Distraction Free Reading

Alliances and Institutional Partnerships for an Engaged Anthropology of Science and Technology

Conceptual transformations and emerging thematic agendas in the anthropology of science and technology become clearly visible in STS conferences. Paying particular attention to conferences that take place in the global South has the potential to open up an understanding of post-colonial scientific endeavors within our own field of expertise (Kervran, Kleiche-Dray & Quet, 2018;  Anderson, 2017; Law & Lin, 2017).

A case in point was the 8th edition of the biannual meeting of the Brazilian Network of Anthropology of Science and Technology, known as ReACT (Reunião de Antropologia da Ciência e da Tecnologia), which took place on November 22-26, 2021. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was held virtually for the first time. There was a record 1,142 participants, 395 papers presented in 29 thematic seminars, 16 round tables, and over 5,000 online views throughout the week.[1] Hosted by the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), in the state of São Paulo, the conference proposed to discuss two related themes: how the anthropology of science and technology in Brazil might help build a critical understanding of technoscience capitalism and how alliances between different knowledge practices (scientific and otherwise) and modes of existence might contribute to forging possible futures that take into account mutually constituted human and other-than-human socialities.

A poster for the ReACT conferences says, in Portuguese, "Alliances for other futures." It shows an illustration of a large dam with trees in the foreground.

One of VIII ReACT’s posters by Ion Fernandez de las Heras. Rearrangement of Jacob Philipp Hackert’s 1793 “Landscape with the Palace at Caserta and Vesuvius” on the Belo Monte Dam (Pará, Brazil).

Even though such questions are not new in anthropological circles, they take particular contours among Brazilian anthropologists who are immersed in a national political context in which corporate and state enterprises increasingly provoke (and cover-up) illegal logging, mining, and invasions that threaten indigenous, quilombola, and traditional land rights, and violate rights of communities in urban periferias. In face of such pressing issues, ReACT has tried throughout the years to create a dialogic space with thinkers and activists involved in struggles for their land and for the protection of their ways of life. At the VIII ReACT that effort was more pronounced, as the event itself revolved thematically around the idea of alliances between anthropology and other types of knowledge practices, and structurally around dialogues between activists, Brazilian anthropologists, and their peers abroad (mostly Portuguese or Spanish-speaking colleagues from Latin America, North America, and Europe).[2]

Instead of the usual anglophone keynote speakers, the event opted for two round tables per day. These were dubbed “dialogues,” and were pre-recorded, edited, and subtitled in Portuguese so as to become accessible to a wider Brazilian audience. These dialogues, whether in the format of conversations, interviews, or comments on recently published works, were presented in the afternoons throughout the entire event. They were, in turn, commented upon in the live evening sessions in Portuguese or Spanish, called “crossed dialogues.”[3] When discussions were held among anthropological peers, the issues that emerged were relevant mostly within our disciplinary boundaries: anthropology of data and comparisons; feminist ethnographic devices in STS; molecular feminisms in labs: science and becoming; algorithms, race and the politics of the body; affect, care and the technopolitics of landscapes; practices, techniques, and ontologies of domestication; taxidermy and the conversion of animals into commodities; the economy of viruses: technoscience and capital; infrastructures of finance. So in terms of a bounded community of science and technology anthropologists (a network of sorts), the question that emerged was how to enhance the ethnographic sensibility (and tools) for highlighting the entanglements of what Isabelle Stengers (2009) calls the triad—Science, the State, and the Entrepreneur.

However, when the dialogues involved not only anthropologists, but also activists, artists, and thinkers situated outside our disciplinary boundaries, one could also glimpse a different kind of topology, a fluid space in which anthropological practice is urged into transformation (Mol and Law, 1994). What became clear from the conversations with indigenous and afro-indigenous artists, with fisherwomen and men in Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay and in the mangroves of Bahia’s Salvador, and with local caiçara researchers on the coast of São Paulo, is that the acceleration of lawlessness encouraged by governmental officials pushes Brazilian science and technology anthropologists to rethink their practice. They must rethink it in terms of an engaged research that forges alliances with those who are the first to feel the effects of predatory corporate practices.

