As a longtime CASTAC member, I’d like to offer my take on where we’ve been and where we, as an organization might go in the future.
My first encounter with CASTAC came at the 1992 AAA meetings in San Francisco. I was a new grad student of Gary Downey’s in the STS program at Virginia Tech; however, CASTAC had been founded earlier. The following brief history is based primarily on “corridor talk,” oral histories passed along informally at AAA meetings and other fora by folks like David Hakken, Lucy Suchman, Julian Orr, David Hess and others.
CASTAC, as an organization, began as CAC (Committee for the Anthropology of Computing) at the initiation of David Hakken and a few other anthropologists who were pioneering anthropological studies of computing. David approached Marvin Harris who was, at that time, the President of the General Anthropology Division (GAD) about creating CAC as a Committee within GAD. Harris and the GAD board at the time supported the idea and CAC began its long association with GAD. CAC expanded to CASTC (and later modified to CASTAC) as anthropologists interested in the related areas of science, technology, medicine, work, and engineering joined the nascent group. The 1992 and 1993 AAA meetings were a coming out party with invited sessions that included both anthropologists and scholars from other fields like Donna Haraway and Susan Leigh Star, among others. During the same period, the same anthropologists were crashing the sociology-dominated 4S conference—a pattern recently emulated by the Science, Technology, and Medicine interest group within the Society for Medical Anthropology.
The 1990s were in many ways the high point of CASTAC activity. Sessions were organized at both the AAA and 4S meetings. CASTAC business meetings were always crowded and productive. The tragic death of Dianna Forsythe resulted in the Dianna Forsythe Prize celebrating her legacy and the work of anthropologists working on science, technology, and medicine. CASTAC held summer conferences at RPI and Columbia and CASTAC chairs were active participants at GAD board meetings. And the “science wars” raged in anthropology, STS, and the academy in general—halcyon days indeed.
I became chair of CASTAC in 2005 after a period of relative decline and inactivity during the early 2000s when CASTAC did little beyond award the Forsythe Prize. The summer conferences ended and CASTAC didn’t hold a business meeting at the AAA meetings for a number of years. I offered to serve as chair because I considered, and still consider, CASTAC to be my intellectual home within the AAA and wanted CASTAC to continue to serve as a place that mentored young scholars. Senior scholars in CASTAC have always been extremely generous with their time for junior scholars and I hoped this would continue.
The first challenge, aside from walking into the middle of a GAD board meeting immediately after being elected as CASTAC chair (I was the only volunteer to take the position), was to deal with an existential crisis. We broached the question of whether we thought CASTAC still served a purpose and ought to continue as an organization and, if so, in what form. There was discussion of merging with the Society for the Anthropology of Work (SAW), of forming our own section or independent interest group within the AAA, or of maintaining the current status of staying a committee within GAD. There were benefits to each organizational model and after extensive discussion on the listserv we voted to stick with GAD. GAD provided a $500 annual budget and required much less work to maintain the organization—all we needed was a chair to represent CASTAC on the GAD board and two representatives to serve on the Forsythe selection committee. However, CASTAC still had a problem—we weren’t exactly sure what we wanted CASTAC to do or be—a problem that we are still facing today.
When CASTAC began and for most of the 1990s, CASTAC was about the only place within AAA that folks working on the boundaries between anthropology and STS could go. But by the mid-2000s, STS was emergent in all kinds of places in anthropology. All kinds of anthropologists working in all kinds of areas like medical anthropology, environmental anthropology, media studies, development anthropology, linguistics, and even biological anthropology had discovered STS. And most of these folks had never heard of CASTAC and some were forming their own groups like the STM interest group in SMA. I saw the proliferation of STS-inspired ideas outside of CASTAC not as a threat to CASTAC but as an opportunity to develop collaborative relationships to enhance all of these groups.
I reached out to many of these groups and individuals to let them know that CASTAC existed and that we would love to work together with them to expand the visibility and influence of STS in anthropology and anthropology in STS. I worked with a number of CASTAC members, the GAD board, the STM interest group, and SAW to organize a series of prominent CASTAC invited sessions including a session celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Forsythe Prize. I also produced a new CASTAC Directory to facilitate collaboration among people working on related areas.
