Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.MM.12.2.9 | PDF


(Imag­in­ing) Sci­ence for Trou­bled Times Rebec­ca Carlson

(Imagining) Science for Troubled Times: A Mouse, a Bird, and a Threshold for Collaboration

Rebec­ca Carlson

Although bio­log­i­cal life and human social com­plex­i­ty are fun­da­men­tal­ly inter­de­pen­dent, bio­log­i­cal and social researchers con­tin­ue to per­ceive each oth­er from across divides of the­o­ret­i­cal, method­olog­i­cal, and insti­tu­tion­al skep­ti­cism. This paper con­sid­ers con­ver­sa­tion­al bound­ary work between qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive sci­en­tists as an insti­tu­tion­al­ized rhetor­i­cal per­for­mance which throt­tles their coop­er­a­tion, even in the face of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic when it is most urgent­ly need­ed. As an exam­ple, I look at the way famil­iar epis­te­mo­log­i­cal con­flicts emerged out of col­lab­o­ra­tion between myself and a bio­sci­en­tist dur­ing the spring of 2020, when co-par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Mas­sive Micro­scop­ic Sense­mak­ing Project, a 21-day inter­na­tion­al auto-ethno­graph­ic writ­ing experiment.

Bien que la vie biologique et la com­plex­ité sociale humaine soient fon­da­men­tale­ment inter­dépen­dantes, les chercheurs en biolo­gie et en sci­ences sociales con­tin­u­ent de se percevoir à tra­vers les cli­vages du scep­ti­cisme théorique, méthodologique et insti­tu­tion­nel. Cet arti­cle con­sid­ère le tra­vail de fron­tière con­ver­sa­tion­nel entre les sci­en­tifiques qual­i­tat­ifs et quan­ti­tat­ifs comme une per­for­mance rhé­torique insti­tu­tion­nal­isée qui lim­ite leur coopéra­tion, même face à la pandémie de COVID-19 lorsque cela est le plus urgent. À titre d’exemple, j’examine la manière dont des con­flits épisté­mologiques fam­i­liers ont émergé de la col­lab­o­ra­tion entre moi-même et un bio­sci­en­tifique au print­emps 2020, lorsque j’ai par­ticipé au Mas­sive Micro­scop­ic Sense­mak­ing Project, un pro­jet inter­na­tionale d’écriture auto-ethno­graphique de 21 jours.


A mouse at the threshold of circulation, otherwise known as a prologue

Figure 1: Mice with various coats, including piebald (top left), from the 1787 Japanese book Chingan Sodategusa, public domain. (Modified by author.)

The first bio­science pre­sen­ta­tion I attend­ed at the insti­tute where my research has been locat­ed began with an aside about a Japan­ese mouse. The pre­sent­ing sci­en­tist, the head of a Euro­pean lab vis­it­ing Japan for a virol­o­gy con­fer­ence, intro­duced his lab to the audi­ence with a pho­to of the “JF1/Ms,” or Japan­ese Fan­cy Mouse 1. The sci­en­tist explained that this Japan­ese mouse, marked grey and white due to its piebald allele, is an impor­tant part of his lab’s research, and he laughed a bit as he held the remote for the pro­jec­tor in his hand. By way of intro­duc­tion, I imag­ined the sci­en­tist hoped that the JF1/Ms would work like a bridge to link him to the most­ly Japan­ese post­docs and lab heads in atten­dance. After he moved on to the pur­pose of his talk, I was left won­der­ing about mice who trav­el across oceans, just like we do.

As sci­en­tif­ic mate­r­i­al in glob­al cir­cu­la­tion, I lat­er found that call­ing the JF1/Ms a ‘Japan­ese’ mouse was rather mis­lead­ing, a flat­ten­ing of its more con­vo­lut­ed his­to­ry. Although the JF1/Ms is said to have derived from “wild mice that inhab­it Japan wide­ly” (nihon ni hiroku seisoku suru yasei hat­sukanezu­mi),1 and appears in the 1787 book Chin­gan Sodate­gusa (pic­tured above), or How to Raise Rare Mice (see Ruben 2005, and also Tanave and Koide 2020), the Japan­ese Nation­al Insti­tute of Genet­ics (re)discovered the JF1/Ms in Den­mark where it had been avail­able as a pet mouse and brought it back to Japan for breed­ing and research. (The insti­tute even made a map to depict the JF1/Ms’s com­pli­cat­ed geo­graph­ic and genet­ic trav­els.2) Today, researchers any­where (with a suf­fi­cient bud­get) can pur­chase this inbred strain from insti­tutes in Japan or from the Jack­son Lab­o­ra­to­ry in Maine, who pro­vide mice mod­els as mate­r­i­al for genom­ic research. I was col­lect­ing this back­ground infor­ma­tion in order to use the JF1/Ms ana­lyt­i­cal­ly for my larg­er research project about the glob­al­iza­tion of Japan­ese bio­science and the cir­cu­la­tion of bio­sci­en­tif­ic mate­ri­als. But this presentation—just as my research was real­ly get­ting start­ed in full—was both the first and the last I was to attend, in per­son, at the institute.

In my very first inter­view with the lab super­vi­sor where I am con­duct­ing my ethno­graph­ic research, he com­plained about how hard it was for him to get sci­en­tif­ic mate­ri­als from out­side Japan. An Amer­i­can MD-PhD, the lab super­vi­sor had been head­ing his own lab­o­ra­to­ry for about six months at the insti­tute by the time I began my research there, and the admin­is­tra­tive frus­tra­tions he’d expe­ri­enced in set­ting up his lab­o­ra­to­ry and secur­ing the mate­ri­als he need­ed were still a recent mem­o­ry. At that time, our inter­ests coin­cid­ed: he was a for­eign researcher in Japan and I had been study­ing forms of Japan­ese glob­al­iza­tion, includ­ing the immi­gra­tion of Amer­i­cans, just like him, to Tokyo. He was an ide­al infor­mant because his expe­ri­ences spoke direct­ly to my research ques­tion, and he knew how to direct his obser­va­tions to what he thought would be use­ful for me. What mat­tered more was that he was inter­est­ed in what I was doing and want­ed to sup­port my research.

