SOS! Save Our Sea! California’s Salton Sea demands action, but what kind?

May 26th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

dead fish on the shoreline

Image: Layers of dead fish and desiccated barnacles at the shores of the Salton Sea, a man-made salt lake maintained by agricultural runoff. Photo by author.

This March, California’s State Water Resources Control Board called for a public workshop to re-evaluate the state of the Salton Sea, a complex and notoriously disastrous salt lake in the southeastern California desert. Nearly 200 people responded to the call, crowding in to a hearing room in downtown Sacramento to give testimony on mitigation and restoration projects, consider drought impacts, argue for the Sea’s environmental and economic value, and discuss the enormous water transfer agreements that threaten to damage it even more. Attempts to define the problem and its stakes have gone on for decades, but it is still far from clear whose fault is it that the Sea is still shrinking, still dying, or still dangerous, or, for that matter, if anyone can (or should) keep trying to fix it. As a semi-permanent disaster landscape, the Salton Sea is best defined not by the fall-out from a singular event nor by the slow accumulation of risk, but by a decades-long dynamic tension between mitigation of danger and restoration of health. “SOS! Save Our Sea!”, a popular slogan of local activists, is both a call to account for an irreversibly toxic present, and a reminder that the Sea was and still is a vibrant place worth saving. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Hastings Mill as Ecological Machine: Vancouver’s Origin Story

May 19th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

In Vancouver’s settler origin story, the city begins with a saw mill located in “primeval nature.” Living in the city as a student, I became interested in theories of the relation between economy and ecology, first studying forestry and working in the logging industry, then moving to graduate work in literature and science studies. The origin story of Vancouver stands out as a case study. The city combines an aesthetic regime (in architecture, tourism branding, and so on) focused on proximity to nature with an origin story that goes back to a single sawmill.


Image: Panorama of the Hastings Mill. Source: City of Vancouver Archive (Public Domain).

For centuries, mills have been technologies at the threshold of ecologic and economic systems, transforming resources into commodities with exchange value. But much research into mills and other sites of industrial processing considers them only as production machines—not as mediators, in Bruno Latour’s sense, that affect how we conceive the nature/economy difference in the first place. In Capital I, Marx writes that “technology reveals the active relation of man to nature.”[1] Is he right? Do what we call humanity and what we call nature exist prior to technologies such as mills, which we define based on their ability to transform nonhuman things into human things? Is communication about nature and society—currently in flux in debates over the Anthropocene and climate change—determined by such technological infrastructure, or does communication move machines into place? These are some of the questions that my case study grounds in Vancouver’s colonial origin story. « Read the rest of this entry »

Who speaks for soil?

April 7th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

Finally! 2015 is the year of soils! Ready the celebration. Polish your spade, pick, and shovel, and carefully wrap those gifts of organic fertilizer you’ve been hiding away. It’s going to be a hell of a party.

Humor aside, soil is obviously important in a number of very complex ways. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) is spearheading the “2015 International Year of Soils” initiative to raise awareness of soil issues for food systems and broader environmental concerns. The director of the FAO, José Graziano da Silva, had the following to say of the importance of soil: “The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them. They are our silent ally in food production” (as quoted on FAO’s website).

Yet as I’ve found researching soil conservation in Haiti in 2012 and examining the history of soil conservation more broadly, it seems that many people have spoken out for soils. In fact, through the panic related to the 1930s dustbowl crisis in the United States, soil erosion arguably became the first global environmental problem (Anderson 1984). This rapid spread of environmental concern highlights the way that soil has, in the past, captured the imagination and emotion of governments around the world. But the spread of soil conservation was not the seemingly de-politicized “awareness” campaign that we’re presented with by the FAO. Rather, in the 1930s, soil conservation was rooted in a desire to control and manipulate rural farmers. So while I’d agree with Mr. da Silva that soils do not have an “audible” voice, I’d argue that we need to pay far more attention to who speaks for soils and why. « Read the rest of this entry »

2014 in Review: Re-locating the Human

January 20th, 2015, by § Leave a Comment

In retrospect, 2014 may appear a pivotal year for technological change. It was the year that “wearable” technologies began shifting from geek gadget to mass-market consumer good (including the announcement of the Apple Watch and the rising popularity of fitness trackers), that smartphone and tablet usage outstripped that of desktop PCs for accessing the Internet, along with concurrent interest in home automation and increasingly viable models for pervasive computing (such as Google’s purchase of smart thermostat Nest), and that computer algorithms, machine learning, and recommendation engines came increasingly to the fore of public awareness and debate (from Apple buying streaming service Beats to the effects of Facebook’s algorithms). Many of these shifts have been playing out world-wide, or at least, in diverse contexts, such as Chinese online retailer Alibaba going public and Xiaomi smartphone maker speedily surpassing most rivals. It also proved to be an exciting year on The CASTAC Blog, where our team of Associate Editors and contributors brought our attention to this rapidly shifting technological landscape, and to pressing questions and debates driving anthropological inquiry into science and technology.