My term as CASTAC chair ended after four years and current co-chairs Jenny Cool and Rachel Prentice are leading CASTAC into the digital age of the internet and the blogosphere—ironic that it has taken CASTAC so long to create a strong presence here when the organization was founded by folks studying computing. I urge CASTAC to continue to remain open to new perspectives and new areas of anthropology that intersect with STS. Finally, and most significantly, I urge CASTAC to continue to be a place where senior scholars mentor junior scholars whose research interests, much like their own research interests, may be the proverbial squares that don’t quite fit into the circles of the traditional research areas within anthropology.
My special thanks to Patricia Lange for inviting me to contribute to the blog. I hope many of you will consider adding comments and your own posts to keep the CASTAC momentum moving forward. Participating in the blog has helped me realize that it is the longstanding collegial relationships that make CASTAC my anthropological home.
The Asthma Files is a collaborative ethnographic project focused on the diverse ways people in settings around the world have experienced and responded to the global asthma epidemic and air pollution crisis. It is experimental in a number of ways: It is designed to support collaboration among ethnographers working at different sites, with different foci, such that many particular projects can nest within the larger project structure. This is enabled through a digital platform that we have named PECE: Platform for Experimental, Collaborative Ethnography. PECE is open source and will become shareable with other research groups once we work out its kinks.
PECE has been built to support collaborative, multi-sited, scale-crossing ethnographic research addressing the complex conditions that characterize late industrialism – conditions such as the global asthma epidemic and air pollution crisis; conditions that implicate many different types of actors, locales and systems – social, cultural, political-economic, ecological and technical, calling call for new kinds of ethnographic analyses and collaboration. The platform links researchers in new ways, and activates their engagement with public problems and diverse audiences. The goal is to allow platform users to toggle between jeweller’s eye and systems-level perspective, connecting the dots to see “the big picture” and alternative future pathways.
The Asthma Files has taken us “beyond academia” in a number of ways. Ethnographically, we are engaging an array of professionals, organizations and communities, trying to understand how they have made sense of environmental public health problems. We want to document their sense-making processes, and what has shaped them; we also want to facilitate their sense-making processes – through ethnography that help them understand their own habits of thought and language, and those of others with whom they likely need to work cooperatively. For example, we’ve recently been contacted by a New Orleans housing contractor who wished to know the kind of research being done on asthma and housing in Louisiana. PECE is designed to support this, making space for different kinds of participants at different points in the ethnographic process.
We’ve also gone “beyond academia” to learn how to think about and build a digital platform to support ethnographic work. One step involved selection of the best – for our purposes, for now – online content management system. Quickly, it became apparent that most technical professionals had strong preferences, sometimes based on assessments of functionality, sometimes – it seemed – as a matter of habit. Through a long, comparative process, we ultimately decided on Plone, an open source content management system known for its security capabilities (important in creating space where groups of ethnographers can work together with material, perhaps IRB restricted, out of sight even though online), for its capacity to archive original content (such as interview recordings), and for the ways it supports our effort to nest multiple projects within a larger project structure.
Another important step, which we are still figuring out, is to hire the ongoing technical help we need for PECE. We need ongoing technical help because the platform isn’t finished, as we now envision it. But also because we want the platform to continually evolve as we continue to figure out what kinds of functionality we need to support collaborative ethnographic work. And this may be specific to each project housed on PECE. So we need on-going, ever learning relationships with people who can provide the technical support PECE requires, such as computer scientists, IT specialists, or programmers. As ethnographers, we know that technical professionals will think very differently about the work that we do. And we need to learn to work with this. We need to engage with skills and knowledges that are traditionally outside of the discipline of anthropology by taking on, in a practical way, the continual anthropological challenge of figuring out how difference works.
The Asthma Files and PECE are experiments that have taken us in many new directions – beyond academia, as well as back to basic questions about what should be considered ethnographic material, where theory is in ethnography, how ethnographic findings are best presented, etc. We keep open a call for new collaborators. Let us know if you would like to be in our mix.