Rethinking Scale in Social Media: An Ethnographic Perspective

July 23rd, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

Scale has been a recent buzzword in discussions of social and digital media, as our editor Patricia G. Lange traced out in her January retrospective post. From MOOCs to Big Data, emerging communication technologies are making possible (and visible) large-scale interactions that have been attracting attention from many quarters, including anthropology. I want to revisit this conversation by discussing further what scale means in the context of networked media, especially social and mobile technologies.

Is scale the new global?

On the cusp of the new millennium in the late 1990s, there was a lot of buzz over the global reach of the Internet, linked to broader interest in how new communication technologies were entwined with globalizing processes. The World Wide Web itself was envisioned as spanning the globe, while globalism infected the popular imagination. Nearly twenty years on, the Internet has yet to bring about global equality or democracy, though it is playing a central role in many protest movements and political upheavals.

Part of the challenge for anthropologists and others studying networked and digital communications lies in grappling with the changes new technologies make possible, even as we recognize that technology never solely determines events in one direction. Social media, in the sense of networked communication platforms that articulate social ties and depend on user-created content, have certainly fostered new forms of mass protest and organization (as Victoria Barassi recently chronicled). But at the same time, technologies often become popular because they operate according to—and reproduce—existing cultural norms.

In my work, I look specifically at how social and mobile technologies are transforming everyday experiences of space and place. Though scale can refer to the size or scope of digital communications, it can also mean the geographic or spatial level of social relations, connections, and interactions. The global stands out as one such scale, as does the local or the national. Many cultural geographers have argued, however, that geographic scales are socially produced means of organizing social space, such as national borders, international trade agreements, or urban infrastructure (see for example Brenner 1998, 2001; Marston 2000; Massey 1993; and many others). The way scales are organized, moreover, reflects the circulation of capital and its unequal distribution of power.

Digital media, such as the Internet, are sometimes described as allowing place-less interactions and connections, with the Internet creating its own spaces (e.g. chat rooms or virtual worlds). Rethinking geographic scales as culturally constructed calls attention to how both the “local” and the “global” entail different kinds of place-making practices (but which often happen in the same physical places, as Doreen Massey has pointed out). As the debate shifts away from questions of local versus global (or the ungainly neologism “glocal”), perhaps the concept of scale, and scalemaking, is more helpful in understanding space and place online.

Ethnography of scale making

Binaries such as local/global can of course be useful, but can also distract from other distinctions, such as other kinds of place and place-making. In my work in Berlin, for example, I found that small groups of friends used social media to connect and interact with friends and contacts at multiple geographic levels. This included local friendships that took place in central districts of Berlin, regional ties to friends and family, especially to rural regions in eastern Germany, national reading publics consuming the same news media online, and transnational or translocal communities of music fans. Translocal connections in this sense took place across multiple locales, comprising a music scene that existed simultaneously in different places without necessarily being transnational.

Thinking about scale draws attention to how these levels themselves—local, regional, national, transnational—are constructed and reordered through everyday practice. Users, for example, moved through multiple publics and audiences online, often by employing language practices such as code switching. Among the circles of friends I studied, users often posted in English to address an audience envisioned as global or cosmopolitan. Using English also located events in Berlin in transnational cultural circuits, while German was often reserved for discussing topics German-speakers viewed as relevant to other co-nationalists, such as national German news stories. Switching between English and standard German made it possible to move between co-nationalists and transnational audiences in the same online spaces. Social media like Facebook further facilitated bringing together relationships at multiple scales, including local friendships, regional German ties, and transnational networks, generating new scales in the process. The globalness of online communications may therefore owe not to global or transnational connections but to a multiplicity of place-making activities.

Along with geographic binaries like local/global, social and mobile media are further complicating distinctions between online and offline. Numerous anthropologists have challenged the utility of this division, arguing that Internet media are already socially embedded, that is, the product of existing social relations, and can constitute real social spaces (e.g. Miller and Slater 2000:6). Tom Boellstorff (2008) has contended that virtual worlds like Second Life are no more or less culturally constructed than offline “real” worlds. From this perspective, “face-to-face” or “real life” communication is as mediated as computer-mediated interactions (through, for example, language, gesture, sartorial style, and other forms of embodied habitus).

Whose social media?