If one important step in that direction is to recognize that methodical and systematic knowledge practices across cultures and times should be reckoned as sciences (Lloyd and Villaça, 2020), the following effort must be to consider the methodological challenges of joint scientific research conducted across different worlds and their particular knowledge practices. For instance, the caiçara fishing communities of Juréia, on the southern coast of São Paulo, have for years faced pressure to withdraw from their land due to its transformation in 1986 into a fully protected conservation area. This legal status forbids human occupation since it is premised on an idea of an untouched nature. As part of their effort to have the State acknowledge their long presence in the region, local leaders have joined a collaborative research project that produces geoprocessing data of land occupation patterns. At the VIII ReACT, academic scholars and caiçara researchers discussed their long-term collaborations, at once political and scientific, raising questions about disputes over pragmatic truths and the anthropological commitment to justice (Almeida, 2021). These collaborations question the asymmetries between the knowledge of traditional people and the academics who engage with them, expanding what counts as science. This is exactly what indigenous anthropologists argue when they point to a political crossroads in Brazilian anthropology. Critically rethinking an engaged and enlarged idea of science implies taking charge of the issues presented by indigenous anthropologists who demand due recognition of their own systematic and methodical knowledge practices for creating relevant, innovative, and critical research projects. 

Both moves—expanding the idea of science through long-term research collaborations between scholars and social movements; and increasing the number of institutional placements for indigenous and quilombola anthropologists, as well as those who come from the urban periferias of a profoundly racist country—hold great theoretical potential. They also reinforce the ethical responsibility of the anthropology of science and technology practiced in Brazil and in the global South more generally. 

A poster for the ReACT conference says, in Portuguese, "Alliances for other futures." It shows an illustration of colonial people interacting with Indigenous people, but standing in front of a large electrical power facility.

One of VIII ReACT’s posters by Ion Fernandez de las Heras. Rearrangement of Friedrich Georg Weitsch’s 1806 “Alexander von Humboldt and Aimée Bonpland at Mount Chimborazo, Ecuador” on the Manaus-Boa Vista Tucuruí Electrical Transmission Line.

An expanded science poses methodological challenges of its own, and entails reevaluating how research questions, teams and budgets are outlined. What happens to our research questions on human and other-than-human socialities when we take into account what shellfish gatherers in Salvador’s Ilha de Maré say about the “invisible monsters of development” that inhabit their mangroves, and which coexist with (and disturb) other more ancient beings, visible and invisible (Paraguassu, 2021)? How can these ontological claims help design joint research questions that are relevant to policy discussions around environmental issues? What shapes may research teams and budgets take when research is conducted alongside local researchers to produce data on current social and environmental disasters? We already have examples: research teams composed of indigenous peoples, such as the Juruna-Yudjá, whose ways of life are deeply linked to the water regimes of the Xingu River that have been disrupted by Belo Monte hydroelectric dam; or of fishing communities in the Doce river, who have lived with the pain of the spillage of mining tailings that crossed two states before reaching the Atlantic (Mantovanelli, 2020; Creado, Helmreich, 2018). Establishing institutional partnerships and international alliances enables these kinds of research teams where academics can join discussions, already being held by those who are grounded in their territories, on how to imagine and produce common futures. 

Again, these are not new questions for STS scholars, but the logistic, linguistic, and affective proximity to social movements inspires anthropology in the global South to make a political commitment to such an approach. This potential, however, is not readily acknowledged by Brazilian funding agencies, who tend to mimic what they believe are the best international practices in research, based on an outdated (and subservient) view of science and technology (Morawska et al., 2021). In this institutional setting, there is no place for joint collaborations with those who are seen as objects of research, never colleagues.

Perhaps the task at hand for an engaged anthropology of science and technology in catastrophic times is to find institutional ways to make these collaborations happen. The context we are living in requires reorganizing and rethinking resistance in such a way that allows for the contagion of ideas, not only through various regional combinations within academia, but also across different worlds. As indigenous thinker Ailton Krenak (2016) says, we must be able to leak ontological borders, like a sieve, so that we can transit between worlds. Only then will it be possible for an expanded science to emerge.