In today’s post, I continue my predecessor Patricia Lange’s tradition of reviewing themes and highlights on the blog from the past year. Some of these are topical, and included energy, the environment, and infrastructure, crowdsourcing and the “sharing” economy, wearables, algorithms and the “Internet of Things,” science communication, science’s publics, and citizen science, while others were more conceptual or even experimental—reflections on longterm ethnographic engagement with technology, broader issues of scientific (and ethnographic) authority, technological infrastructures as social infrastructures and tacit knowledges (such as Jenny Cool’s co-chair report), and broadly, how to make anthropological research into science and technology relevant within and beyond academic circles.

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Doing Critique in K-12: Kim Fortun on Ethnography, Environment, and the EcoEd Research Group

November 17th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

By Beth Reddy and Kim Fortun

Since 2012, the EcoEd Research Group ( has run over thirty workshops in New York. The group brings faculty and college students (mostly from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) together with K-12 students in collaborative environmental education. EcoEd workshops have focused on green building, environmental photography, and county-level sustainability assessments, among other topics – engaging both the environment and education in new ways.

Dr. Kim Fortun is an anthropologist and professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at RPI, and has been a key participant in the development of EcoEd. I sent her a few simple questions about what EcoEd is up to and how she’s thinking about this kind of work. Her responses, below, touch on issues that won’t be unfamiliar to many CASTAC readers: experiments in ethnography and in the classroom that engage with what Fortun calls “late industrialism” in creative and critical ways.

Fortun: We think through what we have learned about environmental problems – how they play out, the conceptual and cultural challenges they pose – and then try to observe, read about and think through how environmental problems are out of synch with the education and thinking of U.S. kids – so that we can design and deliver K-12 curriculum that speaks to both. It is one way to make ethnographic knowledge “relevant;” it is one of many possible forms of activism.
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Notes from the Field: Water from the Ground, Water from Space

November 3rd, 2014, by § 1 Comment

“Are you here?” asks a “satellite view” map in downtown Borrego Springs

“Are you here?” asks a “satellite view” map in downtown Borrego Springs. Photo by author.

As of late October, nearly 60% of California faces conditions of “exceptional drought,” a category that the National Drought Mitigation Center refers to as indicating “exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses,” with “shortages of water in reservoirs, steams and wells creating water emergencies”. Mandatory conservation measures are in effect across the state, and Governor Brown recently signed a Sustainable Groundwater Management Act that will tighten regulation of California’s notoriously under-managed groundwater supply.

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“But Where are the People?”: Field Notes from an Interdisciplinary Environmental Research Team

May 13th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment


Elephants in the room? Sculptures on Galleta Meadows Estate, in Borrego Springs. Photo taken by the author.

Almost one year ago, I found myself deposited in the middle of one small battleground in the desert Southwest’s increasingly technical (and increasingly ominous) water wars: the small town of Borrego Springs, California. The problem here is deceptively simple. Borrego suffers from an impending water crisis, with some studies suggesting that the town will run out of viable groundwater within a generation. Despite spending 30 years and over $5 million on scientific and policy solutions, Borrego residents continue to face rapidly increasing water use, escalating environmental effects, and continued controversy over how to understand and respond to the disaster as it unfolds. As one community member explains, “The problem isn’t that someday we’ll turn on the tap, and the water won’t work. The problem is that, long before that, our town will cease to exist. Our way of life will be gone.”

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Rhetorical Studies of Science and Technology

April 29th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The following discussion was co-authored with Elizabeth Pitts, a PhD student in Communication, Rhetoric and Digital Media program and NSF IGERT Fellow in Genetic Engineering & Society at North Carolina State University.