Social and mobile media, however, are more ubiquitous and integrated into daily practice than many earlier Internet platforms. Though many experience the Internet as a separate space of communication, those I studied described digital communications as “continuous” rather than discrete, such as chatting over instant messenger on and off throughout the day. Scholars of social media are finding it more helpful to analyze diverse communication practices on Facebook, Twitter, or mobile phones, for example, in terms of “connection strategies” users employ in different contexts (Ellison et al. 2011; Subrahmanyam 2008). Users I studied, for example, simultaneously interacted with close friends on Facebook while connecting to friends-of-friends with shared music interests or to new acquaintances met at events in Berlin. Most users also reserved some technologies for a smaller circle of friends and family, especially instant and text messaging, Skype, and email (as well as voice calls). The question then becomes not whether people are interacting online or offline, but how they are using different platforms and with whom. How do social and mobile media shape ways of making sense of space and place as interactions and relationships take place across multiple technologies?

This approach echoes work being done on the materiality of digital media, in which scholars like Katherine Hayles (2004) advocate a “media-specific analysis” to recognize the materiality of digital and analog encodings alike. Hayles argues that both digital and print texts, for example, exist in materially specific instantiations, but that their materiality differs in ways that affect how they are produced and experienced. In my forthcoming article (Kraemer n.d.) on Facebook friendship in Germany, I take up these questions to investigate how implicitly American interactional norms structure social relations among friend networks at multiple scales in Berlin and Europe. Although German and other European users successfully negotiated gaps between their and Facebook’s construction of friendship, further work needs to address how the “social” of social media represents a culturally (and geographically) specific understanding of social life.


Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Brenner, N. 1998. Between fixity and motion: accumulation, territorial organization and the historical geography of spatial scales. Environment and Planning D, 16: 459–481.

Brenner, N. 2001. The limits to scale? Methodological reflections on scalar structuration. Progress in Human Geography, 25(4): 591–614.

Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C. and Lampe, C. 2011. Connection strategies: Social capital implications of Facebook-enabled communication practices. New Media and Society, 13(6): 873–892.

Hayles, N. K. 2004. Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The importance of media-specific analysis. Poetics Today, 25(1), 67–90.

Kraemer, J. (n.d.). Friend or Freund: Social media and transnational connections in Berlin, Special Issue on Transnational HCI. Human-Computer Interaction.

Marston, S. A. 2000. The social construction of scale. Progress in Human Geography, 24(2): 219–242.

Massey, D. 1993. “Power geometry and a progressive sense of place.”. In Mapping the futures: Local cultures, global change Edited by: Bird, J., Curtis, B., Putnam, T., Robertson, G. and Tickner, L. 59–69. Routledge.

Miller, D., & Slater, D. 2000. The Internet: an ethnographic approach. Oxford, New York: Berg Publishers.

Subrahmanyam, K., Reich, S. M., Waechter, N. and Espinoza, G. 2008. Online and offline social networks: Use of social networking sites by emerging adults. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(6): 420–433.



Looking Ahead to 2013: A Question of Scale

January 10th, 2013, by § 2 Comments

The CASTAC community joined together in 2012 to launch this blog and begin dialogue on contemporary issues and research approaches. Even though the blog is just getting off the ground, certain powerful themes are already emerging across different projects and areas of study. Key themes for the coming year include dealing with large data sets, connecting individual choices to larger economic forces, and translating the meaning of actions from different realms of experience.

Perhaps the most visible trend on our minds right now involves dealing with scale. How can anthropologists, ethnographers, and other STS scholars address large data sets and approaches in research and pedagogy, while also retaining an appropriate relationship to the theories and methods that have made our disciplines strong? As we look ahead to 2013, it would seem that a big question for the CASTAC community involves finding creative and ethical ways to deal with phenomena that range from the overwhelmingly large to the microscopic, in order to provide insight and serve our constituents in research and teaching.

Discussing large-scale forays into education and research

In the past two weeks in her posts on MOOCs in the Machine, Jordan Kraemer, our dedicated Web Producer, has been reflecting on how higher education is grappling with MOOCs, or “massive open online classes,” which open up opportunities to those who have been shut out of traditional elite institutions. At the same time, serious questions emerged about the ramifications of trade-offs between saving money and providing high-quality education. Kraemer points out that much of the debate ties into larger arguments about why it is that people have been shut out of education and how concentration of wealth and the neoliberalization of the university are challenging the old equation of supporting open-ended research that ultimately strengthens and supports teaching. She proposes new forms of graduate education in which recent graduates are supported by their universities with teaching jobs, to complete teaching experience, transfer teaching loads from full-time faculty, and support graduate students as they transition into full-time positions.