As part of my week­ly vis­its to the lab­o­ra­to­ry for par­tic­i­pant obser­va­tion, the lab super­vi­sor agreed to let me inter­view him for fif­teen min­utes. I’d join him in his glass office, a small space enclosed inside the larg­er office that was sep­a­rat­ed from the research labs across the hall where the lab mem­bers did their wet exper­i­ments. In that first inter­view, he told me about the expec­ta­tion he’d encoun­tered in the insti­tute that all the lab’s sci­en­tif­ic mate­ri­als, such as reagents, would be secured with­in Japan. When­ev­er he’d asked through admin­is­tra­tive chan­nels for approval of mate­ri­als from the Unit­ed States or the Unit­ed King­dom, he described the reac­tion of the Japan­ese staff as, “Do you real­ly need this?” Then he read to me an email from a sci­en­tist he knew in the Unit­ed States who want­ed to access mate­ri­als from a Japan­ese lab­o­ra­to­ry and was hav­ing the same trou­ble in reverse, com­plain­ing in the email of how slow the process was. This oth­er Amer­i­can sci­en­tist want­ed to know if the holdup had some­thing to do with pecu­liar­i­ties of Japan­ese sci­en­tif­ic prac­tice. For the lab super­vi­sor, let’s call him Tom, this lim­it on access was a clear bar­ri­er to doing good sci­ence. In talk­ing togeth­er lat­er about how per­son­al con­nec­tions between sci­en­tists can impact access to mate­ri­als, Tom told me that these net­works are, “impor­tant […] to get reagents […] to get emails replied to […] to get papers pub­lished. They’re impor­tant in all the ways it is impor­tant to do sci­ence.”3 In adapt­ing to the log­ics of sci­en­tif­ic cir­cu­la­tion in Japan, Tom was find­ing it nec­es­sary to build new local net­works to access mate­ri­als and practices.

When the first COVID-19 emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion start­ed in Tokyo in April 2020 and the research insti­tute asked sci­en­tists who could to work from home, I began to join the lab­o­ra­to­ry mem­bers online for their week­ly meet­ings. Tom soon wrote to me sug­gest­ing that I should find a way to share my “aca­d­e­m­ic per­spec­tive on the glob­al spread of an emerg­ing virus.” At first, I hes­i­tat­ed, and in response he joked through email about ambu­lance chasers and virtue-sig­nal­ing in Twit­ter feeds, but then remind­ed me: “[Y]ou have spent a year study­ing glob­al­iza­tion of virol­o­gy research, vis­it­ing and even doing exper­i­ments in a ‘glob­al’ lab […] It would be valu­able to put it in writ­ing, that’s all I’m say­ing.” Around the same time, I saw the call for the Mas­sive Micro­scop­ic Sense­mak­ing (MMS) project and pro­posed to Tom that we par­tic­i­pate col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly. I sug­gest­ed he could gen­er­ate his own field notes about work­ing from home (the wet exper­i­ments in his lab­o­ra­to­ry were large­ly on hold and his post­docs shift­ed to plan­ning in the slow down), and I would use them as ethno­graph­ic mate­r­i­al in the final paper which we would co-author. He replied imme­di­ate­ly that the project seemed inter­est­ing to him since it was “a venue that pre­vents treat­ing the communication/result as too pre­cious, which I real­ly like.” But he clar­i­fied he wouldn’t be able to do much de novo. Tom start­ed a Google doc­u­ment the same day, titling it Field notes on start­ing COVID-19 research while work­ing from home, and for­ward­ed me the link with his first entries already com­plet­ed. They were dat­ed like a diary and set­tled most­ly on the some­what frus­trat­ing tran­si­tion he was mak­ing to work­ing online. His first posts from the shared doc­u­ment state:

4.27.20 - Dis­cus­sion in the ani­mal room with a col­league at my insti­tute who is already work­ing on COVID-19. This only hap­pened because we are both phys­i­cal­ly present in this same space. Col­lab­o­ra­tive sci­ence often grows out of infor­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tions about exist­ing work, and we will need to think of how to cre­ate new spaces to bump into one oth­er in the increas­ing­ly tele­worked future.

4.28.20 - Brain­storm with Toshi [pseu­do­nym] about how to rep­re­sent this col­lab­o­ra­tion in an intu­itive and con­crete fig­ure. This was an in-per­son inter­ac­tion using a white­board, which I can­not do vir­tu­al­ly very eas­i­ly, yet. Need to find a way.”

Tom’s tran­si­tion­al con­cerns along with my research focus on sci­en­tif­ic glob­al­iza­tion and gen­er­al fix­a­tion with bound­ary cross­ing inspired me to write our abstract in appli­ca­tion to the MMS project about the impact COVID-19 was hav­ing on sci­en­tif­ic cir­cu­la­tions. After read­ing my abstract draft, Tom remind­ed me:

In addi­tion to build­ing new bor­ders, [tele­work, COVID…] removes some. E.g. we start­ed a jour­nal club with col­leagues in Kyoto, and I par­tic­i­pat­ed in one inter­na­tion­al jour­nal club. But these don’t get the work done when it comes to start­ing work requir­ing new bio­log­i­cal mate­ri­als, etc.”

Start­ing with these obser­va­tions, I made a table in our shared doc­u­ment to help track the slow­ing down and speed­ing up of the var­i­ous sci­en­tif­ic mate­ri­als and inter­ac­tions that Tom direct­ed my atten­tion to in his notes. But before we were even accept­ed to the project, Tom and I began what would devel­op into a months-long con­ver­sa­tion­al inter­view, inside the doc­u­ment and through email.

In the end, we wrote very lit­tle (pro­duc­tive­ly) for the MMS project, Tom even less as he was busy with his work, and very lit­tle about sci­en­tif­ic cir­cu­la­tions. Instead, we veered more into stak­ing out our dif­fer­ent dis­ci­pli­nary per­spec­tives on top­ics such as objec­tiv­i­ty and sci­en­tif­ic truth-mak­ing. We eval­u­at­ed each other’s broad con­cep­tu­al tools, at times skep­ti­cal­ly, and drew bound­aries around our ideas to see where they over­lapped. For a time, we hov­ered lim­i­nal­ly (and for me, hope­ful­ly4) between our assigned sub­ject posi­tions as ‘quan­ti­ta­tive’ and ‘qual­i­ta­tive’ sci­en­tif­ic researchers, and our rhetor­i­cal dif­fer­ences, sub­ject­ing our ideas and con­cepts to clas­si­fi­ca­tion and reclas­si­fi­ca­tion; and, I think for both of us, want­i­ng to cross over those dis­ci­pli­nary-informed bor­ders. Some­where in the mid­dle of our con­ver­sa­tion, Tom asked me if I had ever read the book Flat­land: A Romance of Many Dimen­sions (1884). He told me: “I read that book in mid­dle school, and I real­ly want to read it again. I want to have the humil­i­ty of a flat­lander who is made aware of anoth­er dimen­sion.” In the end, the geneal­o­gy of our dis­cus­sions shows our attempt to come togeth­er across this dichoto­mous gap between our knowl­edges and tech­niques, and to see these oth­er dimen­sions. It was per­haps in part because of our diver­gent pri­or­i­ties for how to com­mu­ni­cate our shared views through lan­guage, and the ques­tion of their val­ue, that Tom chose to with­draw from our col­lab­o­ra­tion in this text (although he con­tin­ued to read and com­ment on the many drafts and tan­gents that followed).

