Author Archives: Peter Taber

My research to date has focused on the institutionalization of 'the environment' as a technopolitical problem in Ecuador with a special focus on biodiversity.

Clinical Data in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Ethnographic Engagements

By: Peter Taber, Nicholas Rattray, Lauren Penney, Megan McCullough and Samantha Gottlieb This post emerged from a 2018 Society for Applied Anthropology panel on anthropological engagements with health data in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Serving over 9 million enrollees with a current federal budget of USD68 billion, the VA is an important testing site for digital healthcare infrastructure, as it has been for several decades. The panel brought our VA research and quality improvement (QI) efforts targeting the electronic health record (EHR) and other digital infrastructure into dialog with existing work on the social lives of data and algorithms, as well as the broader concerns of medical anthropology and STS in an era of the “datafication of health” (Ruckenstein and Schüll 2017). Extracts from our conversation, presented below, are taken from a follow-up video call exploring these issues. (read more...)

Computable Norms: Clinical Practice Guidelines and Digital Infrastructure

I’m a sociocultural anthropologist by training. Until recently, my research focused on environmental issues in Ecuador. Yet, my attempt to address the gaps left by traditional anthropological approaches to environmental issues quickly brought me into topical areas that the anthropology I was trained in infrequently touched on: institutional change over historical time, knowledge infrastructure work, and particularly the functioning and interaction of modern forms of expertise. I’m now a postdoctoral fellow in medical informatics at the U.S. Veterans Affairs Administration.  It is an odd organizational context to find myself in, as someone who conceived of himself as an environmental anthropologist for years. Yet many of the big themes are strikingly familiar. In particular, I am surrounded by (and participating in) the expert design of sociotechnical contexts intended to be inhabited by other experts – an aspect of environmental expertise that fascinated me in my environmentally-focused research. In my postdoc, I’m fortunate to have exposure to many of the technical nuts and bolts of infrastructure design for clinicians. In my remarks below, I share some reflections about “clinical practice guidelines,” a specific form of formal medical guidance that increasingly constitutes part of the digital infrastructure used by medical providers, designed and implemented in part by informaticists. (read more...)

System, Space and Ecobiopolitics: A Conversation with Valerie Olson About “Into the Extreme”

  [This week we present excerpts of an interview with Valerie Olson conducted by Lisa Messeri focused on Olson’s new book, Into the Extreme (U Minnesota P, 2018). Valerie Olson is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California – Irvine whose work focuses on the anthropology of environmental systems, technologies and extremes.  Lisa Messeri is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Yale University focused on the role of place and place-making in scientific work and the author of Placing Outer Space (Duke UP, 2016). The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.] Lisa: Into the Extreme is an ethnography of human space flight based on fieldwork at NASA Johnson Space Center most prominently, but then also other space sites throughout the United States. What I think is most significant about this book is that it activates “system” as an ethnographic object. Valerie Olson, the author (read more...)

Lists, Indices and the Ownership of Biodiversity Conservation

Prior to the emergence of “biodiversity loss” as a ubiquitous way of talking about species extinctions in the 1990s, taxonomic biology was considered a dying field. The physical inspection of specimens to assign them to biological categories had long had a reputation as a hobby for “crusty old men and their dusty shelves”, as one botanist joked during my research in Ecuador. Biology’s cutting edge was genomics. But with an explosion of concern for a global extinction crisis, taxonomically-trained biologists and their cheap, low-tech methods occupied a central role in 1990s Latin American conservation efforts (e.g. Raven and Wilson 1991). In this post, I briefly consider how taxonomically-oriented field biology relates to other, typically quantitative ways of evaluating biodiversity. Taxonomy played an important role in establishing where conservation should focus its efforts. An increased emphasis on quantitatively linking biodiversity to other environmental problems has meant an increased role for other kinds of expertise (Gabrys 2016). It has also meant a return to the margins for taxonomic expertise. Examining the tools used to evaluate the biotic environment sheds light, both on the different kinds of questions that can be asked about it, and on the shifting place of different kinds of expertise in environmental governance. (read more...)