Part of the issue with MOOCs has to do with questions of scale, and how or whether individual lectures and course preparation can be generalized to large-scale audiences in ways that provide solid instruction without compromising quality. Higher-education depends upon staying current with research, and so far, we do not have enough evidence to support the idea that MOOCs will work or will address all of the concerns emerging from the neoliberalization of the academy. Those of us interested in online interaction and pedagogy will be watching this space closely in the coming year.

Questions of scale also came into play with Daniel Miller’s discussion of doing Eight Comparative Ethnographies. Miller argues that doing several ethnographies at the same time will enable comparative questions that are not possible when investigating one site alone. He provides an example from social network sites. He asks, to what extent are particular behaviors the product of a type of site, a single site, or the intersection of cultures in which a site is embedded? Is the behavior so because it is happening on Facebook or because the participants are Brazilian? A comparative study enables a level of analysis that is more inclusive than that derived from a single study. Expanding scale without compromising the traditions and benefits of ethnographic work remains a challenge for these and other large-scale projects in the future, which have the potential to provide crucial insights.

Making small-scale choices visible

As one set of researchers bring up issues with regard to enormously large-scale education and research, other STS participants on The CASTAC Blog are dealing with the opposite issue, which involves grappling with how the dynamics of extremely personal and individualistic acts—such as the donation of sex cells—interact with large-scale economic and cultural forces. In her post on The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm, Rene Almeling, the winner of the 2012 Forsythe Prize, provides an inside look into how human beings’ donations of sex cells are connected to much larger economic forces that play out differently for women and men. Women are urged to regard egg donation as a feminine act of a gift; men are encouraged to see donation as a job. Almeling ties our understanding of what might be an individual act into economic forces, as well as gendered, cultural expectations about families and reproduction. Gendered framings of donation not only impact the individuals who provide genetic material, but also strongly influence the structure of the market for sex cells.

Promoting responsibility

Another key issue on our minds has to do with dealing with personal responsibility and showing how individual choices impact much larger social and economic forces in finance, computing, and going green.

In his post, On Building Social Robustness, David Hakken raises the question of how individuals contributed to large-scale economic and social crises, such as the recent disasters in the world of finance. His project is informed by work that is trying to deal with the first “5,000 years” in the history of debt. He proposes developing a notion of social robustness, parallel to the idea of the technical notion of robustness in computer science.

His work provides an intriguing use of ideas from people whom we study, and applying them as an inspiration for making social change. When Hakken asks about the extent to which computing professionals are ethically responsible for the financial crisis, he is proposing a way of asking how a large-scale disaster can be traced to more individual, micro-units of action. By investigating these connections, his project informs a conversation that is increasingly picking up steam in the area of the anthropology of value.

Hakken’s reflections are especially haunting as he warns of the difficulties of building a career in anthropology and STS. As he is moving towards retirement, his perspective is especially valued in our community. As an antidote to more provincial institutional perspectives, he urges a more consolidated and community approach that involves supporting each other in doing the important work that the CASTAC community has the potential to achieve.

Questions of scale and responsibility are once again intertwined in David J. Hess’s post on Opening Political Opportunities for a Green Transition. Hess points out that a non-partisan political issue has become partisan despite the fact that the planet has now surpassed a carbon dioxide level that it has not had for at least 800,000 years! But because change is imperceptibly slow to the human eye, politics is allowed to complicate change. Hess has worked to investigate what he calls the “problem behind the problem,” which involves the lack of political will to address environmental sustainability and social fairness, which considerably worsens the environmental problem itself. He provides real solutions through an ambitious three-part series of books that propose “alternative pathways” or social movements centered on reform in part through the efforts of the private sector.

Notably, personal experiences in anthropology inform Hess’s work. Although he is in a sociology department and in an energy and environment institute, he points out that an anthropological sensibility continues to inform his thinking. While the discourse on these issues has traditionally revolved around a two party system, Hess’s more anthropological approach makes visible other ideologies such as localism and developmentalism that may pave a more direct path to “good green jobs” and a more sensitive and responsible green policy. Again interacting with questions of scale, Hess’s notions of responsibility are grounded in understanding the “broad contours” of the “tectonic shifts” of ideology and policy that are underway in working toward a green transition in the United States and around the world. Without real action, however, his prognoses remains pessimistic.

Translating phenomena across different realms of experience

A theme that also emerged from our nascent blog’s initial posts had to do with understanding the ramifications of processing one realm of experiencing by using metaphors and concepts from another. In her post on the Anthropological Investigations of MIME-NET, Lucy Suchman explores the darker side of entertainment and its relationship to military applications. She investigates how information and communication technologies have “intensified rather than dissipated” what theorists have described as the “fog of war.”

