ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

New Methods in the Anthropology of Science and Technologies – Postgraduate Perspectives

Contact Convenor: Hannah Knox

Co-convenors: Mattia Fumanti, Susanne Langer

Panel abstract

Using the anthropology of science and technology as its focus this panel wants to ask what contributions post-graduate researchers can make to the introduction, application and evaluation of new research methods? It also aims to provide a platform to present papers, exchange ideas and engage in stimulating discussions.

During the last decade anthropology as a discipline has undergone a considerable expansion and reorientation, both geographically and in terms of its research interests. The demand for new approaches to the subject and new methods of research was an important corollary of this change. The methodological challenges faced by anthropologists conducting research in science and technology included questions such as how to study dispersed, or virtual communities? How to study up ? How to follow decentralised networks? Or how to engage with other approaches to research, science or technology in the context of fieldwork, to name but a few? The search for answer introduced the discipline to new methods such as Actor-Network Theory, multi-sited ethnographies, the anthropological study of a technology and the use of a technology itself, such as email or the Internet, as a research tool.

Fro the purpose of this panel we would like to hear in what ways have those new methods affected your research? What were your experiences as an anthropologist in the field and in what ways have they influenced the choice of your methods or your final analysis? Do you think post-graduate researchers can make a distinct contributions to the methodology used in anthropology?

Though all papers dealing with some of the issues above are welcome, we would be particularly interested in contributions that are situated outside the boundaries of Western Europe or North America, or research that has applied some of the aforementioned methods innovatively outside the context of the anthropology of science and technology.

Science at the ‘grassroots’: observations from the Sundarbans of West Bengal

Amites Mukhopadhyay, Goldsmiths College

The present paper focuses on the activities of two ‘grassroots’ organisations doing development in the Sundarbans delta of West Bengal. The organisations are Centre for Agricultural Development (CAD hereafter) and Unnayan Sangathan (Development Forum, DF hereafter) . The former aims at sustainable agriculture in the Sundarbans, while the latter embarks upon consciousness raising campaigns to make people aware of the fatality of snake bites (a major problem in the Sundarbans) and to expose the hypocrisy and obscurantist practices of snake charmers and sorcerers (Gunin) whose treatment meted out to the victims often expedites death. Recently DF was involved in a campaign against the state government’s proposed Nuclear Power Plant in the Sundarbans. The power plant was proposed to be built on the pretext of generating electricity in the region.

What unites these two organisations engaged with diverse development issues is their reliance on science as a panacea for the problems of the region. With this aim in mind the voluntary agencies organise farmers’ training workshops on agronomy (as in the case of CAD) or snake or magic shows (as in the case of DF or DF’s public meetings or conventions in their protest against the proposed nuclear power plant) to encourage people’s participation, invest participants with scientific knowledge and instil in them a sense of common identity (a community of sustainable farmers or of concerned citizens). What I wish to problematise here is the assumed correspondence between people’s participation and the resultant community construction (identity making). It is necessary to disentangle people’s fragmentary consciousnesses and disparate practices from the broader processes of their participation in such events as farmer’s training workshops or snake shows or public meetings (as the case may be). These disparate practices are often at odds with the unifying awareness-raising campaigns launched by these development organisations.

The online 'tribal' community

Gordon Fletcher, Griffith University, Anita Greenhill and John Campbell

This paper examines an online community and our efforts to interpret the activites and actions of its participants. This research developed out a need to understand the data collected from an online stock market forum over a period of three years. Existing literature regarding online forums

tended to argue for, and promote, the major point of difference between these and more 'traditional' types of groups as being their 'virtuality'. Unfortunately, this did not offer us a clear direction for the interpretation of our data.

Through an understanding of this group as a 'tribal' community we examine the conflict and status of individual members identified within the group. We particularly focus on three status 'types', the Big Man and Woman, the sorcerer and the trickster. These status 'types' reference ethnographic

literature of 'traditional' cultural groups and this literature, in turn, provides indicative pathways for our own research of online groups.

While the parallel between traditional and online 'tribes' is by no means an absolute one and certainly no member of the 'tribal' community described themselves using these terms, many aspects of the traditional understanding of 'tribe' can be identified in the online group we examined. This position has enabled us to identify the complex interplay of discussions in the online forum in a consistent manner that is meaningful over the length of the data gathering period. The frequency  of these 'tribal' parallels also supports our position that 'virtuality' is not necessarily the sole or primary point of difference between the online and traditional cultural groups.

Theorising practice and practicing theory: anthropology and the study of techno-social worlds

Hannah Knox, University of Manchester

In my study of the localised processes of technical and economic development in Manchester I was struck by the difficulty of extrapolating one’s own theory from that of one’s participants. The setting of my fieldwork was an attempt to bring about the advancement of technical knowledge through a networked form of sociality, and the practitioners drew widely on social theory and research to inform their activities. In this paper I explore some problems with research at home, and ask how anthropologists can contribute something more than just a description of the indigenous theories we find ourselves sharing with research participants, and can offer intellectual insight on such objects as management techniques, projects of social change, the imposition of social networks and a concern with renewal and innovation. How might the questions anthropologists ask differ from or reflect the questions people are asking of themselves? To what extent is it necessary to maintain a separation between our interpretation as anthropologists and the interpretations and meanings people have of their own lives? Ultimately, to what degree does this kind of anthropological research become an exercise in auto-analysis as we find ourselves observing and writing about people who are sensitive to and interested in social theory as a way of interpreting and acting upon their own workplace settings?

