Worlding Anthropologies of Technosciences?

October 28th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The past 4S meeting in Buenos Aires made visible the expansion of STS to various regions of the globe. Those of us who happened to be at the 4S meeting at University of Tokyo four years ago will remember the excitement of having the opportunity to work side-by-side with STS scholars from East and Southeast Asia. The same opportunity for worlding STS was opened again this past summer in Buenos Aires.

In order to help increase diversity of perspectives, Sharon Traweek and I organized a 4S panel on the relationships between STS and anthropology with a focus on the past, present, and future of the exchange among national traditions. The idea came out of our conversations about the intersections between science studies and the US anthropology of the late 1980’s with the work of CASTAC pioneers such as Diana Forsythe, Gary Downey, Joseph Dumit, David Hakken, David Hess, and Sharon Traweek, among several others who helped to establish the technosciences as legitimate domains of anthropological inquiry. It was not an easy battle, as Chris Furlow’s post on the history of CASTAC reminded us, but the results are undeniably all around us today. Panels on anthropology of science and technology can always be found at professional meetings. Publications on science and technology have space in various journals and the attention of university publishers these days.

For our panel this year we had the opening remarks of Gary Downey who, after reading our proposal aloud, emphasized the importance of advancing a cultural critique of science and technology through a situated, grounded stance. Quoting Marcus and Fischer’s “Anthropology as Cultural Critique” (1986) he emphasized that anthropology of science and technology could not dispense with the reflection upon the place, the situation, and the positioning of the anthropologist. Downey described his own positioning as an anthropologist and critical participant in engineering. Two decades ago Downey challenged the project of “anthropology as cultural critique” to speak widely to audiences outside anthropology and to practice anthropology as cultural critique, as suggested by the title of his early AAA paper, “Outside the Hotel”.

Yet “Anthropology as Cultural Critique” represented, he pointed out, one of the earliest reflexive calls in US anthropology for us to rethink canonical fieldwork orientations and our approach to the craft of ethnography with its representational politics. Downey and many others who invented new spaces to advance critical agendas in the context of science and technology did so by adding to the identity of the anthropologist other identities and responsibilities, such as that of former mechanical engineer, laboratory physicist, theologian, and experimenter of alternative forms of sociality, etc. These overlapping and intersecting identities opened up a whole field of possibilities for renewed modes of inquiry which, after “Anthropology as Cultural Critique”, consisted, as Downey suggested, in the juxtaposition of knowledge, forms of expertise, positionalities, and commitments. This is where we operate as STS scholars: at intersecting research areas, bridging “fault lines” (as Traweek’s felicitous expression puts it), and doing anthropology with and not without anthropologists.

The order of presentations for our panel was defined in a way to elicit contrasts and parallels between different modes of inquiry, grounded in different national anthropological traditions. The first session had Marko Monteiro (UNICAMP), Renzo Taddei (UNIFESP), Luis Felipe R. Murillo (UCLA), and Aalok Khandekar (Maastricht University) as presenters and Michael M. J. Fischer (MIT) as commentator. Marko Monteiro, an anthropologist working for an interdisciplinary program in science and technology policy in Brazil addressed questions of scientific modeling and State policy regarding the issue of deforestation in the Amazon. His paper presented the challenges of conducting multi-sited ethnography alongside multinational science collaborations, and described how scientific modeling for the Amazalert project was designed to accommodate natural and sociocultural differences with the goal of informing public policy. In the context of his ethnographic work, Monteiro soon found himself in a double position as a panelist expert and as an anthropologist interested in how different groups of scientists and policy makers negotiate the incorporation of “social life” through a “politics of associations.”

Similarly to Monteiro’s positioning, Khandekar benefited in his ethnographic work for being an active participant and serving as the organizer of expert panels involving STS scholars and scientists to design nanotechnology-based development programs in India. Drawing from Fischer’s notion of “third space”, Khandekar addressed how India could be framed productively as such for being a fertile ground for conceptual work where cross-disciplinary efforts have articulated humanities and technosciences under the rubric of innovation. Serving as a knowledge broker for an international collaboration involving India, Kenya, South Africa, and the Netherlands on nanotechnology, Khandekar had first-hand experience in promoting “third spaces” as postcolonial places for cross-disciplinary exchange through story telling.

