ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Aw(e)ful and fearful knowledge: ethnographic responses to the industries, machineries and technologies of science

Contact Convenor: Alberto Corsin Jimenez

Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology
51 Banbury Road
University of Oxford, OX2 6PF 

Tel: 01865 274 687

Co-Convenors: Goran Janev & Mette Louise Berg

Panel abstract

This panel aims at exploring the extent to which science can be understood as a field of awful and fearful knowledge. The session will present fresh ethnographies of the rationales that are being mobilised in response to, and engagement with, specific deployments of scientific knowledge, and will reflect on the dispersal and distribution of these knowledge-forms as instrumental and utilitarian minutiae and transformative capacities. In particular, we wish to examine how science becomes mundane, how is it transformed into concrete experiential and social encounters with specific industries, machineries and technologies of scientific knowledge. We are intrigued by the fears and dreads that lurk behind people’s ideas about the ‘rational’; the notions about power, authority and malevolence (and benevolence) that animate their responses to what they think of as ‘science’ and ‘scientific knowledge’. Our interest lies in exploring further the forms that these responses take and, in particular, the transformations in agency that they effect. We are not so much interested in the power-structures that impose fear as in the transformations that the fear of knowledge (and the knowledge of fear) effect upon the agent and his moral world; that is, what value-maps (positive and negative) does the agent draw upon confronting the awe of science. What, for instance, does people’s eventual accommodation to the machineries of war in extreme conflict situations (tanks, helicopters, gunfire) tell us about the scales of awe and fear that are in-built into the machinery (and its operators)? What capacities for surveillance and control are being recognised in our encounters with government databases and information interfaces? What is dangerous about cloning? Is the reverence for scientific knowledge an eclipsed and tacit acknowledgement of fear, a muted recognition of man’s capacity for evil making? How, in sum, are the connections between awe and our fear of science and scientific knowledge worked out in specific ethnographic situations? And finally, what role does science play in shaping and redefining our field of moral relations? When and how does our awe of science become repugnant and despicable, knowledge of the awful?

Images of man and the industrialization of fear

Alberto Corsín Jiménez, University of Oxford

The history of nitrate mining in the Atacama desert, Chile, offers us a vantage point from where to examine the effects that industrialization had amongst the industry’s workers and their families. In this paper, my intention is to trace the historical transformations of the idea of personhood amongst the mining communities in the region of Antofagasta from 1890 to our days, and to show the ways in which these varying conceptions were related to people’s position vis-à-vis a corpus of industrial machinery and equipment. In particular, I shall be exploring how people’s scaling of their human powers, and their self-understanding as moral agents, was formulated in response to their encounters with, and their manipulation of, industrial machinery. These encounters were often mediated by the idiom of fear. Fear became the predominant vehicle through which workers mapped their relational worlds, establishing connections between the realm of work, the realm of the family, and their own definitions as capable and skilled agents.

From tigris regalis to man-eating Royal Bengals: scientific constructs of Sundarbans tigers

Annu Jalais, LSE

In the 1980s, scientists and State officials working on the fauna of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve came to the conclusion that tigers living in the region were, most probably, natural man-eaters. This paper will look at the ways such a perception of the tiger was influenced both by historical accounts and by local peoples’ beliefs about the magical nature of this animal. Finally, I challenge the identity of the Sundarbans tiger as ‘man-eater’ and argue that this image has more to do with the West Bengal government’s environmental policies for wildlife conservation than with any ‘scientific’ analysis.

Applying ideas from Latour, Goody and Agrawal about the ‘unexpected and uncertain divides’ — which in this context refers to the split between scientific/non-scientific, rational/magical, global/local — I show how these ‘divides’ do not provide any explanations but are themselves entities which need to be explained. How for example, ‘scientific knowledge’, in this context, finally acts as a ‘divide’ when it is received as an ‘aw(e)ful and fearful knowledge’ by one group and a ‘convenient argument’ by another in a region where there are more than a 100 people killed by tigers each year. To what extent is this knowledge, which is based on a praxis of exchange but reconfigured by structures of power, ultimately legitimate?

Making decisions on how we use nature

Kathy Rettie, University of St. Andrews

This paper focuses on responses to recent decisions and restrictions imposed by national park authorities to ensure the appropriate use of nature within the national park.  

Ethnographic research conducted in Banff National Park has revealed that residents feel threatened and, at times, helpless when faced with restrictions placed on them by authorities who advertise that their decisions are supported by sound scientific evidence. Holding up experiential knowledge, local history and logic as their ammunition to challenge the decisions, residents are speaking out. However, they continue to be excluded from meaningful decision-making processes while the scientific community lauds the power they have been granted by the authorities.  Residents fear irreversible decisions are being made based on incorrect, synchronic data provided by scientists acting in an arrogant and self-serving manner.   Above all, residents are concerned for the welfare of the natural environment and the residential community.  

Information technology use in the Highlands & islands of Scotland

Caspian Richards, Macaulay Institute

Information technology (‘IT’) has been widely portrayed by academics, policy-makers and the media as a ‘revolutionary’ development leading to a new kind of society, in which IT skills and equipment are a prerequisite of participation. Policy documents express both awe at the prospect of this ‘information society’, and the fear that those who cannot or will not use IT will be ‘left behind’. Governments and agencies have therefore focussed their efforts on ‘removing the barriers’ to IT adoption through investment in infrastructure, and by promoting the perceived benefits of IT.

