ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Panel information

Science, risk and discovery

Contact Convenor: Jonathan Skinner

School of Social and Health Sciences, University of Abertay Dundee
Scotland, DD1 1HG.

Tel: 01382-308703 

Co-Convenor: John Eade 

Panel abstract

The nature of science is often held up as one of self-calibrating advancement, a march forwards as new territories and techniques are discovered and colonised – from eighteenth century journeys of exploration and mapping to twentieth century human genome mapping and manipulation. The nature of scientific inquiry and practice has not been nurtured without culture, however, as many anthropological - and sociological – commentators are keen to point out. Recently, science has been stripped naked by the likes of Traweek, Nader, Rabinow and others in their ethnographic dissections. Risk as an adjunct topic and assessment practice - one underpinned by scientific tenets and credentials and manipulated by insurance brokers, construction planners and medical consultants - has come under scrutiny by Beck, Giddens and Douglas as well as their critics. And throughout the history of anthropological thought there has been a challenging engagement with scientific discovery: a sceptical consideration of how scientific hypotheses are tested and ‘universal’ laws extrapolated; concerned debates into logic, rationality and Western science, the burden of proof and validation criteria.

This panel is especially interested in exploring the connections and disjunctions anthropologists make between Science, risk and discovery. We welcome submissions touching upon the above and/or in the following general areas: historical and contemporary discovery stories and journeys made by scientists (and anthropologists); the il/logical narratives of scientific thought; the interpretation narratives of scientific data such as statistics; similar and different lay/indigenous and expert understandings and applications of science; ‘scientific’ and anthropological discoveries and dead ends; the anthropologist as scientific explorer; examples and analyses of the culture, nature and narrative of science.

Anthropological fieldwork as serendipity and science

Judith Okely, University of Hull

In so far as the earlier anthropological fieldworkers adapted practices from biological training, they were influenced by specific scientific practices.  This was not because they treated people as silent objects, but because it was considered important to understand subjects in their total context and environment. Such practices contrast with laboratory techniques and the ideology of science as appropriated by positivism. The latter has, for decades, governed practices in other empirical social science research, despite sociology's theoretical repudiation of positivism. Their emphasis has been on detachment, the replicated survey, the quantifiable and the generalisable. By contrast, anthropologists have focused on dialogue, intensive participation, multi-faceted detail and the cross cultural counter-example. Since anthropologists have not formalised their methods, a lacuna has been occupied in the pedagogy of social science methods which privileges ‘scientised’ formulae.

Extensive dialogues between the author and leading anthropologists on how they actually engaged with fieldwork, reveals their persistent, though sometimes apologetic transgression of orthodoxies. Yet they intuitively conducted fieldwork in accord with what the paper argues to be key practices in science, rather than any simplistic mimicry. The anthropologists' practices included:  holism in contrast to operationalised hypotheses; openness to serendipity and chance; and the vision of fieldwork as discovery and risk, not controlled testing. Subjective sensitivity undermines the ghost of the distanced observer.  Anthropological research draws on readiness for the original and unexpected, rather than the mechanical and unimaginative pursuance of procedures.

Gender immunity: Matzinger’s personal risk and paradigm shift in the biological sciences

Andrea Stöckl, University of Cambridge

In this paper, I would like to take a narrative of a paradigm shift in the biological science of immunology as a starting point to explore two issues relating to risk and danger. First, if one looks a the history of the scientific knowledge of the immune system throughout the twentieth century, the immune system had always been defined as a self-organising system that recognises self versus non-self and thus defends the body from intruders. In the early 90’s of the last century, this paradigm shifted because a young female immunologist, Polly Matzinger, claimed to have found out that the immune system is not about self versus non-self, but about recognition of danger. And second, this paradigm shift led to a debate amongst people who suffer from immune system disorders and autoimmune disorders. Suddenly, their disorders were no longer about self-attack, but about ‘danger’. In my presentation, I am going to follow the trajectory of Matzinger’s discovery – which was full of personal risks – and link it to narratives of risk and danger of people who suffer from immune system disorders. The analysis of the metaphors of ‘risk’ to a shift of ‘danger’ will, naturally, be at the centre of attention.

Science, prediction and selling power on Mount Chance, Montserrat

Jonathan Skinner, University of Oxford

The narrative of the 1995 volcanic eruption of Mount Chance, Montserrat, has been told by scientists, branded by tourist operators, and anthropomorphised by many Montserratians.  This paper looks at the path which many of the reactions to the volcano have shifted from the unexpected to the measured and the predicted.