Subject/object indispensability, or what should be an introduction

Figure 2: Objects crossing borders, becoming subjects. Images from British Library Collection, public domain. (Collage by author.)

Cir­cu­la­tions always trou­ble seem­ing­ly ready-made, com­mon-sense cat­e­gories. Things and peo­ple on the move cross over prac­ti­cal and sym­bol­ic bound­aries, often rat­tling them or mak­ing them come undone. Objects in cir­cu­la­tion, Christo­pher B. Stein­er explains, get removed from their “orig­i­nal cul­tur­al con­texts,” rein­ter­pret­ed under new insti­tu­tion­al log­ics and stripped of their charis­ma (1996, 208). Although Stein­er is focused specif­i­cal­ly on the legal prac­tices which act on transna­tion­al art­work to assess their val­ue and right of entry, his obser­va­tions on the reclas­si­fi­ca­tion of goods as they pass through nation­al “bor­der zones” apply equal­ly pro­duc­tive­ly to peo­ple and ideas, to the JF1/Ms and even Tom. Steiner’s analy­sis is a reminder that things don’t trav­el unconstrained—mice don’t get to Europe and come back to Japan with­out pass­ing through var­i­ous trans­for­ma­tive practices—just as their cir­cu­la­tion is always sub­ject to, and par­tic­i­pat­ing in, “bound­ary work” (Gieryn 1999, Moats & Seaver 2019). In my own research in the lab­o­ra­to­ry, I was specif­i­cal­ly attuned to, or look­ing for, these bor­der zones; for exam­ple, the moments when sci­en­tif­ic mate­ri­als and prac­tices might become, for exam­ple, cul­tur­al­ly re-signified—marked as Japan­ese or Amer­i­can, sub­ject to reval­u­a­tion under this label and then insert­ed into pre­de­ter­mined chan­nels of move­ment, like get­ting ear­marked for dis­tri­b­u­tion along pri­or­i­tized (nation­al) net­works. When the pan­dem­ic began and I tran­si­tioned to remote research, I began to think of Steiner’s bor­der zones, which I have drawn on in my pre­vi­ous research, as equiv­a­lent to Vic­tor Turner’s thresh­old stage of lim­i­nal­i­ty, that moment of extend­ed ambi­gu­i­ty as peo­ple-things cross over or defy cat­e­go­riza­tion and hov­er for a time in between (1969).

But what does any of this have to do with thresh­olds and bound­ary work, or sci­en­tif­ic mate­ri­als in cir­cu­la­tion like the Japan­ese Fan­cy Mouse 1, and even Tom him­self? I think this is typ­i­cal­ly where I am expect­ed, if I am a com­pe­tent aca­d­e­m­ic, to bring the threads of this begin­ning togeth­er, to insert a few sen­tences to explain what this arti­cle is real­ly about. Here, I should address the sig­nif­i­cance of the col­lab­o­ra­tive con­ver­sa­tion Tom and I engaged in dur­ing the emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion, and why it might be valu­able for oth­ers to read about. After all, this is para­graph eight already and you, read­er, may rea­son­ably be won­der­ing where all this is going. In an ear­li­er draft of this arti­cle, I attempt­ed to use our dis­cus­sions as a call for bio­sci­en­tists and anthro­pol­o­gists to work togeth­er more on top­ics relat­ed to human health,5 and to find bet­ter ways to talk to each oth­er; but it felt too naive and over­run by a growth of too many top­ics and ideas (thank you to anony­mous review­ers for stress­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly this last part). Although below I attempt to give a clear­er frame­work for what pre­cedes and fol­lows, truth­ful­ly, I feel all my attempts at analy­sis are con­tin­u­al­ly unrav­el­ing, and maybe worse, poten­tial­ly mis­lead­ing. Neat, com­plete answers, ethno­graph­ic rib­bons which tie up all the messy threads of data, as if sud­den­ly, eas­i­ly crys­tal­lized (out of what are real­ly oth­er people’s com­plex lived real­i­ties, with me tan­gled in them), feel like too much arti­fice right now. But I remain moti­vat­ed by the desire to find a shared space for cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gists and biol­o­gists to work more col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly on issues of pub­lic health than I think they tend to. This feels vital­ly impor­tant to me in the face of a viral pan­dem­ic that is, like all human dis­ease, shaped pow­er­ful­ly by glob­al social inequal­i­ties (see for exam­ple, Wise 2020). In read­ing an ear­ly draft, Tom sug­gest­ed to me that this paper could be valu­able for oth­er bio­sci­en­tists, who “might feel sim­i­lar­ly com­pelled to try to see if there is a shared frame­work about truth with post­mod­ern thinkers/critical the­o­rists. Which is I think one of the things this paper is about.” (I always object­ed to the fact that Tom clas­si­fied me as post­mod­ern, par­tic­u­lar­ly as I wor­ried he wield­ed it sar­cas­ti­cal­ly, but even­tu­al­ly I accept­ed, writ­ing to him with a degree of hyper­bole, “If you con­sid­er po-mo to be the break­down of the ‘grand (uni­ver­sal­iz­ing) nar­ra­tive’ and a turn to reflex­iv­i­ty, then that is me, to a T”.) Tom often pushed me to think more about and ana­lyze the dif­fi­cul­ties bio­sci­en­tists face today in reach­ing oth­ers and in com­mu­ni­cat­ing their research, despite the growth of pre-fab­ri­cat­ed pub­li­ca­tion announce­ments on Twit­ter. He once told me in his glass office some­thing like, “sci­ence not com­mu­ni­cat­ed isn’t sci­ence,”6 and his insis­tence is influ­enc­ing me and the direc­tion of this work more than any­thing else. Still, I imag­ine biologists—in find­ing lit­tle direct depic­tion of, or con­nec­tion to, their dai­ly prac­tices in the lab—will have lit­tle patience to read this; or, more like­ly due to dis­ci­pli­nary skep­ti­cism, will be less like­ly to appre­ci­ate it as science.