The problem is partly one of translation. How is it possible to maintain what military strategists call “situational awareness,” which has to do with maintaining a constant and accurate mental image of relevant tactical information. Suchman is studying activities such as The Flatworld Project, which bring together practitioners from the Hollywood film industry, gaming, and other models of immersive computing to understand these dynamics. Such a project also involves analyzing how such approaches “extend human capacities for action at a distance,” and present ethical challenges to researchers as they grapple with military realms and connecting seemingly disparate but interrelated areas such as war and healthcare.

Lisa Messeri’s post, Anthropology and Outer Space, offers an absolutely fascinating look into human conceptualization of place. She asks, why should earthlings be concerned about what is happening on Mars? Her work focuses on how “scientists transform planets from objects into places.” Significant milestones in space exploration such as the passing of Venus between the Earth and the Sun (not scheduled to do so again until 2117) and the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, provide rich areas to mine for understanding cultural notions of place and human exploration. Curiosity has its own Twitter account (!) and tweets freely about its experience of “springtime” in its southern hemisphere. Messeri argues that this kind of language “bridges” our worlds in that Curiosity somehow seems to experience something that is familiar to humans—springtime. Scientists are now studying things that are so far away that telescopes cannot take an image of them. Somehow, these “invisible” objects become familiar and complex. Planets begin to seem like places because of the way in which language “makes the strange familiar,” and bridges the experience between events on an exoplanet and life on Earth.

Astronomers become place makers, and observing these processes shows how spaces become “social” even as Messeri argues, “humans will never visit such planetary places.” Messeri shows how such conceptualizations can lead to the spread of erroneous scientific rumors that get reported on national news organizations. Her work shows not only how knowledge production is compromised by the use of such metaphors but also provides an intriguing look at how humans process invisible objects through the cultural production of imagined place.

Tune in next week!

Given that questions of scale were on our minds in 2012, it is especially fitting that we launch 2013 with a discussion about Big Data, and the challenges and opportunities that emerge when entities collect and combine huge data sets that are far too large to handle through ordinary coding schemes or desktop databases. Social scientists, technologists, and other researchers must grapple with numerous issues including legibility, data integrity, ethics, and usability. I am particularly pleased that David Hakken agreed to be interviewed by The CASTAC Blog to discuss his views. Next week, he provides fascinating insights into what the future holds for dealing with Big Data!

Before signing off, I would like to thank everyone for their participation in The CASTAC Blog, especially those who wrote posts, left comments, read articles, and tweeted our posts to the world. I very much appreciated everyone’s participation. The richness of the posts makes it too difficult to adequately cover all the content of the past year in one commentary, but rest assured that everyone’s post is contributing to the conversation and is valued by the CASTAC community.

In an effort to include more voices and keep a continuing flow of content, The CASTAC Blog is now seeking a core group of “frequent” contributors to keep pace with new developments in this space in 2013. Notice that I use the term “frequent” sparingly—even a few posts throughout the year makes you a frequent contributor. Please consider sharing your thoughts and views with the CASTAC community. If you would like to join in, please email me at:

I look forward to an interesting and productive year ahead!

Patricia G. Lange

What Does it Mean to do Anthropology in the Anthropocene?

April 8th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

I’m Beth. I study people who study earthquakes and people who work to minimize the damage that earthquakes cause.

That’s my short introduction; the line I use with nearly everyone to describe my research. I do fieldwork in the offices, conference rooms, labs, and workshops of earthquake-prone Mexico, where cutting-edge research and technical problem solving is happening (not to mention pitched battles over what “cutting edge research and problem solving” could mean in the first place). « Read the rest of this entry »

Reflections on a Decade of GDC Fieldnotes

March 25th, 2014, by § 2 Comments

Ah, the Game Developers Conference (GDC)… I started my field research in 2004 at a relatively small but growing game studio: Vicarious Visions. Since that time I’ve been researching game development and game developers. That’s a long time to study such an amorphous, variable and shifting thing/community/world/culture. I’ve ranged from AAA developers to hobbyists to serious game development teams. I haven’t made it to every GDC in that time; travel has always been highly subject to the aleatory. But I have been watching, listening and taking notes from afar even when I haven’t been there myself. What follows is a meta-note, on my collection of meta-notes, which will make this pretty meta-meta.

GDC Badges

GDC Badges

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Dominic Boyer on the Anthropology of Infrastructure (Part II)

March 7th, 2014, by § 1 Comment

This is the second half of my conversation with Dominic Boyer about the emergence of “infrastructure” as both ethnographic focus and analytic within anthropology. You can read the first part of the interview here!

