One of the many things I appreciate about anthropology is that we ask big questions like “What makes us human?” and “What does it mean to be human?” Whatever our specific research topic, no matter how narrow it may seem, we reflect on the connection our research has with these big questions. In this blog, I’d like to do just this in connection to my latest research interest: science, technology, and performance.
This topic is a major departure from my previous research on Islam and science, but quite closely connected to cycling which has been a part of my life for three decades, longer than anthropology or STS. My training in the anthropology of science, technology, and medicine gives me an interesting perspective on cycling and especially the doping scandals that have plagued cycling and sport in general in recent decades. While journalists focus on specific details like who took what for how long and how did they avoid detection, I ask what are the ideologies and the structures that both support and condemn a culture of doping? What are the connections among and boundaries between doping, high-tech engineering of bicycles, new science-based training regimens, and legal performance-enhancing substances? What are the connections between all of these developments and the structure of international athletics, the promotion and sponsorship of events, the mass media, the cyclists themselves, and the fans? What are the connections to the broader societies where cycling (and other sports) are practiced.
Science, technology, and medicine are at the heart of these debates. Sports scientists are defining the limits of human potential. For example, they have calculated based on laboratory studies of human performance that humans can’t generate more than 6.2 watts per kilogram of body mass and sustain it and therefore any performances that indicate sustained outputs above 6.2 watts/kg must be performance enhanced. Power meters that measure power output of cyclists and heart rate monitors are now used by all professionals and many amateurs in training and usually during races. Many cyclists, professional and amateur now can and do post their power profiles online. Sometimes during race broadcasts on TV, the networks even arrange to have access to live power output, heart rate, and speed numbers from several cyclists to let their audiences know just how hard the racers are working.
Over the last months, I’m becoming interested in the idea that “performance” is a key metaphor for understanding the doping debates. Specifically, “performance” is a metaphor that is being contested and is useful for related debates about the nature/culture and human/machine boundaries, about the authenticity of the human athletes. Are performances “authentic” or are they “enhanced” and therefore “unnatural.” Particularly interesting is the fact that sports is among a handful of areas in Western cultures that “nature” and “human” are privileged over “culture” and “machine” and “enhanced performance” can carry a negative connotation. Other areas where these halves may also be privileged also tend to relate to the human body and concern human limits, for example, in debates about reproductive technologies and end of life interventions. Elsewhere, “enhanced performance” is highly valued, for example, how often do you hear someone say that they prefer to own a laptop or smartphone or stock with lower performance?
As I move forward with this project, I am interested in exploring further the usage of the metaphor of “performance” in American and other Western contexts outside of sports to uncover what exactly is at stake in the doping debates and beyond. I’d welcome any thoughts or comments and encourage to participate in the discussion.