For the rest of this arti­cle, then, I exam­ine our con­ver­sa­tions as an act of cross-dis­ci­pli­nary bound­ary work that reflects the ways cat­e­gor­i­cal, con­cep­tu­al, and insti­tu­tion­al­ized bor­ders are always being nego­ti­at­ed, reworked, and reaf­firmed in every­day con­ver­sa­tion. This is sim­i­lar to the obser­va­tion made by David Moats and Nick Seaver in their study of the appar­ent divide between “data sci­en­tists” and qual­i­ta­tive researchers:

When we speak of a “divide,” we are not argu­ing that it is desir­able, nat­ur­al, or inevitable, but are rather point­ing to an empir­i­cal phe­nom­e­non which man­i­fests in prac­tice as con­ver­sa­tion­al ten­sion, mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and, some­times, dis­putes.” (2019, 3)

When Tom called me “post­mod­ern” in the flow of our con­ver­sa­tion, it felt like an accu­sa­tion. At one point, he wrote some­thing sim­i­lar back to me: “Your tone here is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, maybe imply­ing what you assume about me.” At times, we didn’t approach each oth­er as peo­ple, but as cut-outs of our dis­ci­plines. These every­day prac­tices described by Moats and Seaver are impor­tant to ana­lyze because they are the rhetor­i­cal per­for­mances which sci­en­tists on either side of the divide use to make sense of, and often dis­miss, the oth­er. Per­haps they are not ‘nat­ur­al,’ yet these divi­sions do become nat­u­ral­ized, and rein­forced by insti­tu­tion­al sep­a­ra­tions; and as com­mon­sense, they close off oppor­tu­ni­ties for speak­ing, think­ing, and work­ing together.

Despite writ­ing to each oth­er on the cusp of a thresh­old, in the intro­spec­tive inter­sec­tion of a pub­lic health cri­sis and a peri­od of forced iso­la­tion, our goal to even­tu­al­ly write this paper togeth­er for the MMS project came undone. Just like (the mean­ing of) a mouse or a reagent shifts and trans­forms as it cross­es nation­al bor­ders, I found the pos­si­bil­i­ties for our col­lab­o­ra­tion chan­neled and con­strained by insti­tu­tion­al process­es and assump­tions of mean­ing and val­ue that I had bare­ly rec­og­nized previously—and which we were enact­ing, per­haps even uncon­scious­ly, in text. Those struc­tur­al bar­ri­ers were present in the way we spoke to each oth­er, the ques­tions we asked of each oth­er, and the way we did or did not lis­ten to our answers. Lim­i­nal­i­ty, I real­ized, is not the free-form site of trans­for­ma­tive pos­si­bil­i­ty I had ide­al­ized; instead, it is weighed down by cod­i­fied and insti­tu­tion­al­ized rit­u­als which define the pur­pose, and nec­es­sary out­come, of time spent “betwixt and between” (Turn­er 1969, 95). I argue in con­clu­sion then that to achieve any mean­ing­ful change requires a rescript­ing of these struc­tur­al codes.

When a bird is not a bird, or what becomes a performance of expertise

Or should we rather bring the sword of crit­i­cism to crit­i­cism itself and do a bit of soul-search­ing here: what were we real­ly after when we were so intent on show­ing the social con­struc­tion of sci­en­tif­ic facts?” (Latour 2004, 248)

Figure 3: The cassowary, public domain. https://pixabay.com/vectors/cassowary-bird-feathers-neck-48000/.

In the begin­ning of 2020, after I had been vis­it­ing the lab in per­son for data col­lec­tion for over six months, I approached Tom through email with a request to start learn­ing how to do some wet exper­i­ments. I titled the email “crazy idea?” He responded:

It isn’t crazy, it could be helpful.

But to be hon­est I don’t feel entire­ly com­fort­able with it right now, but only because I won­der if I ful­ly under­stand your moti­va­tion. I hope that doesn’t come across as too cynical…”

When we met in his office lat­er in the week for our usu­al fif­teen min­utes, he explained his hes­i­ta­tion in more detail, describ­ing his con­cern over the dis­junc­ture that might come from me work­ing at the bench along­side the post­docs who are “sci­ence real­ists” when my per­spec­tive is very dif­fer­ent. He stressed that sci­en­tists are moti­vat­ed by the impor­tance of the process, to be a “capa­ble doer,” and that reli­a­bil­i­ty in exper­i­men­tal results was the mark of a good sci­en­tist. Was I try­ing to use it as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to find work in the future as a lab­o­ra­to­ry sci­en­tist, he won­dered? How could he eval­u­ate me if he couldn’t under­stand my moti­va­tion? In the end, Tom insin­u­at­ed that in con­trast to the oth­er sci­en­tists in the lab, I believed bio­science has no mean­ing. I tried to clar­i­fy by explain­ing that I think bio­science, in fact, is over­come with mean­ing which was why it was so inter­est­ing to me as a research top­ic. At that point, I had been teach­ing med­ical anthro­pol­o­gy and glob­al health to Japan­ese med­ical and den­tal stu­dents for sev­en years. I was acute­ly con­cerned with the way the ‘facts’ of human nature (com­ing out of bio­science research) were often turned inside out to jus­ti­fy, in pub­lic health for exam­ple, why some pop­u­la­tions were nat­u­ral­ly more at risk or more pro­tect­ed than oth­ers (see for exam­ple, Full­wi­ley 2011).7 I was con­cerned then with the “social life” of bio­sci­en­tif­ic facts (Appadu­rai, 1986).

Wor­ried I still wasn’t com­mu­ni­cat­ing my per­spec­tive clear­ly, I emailed Tom the day after our meet­ing, address­ing the mul­ti­ple con­cerns he’d men­tioned in turn (list­ed as sub­head­ings that I enu­mer­at­ed), in the hopes of clarifying:

3. On the mean­ing of sci­ence and the dis­so­nance of my pres­ence in the lab as a (pos­si­ble) non-believer:

Sci­ence is burst­ing with, fre­quent­ly unac­knowl­edged, mean­ing as I said. And pre­cise­ly because it is often unac­knowl­edged, makes it all the more fas­ci­nat­ing for me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the val­ue of what you all are doing and don’t gen­uine­ly want to con­tribute. My goal is not to tear down or ‘decon­struct’ your work, but to build up a pati­na of tex­tures and descrip­tions of the deep ways of think­ing and act­ing and decid­ing that are already tak­ing place in the lab.

Sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy stud­ies (STS) researchers, from at least as ear­ly as Bruno Latour, have described the lim­i­ta­tions of mere obser­va­tion of “lab­o­ra­to­ry life” (Latour & Wool­gar, 1979). Moats and Seaver sim­i­lar­ly describe the frus­tra­tion of ethno­g­ra­phers who, when work­ing with quan­ti­ta­tive sci­en­tists, remain observers “from the side­lines” despite their best efforts to col­lab­o­rate (2019, 3). In fact, what I want­ed was a more holis­tic under­stand­ing of the research they were doing in the lab, which I, as an anthro­pol­o­gist, under­stood could only come from “get­ting my hands dirty,” as Tom often described his own exper­i­men­tal work. Because the impor­tance of par­tic­i­pant obser­va­tion is so cen­tral to my think­ing about good research (and not reli­a­bil­i­ty of exper­i­men­tal out­comes), I was sur­prised by Tom’s skep­ti­cism and ques­tions about my true moti­va­tion. In this exchange, I began to see that although Tom was inter­est­ed in and sup­port­ed my research, he had con­cerns over my role as a “crit­i­cal the­o­rist” in the lab­o­ra­to­ry and also har­bored his own assump­tions about the nature and lim­i­ta­tions of qual­i­ta­tive research, as well as my sta­tus as a “non-believ­er.”