An ethos of expertise—that is, an ethos grounded not in moral values or goodwill, or even in practical judgment, but rather in a narrow technical knowledge—addresses its audience only in terms of what it knows or does not know. The diminution of arete and eunoia in an ethos of expertise has a specifically rhetorical effect, because these qualities are relational in a way that expertise is not; similarly, the transformation of phronesis to episteme diminishes the practical, or relational, dimensions of knowledge. Without arete and eunoia, there is no basis for agreement on values or for belief in the good intentions of a rhetorical agent; the rhetorical relationship becomes impersonal. … The impersonality of an ethos of expertise runs the risk of being persuasive to no one.

– Carolyn R. Miller, pp. 201–202

To discuss the limitations of persuasive appeals that rely solely on technical expertise, Miller draws on terms from ancient rhetoric. If experts fail to demonstrate that they are people of virtue (arete) and goodwill (eunioa), she argues, then others have little reasons to trust that they possess not only knowledge (episteme), but also practical wisdom (phronesis) that is fundamental to democratic deliberation. Rhetorical theory is an ancient tradition that thrives today in Communication and English departments in the United States. Across these two traditions, one that has been primarily concerned with rhetorical speech and the other with rhetorical compositions, there is a subfield often referred to as the Rhetoric of Science and Technology and Medicine. Rhetorical studies offer a rich body of literature and, we believe, several profitable sites of intersection with anthropological studies of science and technology. In this short discussion we look to the emerging spheres of do-it-yourself science to articulate some possible conversations between rhetorical and anthropological inquiry.

We take our warrant from Carrithers (2005), who argues for the importance of rhetorical scholarship to Anthropology, saying that the “mark of distinctly human sociality is not the possession of one culture or another as such but the capacity to change and create new cultures” (pp. 580). Rhetoric is concerned with how these strategies of change and creation occur through processes of persuasion and argument. What Miller’s quote above reminds us is that these processes are not only messy, but situated in specific discursive choices. Rhetoric, which considers how we make such choices, and what choices are available to us in a particular context, then seems a profitable realm for Anthropology to engage.

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What Does it Mean to do Anthropology in the Anthropocene?

April 8th, 2014, by § 4 Comments

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 »

Findings From The Asthma Files

April 30th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

It’s been nearly four years since The Asthma Files (TAF) really took off (as a collaborative ethnographic project housed on an object-oriented platform). In that time our work has included system design and development, data collection, and lots of project coordination. All of this continues today; we’ve learned that the work of designing and building a digital archive is ongoing. By “we” I mean our “Installation Crew”, a collective of social scientists who have met almost every week for years. We’ve also had scores of students, graduate and undergraduates at a number of institutions, use TAF in their courses, through independent studies, and as a space to think through dissertations. In a highly distributed, long-term, ethnographic project like TAF, we’ve derived a number of modest findings from particular sites and studies; the trick is to make sense of the patterned mosaic emerging over time, which is challenging since the very tools we want to use as a window into our work — data visualization apps leveraging semantic tools, for example — are still being developed.

Given TAF’s structure — thematic filing cabinets where data and projects are organized — we have many small findings, related to specific projects. For example, in our most expansive project “Asthmatic Spaces”, comparisons of data produced by state agencies (health and environmental), have made various layers of knowledge gaps visible, spaces where certain types of data, in certain places, is not available (Frickel, 2009). Knowledge gaps can be produced by an array of factors, both within organizations and because of limited support for cross agency collaboration. Another focus of “Asthmatic Spaces” (which aims to compare the asthma epidemic in a half dozen cities in the U.S. and beyond) is to examine how asthma and air quality data are synced up (or not) and made usable across public, private, and nonprofit organizations.

In another project area, “Asthma Knowledges”, we’ve gained a better understanding of how researchers conceptualize asthma as a complex condition, and how this conceptualization has shifted over the last decade, based on emerging epigenetic research. In “Asthma Care” we’ve learned that many excellent asthma education programs have been developed and studied, yet only a fraction of these programs have been successfully implemented, such as in school settings. Our recent focus has been to figure out what factors are at play when programs are successful.

Below I offer three overarching observations, taken from what our “breakout teams” have learned working on various projects over the last few years:

*In the world of asthma research, data production is uneven in myriad ways. This is the case at multiple levels — seen in public health surveillance and our ability to track asthma nationally, as well as at the state and county level; as seen through big data, generated by epigenetic research; in the scale of air quality monitoring, which is conducted at the level of cities and zip codes rather than at neighborhood or street level. Uneven and fragmented data production is to be expected; as ethnographers, we’re interested in what this unevenness and fragmentation tells us about local infrastructure, environmental policy, and the state of health research. Statistics on asthma prevalence, hospitalizations, and medical visits are easy to come by in New York State and California, for example; experts on these data sets are readily found. In Texas and Tennessee, on the other hand, this kind of information is harder to come by; more work is involved in piecing together data narratives and finding people who can speak to the state of asthma locally. Given that most of what we know about asthma comes from studies conducted in major cities, where large, university-anchored medical systems help organize health infrastructure, we wonder what isn’t being learned about asthma and air quality in smaller cities, rural areas, and the suburbs; what does environmental health (and asthma specifically) look like beyond urban ecologies and communities? We find this particularly interesting given the centrality that place has for asthma as a disease condition and epidemic.