This research project examined how this message has been received by people living in two locations in the Scottish Highlands & Islands. A fundamental contrast emerged between the forms of communication used by governments to promote IT, and how those living in the fieldwork areas acquired their knowledge of and skills in using IT. The latter generally adopted a more pragmatic stance and, other than in a few cases, did not appear to believe in a new form of society at all. I then move on to an analysis of the different forms of communication used by the two groups to understand why their perspectives should be so distinct.

Artificial intelligence, scientific research and the powers of nonsense: producing science, technology and childhood in a UK children’s television drama

Linda Hitchin, University of Lincoln

This paper draws on an eighteen month multi-site ethnography of a children’s television drama.  The ethnography focused on programme making and story telling practices of a science fiction television series made by the BBC - The Demon Headmaster Takes Over [Cresswell (BBC) 1998 & Cross 1998].  In this paper, I consider The Demon Headmaster Takes Over as a form of imaginative work with science.  Examining both the narrative and its production processes, I focus particular attention here on two fearful stories of the industries, machineries and technologies of science that surfaced in fieldwork.  The first fear that I consider here is Orwellian in character and focuses on relationships between social order, knowledge and power.  The second dread that dominates the narrative is an out of control technology. 

In tracing the production of an imagined science, I found storytellers who focused attention on ownership, control and access to knowledge and knowledge technologies.  In crafting this story, scientific knowledge was represented as a valuable and vulnerable commodity.  As various story tellers worked on representing this story, they worked independently and collectively to examine threats that might emerge if science, technology and scientific knowledge production became the sole property of an individual bent on social control: the eponymous demon headmaster.  In this context, resistance to oppression became a central storyline, and both good and evil characters enrolled technologies and machineries of science in their moral-political practices.

Whilst the Orwellian theme above worked to neutralise science by focusing attention on social relations and human intention, in imagining the fear of out of control technology, science and things scientific produce fear in themselves.  In dramatising this threat, storytellers imagined a scientifically produced non-human other: an artificial intelligence named Hyperbrain.  In fieldwork with the screenplay writer I found a storyteller keen to explore the fear that science, and things scientific, raise objective rationality as a preferred trope, and so subjugate subjectivity, playfulness, creativity, nonsense and imagination.  In this context, this storyteller positioned imagination outside the reality and ken of artificial Hyperbrain.  Dramatically, imagination became a weapon in the fight between organic and artificial intelligence.  The fear of the loss of creative imagination to a technological imperial reason was developed as the screenwriter drew on this horror to warn of the uncertain consequences of the pursuit of scientific knowledge for its own sake.  In this sense the imagined blind and obsessive passion between scientist and research project became a backdrop to unknowable threats.

Finally, I note that the fearful stories of science accounted here emerged in fieldwork with programme makers.  The same fieldwork surfaced other stories that imagine science as mundane practice and must be mentioned, albeit briefly, to keep faith with my programme makers rich and complex study of science as ambiguous, mundane and fearful practice.

Keeping doubts at bay?  Anxiety, evasion and trust in a petrochemical town

Patricia Bell & Peter Phillimore, University of Newcastle

Living with petrochemicals provides a fruitful case study for exploring the fears and unease associated with particular industries and technologies.  This paper draws on fieldwork in Ludwigshafen, a town on the Rhine in Germany dominated for 150 years by chemicals, and above all by BASF, which still employs over 40,000 on a single site.  The study of fears and anxieties is complicated for two different reasons.  First, there are difficulties facing an ethnographer seeking to enquire about aspects of living many people may prefer not to dwell upon (cf. Zonabend’s work).  If one pitfall is a naivete which takes too much at face value, another is quite the opposite, a tendency to over-interpret, claiming to see better than those studied themselves what their statements or silences signify.  The researcher’s own impact can also not be forgotten: simply being there and taking an interest in coexistence with such a massive industry reactivated, for some, long suppressed anxieties and shut off some areas of enquiry.  A second complication stems from the need to do justice to ambivalent attitudes and feelings.  Whatever the attitudes of outsiders to this chemical centre par excellence, many of those for whom Ludwigshafen is home express a defiant pride in its achievements, its reputation, its safety systems and record.  Such trust is reinforced by long exposure to the industry and memories not only of a more polluted and riskier past but also an “urvertrauen” in the main employer – described as “the great mother”.  But that trust is not the full story.  Not easily heard above the assertions of confidence, there are also expressions of ambivalence and misgivings about possible dangers.  In May 2001, a fire at BASF resulted in sirens sounding in Ludwigshafen for the first time since the second world war.  This paper focuses on this one incident and asks whether trust in internal and external regulatory systems provide a kind of self-reassurance, keeping at bay deeper doubts and anxieties? 

Revealing technology (or how some Mennonites read modernity)

Lorenzo Cañás Bottos, University of Manchester

For Old Colony Mennonites, like for other radical protestant groups, the creation of a church of believers involves the “separation from the world” –in this case taken almost literally-, which involves a selective attitude towards the adoption of modernity, technologies and knowledge. This paper is based on fieldwork among Old Colony Mennonites in Bolivia and Argentina, where in the last few years, “Conspiracy theory” discourses that assert the creation of a New World Order (involving economic, political and religious unification through technological development), together with “green” ecological arguments have gained entry. These have produced internal conflicts, and due to their incorporation within the Biblical narrative (more specifically within the Book of Revelation), a millenialistic revitalisation is emerging, where embodied barcodes and microchips become “marks of the beast”, the U.S. the new “Holy Roman Empire”, and all new modern inventions mere tricks of Satan to bind humans to the world. A change in the conceptualization of the relationship with technology seems to be emerging, where Mennonites are not only users (or rejecters) of technology, but its potential subjects.

Discussant: James Carrier, Oxford Brookes