When we began writ­ing togeth­er, this gen­er­al skep­ti­cism, or the sense of our over­rid­ing assump­tions, became a cen­tral frame for our dia­logue. Tom would send me arti­cles to read or post snip­pets of COVID news in our shared doc­u­ment that he want­ed to draw my atten­tion to or talk about. In prepa­ra­tion for the MMS project, I start­ed writ­ing field notes direct­ly into his shared file and began wrestling with my own crit­i­cisms and under­stand­ing of con­cepts I had been encoun­ter­ing in the lab, which he in turn often replied to with the document’s com­ment func­tion. We went through in turns mulling togeth­er over par­a­digms and chal­leng­ing each oth­er, start­ing with top­ics relat­ed to genom­ic sci­ence and genome wide asso­ci­a­tion stud­ies (GWAS). From the begin­ning, we often used terms like “bait­ing” or “fish­ing” to describe the intro­duc­tion of top­ics or ques­tions we antic­i­pat­ed might result in con­tro­ver­sy and dis­agree­ment. When we debat­ed objec­tiv­i­ty and met­rics, dis­cussing IQ tests as an exam­ple, at one point I teased him, “But those ‘met­rics’ aren’t objective…right?” Tom high­light­ed this phase and replied in a com­ment box: “Maybe we are back to our fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence in how we inter­pret the world. I think the met­rics them­selves are poten­tial­ly ‘objec­tive,’ at least as I define that word.”

As part of our broad­er con­ver­sa­tion on the nature of objec­tiv­i­ty and real­i­ty as a mea­sur­able quan­ti­ty, Tom shared an arti­cle about using auto­somes for sex in GWAS stud­ies8 and asked me: “Do you think their case and con­trol pop­u­la­tions are more cul­tur­al ideas or more genet­ic ideas?” He was echo­ing some­thing I had writ­ten in the doc­u­ment about my con­cern, and even con­fu­sion, over tak­ing nation­al pop­u­la­tions as units of analy­sis in GWAS.9 When I hes­i­tat­ed to answer him, writ­ing instead that I need­ed some time to think over every­thing we had been dis­cussing up to that point, he start­ed a com­ment by writ­ing, “Thanks and sor­ry.” He continued:

I need to admit that this was a bit of a dis­hon­est ques­tion from me. I think this paper/study makes a nice point about lim­its of GWAS, the assump­tions of GWAS (Do you assume that GWAS makes more assump­tions than I do?), and what GWAS over­looks. […] But I think this is because I am test­ing you in some way, fish­ing. When I look deeply, I am doing this because I value”the sci­en­tif­ic method” hege­mo­ny as a way of inter­act­ing with the world more high­ly than what I assume to be the hege­mon­ic mod­ern anthro­pol­o­gy-approved viewpoint/context, and I want to jus­ti­fy this to myself in some way. I won­der if this poi­sons the well of your anthro­pol­o­gy, and apol­o­gize if so.

Also, now you know that in my imag­ined secret place or “hid­den” con­text I reject both of these hege­monies in some ways, so no need to treat sci­ence with kid gloves…”

I replied by email:

[Y]eah, when you ask me about whether I think case/control is cul­tur­al or genet­ic, of course I know it’s part­ly in jest, a tease. And hon­est­ly, and because it enter­tains me, it makes me want to be, a lit­tle bit unpro­duc­tive­ly, polemic.”

I found then that I was often exag­ger­at­ing my oppo­si­tion to him, get­ting stuck—and maybe want­i­ng to poke a bit at him for his insistence—on objec­tiv­i­ty, and per­haps over­look­ing his rel­a­tive nuances; just as he seemed sim­i­lar­ly unable to move away from his assump­tions about our “fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent” ways of see­ing the world.

At one point, I emailed him the fol­low­ing block quote with­out expla­na­tion from Stu­art Hall’s lec­ture, Rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the Media (1997). In the video record­ing, Hall says:

The state­ment, “Noth­ing exists out­side of dis­course,” is a sort of claim that, as it were, there is no mate­r­i­al exis­tence, no mate­r­i­al world form, no objects out there, and that is patent­ly not the case. But to say that “Noth­ing mean­ing­ful exists out­side of dis­course” is a way of sum­ming up what I think I’ve been try­ing to say to you.” (Hall 1997)

Although Tom asked for clar­i­fi­ca­tion at the time about why I thought it was impor­tant to share this quote, now, it seems to sum­ma­rize the key dif­fer­ence we imag­ined between us, or at least a recur­ring stick­ing point. I told him then that I was wor­ried it might seem to him, in my ten­den­cy for hyper­bole, that I was the one say­ing that “noth­ing exists out­side of dis­course.” (Once I even added, “Maybe I am always just push­ing the rel­a­tivist side too much for the sake of dis­cus­sion; that’s a habit of mine.”) He joked in reply, “Now I under­stand this quote’s con­text, at least as a state­ment from you to me that you are not a mate­r­i­al-world-form-denier.” In our dis­cus­sion about GWAS, after qual­i­fy­ing my ten­den­cy to be polar­iz­ing, I stressed again that for me, since sci­en­tif­ic clas­si­fi­ca­tion schemes like cas­es and con­trols are heuristics—“manufactured tools to ‘think’ with”—they have, like any tool, “a lim­it­ed area of effect.” I added that:

[It] shows us one thing, real­ly what we ask it to, but it shuts down oth­er ways of see­ing; and we have to imag­ine what we want to see in the first place, before we can design a way to mea­sure it. And we use cul­tur­al ideals and val­ues about what we think nature and life are, to do this. I’m not say­ing genet­ics aren’t real; I am say­ing we can nev­er see or under­stand them with­out pars­ing them culturally.”

He replied:

If [heuris­tic] means any mod­el of human genet­ics is made by humans, I agree. But I also think genes are words we use to describe things that are”there” and mea­sur­able in the real or con­crete or phys­i­cal world (which humans don’t see per­fect­ly, but is there). E.g. I think chro­mo­so­mal sex is “real” (yes still prob­lem­at­ic, yes can be ambigu­ous, yes to be approached humbly) in some ways that gen­der isn’t (of course prob­lem­at­ic, of course ambigu­ous, of course humbling).

The ten­sion between the exis­tence of knowl­edge as pre­giv­en and its cre­ation by actors has long been a theme which has pre­oc­cu­pied philoso­phers” (Latour & Wool­gar 1979, 174-175). This fis­sion of fact takes on mor­al­iz­ing dimen­sions when described as “truth,” which we began to do.