Shifting the conversation to the context of computing and political action, Luis Felipe R. Murillo’s paper described a controversy surrounding the proposal of a “feminist programming language” and discussed the ways in which it provides access to the contemporary technopolitical dynamics of computing. The feminist programming language parody served as an entry point to analyze how language ideologies render symbolic boundaries visible, highlighting fundamental aspects of socialization in the context of computing in order to reproduce concepts and notions of the possible, logical, and desirable technical solutions. In respect to socioeconomic and political divisions, he suggested that feminist approaches in their intersectionality became highly controversial for addressing publicly systemic inequalities that are transversal to the context of computing and characterize a South that is imbricated in the North of “big computing” (an apparatus that encompasses computer science, information technology industries, infrastructures, and cultures with their reinvented peripheries within the global North and South).

Renzo Taddei recasted the debate regarding belief in magic drawing from a long lasting thread of anthropological research on logical reasoning and cultural specificity. Taddei opened up his take on our conversation with the assertion that to conduct ethnography on witchcraft assuming that it does not exist is fundamentally ethnocentric. This observation was meant to take us the core of his concerns regarding climate sciences vis-à-vis traditional Brazilian forms of forecasting from Sertão, a semi-arid and extremely impoverished area of the Northeast of Brazil. He then proceeded to discuss magical manipulation of the atmosphere from native and Afro-Brazilian perspectives in Brazil.

For the second day of our panel, we had papers by Kim Fortun (RPI), Mike Fortun (RPI), Sharon Traweek (UCLA) and the commentary of Claudia Fonseca (UFRGS) whose long-term contributions to study of adoption, popular culture, science and human rights in Brazil has been highly influential. In her paper, Kim Fortun addressed the double bind of expertise, the in-between of competence and hubris, structural risk and unpredictability of the very infrastructures experts are called upon to take responsibility. Fortun’s call was for a mode of interaction and engagement among science and humanities scholars oriented toward friendship and hospitality as well as commitment for our technoscientific futures under the aegis of late industrialism. “Ethnographic insight”, according to Fortun, “can loop back into the world” through the means of creative pedagogies which are attentive to the fact that science practitioners and STS scholars mobilize different analytic lenses while speaking through and negotiating with distinct discursive registers in the context of international collaborations. Our assumptions of what is conceptually shared should not anticipate what is to be seen or forged in the context of our international exchange, since what is foregrounded in discourse always implicates one form or another of erasure. The image Fortun suggested for us to think with is not that of a network, but that of a kaleidoscope in which the complexity of disasters can be seen across multiple dimensions and scales in their imbrication at every turn.

In his presentation, Michael Fortun questioned the so-called “ontological turn” to recast the “hauntological” dimensions of our research practices vis-à-vis those of our colleagues in the biosciences, that is, to account for the imponderables of scientific and anthropological languages and practices through the lens of a poststructural understanding of the historical functioning of language. In his study of asthma, Fortun attends to multiple perspectives and experiences with asthma across national, socioeconomic, scientific and technical scales. In the context of his project “The Asthma Files”, he suggests, alongside Kim Fortun, hospitality and friendship as frames for engaging instead of disciplining the contingency of ethnographic encounters and ethnographic projects. For future collaborations, two directions are suggested: 1) investigating and experimenting with modes of care and 2) designing collaborative digital platforms for experimental ethnography. The former is related to the scientists care for their instruments, methods, theories, intellectual reproduction, infrastructures, and problems in their particular research fields, while the latter poses the question of care among ourselves and the construction of digital platforms to facilitate and foster collaboration in anthropology.

This panel was closed with Sharon Traweek’s paper on multi-scalar complexity of contemporary scientific collaborations, based on her current research on data practices and gender imbalance in astronomy. Drawing from concepts of meshwork and excess proposed by researchers with distinct intellectual projects such as Jennifer McWeeny, Arturo Escobar, Susan Paulson, and Tim Ingold, Traweek discussed billion-dollar science projects which involve multiple research communities clustered around a few recent research devices and facilities, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. In the space of ongoing transformations of big science toward partially-global science, women and ethnic minorities are building meshworks as overlapping networks in their attempts to build careers in astronomy. Traweek proposed a revision of the notion of “enrollment” to account for the ways in which mega projects in science are sustained for decades of planning, development, construction, and operation at excessive scales which require more than support and consensus. Mega projects in the technosciences are, in Traweek’s terms, “over-determined collages that get built and used” by international teams with “glocal” structures of governance and funding.