Ian Lowrie: I’d like to circle back to the question of how infrastructure is related to politics and liberalism. There’s a recent article by Kim Fortun calling for a revitalized, engaged anthropology of not just infrastructure, but infrastructural expertise, in the context of precisely the degradation of the most visible aspects of our infrastructure. At the same time, I think we also see strong, robust development of other types of infrastructures. Things like technical arrangements, financial instruments, logistical services, the computational and digital. I wonder if part of what makes the urge to expand the concept of infrastructure to include things other than things like roads and sewers is a political urge.

Dominic Boyer: I think it is, and I think you’re right to point out that the story of infrastructure in the neoliberal heyday is not simply about abandonment. It’s a story of selective investment, and also of abandonment [laughs]. This is also the era in which informatic infrastructures, for example, develop. The Internet is one, but also the specialized information infrastructures that allowed finance to exert global realtime power that far exceeds the capacities of most governments to effectively regulate it. And that becomes a pivotal part of the story of the rebalancing of powers, I think, during the same time period.  So the neoliberal era saw some remarkable infrastructural achievements in certain areas, whereas at the same time you might find your roads and your sewers decaying, which is interestingly often-times the focus of infrastructure studies. Most seem focused on what I would describe as basic biopolitical infrastructures and their fragmentation. A lot of research is, more or less latently, interrogating the aftermath of neoliberalism, specifically through the lens of biopolitical infrastructural decay. But you could tell a different story if you looked at different infrastructures. And maybe that’s a story that still needs to be told. « Read the rest of this entry »

What’s the Matter with Artificial Intelligence?

February 18th, 2014, by § 3 Comments

In the media these days, Artificial Intelligence (henceforth AI) is making a comeback. Kevin Drum wrote a long piece for Mother Jones about what the rising power of intelligent programs might mean for the political economy of the United States: for jobs, capital-labor relations, and the welfare state. He worries that as computer programs become more intelligent day by day, they will be put to more and more uses by capital, thereby displacing white-collar labor. And while this may benefit both capital and labor in the long run, the transition could be long and difficult, especially for labor, and exacerbate the already-increasing inequality in the United States. (For more in the same vein, here’s Paul Krugman, Moshe Vardi, Noah Smith, and a non-bylined Economist piece.) « Read the rest of this entry »

A Message From the Co-chair: Greetings and Introduction

February 11th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

At the 112th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association last November, I was pleased to take the reins as co-chair of CASTAC alongside returning co-chair Jennifer Cool.  I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessor Rachel Prentice for all of her hard work in building our organization up to its current strength and numbers. In what follows, I’ll introduce myself and share some thoughts about CASTAC and its future. 

I come to CASTAC and, more broadly, to science and technology studies via the study of sustainable development in non-urban spaces. My current project explores the intersection between renewable energy projects and ordinary life in a northern German village on the path to zero-sum living. Germany’s current “energy turn,” its transition from nuclear power to alternative energy sources, is transforming rural communities into sites of lucrative speculation, where capital investment and environmental politics take form around the technoscientific promise of renewables.  In the two decades since the transition was coded into federal law, the village where I work has been terraformed by the installation of wind turbines, solar arrays and now biofuel processing technology.  Practices that were already commonplace in the village (such as the harnessing of wind for land reclamation, the use of sun for heat or the use of biomass for fertilization) have been mutated and scaled up into engines of ecocapital (as wind turbines, solar panels, and biogas processing plants) at the same time that villagers have been recast as energy citizens who take part in the transition by recycling, installing solar panels or investing in wind parks or biofuel ventures. « Read the rest of this entry »

Heather Paxson, Winner of the 2013 Forsythe Prize, on Post-Pasteurianism

August 27th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

Since my undergraduate days, I’ve both aspired to do feminist anthropology and been fascinated with people’s everyday engagement with mundane (and extraordinary) technologies. I can’t express how thrilled and honored I am to receive the 2013 Diana Forsythe Prize for The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America (University of California Press), my ethnography of American artisanal cheese, cheesemaking and cheesemakers. I do not present a summary of the book here (if interested, the Introduction is available on the UC Press website: Instead, I alight on some of the STS-related themes that run throughout my book (and especially Chapter 6): regulating food safety and promoting public health, artisanal collaboration with microbial agencies, and the mutual constitution of production and consumption.