Before my research in the lab, I believed that, in its quest for uni­ver­sal truths as I under­stood them, bio­science is rarely inter­est­ed in con­scious self-reflec­tion and cri­tique. I was also ded­i­cat­ed to see­ing the way “acquisition[s] of truth” are a func­tion of pow­er (Fou­cault 1980, 131), and how his­to­ries of polit­i­cal dom­i­nance, like those described by Anna Tsing for botany (2005), have had a pro­found effect on what gets defined as uni­ver­sal truth in bio­science. Sim­i­lar­ly, in Lab­o­ra­to­ry Life (1979), Latour and Wool­gar demon­strat­ed the way sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge, or a cer­tain kind of truth, always emerges in the dai­ly “con­ver­sa­tion exchanges” between sci­en­tists and their “con­tin­u­al gen­er­a­tion of a vari­ety of doc­u­ments” (1979, 168, 151).

Take the cas­sowary as an exam­ple (fig­ure 3 above). Lin­naeus’ deci­sion to include the cas­sowary in the same genus as the ostrich for his Sys­tema Nat­u­rae (1748) was crit­i­cized when he was accused of hav­ing “imper­fect knowl­edge” on zool­o­gy, and ornithol­o­gy more specif­i­cal­ly (Allen 1910, 317). In fact, J.A. Allen describes Linnaeus’s expo­sure to ornithol­o­gy lit­er­a­ture as “exceed­ing­ly defec­tive” and to extant birds of the time as “deprived” by his iso­la­tion (317-318). How to clas­si­fy the cas­sowary, or any­thing else for that mat­ter, then always emerges with­in the cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal con­text of sci­en­tif­ic prac­tice. Yet, for a long time anthro­pol­o­gy posi­tioned bio­science and tax­o­nom­ic schemes as if inert and neu­tral. In anoth­er text, Latour chided:

Since the time of Levi-Bruhl, anthro­pol­o­gy has always been inter­est­ed in sci­ence, but in the sci­ences of the Oth­ers. […] [H]ow come that for Them the cas­sowary is not clas­si­fied as a bird, this was a legit­i­mate ques­tion; how come that mod­ern tax­on­o­mists do clas­si­fy the cas­sowary as a bird was not in the purview of anthro­pol­o­gists.” (Latour 1990, 145)

This broad­er bias in sci­en­tif­ic inquiry—seeing ‘local,’ or real­ly, non-white, knowl­edge as cul­tur­al­ly and social­ly con­struct­ed (cas­sowary as not-a-bird) but inter­nal­iz­ing West­ern sci­ence as epis­te­mol­o­gy (cas­sowary as bird)—can lim­it the acces­si­bil­i­ty of bio­science to anthro­po­log­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion even today. In Tom’s case, while he wel­comed me in the lab, he had clear ideas of what my “post­mod­ern” inves­ti­ga­tion would be use­ful for. I chal­lenged him once:

[You trust me to say] some­thing use­ful and valu­able about sci­ence? Even in a rel­a­tivis­tic bent? Or only as long as I keep to talk­ing about things like Sci­Comm and not about telom­ere posi­tion effects?

His reply was reas­sur­ing but he capped it by clar­i­fy­ing that “there are also some ques­tions the lab is striv­ing towards for which I am not so wel­com­ing for a po-mo analy­ses e.g. ‘what is the geno­type of mouse #3’).”

I won­dered then whether there real­ly was a fun­da­men­tal con­flict between a bio­sci­en­tif­ic quest to uncov­er a uni­ver­sal bio­log­i­cal truth, and an anthro­po­log­i­cal per­spec­tive that sees a process of mul­ti­ple, diver­gent, and nev­er set­tled truth-mak­ing at the core of human rela­tion­ships. I think Tom and I actu­al­ly saw the world in very sim­i­lar ways; we both defined real­ness and real­i­ty as things and ideas that had weight, that could muster or even move the mate­r­i­al and ide­o­log­i­cal prop­er­ties around them. But while Tom shared my view that bio­science is a rough tool to mea­sure the “real” or mate­r­i­al world, he added that it can be “use­ful to approx­i­mate, rec­og­niz­ing that this can only be done imper­fect­ly, for good and use­ful, and poten­tial­ly ‘just,’ pur­pos­es.” In oth­er words, sci­en­tif­ic mod­els are “good to think” (Levi-Strauss 1962, 89). I had already observed the con­stant empha­sis in the lab on exper­i­ments as acts of mod­el­ing real­i­ty and I found that bio­sci­en­tists don’t dis­miss mean­ing in their work; rather, they con­front the ques­tion of whether what they are antic­i­pat­ing as uni­ver­sal truth is in fact mean­ing­ful, even social­ly con­tin­gent, real­i­ty. In my con­ver­sa­tions with Tom, I came to appre­ci­ate the ways that bio­sci­en­tists are just as con­cerned with self-con­scious reflec­tion, and already draw from a rich crit­i­cal tra­di­tion with­in the nat­ur­al sci­ences (for clas­sic exam­ples see Kuhn 1962, Pop­per 1959). It was per­haps large­ly our dis­ci­pli­nary train­ing then to ini­tial­ly priv­i­lege “real­i­ty” on one hand, and “mean­ing­ful real­i­ty” on the oth­er, as if incom­pat­i­ble, when they are insep­a­ra­ble. And our habits of pre­sen­ta­tion made it some­times hard­er to see, or con­cede on, the ways our think­ing pro­duc­tive­ly merged. More than once, I wrote to him some­thing along the lines of, “Actu­al­ly, that isn’t so dif­fer­ent from what I am try­ing to say…” Still, we came to our dis­cus­sions with the typ­i­cal clas­si­fi­ca­to­ry schemes, and bound­ary work, that serve as dis­ci­pli­nary crutch­es for think­ing about the world, in turns play­ful and hyper­bol­ic but also at times sus­pi­cious, and maybe con­cerned we were barg­ing into pro­fane ter­ri­to­ry. We bat­tled over the things we want­ed to take for grant­ed and felt pro­tec­tive over, and in my case wres­tled as much inter­nal­ly as in con­ver­sa­tion with our set, pre­scribed views and our diver­gent train­ing. If we were sus­pi­cious of each oth­er, I think we were equal­ly sus­pi­cious of the lim­its of our own knowl­edge, although he wrote to me once, “I am most deeply sat­is­fied in acknowl­edg­ing that there are things I don’t know.”

Getting from disciplinary delusions to matters of concern, or what has to be a conclusion

Figure 4: Mapping exceptions, Paul Stoller, 1980. (Used with permission of the author.)