In his concluding remarks Michael M. J. Fischer addressed the relationship between anthropology and STS through three organizing axes: time, topic, and audiences. As a question of time, a quarter century has passed for the shared history of STS and anthropology and probing questions have been asked and explored in the technosciences in respect to its apparatuses, codes, languages, life cycle of machines, educational curricula, personal and technical trajectories, which is well represented in one of the foundational texts of our field, Traweek’s “Beamtimes and Lifetimes” (1988). Traweek has helped establish a distinctive anthropological style “working alongside scientists and engineers through juxtaposition not against them.” In respect to the relationships between anthropology and STS, Fischer raised the question of pedagogies as, at once, a prominent form of engagement in the technosciences as well as an anthropological mode of engagement with the technosciences. The common thread connecting all the panel contributions was the potential for new pedagogies to emerge with the contribution of world anthropologies of sciences and technologies. That is, in the space of socialization of scientists, engineers, and the public, space of the convention, as well as invention, and knowledge-making, all the presenters addressed the question of how to advance an anthropology of science and technology with forms of participation, as Fischer suggests, as productive critique. 

Along similar lines, Claudia Fonseca offered closing remarks about her own trajectory and the persistence of national anthropological traditions informing our cross-dialogs and border crossings. Known in Brazil as an “anthropologist with an accent”, an anthropologist born in the US, trained in France, and based in Brazil for the most part of her academic life, she cannot help but emphasize the style and forms of engagement that are specific to Brazilian anthropology which has a tradition of conducting ethnography at home. The panel served, in sum, for the participants to find a common thread connecting a rather disparate set of papers and for advancing a form of dialogue across national traditions and modes of engagement which is attentive to local political histories and (national) anthropological trajectories. As suggested by Michael Fortun, we are just collectively conjuring – with much more empiria than magic – a new beginning in the experimental tradition for world anthropologies of sciences and technologies.

Announcing New Positions!

October 23rd, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

As 2014 comes to a close, I’m happy to report that the CASTAC organization and blog have thrived in the past year. Our organization has experienced an expanded groundswell of participation throughout the year, and at our annual CASTAC meetings. The CASTAC Blog has also seen an exciting range of content and new voices. In an effort to expand its organization and leadership, CASTAC is now seeking an Outreach Manager who will be responsible for promoting the CASTAC organization and working with the blog team. The CASTAC Blog is also inviting applications for two new Associate Editors, who will solicit new authors and content, and helm posts in their particular areas of specialty.

For more details see below. Please forward this announcement widely!

Outreach Manager
The Outreach Manager will be responsible for increasing CASTAC’s public visibility across social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and the web sites of relevant academic departments and associations. Responsibilities include:

  • Writing and posting CASTAC news and announcements on CASTAC’s website and social media pages
  • Promoting CASTAC activities on social media and anthropology- and STS-related websites, ensuring that CASTAC has a vital presence on the Internet
  • Finding creative ways to increase CASTAC’s visibility among faculty and graduate students in Anthropology and STS programs, and looking for opportunities to get people in these programs involved with CASTAC, for example, through contributions to the blog
  • Promoting CASTAC’s blog on social media and the web
  • Working closely with the blog Editor-in-Chief and blog team in order to disseminate news and content from CASTAC
  • Promoting discussion on blog posts.

The social media Outreach Manager is a two-year position (December 2015 to December 2017) reporting directly to the CASTAC Co-Chairs and working closely with the blog team. This position may be held in addition to the position of Associate Editor on The CASTAC Blog, but it is a ­­separate office within CASTAC, with organization-wide scope.

Interested candidates should send a CV and 1 page description of their qualifications and ideas for how they would approach the position. The application should be sent to Jenny Carlson (jdcarlson@utexas.edu) by November 15, 2014. Please indicate if you will be attending the AAA meetings in Washington, DC.

Associate Editors
The CASTAC Blog is also seeking two Associate Editors to join our dynamic team. During the year-long position in 2015, responsibilities will include bringing 4-5 posts to the blog within a specific topic area. Posts should generally be solicited from external authors, scholars, and practitioners, but should also include a few posts written by the Associate Editor as needed and/or appropriate. Associate Editors will also be responsible for facilitating co-ordination between authors and the Editor, light copy editing, and closely tracking correspondence via email or possibly occasionally Skype to discuss publishing schedules. Expertise in medical anthropology/STS is particularly welcome, but interested candidates of any subject areas are encouraged to apply. Candidates should send a C.V. and a paragraph describing the subject areas they would like to cover. Please send materials to the Editor-in-Chief, Patricia G. Lange (plange@cca.edu) by November 15, 2014.