All those who have to understand, make sense and come to terms with the volcano do so by reasoning dramatically, by framing the risk statistics, views of the volcano - and vulcanologists and government in their own terms.  The public understanding of science is thus a personal understanding of science, one which has changed drastically throughout the course of the first 7 years of the volcano’s eruption.  This paper will present the changing public and private faces of the science utilised, strategically deployed and relied upon by so many.  In so doing, volcano tourism, migration push/pull factors, risk zones and risk reactions, and interpretative issues will be touched upon.

Lies, damn lies and statistics: the risky business of quantifying
minority ethnic communities

John Eade, University of Surrey Roehampton

Bangladeshi settlement in Britain has largely attracted qualitative studies by anthropologists, sociologists, geographers and social policy researchers. However, the 1991 Census introduced a question on ethnicity which led to the first detailed quantitative analysis by Ceri Peach, Tim Vamplew and myself. The data produced a different model of `community' than the one I and others had generated raising a number of questions about the relationship between quantitative and qualitative research on emerging social groups engaged in transnational migration. Data will soon be available from the 2001 Census not only on ethnicity but also, for the first time, on religion. It is a good time, therefore, to reflect on the different interpretations shaped by quantitative and qualitative methods and the risks involved in anthropologists' engagement with those differences.

Risking the future: childhood and the "science" of probability

Allison James, University of Hull

This paper will examine the position of children.  Constructed, reconstructed, quarantined and denied equal rights by adults, children - and their parents - now have to contend with the quantitative face of public science and government scientists and with the risks which these appear to describe for 'our' children. For example, according to health statistics, 1 in 10 toddlers are obese, 25% of teenagers are stressed, 200,000 British children are on psychiatric medication, and yet, ironically, the life expectancy of children has increased by 10 years since the Second World War.  This paper seeks therefore to address the extent to which the perpetuation of scientific standardized norms and generalized indicators and predictors of the risks to children’s health are working as a new form of regulation for children (and their parents).

It does so by asking how concepts of risk shape understandings of childhood and therefore, a key theme running through this paper is the role which the 'science' of probability might play in such constructions of childhood.  In particular, the paper will explore what impact this reliance upon a new wave of psychology, developmental testing and modern anthropometry might be having on childhood with regard to both childhood's present status and its futurity.  From the perspective of policy makers, practitioners and parents, and most importantly children themselves, this paper explores therefore the role which ‘science’ plays in the construction of different kinds of childhood futures.

The language of consumer choice and the construction of risk-thinking in maternity care in the UK

Chris McCourt, Thames Valley University

This paper focuses specifically on the application of the science of screening technologies to maternal care in the UK. In recent decades the development of obstetric and other medical technologies has gained pace. A growing range and sophistication of screening technologies have been introduced into routine maternity care and the use of genetic screening is expected to increase further. Social scientists and psychologists have already discussed the possible impact of such a risk-screening orientation on women’s experiences of pregnancy, and of stress and anxiety. There has been less attention given to processes of risk screening, or to the connections between the phenomenological level of the woman’s experience, and the wider cultural context.

The paper will discuss the ways in which risk and choice are presented and constructed during the process of care, drawing on observation of midwife-mother interaction, interviews and informal discussions with mothers and midwives. In current maternity care, risk is a topic of concern and risk management is becoming a major industry. It has been cited as an important driver of medicalisation, alongside the notion of consumer choice, but the concepts and nature of risk (or of choice) being used is rarely deconstructed in practice or in policy.

Science, risk and audit in the clinical setting

Lucia M. Tanassi, University of Cambridge

The paper examines clinical and lay notions of risk in obstetrics, and their relation to professional accountabilities and audit processes. Considerably old obstetric procedures (i.e. episiotomy) were “discovered” in the post WWII period, and implemented as routines that epitomised “good practice”; this process of discovery was in fact a process of adoption of an old procedure that made sense within a new obstetric ethos. The paper argues that the implementation of these obstetric procedures as routines is rooted in a scientific obstetric tradition where the pregnant and birthing body is seen as unpredictable and “risky”; in addition patient’s compliance with obstetric routines, and reliance on those routines to dissipate anxieties about pregnancy and the birth process also underscore the importance of such scientific obstetric tradition. The paper considers how risk anxiety has profoundly affected how patients and practitioners view their roles and responsibilities in the birthplace, and argues that some obstetric routines have become a means of informal audit across occupational categories (clinicians and midwives). Although a mounting body of clinical evidence-based literature has shown the use of such routines unjustified (episiotomy, etc) their endurance should be understood in conjunction with clinical and lay risk notions and anxieties, and the accountability needs of educational institutions and medical systems as a whole

