ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Plenary panel three

Science, knowledge and modernity 

Convenor: Penny Harvey

Panel abstract

This panel will focus on the theme of science and public culture. One of the general aims for this session is to engage those people who think that they don’t work on science by drawing attention to the ubiquity of a certain kind of scientific thinking that inflects how public culture is constituted and how it effects peoples daily lives. Or to put it another way, the panel will explore some of the debates around the public understanding of science in relation to the political and economic truths of contemporary public culture. I am particularly interested in exploring how ethnographic knowledge operates in such contexts. The power of the ethnographic method relies on the ways in which ethnography can identify or locate the spaces between discipline and imagination in the processes of truth making. Ethnography mediates different kinds of knowledge and modes of reasoning, as we search for evidence beyond immediate empirical facts, and simultaneously work with the self-evidence of embodied knowledge, to produce the compelling and immediate appeal of ethnographic accounts. Panellists will discuss these issues in relation to processes of political engagement in contexts where people knowingly engage the truths of science and modernity in ways that seek to recast the shape and effect of such knowledge practices.

Finland as information society: an anthropological critique

Eeva Berglund, Independent researcher

The consensus across Finnish public institutions, including academia, is that the country is a model of the information society, and can be proud of its recent successes. To cast an ethnographic eye over the recent transformation means bringing not just technology, but science and technology policy into relief. To examine the justifications as well as the trajectories and implications of this policy, is to find that scientific thinking is inextricably part of 'Finnish thinking' across all public arenas.

The relationship is historically specific, rooted as it is in the development of Finnish technoscience, commerce and independence. But the story has implications for how anthropology approaches the study of technoscience everywhere. For the anthropological critique of the hype inevitably questions most of the basic assumptions of social sciences, not least the lingering impermeability of the boundary between science and non-science.

Bodily practices and rebirth

Akhil Gupta, Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology, Stanford University

This paper looks at one of the most interesting features of reincarnation to ask some difficult questions of theories of the body. Reincarnation narratives stress that the memories of a past life exist not only in the thoughts of a person but also, and more significantly, in his or her gestures, expressions, and bodily hexis. The corporeality of the body has proved to be a fertile arena for making connections between abstract forces such as discourses and social structures and the concrete particulars of agency and everyday life. On the one hand, reincarnation troubles the solidity of the body, because the religious and philosophical literature on reincarnation represents the body as a temporary haven for an endlessly wandering soul. Some Hindu understandings of the body, for example, posit it as not in principle different from clothes, to be used temporarily and then discarded. On the other hand, theories of reincarnation have a lot in common with accounts that see the body as constituted at the intersection of historical, cultural, and social discourses, insofar as such theories radically decenter a subject from which social action and change emanate. Reincarnation also raises fascinating issues regarding the social transmission of bodily practices across generations and the disciplining of the organism through childrearing practices.

Anthropology in outer spaces: invitations to abduction in a new key

Debbora Battaglia, Professor of Anthropology, Mount Holyoke College

This paper is drawn from conventional fieldwork and cyberethnography in the social spaces of the Raelian Religion. The foundational myth of Raelian neo-creationism holds that human beings were created by extraterrestrial scientists “in their own image” through reproductive cloning. On one level, the paper offers the complexifying “supplement” of ethnographic knowledge and experience into the mix of media-driven cloning discourse, inviting us to examine our anthropological project in the light of unconventional assumptions about humanness and human sociality. On another level, it argues that an understanding of the “outer spaces” of technoscience spirituality - including the cultural imaginaries, social practices, and material consequences of a fetishized discourse of the alien that in many respects appears to be making itself up as it goes along – illuminates the “inner spaces” of alternative intellectual and spiritual communities across the global ethnoscape, inviting us to consider what counts as evidence and truth and for whom, in an increasingly fraught modernity.