Some­where in the mid­dle of the 21-day MMS project, stuck at the bot­tom of an email about an upcom­ing meet­ing, Tom sent me a quote from Latour:

If this were pos­si­ble then we could let the crit­ics come ever clos­er to the mat­ters of con­cern we cher­ish, and then at last we could tell them: “Yes, please, touch them, explain them, deploy them.” Then we would have gone for good beyond icon­o­clasm.” (Latour 2004, 248)

The read­ing had been sug­gest­ed to us by the MMS prompt #15 which point­ed to Latour’s insis­tence that, as the prompt described, “we rebuild a dif­fer­ent sort of cri­tique by mov­ing from ‘mat­ters of fact’ to ‘mat­ters of con­cern.’” As I began to real­ize lat­er, it was the com­bat­ive, polar­iz­ing his­to­ry between qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive sci­ences that Tom and I were stag­ing and redraw­ing in text. Maybe with this copy and paste of Latour’s state­ment, snuck non­com­mit­tal­ly into a rou­tine cor­re­spon­dence, he was ask­ing me, or even both of us, to over­come this bina­ry, and for me to han­dle my obser­va­tions of the lab as “mat­ters of con­cern.” But our dif­fer­ent dis­ci­pli­nary lan­guage, even the dif­fer­ent goals we may have had in com­mu­ni­cat­ing in the first place (it was ini­tial­ly my research project, after all), made it dif­fi­cult to cross over bound­aries when we reached them. Ulti­mate­ly, that meant it was much more dif­fi­cult to (be moti­vat­ed to) find a way to inno­vate or redraft our epis­te­molo­gies into a syn­cret­ic and use­ful set of shared con­cepts that could become a basis for fur­ther, or future, col­lab­o­ra­tion, as I’d hoped.

The skep­ti­cal divides we faced, acquired in train­ing and struc­tural­ly rein­forced by our dis­ci­pli­nary insti­tu­tions, were repro­duced by us here in action, in talk­ing about and with each oth­er, and in our pre­sump­tions and the rhetor­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of our inher­ent incon­gruities. The posi­tion­ing of anthro­pol­o­gy as a form of social cri­tique, under which bio­science itself falls to exam­i­na­tion, has per­haps only exac­er­bat­ed this rel­a­tive acri­mo­ny. At the same time, there remain key dif­fer­ences in the oper­a­tional­iza­tion of con­cepts of objec­tiv­i­ty and truth which do seem dis­cor­dant, if not incom­men­su­rable. Over at least the last half-cen­tu­ry, a major thrust in anthro­pol­o­gy has been a crit­i­cal engage­ment with con­cepts of ‘truth’ and the pro­duc­tion of knowl­edge as shift­ing social dis­course nego­ti­at­ed at a spe­cif­ic time and place, amid spe­cif­ic rela­tions of pow­er. The bio­sciences tend to empha­size truth as an inde­pen­dent objec­tive fac­tor which can be dis­cov­ered by the researcher, through increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed tech­no­log­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al feats. Yet, we share an inter­est in the process of dis­cov­ery, found­ed on the assump­tion that there is in fact some­thing a pri­ori to dis­cov­er. To sug­gest that the appear­ance of an aso­cial and ahis­tor­i­cal mate­r­i­al real­i­ty is mere­ly a con­se­quence of the prac­tices and pro­jec­tions of sci­ence impli­cates bio­sci­en­tists them­selves in par­tic­i­pat­ing, even unwit­ting­ly, in this con­struc­tion. Fur­ther, tar­get­ing bio­sci­en­tists and their dai­ly work in the lab for crit­i­cal analy­sis then appears to accuse them of over­sight and inat­ten­tion. It is the appli­ca­tion of etic forms of show­man­ship, where epis­te­molo­gies of cri­tique trump emic, “native dis­tinc­tions, sig­nif­i­cances, and mean­ings” (Har­ris 2001, 576). It is no sur­prise with­in this clash that any pro­duc­tive inter­sec­tions might suf­fer decap­i­ta­tion under the “sword of crit­i­cism” (Latour 2004, 248).

Over thir­ty years ago, after fear­ing he had mis­in­ter­pret­ed Song­hay vil­lage orga­ni­za­tion as a “sta­t­ic reifi­ca­tion” of social order, Paul Stoller reflect­ed that anthro­pol­o­gists “must strug­gle to com­pre­hend sys­tems of sym­bol­ic and social rela­tions that are, for the most part, out­side the scope of their expe­ri­ence” (Stoller 1980: 420). He wondered:

Do most anthro­po­log­i­cal analy­ses suf­fer from sig­nif­i­cant omis­sions gen­er­at­ed from the “delu­sion” of the anthropologist’s per­cep­tion? Are most anthro­po­log­i­cal the­o­ries based upon mis­con­cep­tions stem­ming from the inabil­i­ty of the anthro­pol­o­gist to per­ceive some­thing his or her infor­mant takes for grant­ed?” (1980: 419)

In his text, Stoller describes grad­u­al­ly over­com­ing his the­o­ret­i­cal assump­tions, arrived at through a care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of the his­to­ry of rela­tions between Song­hay roy­al­ty, for­mer slaves, and the emerg­ing mer­chant class, as he mapped out their “field allot­ments” (1980, 426; see fig­ure 4 above). Return­ing to what he first viewed as “excep­tions” to the norm, Stoller real­ized that land hold­ings defy­ing cat­e­go­riza­tion, or real­ly the­o­ret­i­cal assim­i­la­tion, were signs of con­scious and con­tentious polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. Stoller’s descrip­tion of the incon­gruities he encoun­tered in the field, trou­ble aris­ing when an “ethno­g­ra­ph­er […] sees roads which inter­sect, while his infor­mant see[s] roads which end in forks” (Stoller, 427), describes for me the chal­lenge of sin­gle dis­ci­pli­nary approach­es to human prob­lems such as this pan­dem­ic. With­in a sin­gle dis­ci­pline, the poten­tial for excep­tions to be eas­i­ly filed away as “noise in a the­o­ret­i­cal sys­tem” (Stoller 1980, 427)—what may at first look like dead ends or mean­ing­less meanderings—is mul­ti­plied. A pan­dem­ic like COVID-19 dra­ma­tizes the fun­da­men­tal inter­con­nec­tion between human social com­plex­i­ty and intri­cate bio­log­i­cal life, but “social com­plex­i­ty” and “bio­log­i­cal life” are already divid­ed heuris­tics, terms which mere­ly describe the same phe­nom­e­non, just as forks and inter­sec­tions describe dif­fer­ing ways of pars­ing and expe­ri­enc­ing the same cross­road. My ten­ta­tive and tem­po­rary col­lab­o­ra­tion with Tom, for me, recon­firmed the neces­si­ty of merg­ing dis­tinct epis­te­mo­log­i­cal visions—to bring togeth­er the inter­sec­tions and the forks—just as it showed me the insti­tu­tion­al and pre­con­ceived assump­tions which remain at the crux of why this may be so dif­fi­cult, for now.