Internet clinical trials:  examining new disciplinary experiments in health care

Jenny Advocat, Monash University, Melbourne

As the Internet becomes more easily accessible for people throughout the world, it also becomes more mundane.  That is to say, as the internet is slowly incorporated into everyday life in increasingly novel ways, the general public is less and less critical of its presence.  New technology has always been an important part of generating biomedical knowledge.  Internet-based clinical trials are the latest example of how technology is involved in altering the relationships between medical institutions and society that could have the potential to drastically change the creation, delivery and access to health care.  An Anthropology of science, technology and medicine is well-suited to examine the ways in which relationships (such as doctor-patient) are rearticulated in light of the deployment of new technologies in biomedicine.  Unlike other anthropological research projects, there is no specific “field” from which one can understand the complex interactions between health care researcher, consumer and provider.  Today, given the scope of technologies such as the Internet, the science, technology and medical field is in a state of flux as new techno-human hybrids are in a state of continual (re)-constitution.  This paper examines how Internet-based clinical trials may create socio-technical networks that form new kinds of subjects as an effect of the attempted re-shaping of health and technology governmental programmes.  Using Foucault’s notion of governmentality as well as Actor-Network Theory, I will discuss the way in which the internet is co-opted for biomedical research as an experimental disciplinary technology to constitute, normalize and shape the conduct of nomadic consumer-subjects for the purposes of developing new regimes of governing the health of populations.

Nationalism and socialism in Cuba's biotechnology industry

Simon Reid-Henry, University of Cambridge

This paper looks at the development of a biotechnology industry in Cuba as a coming together of state, science and capital in a postsocialist context.  It shows that the claims that socialism and nationalism make on biotech were such that biotech came to be pursued in an aggressive and unique manner based around dedicated projects to meet national requirements.  Biotech became an examplar of the revolutions achievements in health and science.

More significantly, as biotechnology emerged as a new way of doing development, it simultaneously offered new ways of being Cuban, or realising the national project of Cubanidad.  The paper therefore explores the ways in which ideas of socialism and nationalism in Cuba come to be played out within the field of biotechnology.  Given the global orientations of this industry, such debates about Cubanidad must necessarily be articulated in a more international context.  The paper shows how the contradictions which arise are overcome through invocations of discourses on property and sovereignty.

‘Protecting patients’: anthropological reflections on the role of institutionalised medical ethics

Susanne Langer, Manchester University

Anthropology has undergone considerable change during recent decades, including the development of anthropology ‘at home’. This diversification represented a whole new research environment, which demanded the creation of new research techniques, as well as the adaptation of well-established ones. Drawing on my own experience of doing fieldwork in the National Health Service in the UK (NHS), I would like to show that anthropology and anthropologists not only adapt to these new circumstances, but are also modified by them.

The NHS has in recent years undergone tremendous alterations, deeply informed by the tenets of neo-liberalism. For the purpose of this paper the most important changes involve the creation of an ‘audit society’ (Power, 1997) leaving in its wake an endless paper trail and the concept of the patient as client, a customer with choices and rights. These two streams converge in the form of Local Research Ethics Committees (LRECs). Taking LRECs as my focus, I want to explore ways in which the notion of the patient as client is elaborated and the influence these committees exert in shaping the planning, practise and presentation of anthropological research; and what happens to genuine concerns about ethics in the process.

Visions of the future: technology in Hungarian civil society, how is it seen and how it might be researched

Tom Wormald, University of Manchester

The question of ‘new’ methodologies is perhaps better phrased as the need to improve our understanding of experiences -as both participants and observers- of technologies.  In researching the role of computers in Hungarian civil society I have found gathering information and engaging with participants to be a wholly integrated mixture of face-to-face encounters, immersed participant observation and online interaction. The geographically dispersed members of the “Teleház,” (Telecottage) organisation at which I am conducting my research are themselves united organisationally through a mixture of face-to-face and Internet-based interaction.  A significant project is the közháló (PublicNet), a hardware network aimed at providing civil inclusion and services through broadband access in rural communities under COMMON ownership and CIVIL direction. This highlights how crucial it is to understand civil society through the connections, both physical and electronic, between and across NGOs or the ‘community’ in terms of the structural nature of the network itself.  Different kinds of connection have different political properties, how do they differently ‘bond’ people ‘into’ a society?  When it comes to considering “the role of computers in a developing civil society,” we must also look at “the development a valid research methodology involving computers.”  The Teleház movement, and consequently my own research, exist concurrently in a ‘geographical’ and an ‘electronic’ domain and thus question the kinds of delineation often made between these realms in terms of both the research subject and the research itself. 

Discussant: Sarah Franklin, Lancaster University