Category: Research

The Second Project Project: The Security to Feel Insecure

Editor's note: Platypus is launching a series called "The Second Project Project" that asks scholars to reflect on the process of developing new research projects at the intersection of anthropology, science, technology, and computing. Anthropologists, and most qualitative social scientists and humanities scholars, typically produce book-length research projects rather than series of articles, so the "second project" refers to the next major, book-length research project following the dissertation and  first book. During the week of March 21, I attended the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) international annual conference on developments in virtual reality. Though I had been reading up on virtual reality for the past few months, this was my first dip of the toe into an ethnographic field I hoped to explore in depth. I knew exactly zero people at this 500-person conference. The language on the conference posters in the hallway was mystifying. The thought of (more...)

Does e-Waste Die? Peter Little on Lifecycles and Makerspaces in an “Electronics Graveyard”

Peter Little is an anthropologist and assistant professor at Rhode Island College, and author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks (NYU Press 2014). I asked him a few questions about his new project on electronic waste recycling in Ghana. His answers touch on the politics of electronics waste and pollution, surprising links between first and second projects, and the challenge of doing fieldwork in a place that everyone’s talking about. Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity. Emily Brooks: What was the genesis of your second project? How did you move from Endicott [the field site for Toxic Town] to Ghana? Peter Little: The original project was on a high tech production site, a birthplace of electronics. That led me in to thinking more about the lifecycle of electronics, from production to discard. When we think of electronic waste, China pops up, of course, but more and (more...)

Another Architecture is Possible: Politics, Value, and Architecture in Argentina

Entering the architecture school at the University of Buenos Aires, students pass under a large banner bearing names and photographs of students and faculty disappeared by the military dictatorship of 1976-1983. Together with texts like Arquitectos Que No Fueron (Novillo 2008)—literally “architects that weren’t”—the banner provokes reflection about an unrealized future for architecture that was imagined and then pressed to within an inch of its life over forty years ago. It asks students to consider their inheritance of that moment: to rethink the present through a past substantially shaped by violence, and to hold open the possibility that another architecture is possible. The technical aspects of architectural design—the mainstay of architects’ day-to-day training—were taught in an environment suffused with political inheritance. I arrived at the architecture school to conduct fieldwork for an ethnographic study of a construction boom that followed Argentina’s 2001 economic and political crisis. My current book project, Concrete (more...)

Populist Outsiders in the U.S Presidential Election

Editor's note: This post was written prior to the New York state primary on Tuesday, April 19, in which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both won majorities. Against all pundits’ bets, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders each stand a chance of winning their parties’ nominations. Writing in disbelief, media analysts and scholars have attempted to explain the allure of both candidates to the disenchanted masses. Some write about the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, and the increasing disconnect between party elites and their constituents to explain the rise of political outsiders; others write about racial backlash against President Obama. And still others write about how years of merciless and cynical political manipulation within the parties has polarized political discourse in the U.S. “Populism!” analysts decry, Peron-style banana republic populism, has taken over U.S. electoral politics. But where should we draw the line between populism and campaigning for (more...)

Negotiating Expertise: The Case of Operations Research

Among the most important and common questions that historians of science and STS scholars address is how technical cultures interact with various "lay" communities, such as policymakers, executive decision makers, juries, and public stakeholders. Within STS broadly, scholars have usually thought about these relations within an analytical framework of boundary negotiations. In this framework, technical experts do political work to stake out an epistemic terrain in which their claims will carry an unchallengeable authority. The idea of “science” is important in this framework, because it supposedly signifies (to historical and contemporary actors) knowledge that is uniquely authoritative and stands outside the influence of society and culture. My research on the history of “operational” or “operations research” (OR) has led me to question how well this model describes actual cultures of expertise. One of the prototypical sciences of decision making, OR originated in World War II in scientists’ scrutiny of military (more...)

