraging. The fact that I'm content with their acceptance of my anthropological work may be seen as an indication of the high status of science in society. The equality implied by peership often masks tangible differences in power and status, which are always present and shaping our collaboration and criticality.

AZ and NB: What theoretical, political, and/or personal reasons attracted you to the ethnography of science? What do you see as the political stakes and potentials, if any, in how anthropologists engage in studying institutions of science?

EH: It seems to me that ethnography—especially what Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich call multispecies sthnography—might offer innovations, or at least interventions, in the ways that other species occupy critical presence in academic work. Through multispecies ethnography, other species come to matter as coproducers of knowledge. This is a radical reorientation of epistemological projects involving nonhuman organisms. Much of biological science is predicated on studies of other species, while multispecies ethnography replaces of with with; knowledge is built with other species. The effect is resounding—familiar propositional arrangements of knowledge and power are reworked through a privileging of the ontological over the epistemological, but without foreclosing epistemic questions. In doing so, we unrest the anthropocentrism of knowledge; we learn that epistemologies are always indebted, obliged, responsible to many ontologies.

SH: When I was an undergraduate anthropology major in the late 1980s, I got a job tutoring biological anthropology for UCLA's Affirmative Action Program. As I got further along in that position, I realized that many of the theories I was tasked with teaching—deriving from sociobiology, it is clear to me now—were extremely problematic, if not, in some cases, outright racist. As a white person working with a largely African American and Latino/a set of students, this became quite upsetting—and, ultimately, transformative. I ended up, over the course of my two years of tutoring, trying both to help students with classwork and to collaborate with them in discerning when problematic ideological claims were being passed off as matters of fact. When I got to graduate school at Stanford, I was quickly guided by the faculty and by other students to the then-emerging cultural and anthropological study of science, reading Emily Martin, Sharon Traweek, and Donna Haraway pretty much right away, in my first semester. Conjoined with training in feminist anthropology, this work primed me to think about the politics of nature (particularly about what Sylvia Yanagisako and Carol Delaney would come to describe as "naturalizing power"). I formed an enduring interest in discussions of nature/culture. I have been thinking lately with Sherine Hamdy's work, especially her 2012 Our Bodies Belong to God, in which she suggests that we need to "unbind" our theories of such domains as ethics, kinship, and economy from their frequent groundings in methodologically individualist social science, secularist models of analysis, and worries about origins. She suggests that we need to rebind ethics, kinship, and economy within frames that include political economy, theology, technology, and social justice concerns. That, it seems to me, continues the project of denaturalizing power in ways that expand beyond always and only looking to what scientists and anthropologists (an overlapping set!) say about nature.

AL: One of the earliest and still most salient insights coming from science studies is that the creation of stable, authorized truths in the sciences hinges on mundane social practices. Scientists, like other humans, rely on trust, habit, tacit understandings; they engage in competition, collaboration, and so on. The anthropological study of science does not seek to undermine such authority, to denounce it, but rather to understand its conditions of possibility. If science is one of our most trusted sources for understanding the order of the world, not to mention its disorder (Is the climate warming? Is depression the result of an excess of serotonin? Do endocrine disruptors threaten our health?), it would seem an ideal object for anthropological inquiry. We have learned from such inquiry that scientific authority is historically situated, culturally shaped, interacts in complex ways with other political and social institutions—and is absolutely essential for our modern self-understanding.

MM: Scientific claims-making, ethnographers have shown, is powerful. That is, the imaginary has consequences for people’s lives, for institutional investments, for the economy, and for the way we think about and treat the ecologies that we need to thrive. Nowhere is this more true than for race and racial inequity. At the beginning and end of the day, I was attracted to anthropology because it afforded an insight into why, in a nation like the United States, there exists so much inequity—Inequity that visits people nonrandomly. Before graduate school, and then in my life before university, I witnessed and experienced affronts to human dignities that ran directly counter to the rhetoric of Christian charity and of freedom and equality, which I had swallowed whole cloth as a working-class kid. How could this happen?

After university I worked in what we in the United States call social services. For some six years or more, I worked to feed, clothe, and house people. I worked in literacy and in health care. I still am haunted by witnessing children who would grab the bread from the food box we had delivered and begin eating it before it was even in their apartment. They were hungry. Not just that day, or at that moment, they were deeply hungry.  There is something profoundly disturbing about a hungry child. And there is something profoundly infuriating about a hungry child, in the United States or anywhere, when social arrangements are the cause of that hunger. Of course the same could be said for violence, homelessness, illness, or premature death for children or adults.

Food insecurity in the United States politicized me. I wanted to understand power and ignorance and social reproduction. So when Deborah Heath invited me to join the Mapping Genetic Knowledge project with Rayna Rapp and Karen-Sue Taussig, I was interested in science as an object of power. The science wars were winding down, but the influence of technoscience was palpable and ubiquitous. The stakes for me then, as now, are to understand power and privilege through the knowledge-making practices that we call technoscientific. This returns me to my original interest in anthropology, its commitment to human equality, its potential to place a wedge in ideological frameworks that perpetuate inequities.

MS: The old feminist positions toward biomedical science and technology contained a criticism of these phenomena as dehumanizing means of power. This critical, almost antiscience position did not take seriously what technologies do in the world and what they mean to people. In my own work, I wish to take seriously that science and technology are productive and creative actors in our world, and that our existence is today inseparable from that of science and technology. I wish to contribute to the shaping of the ways they come into being and the relations we create with them. By exploring ethnographically what understandings of humanness are at stake embryonic stem-cell research, who the actors involved are, and what moral horizons and specific relations that unfold in creating this scientific field, I wish to prompt critical reflections upon scientific practices as societal practices through a direct and responsible engagement with the fields.

The anthropological potentials in studying institutions of science are closely linked to our collaboration with institutions of science as a critical but responsible engagement. Critical in the sense that the accounts we make are grounded in our cross-cultural comparisons and creative ways of at once challenging common sense-understandings and categories and exploring the social worlds that common sense produces. This criticality provides a possibility for always writing or performing a narrative that is different from the ones being told in the science fields themselves. Our collaborative endeavor is engaged in a responsible way because anthropological narratives are grounded in a direct interaction with the science fields; we are part of the field that we analyze. My own experience is that it is on an everyday basis when attending a doctor round, presenting my work at the same meetings as the scientists, giving a talk to the ethical council, or taking part in a health technology assessment that my analyses prompt reflection and make it possible to ask questions different from the ones usually being asked by ethicists, health administrators, or the scientists themselves.