What risk? Scientists, media and public in the Balkan war syndrome

Cristiana Bastos & Ana Delicado, Universidade de Lisboa

In December 1999, in light of news concerning the deaths or diseases of several European soldiers, the parents of the  21 year old Portuguese soldier Hugo Paulino, who had died earlier that year of unknown causes after a military mission in Bosnia, demanded a public investigation. The case triggered a public discussion on the “Balkan syndrome”, understood as a hypothetical set of pathologies affecting people who had been in military actions in the former Yugoslavia.  The media displayed generic fears about unknown risks and vaguely evoked the poorly known Gulf-war-syndrome. Yet the prevailing argument asked for a scientific explanation for the “syndrome” or its dismissal. The use of weapons with depleted uranium in the Balkans was singled out as the possible cause for the identified leukaemias among soldiers and policemen returning from Bosnia and Kosovo. The government sponsored research missions to explore levels of radiation in the military field sites and a medical assessment of all involved. Concluding that radiation levels were insignificant, the case for an exceptional risk was dismissed. The issue vanished from the media by the end of March.

In this paper we will analyse the ways in which different social actors (the sick and their families, soldiers, government, professional organisations, different scientists who participated in the debates, opinion makers) perceived and produced (a) notions of risk and re-assurance and (b) the centrality of “scientific assessments” and their relationship to politics.

Forging real links between natural and social science to resolve pan-European ecological conflict: cormorant-fisheries as an example

D. Carss & M. Marzano, University of Durham & CEH Banchory

Two great challenges for environmental scientists are the conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable management of natural resources. Both are affected by conflicts between people making a living from natural resources and those wishing to conserve them. Cormorant populations have expanded dramatically across Europe bringing them into conflict with fisheries interests. Historically, natural science has provided rigorous data to inform the debate but had limited success in reducing the conflict. This is partly because the ‘traditional’ science hierarchy of useful knowledge (refereed papers > grey literature > anecdote) seldom applies to conflicts that are largely fuelled by perception and anecdote. Our pan-European approach involves natural and social scientists and key ‘stakeholders’ in a joint project where all views are addressed. Natural scientists have been forced to consider and understand the relationships between lay/indigenous and expert understandings and applications of science. We have moved from a position where science was expected to deliver a solution to the conflict, through a period when stakeholders thought science was a waste of time and money, to a novel situation. All those involved now understand that only through natural and social scientists working together can we hope to offer choices for the gradual resolution of cormorant-fisheries conflicts.

What shall we do about MMR? Scientific debate, risk, and parents’ decision-making experiences

Rachel Casiday, University of Durham

How do parents make decisions in the face of frightening, contradictory reports about risk? Wakefield's 1998 publication of a suspected link between the MMR immunisation and autism initiated an impassioned debate about the vaccine's safety. The Department of Health insists that the vaccine is not only safe, but also a vital component of its preventive strategy, and has launched a £3 million campaign to promote this policy. Other widely publicised researchers claim that the medical establishment is 'blinded by dogma' and has not performed adequate studies to determine the vaccine's safety.

Caught in the middle of this debate are parents evaluating reports of the potential dangers of MMR, on the one hand, and on the other the risk of exposing their children to dangerous diseases.  These scientific claims are filtered through personal experiences and relationships, and parents' attitudes range from passively following official policy to actively contesting medical authority. Anthropology can bring these issues into focus by exploring lay concepts of risk, and the socio-cultural contexts of the debate. This paper presents preliminary findings from focus groups and ethnographic interviews eliciting UK parents' experiences of deciding whether their children should have MMR, and describes how parents engage in and assess the 'scientific' debate about risk.

Paradigms lost: kinship, science and discovery in the Pacific

Mary Patterson, University of Melbourne

In 1981, historian of science Ian Langham published an account of the institutional and disciplinary origins of British Social Anthropology, in which he argued that the ‘discovery’ of a six section kinship system in the island of Ambrym in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) was a kind of test case problem that helped to establish the scientific credentials of the fledgling discipline.According to Langham, anthropology was ‘An infant discipline aspiring to live up to its name and become a true “science of man”…[it] seized upon the task of accurately analyzing and specifying kinship systems as a major means of advancing its claim to scientific status’. The interpretation of the ‘Ambrym system’ like other famous ‘puzzles’ in kinship theory, has been a microcosm of the disciplines’s history but for Langham it was the ‘discovery’ of an hypothesized system of kinship that showed the scientific efficacy of anthropological method and ensured the status of the anthropological hero who, as it transpired, sacrificed his life in the apparent pursuit of the discipline’s advancement. The abandonment of kinship studies since the 1980s and their recent reformulation and revival, are a phase that signifies a particularly interesting moment in anthropology’s relationship with science. In this paper I use the history of this particular ‘problem’ and its analysis to discuss the broader issue of the status of kinship studies within anthropology, a discipline whose current relationship with science is deeply ambivalent.