Distraction Free Reading

An Anthropologist Visits the Classroom: On teaching science (and religion)

Although I’ve never taught the book cover-to-cover, my copy of Latour and Woolgar’s (1986[1979]) Laboratory Life has been unpacked four times since I finished my Ph.D., six years ago during a final sweltry Florida summer. Their re-inscription of the Salk Institute has moved with me through the planned communities of D.C.’s suburbs, the tech-ifying Research Triangle of central North Carolina, and the cotton-cultivating arid flatland of west Texas. Now, Lab Life and I cohabitate—more peacefully than we used to—at one of New England’s dark-brick collegiate beauties.

I’ve offered courses on the anthropology of science, in different iterations and incarnations, at George Mason University, North Carolina State University, Texas Tech University, and now Mount Holyoke College. As my nomadism gives way to more permanent settlement, I’m pausing to reflect on the modest successes (and felt frustrations) of sharing my passion for anthropology through attention to its liaison with science and technology studies.

Treating science as a cultural process, aesthetic, or institution presents distinctive challenges for the anthropology classroom. Science may seem too close to home on the college campus for anthropology’s new student initiates. This semester I worked with prospective converts to the anthropological cause in a mid-level course pitched as “Science and Politics” alongside a more advanced undergraduate offering with one of those older anthropological titles, “Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.”

Teaching the anthropology of religion during my first year at Mount Holyoke felt like an homage to the profound and retrospectively-realized impact of an anthropology of religion course that I took fourteen years ago at Grinnell College. As is appropriate, some anthropological motifs have morphed since I enrolled in Professor Jon Andelson’s seminar during my last year as a Grinnell student. If I remember correctly, Prof. Andelson, dutiful to his University of Michigan heritage, concluded with Roy Rappaport’s (1999) grand, posthumously-published synthesis, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, I finished my first go at religion with a few weeks on the new animism, Christianities, and secularism.

When the religion course arrived at the week on “Animism, Redux,” I’d been working for two-and-a-half months in my STS course to challenge what Latour calls the “modern settlement,” the purification of object from subject, science from the political. I’d set up points and counterpoints, implicit and explicit. I’d guided and grappled, hewed and halted, contextualized and decontextualized, read closely and from a distance. I imagined us prodding passionately through a series of scientific controversies. I often found us plodding through them instead. This seemed to reproduce some previous results, namely that anthropology’s turn to science strikes students as either profoundly banal or hopelessly exotic (which says a lot about science and at least a little about the professor).

So, when the neo-animism-bound religion course turned to discussion of Marisol de la Cadena’s (2010) essay on “Indigenous Cosmopolitics,” I found myself acting more as anthropological observer than as professor, watching to see whether students’ eyes rolled around this exoticism, “cosmopolitics.” Instead, what I saw was a beaming affirmation that a semester’s religion readings—Tylor, Durkheim, Evans-Pritchard, Douglas, Geertz, Asad, and more—had led to an open and questioning attitude toward the configuration of politics and knowledge, be it “scientific” or “religious.” They didn’t need to be taught how to think and engage the world in cosmopolitical terms, how to construct common worlds where contradictory scientific, political, and metaphysical actors could coexist. They already knew.

I can’t anticipate what these students will discover in their experiences of post-baccalaureate retrospection. When I finished, Florida-bound, at Grinnell, I didn’t know that my romance with archaeology would transform into ethnographic and historical work on that field as a system of knowledge and, later, as a system of ritual and belief. I had hardly discovered who I was. But it didn’t much matter. With the caring guidance of Jon Andelson and Katya Gibel Mevorach, I’d discovered the estranging beauty of anthropology. I suppose that it’s not a very STS-y thing to say, but I hope that the graduating students of this collegiate beauty find themselves starting (or continuing) to discover discovery.

It may be that college life hues to the pastel palette of sustained childishness, the wonder of a glistening eye that signals knowing without knowing how—or even that—it knows.

And it may be time for me to return to Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity.


de la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond ‘Politics.’” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2):334-370.

Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. 1986[1979]. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rappaport, Roy A. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


  • Hi Matt, what a wonderful post! I think I know what you mean when you say that “anthropology’s turn to science strikes students as either profoundly banal or hopelessly exotic” but I wonder if you could elaborate more….

    • Matt Watson says:

      Thanks, Shreeharsh! I’m being, perhaps, overly-schematic in that phrasing. On the one hand, undergraduate students have been socialized into the sciences’ epistemic cultures in school and possibly college classrooms (are there ethnographies of such classrooms?). Several of my STS students this semester were biology or geology majors. In a sense, they already understand science in action. They experience what I’ve called, elsewhere, “staged discovery.” Those experiences may incline them to grasp the located, complex, deeply-social, and sometimes-fragile character of fact-production. This recognition may complicate pat STS narratives. They may be socialized more into scientific practices than scientific ideologies or epistemologies. If that’s the case, STS (at least the lineage that runs from SSK-ANT-present, encapsulated in the movement from philosophy to sociology to anthropology, or in the turns to practice, ethnography, ontology…) may start from an exotic set of assumptions and arrive at an utterly banal end. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It may provide students with a conceptual architecture or systemic epistemology that inflects how they think about or practice science. They may or may not realize that’s happening, and that’s OK.

      To press further on the exoticism side, bringing ethnography back from the tropics and into our college colleagues’ labs may seem strange to those who have always been, in a sense, “science students” (to extend Latour’s apt phrase for ethnographic STSers). And for anthropology majors, who often come into the field with curiosity about cultural difference (and may have experienced frustrations with the sciences’ forms of staged discovery), the notion that studies of science offer profound insights for or restructurings of anthropology’s knowledge-base may seem strange. I suppose that point boils down to the assumption that it’s the place of anthropologists to study the Balinese, and not the biologists.

      I think it’s at least defensible to assert that the anthropology of religion is a century older than the anthropology of science and that it has worked through many of the same problems in a different idiom. So I’d like to see a more substantive engagement between the two, in the classroom and in other realms of scholarly inquiry and creativity.

      • Thanks, Matt! Yes, that accords with my experience too. Like you say, our STS narratives sometimes get too pat (e.g. “science is political”), and students’ response often is: so what?

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