Notes

[1] The number of registered participants at the prior ReACT meeting in 2019 was 620, with 183 papers presented in 11 thematic seminars. Participation almost doubled in 2021, since the event was held online and there were no costs to participants in terms of transport and lodging, nor the typical registration fees, which are never charged at ReACT events. Since funding for the humanities has been reduced in the past years in Brazil, the budget for the whole event provided by the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP 21/02818-7) was the equivalent to approximately 500 dollars. The event, therefore, had a reduced staff of 2 professors and 5 voluntary graduate students at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).

[2] Non-Brazilian speakers in the roundtables were based in institutions in Colombia (1), Argentina (2), Norway (1), Canada (1), United Kingdom (2), and United States (4), 65% of which presented their work in Spanish or Portuguese. Non-Brazilian coordinators of the 29 thematic seminars were from institutions in Mexico (2), Peru (1), Argentina (1), Colombia (1) and the United Kingdom (1). 91% of papers presented in the thematic seminars were by Brazilians, while only 9% were by scholars based in Europe (12), US and Canada (6) and Latin America (30), all of which spoke Portuguese or Spanish. As is well known, language is still a barrier for wider participation in non-anglophone anthropology conferences.

[3] All the dialogues are available at ReACT’s YouTube channel: <https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiB_4Z-GplxSjj0efaRvFOA>. Information on previous ReACT meetings is available at <https://react.labjor.unicamp.br/>.


References

Almeida, M. W. B. (2021) Caipora e outros conflitos ontológicos. São Paulo: Editora UBU.

Anderson, W. (2017) Postcolonial Specters of STS. East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal, 11:2, 229-233, DOI: 10.1215/18752160-3828937

Creado, E. S. J., & Helmreich, S. (2018) Uma onda de lama: viagem de águas tóxicas, de Bento Rodrigues ao Atlântico brasileiro. Revista Do Instituto De Estudos Brasileiros, (69), 33-51. https://doi.org/10.11606/issn.2316-901X.v0i69p33-51

Kervran, D. D., Kleiche-Dray, M. & Quet, M. (2018) Going South. How STS could think science in and with the South? Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society, 1:1, 280-305, DOI: 10.1080/25729861.2018.1550186

Krenak, A. (2016) As alianças afetivas. Entrevista a Pedro Cesarino. In: Incerteza Viva. Dias de estudo. São Paulo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

Law, J. & Lin, W. (2017) Provincializing Sts: Postcoloniality, Symmetry, and Method. East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal, 11(2), 211-227, DOI: 10.1215/18752160-3823859

Lloyd,  G. E. R. & Vilaça, A. (2020) Science in the Forest, Science in the Past. HAU Books.

Mantovanelli, T. (2020). “Quanto vale a vida?” Os Mebengokre-Xikrin do Bacajá e os Juruna da Volta Grande do Xingu contra a engenharia de cálculo e setores técnico-empresariais de Belo Monte. In: Villela, J. M.; Vieira, S. de A. (Org.). Insurgências, ecologias dissidentes e antropologia modal. Goiânia: Editora da Imprensa Universitária, 1, 95-126.

Mol, A., & Law, J. (1994). Regions, Networks and Fluids: Anaemia and Social Topology. Social Studies of Science, 24(4), 641–671. https://doi.org/10.1177/030631279402400402

Morawska, C.,  Campos, A. C., Cardoso,  B. C., Paulino, C. (2021)  A transversalidade entre ciências sociais e áreas tecnológicas: por uma ecologia das práticas na política científica nacional. Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais, 36 (107). https://doi.org/10.1590/3610704/2021 

Paraguassu, E. (2021) Os monstros invisíveis do desenvolvimento contra um território sagrado. Políticas da Pandemia: Mulheres, Economia e Saúde. imuê: Instituto Mulheres e Economia.

Stengers, I. (2009) Au temps des catastrophes. Résister à la barbarie qui vient, La Découverte. 

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