Real Cheese or Real Hazard — or Both?
By U.S. law, cheese made from raw (unpasteurized) milk, whether imported or domestically produced, must be aged at least 60 days at a temperature no less than 1.7˚C before being sold. The 60-day rule intends to offer protection against pathogenic microbes that might thrive in the moist environment of a soft cheese. But while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) views raw-milk cheese as a potential biohazard, riddled with threatening bugs, fans see it as the reverse: a traditional food processed for safety by the metabolic action of good microbes—bacteria, yeast, and mold—on proteins and carbohydrates in milk. The very quality that gives food safety officials pause about raw-milk cheese — that it is teeming with an uncharacterized diversity of microbial life — makes handcrafting it a rewarding challenge for artisan producers, and consuming it particularly desirable for gastronomic and health-conscious eaters, drawn to its purportedly “pro-biotic” aspect.

I have introduced the notion of microbiopolitics as a theoretical frame for understanding debates over the gustatory value and health and safety of cheese and other perishable foods.[i] Calling attention to how dissent over how to live with microorganisms reflects disagreement about how humans ought to live with one other, microbiopolitics offers a way to frame questions of ethics and governance. The U.S. American revival of artisanal cheesemaking and rising enthusiasm for raw milk and raw-milk cheese exemplifies microbiopolitical negotiations between a hyper-hygienic regulatory order bent on taming nature through forceful eradication of microbial contaminants — a Pasteurian social order (as currently forwarded by the FDA) — and what I have called a post-Pasteurian alternative committed working in selective partnership with ambient microbes.

As Bruno Latour relates in The Pasteurization of France, in recognizing microbes as fully enmeshed in human social relations, early Pasteurians legitimated the hygienist’s right to be everywhere; once microbes can be revealed in the lab (Pasteurians continue to believe) they may be eradicated — only then will “pure” social relations be able to flourish. In contrast, post-Pasteurians move beyond an antiseptic attitude to embrace mold and bacteria as potential friends and allies. The post-Pasteurian ethos of today’s artisanal food cultures—recognizing microbes to be ubiquitous, necessary, and even (sometimes) tasty—is productive of modern craft knowledge and expanded notions of nutrition, and it produces a new vocabulary for thinking about conjunctures of cultural practice and agrarian environments, along the lines of what the French call terroir.

I want to be very clear: some bacteria and viruses make some people sick, something no food-maker wants to risk. Successful post-Pasteurian food-makers are never cavalier about pathogenic risk. Dairy farmers who trade in raw milk and cheesemakers who work with it are exceptionally careful about hygiene—they are not anti-Pasteurian. To the contrary, they work hard to distinguish between “good” and “bad” microorganisms and to harness the former as allies in vanquishing the latter. Post-Pasteurianism takes after Pasteurianism in taking hygiene seriously; it differs in being more discriminating.

Focused on the aggregate of national population, Pasteurian microbiopolitics has been criticized for taking a one-size-fits all approach to food safety, predicating regulation on industrial-scale production (relying on pasteurization or irradiation to kill pathogens presumed to be present owing to insanitary agricultural practices) and population-wide consumption (young raw-milk cheese is forbidden to all because it carries particular threat to immunocompromised and pregnant consumers). Post-Pasteurians counter that fresh milk is not inherently “dirty” and in need of pasteurization; contamination is a matter of human agricultural practice, it is not in the “nature” of milk. Moreover, many assert that the heterogeneity of the public in “public health” should not be reduced to its lowest common denominator; people are individuals. In other words, the post-Pasteurian position lobbies for socio-legal latitude that would permit potentially risky foods to be made and consumed safely by some, if not others.

I worry, though, that as enthusiasm for the beneficial agencies of microorganisms grows, underinformed enthusiasts may overestimate the power of “nature’s” microbial goodness.[ii] I fret even more when such a position is characterized—as I am beginning to see—in terms of “post-Pasteurianism.” Last year I discovered for sale on the Web t-shirts, bumper stickers, even maternity shirts and baby bibs emblazoned with a smiling microbe and the slogan, “I’m a Post Pasteurian.”

Paxson bumpersticker

Descriptive copy explains, “What is a ‘Post Pasteurian’? A really smart person who understands that pasteurization kills all (yes, ALL) the good in food.”[iii] This is not how I defined “post-Pasteurian” in my 2008 article or 2013 book. For the record, I refuse the claim. Pasteurization does not “kill” all the good in food. The position putatively espoused by the t-shirt would pit a beneficent “nature” supernaturally enlivened by microorganisms against a power-greedy “culture” championed by regulatory overreach. But the natural-cultural reality is that milk and fermented foods such as cheese, yogurt, miso, and beer are multispecies muddles that resist such simplistic parsing.

