Category: Research

Junk Anthropology: A Manifesto for Trashing and Untrashing

It is currently held, not without certain uneasiness, that 90% of human DNA is ‘junk.’ The renowned Cambridge molecular biologist, Sydney Brenner, makes a helpful distinction between ‘junk’ and ‘garbage.’ Garbage is something used up and worthless which you throw away; junk is something you store for some unspecified future use. (Rabinow, 1992, 7-8) In the bioscience lab near Tokyo where I did my ethnographic study, the researchers taught me how to do PCR experiments. This was before Covid when almost everyone came to know what PCR was, or at least, what kind of instrumental information it could be good for. The lab was working with mouse models, although I never got to see them in their cages. But the researcher I was shadowing showed me how to put the mouse tail clippings she collected into small tubes. She hated cutting tails, by the way, and preferred to take ear punches when she could. She told me that she didn’t like the way the mice wiggled under her hand, as if they just knew. But at this point anyway, the mice are alive in the animal room and she is only putting small, but vital, pieces of them into a tube to dissolve them down (mice becoming means), to get to the foundation of what she really wants. (read more...)

A Failure in Capture: An Experiment in Multimodal Interactive Ethnography where ‘Nothing Happens’

The video below this text is interactive. To view, click play and follow the instructions you see on the screen. As you watch, look for areas that you can click with a mouse (or tap with your finger, if on a mobile device) or see what appears when you mouse over different areas of the image at different times. What do you see? This multimodal content, due to technological limitations, may not be accessible to all. If the multimodal experience is not accessible to you, please visit the text based version for visual and audio descriptions and full-text transcription or listen to the audio narration: Audio Narration by Kara White On mobile devices, we suggest viewing the page in landscape mode and selecting “Distraction Free Reading” in the top-right corner. This is an interactive video. This video is designed to get the viewer or reader to “search” the image for (read more...)

Platypod, Episode Seven: An Anthropology of Data, AI, and Much More

Download the transcript of this interview. For this episode of Platypod, I talked to Dr. Tanja Ahlin about her research, work, and academic trajectory. She’s currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and her work focuses on intersections of medical anthropology, social robots, and artificial intelligence. I told her of my perspective as a grad student, making plans and deciding what routes to take to be successful in my field. Dr. Ahlin was very generous in sharing her stories and experiences, which I’m sure are helpful to other grad students as well. Enjoy this episode, and contact us if you have questions, thoughts, or suggestions for other episodes.  (read more...)

The Illness Experience of a Forty-year-old Hispanic Woman

Different cultural upbringings can determine a person’s illness experience. The relationship between the experience of a patient, and in turn, a course of treatment is inherently valuable to document. To understand an instance of this dynamic, I interviewed Maria, a Los Angeles resident, and a forty-year-old Hispanic, low-income, single mother with six children who is a devout Christian belonging to the church Iglesia Universal. (read more...)

Platypod, Episode Six: An Anthropology of Algorithmic Recommendation Systems

Download the transcript of this interview. On the morning of Friday, March 10, 2023 Nick Seaver and I met over Zoom to talk about his new book Computing Taste: Algorithms and Makers of Music Recommendation, which was published in 2022 by the University of Chicago Press. In that meeting, we recorded an episode for the Playpod podcast, which is available at the link above. (read more...)

Invisible Labor of Health and the Spell of Productivity

When I talked with Jia, who works for an e-commerce company in Shanghai, China, she was trying to finish a “Perfect Month Challenge” on her Apple Watch. That meant closing the rings on her watch every day for a month—achieving goals for standing up once an hour across all 12 hours, burning over 400kcal calories, and exercising 20 minutes. She was fully invested in this project, until Shanghai hit a lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2022, and she suddenly lost the streak. “The ‘firework’ after closing the rings is so nice, and the ‘Perfect Month’ sounds attractive to me,” she said, “I was drawn into exercising, and made a lot of progress, and setting myself a new goal every now and then. But this is also a source of anxiety and stress, and once I couldn’t keep up, I would just let go.” (read more...)

Grafting with Care: Encountering Human-Plant Relations Through Experiments with Roses

When seen through the experiences and histories of experimentation and care, plants such as roses can bring new insights into the affective and material entanglements of more-than-human relations. My ethnographic encounter with Mr. Changa, a prominent figure in the world of horticulture and plant nurseries in Pakistan, gives us a glimpse on “seeing and being-with” (Haraway 1998) non-human others, such as roses, to foreground the making of social worlds through affect. These encounters show that even though colonial inscriptions on social understandings of nature were marked in influences over tastes and attitudes (Mintz 1985), an attention to nuanced affects, articulations, and values can disrupt the process of creating “authentic” relations with plants and singular legacies of expertise. Writing against the dominance of an object-oriented ontology in mainstream science and technology narratives, this post follows scholarship that emphasizes an “anthropology beyond the human” (Kohn 2013) to center the connections between plants and humans as not only metaphorical but literal (De La Cadena 2010). (read more...)

If I Could Talk to the Algorithm

In the film Doctor Dolittle (1967), the title character yearns to “Talk to the Animals,” as the song goes, to understand their mysterious and often vexing ways. It is interesting to observe a similar impulse to understand and communicate with algorithms, given their current forms of implementation. Recent research shows that intense frustration often emerges from algorithmically driven processes that create hurtful identity characterizations. Our current technological landscape is thus frequently embroiled in “algorithmic dramas” (Zietz 2016), in which algorithms are seen and felt as powerful and influential, but inscrutable. Algorithms, or rather the complex processes that deploy them, are entities that we surely cannot “talk to,” although we might wish to admonish those who create or implement them in everyday life. A key dynamic of the “algorithmic drama” involves yearning to understand just how algorithms work given their impact on people. Yet, accessing the inner workings of algorithms is difficult for numerous reasons (Dourish 2016), including how to talk to, or even about, them. (read more...)