We look forward to working with you!

The 2014 Ebola Outbreak: How Many Deaths Will it Take?

October 20th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Ebola

The Ebola Virus
Photo: CDC Global

When I began writing this brief statement in mid-September, 2,630 deaths had been attributed to probable, suspected, or confirmed cases of Ebola. The World Health Organization projected as many as 20,000 cases in the West African region before the outbreak could be brought under control. The epidemic had received little news coverage and felt, to many in the U.S., as yet another disaster taking place in countries reputed for their many dangers. By mid-October, 4,033 Ebola deaths had been reported by the World Health Organization and projections on number of cases had risen to 10,000 per week in West Africa. Concerns are heightening that the epidemic may be a greater threat than originally perceived. The number of news reports providing coverage on the epidemic has increased exponentially, reaching over 30 million by the beginning of October. This dramatic increase appears to be spurred by the death of Thomas Eric Ducan, the first reported death occurring outside the epidemic hotspot of West Africa, which made headline news around the world and sparked fears that the epidemic could spread out-of-control around the globe. « Read the rest of this entry »

2014 Diana Forsythe Prize Winner: S. Lochlann Jain for Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us

September 29th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

The Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing (CASTAC) of the General Anthropology Division (GAD) and the Society for the Anthropology of Work (SAW) announce that S. Lochlann Jain (Stanford University) is the winner of the 2014 Diana Forsythe Prize for her book Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us (University of California Press, 2013) and that Adriana Petryna (University of Pennsylvania) has been awarded an Honorable Mention for her book When Experiments Travel: Clinical Trials and the Global Search for Human Subjects (Princeton University Press, 2009). The Prize Committee chose these books from among a remarkable set of nominated volumes.

Fashioned as a melancholic and justice-seeking expedition to and through “the kingdom of the ill” and permeated by a raw and highly evocative imagery of the ways “cancer becomes us,” Malignant is a masterpiece. It epitomizes the spirit of Diana Forsythe’s lasting feminist contributions to science and technology studies. Critical and self-reflexive at every turn, Lochlann Jain illuminates the messy, unstable, cultural-historical-biological reality of cancer. With an authorial voice at once intimate and authoritative, she breaks open expert knowledges of all kind and delivers the disturbing news that cancer is part of the American way of life, hard-wired into the operating systems of the U.S. polity and economy. Lochlann Jain also reveals the many ways in which the suffering of cancer patients, particularly women, is sanitized through a set of survivor scripts that cause their own kind of suffering. In our “laboratory of toxic waste” in which accountability is diffuse and hard to pin down, the cancer which wreaks havoc on individual bodies and lives is folded into logics of individual survivorship, statistics, medical knowledge (or its lack), pharmaceutical reason, gendered normativity, and genetic predispositions and becomes impossible to read politically. Malignant speaks expertly to the legacy of Diana Forsythe who was, like Lochlann Jain, concerned with politics behind expert systems of knowledge production and consumption. With its realism, sophisticated analysis, alter politics, joy de vivre and human force, Malignant is anthropology at its best. It will certainly continue to reach and transform multiple audiences and, in the process, open up new fields of inquiry and action.

Adriana Petryna’s When Experiments Travel is recognized and honored for pioneering the anthropological inquiry of the global clinical trials enterprise, for its rich ethnographic contributions to our understanding of health capitalism, and for its original theoretical work on “experimentality” and “ethical variability.” The book provides a rich and compelling account of the organizational cultures and labor regimes of industry-sponsored clinical research, probing scientific, ethical, and regulatory practices and thus exemplifying Diana Forsythe’s lasting contributions to anthropological research on work, science, and technology. Moving between corporate and scientific offices in the United States and research and public health sites in Poland and Brazil, When Experiments Travel documents the complex ways that commercial medical science, with all its benefits and risks, is being integrated into local health systems and emerging drug markets. The ethics of researchers, markets, and patient-subjects are a living evolving practice in which we are all implicated. Bluntly and deftly, the book exposes the contemporary problems of the instrumental use of humans for research and teases out the logic of and gaps in regulatory structures that legitimate experimentality internationally. When Experiments Travel provides academics and the wider public with a vital compass that can help us monitor and interrogate the changing scientific infrastructures of our lives.