There’s nothing essential about a food’s goodness. Humility is required to navigate (not necessarily manage, let alone steward) post-Pasteurian microbial ecologies.

By “microbiopolitics,” then, I mean to describe and analyze regimes of social management, both governmental and grassroots, which admit to the vital agencies of microbes, for good and bad. Including beneficial microbes like starter bacterial cultures and cheese mold — in addition to the harmful E. coli, Lysteria monocytogenes, and Micobacterium tuberculosis — in accounts of food politics extends the scaling of agro-food studies into the body, into the gastrointestinal. “Microbes connect us through diseases,” writes Latour, “but they also connect us, through our intestinal flora, to the very things we eat.”[iv] At the beginning of the twenty-first century, as it comes to light that 90 percent of what we think of as the human organism turns out to comprise microorganisms, the truism, “We are what we eat,” has never seemed more literal. One aim of my work has been to show how artisan food-makers carefully sort out microbial friends from foes, work (not faith) that produces the conditions through which a post-Pasteurian dieticity might safely emerge—for some if not others.

[i] See Heather Paxson, “Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States,”  Cultural Anthropology 23(1): 15-47, 2008. And also Heather Paxson, The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

[ii] See also Gareth Enticott, “Risking the Rural: Nature, Morality and the Consumption of Unpasteurized Milk,” Journal of Rural Studies 19(4): 411-424, 2003.

[iii] Available at TShirt Crusade and the libertarian emporium, Liberty Buys. Accessed June 26, 2012.

[iv] Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, p. 37.



EPIC 2013 Preview

August 12th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

The Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference is being held 15-18 September in London. EPIC is an important international conference for sharing insight on current and future practices of ethnography in industry.

Next month’s conference promises to be very exciting and productive. The program boasts a wide variety of topics, including a number of papers that will quite likely be of interest to CASTAC and STS practitioners and scholars. Many of the themes in the program, such as big data, MOOCs, and energy have been hot topics for The CASTAC Blog in recent months.

Several papers at EPIC will be discussing “Big Data,” which is a topic that is heating up and is germane for anthropological theory and practice. Big Data, which has been discussed in a prior post by David Hakken, has been designated as a new asset class akin to oil and has consequently sparked a kind of “gold rush.” Papers on this subject are tackling this seemingly unchecked, and at times unreflective, stampede over exactly what kind of “data” is being collected. Researchers will explore whether whatever-it-is that is being collected can be called “data,” given the term’s disparate connotations. (Does anyone want to have a go at what to call these large-scale information streams?)

The discussion will quite likely be quite interesting because it promises to dive into the epistemological, methodological, and practical boundaries over what this term constitutes. It will discuss what role ethnography will play, not just in terms of data collection, but investigating what data really means in everyday contexts. Abby Margolis’s paper, in particular, reminds us that the “fundamental role of innovation” starts with “the person,” which of course is a particular strength of ethnography. Her paper plans to address common misconceptions about personal data, and will offer principles to “bring a human-centered, small data perspective to life.”

The struggle over energy, which was recently discussed in a fascinating post by Phillip Vannini, surfaces again in several ways at the EPIC conference. Researchers presenting on Private Energy Users and Smart Grid Design will explore the new relationship between energy providers and users. Despite the intention to create a more bidirectional relationship between companies and customers, familiar unidirectional patterns are continually repeated. Researchers will be proposing a model that reframes the relationship between energy companies and private end users. These themes suggest that people can derive a sense of personal power through shaping the design and delivery of their energy. According to researchers, providing energy is not about a delivering a resource, but rather aims to solve particular problems, including meeting human needs for “comfort, light, food, cleaning, and entertainment.” Using an anthropological lens, it is contended, will provide a deeper understanding of the interrelationship between supply and use of energy products and services.

EPIC participants will be discussing research on student perceptions of MOOCs, a theme which echoes concerns of many CASTAC readers and academics. A CASTAC series exploring MOOCs from a student’s perspective found that they may not be serving the college-age constituents that were originally (and fearfully) envisioned by MOOC promoters and concerned scholars. It will be interesting to hear the results of an ethnography of MOOCs that seriously challenges their effectiveness and pedagogical sustainability.

In addition to traditional panels, thought-provoking PechaKucha style provocations, salons, and town halls, the conference is also holding a TechnoTheory DeathMatch! The organizers tell us to “think Bruno Latour meets Fight Club.” Revamping dynamics of theory and practice, this novel approach will be a round-robin type of tournament in which participants represent leading theorists and duke it out to arrive at winning insights.