*Asthma research is incredibly diffuse and diverse. Part of the idea for The Asthma Files came from Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun’s work on a previous project where they perceived communication gaps between scientists who might otherwise collaborate (on asthma research). Thus, one of our project goals has been to document and characterize contemporary asthma studies, tracing connections made across research centers and disciplines. In the case of a complex and varied disease like asthma — a condition that looks slightly different from one person to the next and is likely produced by a wide composite of factors — the field of research is exponential, with studies that range from pharmaceutical effects and genetic shifts, to demographic groups, comorbidities, and environmental factors like air pollution, pesticides, and allergens. Admittedly, we’ve been slow to map out different research trajectories and clusters while we work to develop better visualization tools in PECE (see Erik Bigras’s February post on TAF’s platform).

What has been clear in our research, however, is that EPA and/or NIEHS-funded centers undertaking transdisciplinary environmental health research seem to advance collaboration and translation better than smaller scale studies. This suggests that government support is greatly needed in efforts to advance understanding of environmental health problems. Transdisciplinary research centers have the capacity to conduct studies with more participants, over longer periods of time, with more data points. Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health provides a great example. Engaging scientists from a range of fields, CCCEH’s birth cohort study has tracked more than 700 mother-child pairs from two New York neighborhoods, collecting data on environmental exposures, child health and development. The Center’s most recent findings suggest that air pollution primes children for a cockroach allergy, which is a determinant of childhood asthma. CCCEH’s work has made substantial contributions to understandings of the complexity of environmental health, as seen in the above findings. Of course, these transdisciplinary centers, which require huge grants, are just one node in the larger field of asthma research. What we know from reviewing this larger field is that 1) most of what we know about asthma is based on studies conducted in major cities, 2) that studies on pharmaceuticals greatly outnumber studies on respiratory therapy; that studies on children outnumber studies on adults; that studies on women outnumber studies on men; and that many of the studies focused on how asthma is shaped by race and ethnicity focus on socioeconomic factors and structural violence; finally, 3) that over the last fifty years, advancements in inhaler technology mechanics and design has been limited in key ways, especially when compared to a broader field of medical devices.

*Given the contextual dimensions of environmental health, responses to asthma are shaped by local factors. What’s been most interesting in our collaborative work is to see what comes from comparing projects, programs, and infrastructure across different sites. What communities and organizations enact what kinds of programs to address the asthma epidemic? What resources and structures are needed to make environmental health work happen? Environmental health research of the scale conducted by CCCEH depends on a number of factors and resources — an available study population, institutional resources, an air monitoring network, and medical infrastructure, not to mention an award winning grassroots organization, WE-ACT for Environmental Justice. Infrastructure can be just as uneven and fragmented as the data collected, and the two are often linked: Despite countless studies that associate air pollution and asthma, less than half of all U.S. counties have monitors to track criteria pollutants. And although asthma education programs have been designed and studied for more than two decades now, implementation is uneven, even in the case of the American Lung Association’s long-standing Open Airways for Schools. This is not to say that asthma information and care isn’t standardized; many improvements have been made to standardize diagnosis and treatment in the last decade. Rather, it’s often the form that care takes that varies from place to place. One example of what has been a successful program is the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s Breathmobile program. Piloted in California more than a decade ago, Breathmobiles serve hundreds of California schools each year and more than 5,000 kids. Not only are eleven Breathmobiles in operation in California, but the program has also been replicated in Phoenix, Baltimore, and Mobile, AL. Part of the program’s success in California can be attributed to the work of the state’s AAFA chapter, and partnerships with health organizations, like the University of Southern California and various medical centers. Importantly, California has historically been a leader in responses to environmental health problem.

As we continue our research, in various fieldsites, grow our archive, and implement new data visualization tools, we hope to expand on these findings and further synthesize from our collective work. And beyond what we’re learning about the asthma epidemic and environmental health in the U.S., we’ve also taken many lessons from our collaborative work, and the platform that organizes us.

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