ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Disembedding politics: technoscience and the problem of political representation

Contact Convenor: Cori Hayden

Girton College, University of Cambridge
Cambridge CB3 0JG

Tel. 01223 338955, 01223 330577 

Co-Convenor: Andrew Barry


In thinking about the relationship between technoscience and politics, anthropologists have tended to draw on two metaphors.  Technoscientific objects/knowledges are reckoned either to embody relations of power and authority or they are understood as embedded in society, politics, and culture.  In this session we investigate some of the difficulties in these formulations and in particular the notion of embeddedness.  The session is guided by three observations: 1) that the attribution of an object or a practice as political or as representing certain interests is a practical accomplishment; 2) this project of rendering explicit the politics of technoscience is shared by practitioners, activists, and science studies scholars alike; 3) that the attribution of technoscience as political can have anti-political as well as politicizing effects (insofar as they can close down as well as open up the space of political possibility).  Drawing on a series of ethnographic case studies, this session will open up the question of whether the metaphors of embeddedness and embodiment are appropriate for thinking about the relationship between technoscience and politics.  In this way we hope to open up more productive ways for thinking about the relation between anthropology, science, and the problem of political representation. 

Turning technicalities into issues: on webby methods for the politicization of techno-scientific projects

Noortje Marres, University of Amsterdam

This paper explores a number of   techniques that are being deployed in the context of the Worldwide Web for the politicization of techno-scientific issues. Online campaigns against Big Dams in India, and the critique of the World Summit on the Information Society will serve as exemplary cases. Describing the particular technologies of democratic politics that are mobilized in these cases, we take up a reproach made against recent theories about the politics of technology: they tend to economize on the empirical question of the politicization of techno-science. Various authors have pointed out that work in this area leaves underexplored the social processes involved in the politicization of techno-scientific issues: it exposes, on the one hand, the sub-political effects of the workings of science and technology, and on the other hand, it presses for the implementation of procedures of democratic decision-making and design. Taking up the question of the technologies of democratic politics in the particular context of the Web, we also go against the dominant approach to ICT and democracy that tends to foreground the implementation of procedures of (direct) democracy.

Seeking to capture the process in which sub-political effects of techno-science are thematized as overtly political issues, we come to focus on the twin-movement of the “ disembedding ” and the “ re-formatting ” of issues, and the ways in which this movement may in part be achieved with the aid of webby techniques such as hyperlinking, bannering, spoof Web sites, and citation. More generally, we come to characterize the practices of doing democracy with the Web, in terms of the development of experimental forms for the representation of issues (issue-fication). Posing the question of the technologies of democratic politics, we thus formulate the rule that any given techno-scientific project only counts as political after the work of politicization has been done. Such practices of politization go well beyond the “ implementation of democratic procedures ”. It involves the development of methods for turning uncontroversial technicalities into political issues, primordially by means of media. In this sense, our small case study also unsettles the belief in non-representational politics that has been embraced by enthusiasts of Internet democracy. 

Technology and the political event: who should be concerned about the construction of a pipeline?

Andrew Barry, Goldsmiths College

One obvious feature of political life is its uncertainty. Despite the enormous efforts on the part of governments, bureaucracies and firms to make political life more predictable, politics is an uncertain matter. Its often been thought that science and technology would make politics easier to predict but, in practice, science and technology can often have the opposite effect. On the one hand, the development of science and technology constantly creates new potential sites and objects of political conflict. What government minister could have predicted the critical importance to political life of entities such as BSE or the technical skills involved in the detection of chemical and biological weapons, for example. On the other hand, scientific and technical issues raise new problems for political representation. How is it possible to represent, for example, the cluster of concerns, interests and anxieties surrounding the use of the MMR vaccine. Giving patients a vote on whether a vaccine should be used or not does not seem to make sense but, if not, who should represent their concerns and interests, and how?

In this paper I address these issues using a case study: the planned construction of an oil pipeline between Azerbaijan and Turkey and the political conflict associated with it. Rather than assuming that politics is somehow embodied in the pipeline, the paper treats the pipeline as a part of a political event – as an entity that is associated with political conflict and uncertainty. The paper examines the different strategies adopted by the oil companies and NGOs in their efforts both to manage and foster political uncertainty, and both to exploit and solve the problem of political representation.

Public-ization: building society into genomics

Cori Hayden, University of Cambridge

Much critical attention to genomics and ‘the new genetics’ focuses on the ways in which society might well be refigured through new genetic technologies.  In this paper, I want to explore what it might mean when genomics enterprises themselves are configured through an appeal to society.  The language of relationship and embeddedness is suggested quite powerfully in several prominent initiatives in the UK in which society (not to mention anthropology) is being “invited into” new genetic knowledge production, almost as a form of validation.  This paper queries the modes of public-ization at stake in such ‘internalizations,’ with a focus on the newly funded Cambridge Genetics Knowledge Park, a public health genetics initiative formed to enable a socially robust genomics.  What kind of representational politics, in all the senses, are on offer here? 

Punt to culture: software objects and legal instruments

Christopher Kelty, Rice University

Free software/open source software combine alternative forms of software production and alternative schemes of intellectual property licensing.  The meeting yields some strange wonders that intrigue programmers, lawyers, politicians and social scientists equally. These software systems and licenses are peculiar items for science studies: they are object-like, but not material; they are private property, but they are publically available; they are performative and expressive representations, but they are often quite unreadable; they are commercial but not corporate; they require expertise, but are designed to function automatically.  This paper presents observations on a meeting of lawyers, engineers, educators and an anthropologist that lays bare how science studies misunderstands politics and technology in ways that sharply diverge from how others misunderstand politics and technology. 

©2002 Christopher Kelty, Licensed under the Creative Commons Public License

Cellular politics and social futures

Hannah Landecker, Rice University

Much contemporary bioscientific research could be described as depending on decontextualization or practices that dis-embed things from their usual place in the world.  Central to many of the techniques of transgenesis and cellular manipulation is the extraction of sequences of DNA, proteins, nuclei, whole cells, and other fragments and the subsequent maintenance of them outside the body altogether, or re-embedding them in a different technology, cell, animal,  or species.  What happens then to the politics of these things?  This paper will examine the use of the term "human" as an adjective attached to smaller and smaller units of matter inserted in ever new and strange biological contexts.  This case study confronts the notion of biological objects as embodying or embedded in politics with practical situations in which the basis of technoscientific action, exchange, and change is the constant fragmentation and novel reconstruction of those very objects.