In addition to the examples noted above, EPIC will be discussing many other interesting topics, including complexity, mobile technologies, clinical trials, healthcare, and emerging markets in information and communication technologies in rural China and India. More details about the conference program can be found on the EPIC Conference Program website.

A 3-D Future: A Response to Chris Anderson’s “Makers”

May 7th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

3-d printers have garnered much public attention lately. You may have heard about how you can print out a plastic gun, or saw the Gigabot large-format 3-d printer on Kickstarter. Or perhaps you heard Obama mention them in his 2013 state of the union address as having “the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” But where did they come from? On a macro level, why do they matter?

One answer comes from Makers: the New Industrial Revolution, where outgoing WIRED editor Chris Anderson sees 3-d printers as driving a wave of small-scale manufacturing. Recent advances have dropped the price of additive printing systems, which delicately squeeze out plastic that hardens to make nearly any shape, to the $500-1000 range. Anderson takes Negroponte’s famous statement of working with “bits not atoms” and turns it on its head: bits can now lead to change in atoms. He sees this as the natural application of his “long tail” thesis to small businesses… call it the “materialities turn” of Internet purchasing, where everybody can print out artisanal-style widgets. No longer do we need to be content with buying something and having it shipped, we can simply print it on a 3-d printer of our own or in a local workshop.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that enthusiasm for cheap 3-d printers gained momentum through the hacker and maker space (HMS) movement. Initially, 3-d printers were too expensive and difficult to fine-tune for your average user. Being part of an HMS provided access to a knowledge base and funding for tools. These devices also tickle hackers’ longstanding fascination with using technology to push boundaries of what is possible. HMS members immediately saw the benefit to one, because being able to print anything was a natural extension of their particular fusion of hacker and maker culture… think an “information should be free” hacker ethic meets hands-on craft.

My hesitance around Anderson’s enthusiasm is that his framing of 3-d printers is pure economic boosterism. There’s nothing inherent about 3-d printers that engenders it to a larger revolution. First, makerbots do not make something out of nothing any more than cars allow people to be magically transported from place to place. The plastic has to be purchased/shipped, the device assembled, and software understood. These require a pretty substantial investment in terms of money (from Maker industries the plastic costs $48 per kg plus shipping) and literacies. Second, the type of objects that are printable are rather limited. Additive printing, which uses plastic, is currently more popular than subtractive printing, which whittles down a block of wood or plastic to create a finished product. Third, 3-d printing can be quite finicky and difficult. Printing and assembling the plastic derringer that has garnered so much of the news cycle lately is a rather difficult process to produce a one-shot gun that (if you’re lucky) can be safely fired once or twice before cracking. 3-d printers may be useful ways to create parts or prototypes, but they will never be the best way to make many objects.

Hopes of 3-d printers re-invigorating the American economy also have a whiff of jingoism, or at minimum, an overbearingly anglo western male perspective. I had the same issue with Shop Class as Soul Craft, Matthew Crawford’s ode to working with one’s hands. In the book’s final chapter he wondered aloud while observing Indian workers if his profoundly male, western ideals of craft could exist overseas. What seemed to elude him is that western culture doesn’t have a monopoly on DIY. People in other countries are picking up on the same possibilities as American hobbyists do, but in profoundly different ways. If “maker culture” is anything, it is infinitely mutable. My friend Silvia Lindtner has been busy exploring shanzhai in China, where the government backs HMSs as locations for distributed R&D.

What seems more likely than a total economic revolution is what has always happened: the simultaneous advancement of hobbyist uses alongside more sophisticated for-profit applications of 3-d printing. Semi-amateur uses of these printers initially drew from practices developed for free and open-source software (F/OSS) software, where plans were made freely available. The shift towards closed-source has proven rather controversial, as evidenced in the flap surrounding the MakerBot Replicator 2 not going fully open-source. The goals of the open-source wing of this community are also somewhat odd. For example, a goal of the RepRap is “self-replication” – the 3-d printer could print another 3-d printer, continuing the existence (evolution?) of its species. While it’s an interesting provocation, self-replication is quite a ways off.

We can expect a progressive integration of 3-d printing with specific industries where they serve a purpose that isn’t currently being met with existing technologies. Expensive medical implants and prosthetics can be custom-printed for cheaper and with a more rapid turnaround. Toy manufacturing is based in plastics and always growing towards the more obscure, customized, and personal among hardcore adult RPG fans. But just because you can print a toilet and toilets are needed in third-world countries, doesn’t mean that we should start sending 3-d printers there. Looming socio-economic problems in areas with complex political histories can’t always be solved by applying the latest expensive tool.

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