Interview: Corinna Kruse on the Social Life of Forensic Evidence

In The Social Life of Forensic Evidence (UC Press, 2015), Corinna Kruse traces how Swedish forensic scientists remove objects and traces from a crime scene, transforming them into evidence in labs and through interactions with court officials. This is a story of how evidence is made in anticipation of court procedures, and how in the process, different actors deal with the vulnerabilities inherent to this making. Interview by Ilana Gershon. Ilana Gershon: How did you get the idea to study forensic evidence and how it circulates from crime scene to court? Corinna Kruse: It was from a curiosity that grew over several years, first sparked off by a rather off-hand remark from one of my interlocutors in a previous project. Then, I was studying genetic research practices and was intrigued by how painstakingly and carefully the laboratory staff managed uncertainty—uncertainty being inevitable when dealing with biological material. She said if (more...)

The Poetics of Soil Health

Optical mineralogy is a gaze turned deeply earthward into seeming dark, still, and silent depths. Indeed, when I first peered into a petrographic microscope in the Soil Science Laboratory of Colombia’s National Geographic Institute Agustín Codazzi (IGAC), I was slightly disappointed to find myself staring at what appeared to be an unassuming slice of magnified dirt.[1] As soon as the polarizer filter was slipped into place, however, uniform darkness exploded into a kaleidoscope of fuchsias, yellows, violets, and blues. Odd shapes took form, mutated, and then disappeared as though enveloped back into a slowly churning color wheel. Hues shifted in intensity from shades of light to dark, more radiant and increasingly dull as the light diffracted mineral particles and the voids between them at different angles. The IGAC mineralogist who invited me to his workbench that morning registered my surprise, and reminded me that this was only the color spectrum (more...)

Unpredictable Technologies: The need for thick description in regulatory decision-making

I call myself a scholar of information, communication, and technology with a view toward influencing law and policy. To that end, my motto over that last few years has been "Social Science matters!" And by that, I really mean that qualitative research, or research aimed at understanding how people and organizations actually use technology, is important for creating good law. To this end, ethnographic study, the kind that produces thick descriptions of people and culture, should be MO of any body tasked with writing regulations. Recently I was asked to participate in training a group of telecommunications regulators who want to conduct a regulatory impact assessment (RIA). A RIA is a thorough investigation of the possible impacts of a proposed or revised regulation. In the most basic sense, the investigation is used to forecast whether the new rule will achieve what it’s supposed to, and what else could happen. Countries around (more...)

Pragmatism and the Magic Book for Nuclear Power

Today's post by Vincent Ialenti, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Cornell, is in partnership with the experimental publication Allegra Lab, and links reflections on the theme of #pragmatism to anthropological research on nuclear energy and environmentalism. Pragmatism, according to Merriam-Webster, refers to both "a practical approach to problems and affairs," and an American philosophical tradition, founded by C. S. Peirce and William James, that evaluates conceptions and thought through their practical consequences in guiding action. — Editor's note.   This is a picture of a brightly colored South Korean pro-nuclear children’s book adorned with friendly animals dancing around a light bulb in front of a nuclear power plant. The title translates to The Magic Book for Nuclear Power with WINK (Women In Nuclear-Korea). I first encountered this artifact in London at a 2013 World Nuclear Association symposium. There, it was a tool nuclear energy industry insiders used to counter what (more...)

Sinkholes without Borders: Geology, Hydrology, and Conflict Around the Dead Sea

In a heavily air-conditioned room in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, Israeli, I spent two days drinking instant coffee and taking notes at a “transboundary” water conference on the Jordan River Watershed. Israeli, American, and Western European scholars and development consultants had come together to seek solutions for a variety of environmental crises plaguing the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, sinkholes chief among them. A single Jordanian policymaker attended, opening the event with an introductory speech, but heading immediately for the door when he finished his presentation. In the hours that followed, workshop participants argued about the trustworthiness of Palestinian water consumers (none of whom were present), the merits of international river commissions, and game theory-based water conservation strategies. One common perspective prevailed: as an American hydrologist put it, “we water people think at the level of the watershed, not the nation.” But what happens when contested national borders (more...)