The 2014 Diana Forsythe Prize and Honorable Mention will be awarded at the annual American Anthropological Association meetings in Washington DC, during the General Anthropology Division Awards Ceremony and Distinguished Lecture on Friday, December 5, 2015, at 1 pm in the Palladian Ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

The Diana Forsythe Prize was created in 1998 to celebrate the best book or series of published articles in the spirit of Diana Forsythe’s feminist anthropological research on work, science, and technology, including biomedicine. The Prize is supported by Bern Shen. João Biehl, Stefan Helmreich, and Nina E. Brown composed this year’s Forsythe Prize Committee.

For more about The Diana Forsythe Prize: http://www.aaanet.org/sections/gad/awards/

Aaron’s Call

August 11th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

On the morning of January 11th, 2013, the Internet entrepreneur and political activist Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Soon after the news reached the Internet, manifestos and hackathons were organized to celebrate Aaron’s political and technical work. In a matter of weeks, parallel events were organized across the United States, finding solidarity with Internet technologists and activists abroad. This collective effervescence elaborated on a narrative to evaluate the present, help to frame the past and project the future in relation to Aaron’s accomplishments and indictment for computer crime.

One year after Aaron’s passing, Brian Knappenberger‘s documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” was screened at the Sundance Festival and publicly released this past June. As far as the narrative goes, the spectator is offered a reconstruction of Aaron’s life with key elements for debate regarding legal overreach in his case. Knappenberger’s work was very careful in attending to the details. Despite the familiarity of most of us with the succession of events, there is much to be gained from the documentary if its depiction of Aaron’s trajectory is to be interpreted vis-à-vis broader, transnational battles on the grounds of intellectual property enforcement and expansion.
« Read the rest of this entry »

Political Economy and the Internet of Things

August 5th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

According to Cisco, the number of things – smart phones, cars, delivery vehicles, smoke detectors, outflow sensors, electricity meters – connected to the internet surpassed the number of people connected to the internet in 2008. Projections for the coming decade vary, but corporate researchers at firms like Cisco, Intel, IBM and Siemens are betting big on the exponential growth of networked sensors and microcomputing devices. These companies are working in loose concert to shepherd this emergent swarm of networked things into a truly infrastructural data-collecting system. They see in the so-called “Internet of Things” the consummation of promise held forth to the corporate world by big data analytics; comprehensive, actionable, real-time data about production and consumption, allowing for ever more agile and sophisticated extraction of value from human activity. « Read the rest of this entry »

Life in the Laboratories of Breaking Bad

June 30th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

A Chemical Drama
I freely admit to an obsession with Breaking Bad that hasn’t quite come to an end, despite nearly a year having passed since the final episode aired. I am not the only one, apparently, as a new book written from a media studies perspective, Breaking Bad: Critical Essays on the Contexts, Politics, Style and Reception of the Television Series has just come out. While this is no doubt a productive frame to examine Breaking Bad, I am going to argue that Breaking Bad also illustrates key problematics in laboratory studies. If The Wire can become a staple within urban studies, why not Breaking Bad within STS? In what follows, I will sketch a few possible directions, which assume at least a passing familiarity with the plot and characters. WARNING: spoilers ahead! « Read the rest of this entry »

Facing the Selfie

June 24th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in the symposium entitled Face It: Photography, Ethics, and Identity in the Age of the Selfie, which was held at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). The program featured an eclectic mix of voices representing artists and scholars interested in exploring how photographic images blur or highlight the distinctions between authenticity and enactment of identity on social media sites. Of particular interest was exploring the political and ethical obligations and ramifications of a seemingly unabated proliferation of images. « Read the rest of this entry »

Science Cheerleaders – Is There a Role for Hollywood Hyper-publicity in Science Communications?

June 2nd, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

Over the past two months, I’ve been watching Years of Living Dangerously (YLD), a nine-part documentary series examining the issues and politics of climate change science through the eyes of popular American celebrities, who serve both as narrators and foils for exploring global warming scientific arguments and (mis)conceptions. Employing visually compelling imagery and urgent, albeit mostly alarmist, rhetoric, YLD is actually pretty standard fare for contemporary climate science programs. What makes the program interesting to me is the role it has assumed as a sort of cheerleader for science in a contest that in the past was populated only by participants (climate scientists and non-believers) and observers (the general public). In that paradigm, you either played the game, or watched from the stands. Now, it seems, with the right credentials you can be on the field as a cheerleader, yet not really in the game. « Read the rest of this entry »

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