For a time, Tom and I were lim­i­nal­ly sus­pend­ed, inside a “moment in and out of time” (Turn­er 1969, 96). Work­ing from home like oth­ers, trans­fixed in place, and com­mu­ni­cat­ing togeth­er exclu­sive­ly online, we both agreed that in these trou­bled times, our expe­ri­ences were, as he wrote, “not so trou­ble­some.”10 But still togeth­er we passed through “a lim­bo of sta­tus­less­ness” (97). It is at these times that, Turn­er said, “In such a process, the oppo­sites, as it were, con­sti­tute one anoth­er and are mutu­al­ly indis­pens­able” (97). And for a time, I saw the promis­es that this indis­pens­abil­i­ty might bring. But as much as liv­ing with­in thresh­old moments might be trans­for­ma­tive, such frames of expe­ri­ence them­selves by def­i­n­i­tion abide by rit­u­al­ized rules which rein­sert us into per­sis­tent, pre-estab­lished social roles after­wards, through “reag­gre­ga­tion” (94). Lim­i­nal states them­selves are cod­i­fied, an ambi­gu­i­ty that main­tains, embod­ies, and enacts all sorts of cul­tur­al and insti­tu­tion­al pro­ce­dures. In Steiner’s exam­ple, bor­der zones—those moments of cross­ing over—similarly work to fix and trans­form val­ue in social­ly (and legal­ly) accept­able ways even as they dis­am­biguate objects from oth­er pre­vi­ous con­texts. These rules then guide our pos­si­ble fig­ures or poten­tials for trans­for­ma­tion along pre­dictable, well-worn routes; at times return­ing us to where we came from, or send­ing us off exact­ly to where we are expect­ed to go. When the emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion was over and our con­ver­sa­tions end­ed, I wor­ried that I reset­tled too eas­i­ly, like glue, into pre­vi­ous ways of think­ing and doing. And that an oppor­tu­ni­ty for change had passed me by.

In anoth­er con­text, Nick Seaver wrote, “the bound­aries around cor­po­ra­tions, field sites, and algo­rithms are enact­ed social­ly, and they car­ry with them ide­olo­gies of access and knowl­edge” (Seaver 2017, 4). Dis­ci­pli­nary bound­ary work then must invari­ably involve a nego­ti­a­tion of these ide­olo­gies. But nego­ti­a­tion, and even recog­ni­tion, does not guar­an­tee a pas­sage through dif­fer­ence out to some oth­er syn­cret­ic side. Recent­ly, I have lis­tened to more than one anthro­pol­o­gist com­plain about the dif­fi­cul­ty of work­ing with engi­neers and com­put­er pro­gram­mers who, like bio­sci­en­tists, don’t “share the same epis­te­molo­gies as us.” And I have observed the way bound­aries between aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­plines get rei­fied in sim­ple, every­day ways: per­formed and main­tained across preprint servers, pri­or­i­tized gov­ern­ment fund­ing, jour­nal sub­scrip­tions, depart­men­tal ori­en­ta­tions, pub­lic atten­tion, news cycles, and cor­re­spon­dences just like this one.

Yet, to present my con­ver­sa­tions with Tom as emblem­at­ic of the kinds of “empir­i­cal […] con­ver­sa­tion­al ten­sion” that Moats and Seaver describe (2019, 3)—a meta-com­ment on a cen­tu­ry-long dis­ci­pli­nary divide that was doomed in advance to fail—is also, in a way, to fail to do jus­tice to its com­plex­i­ty, and even its every­day­ness. After all, Tom told me more than once that his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the MMS project and see­ing where my “tradition/style of anthro­pol­o­gy and sense-mak­ing is sit­u­at­ed with­in post­moder­ni­ty and humanities/poetics” was use­ful for him. What doing use­ful sci­ence looked like was a top­ic we returned to often (although in our con­ver­sa­tions, it was his bio­log­i­cal research that we both tend­ed to priv­i­lege as “sci­ence”). As he was review­ing and com­ment­ing on an ear­ly draft of this paper for me, Tom for­ward­ed me an arti­cle about epi­ge­net­ics. In the arti­cle, Scott F. Gilbert cri­tiques genet­ic reduc­tion­ism and argues for the inverse of the iso­lat­ed unit of analy­sis. He reminds bio­sci­en­tists that, “In the epigeno­type, the gene is not an autonomous enti­ty; it is part of a net­work of inter­act­ing com­po­nents” (2003, 90, 91). We can hard­ly see the net­work and its mech­a­nisms, then, with­out a grasp of its parts, or the parts with­out a sense of the whole; we can hard­ly see the cas­sowary with­out the ques­tion of if it is real­ly a “bird,” or the Japan­ese Fan­cy Mouse 1 with­out a view of its glob­al cir­cu­la­tion as a sci­en­tif­ic mate­r­i­al. But of course, as Tom was remind­ing me, it isn’t only anthro­pol­o­gists who can see this way. Moats and Seaver describe a sim­i­lar moment for qual­i­ta­tive sci­en­tists when they “attempt to col­lab­o­rate with data sci­en­tists.” They:

[…] often real­ize that their coun­ter­parts are well aware of many ques­tions around com­plex­i­ty, pol­i­tics, and per­for­ma­tive effects, but make sense of them in dis­tinc­tive ways. (Moats & Seaver 2019: 2)

We can choose then to use crit­i­cal approach­es, not as a dead end, an emp­ty cri­tique, or a sword for the sake of decon­struc­tion, but as a use­ful way to see what bio­science does in the world, and more impor­tant­ly to me, to do things togeth­er with bio­science. It is Latour again who for me offers an encour­ag­ing way for­ward: “What would cri­tique do if it could be asso­ci­at­ed with more, not with less, with mul­ti­pli­ca­tion, not sub­trac­tion?” (Latour 2004, 248). It would be easy for me to end here, sim­ply with this non­com­mit­tal and elu­sive­ly pos­i­tive state­ment, but alone, as a state­ment about state­ments, it can hard­ly advance any last­ing change.

Once dur­ing our ban­ter about post­mod­ernism, I asked Tom if he could see the pos­si­bil­i­ties for a post­mod­ern bio­science. He answered:

[S]ure, it could be pos­si­ble. I can imag­ine that a post­mod­ern nat­ur­al sci­ence would devel­op, but I would prob­a­bly not read the papers, and my bias is that it would be less use­ful… but I hope I would humbly judge it by its fruits.

On their own, researchers can strive to over­come the delu­sions of their train­ing, to move to respec­tive “mat­ters of con­cern,” to merge inter­sec­tions with fork­ing paths, to craft “moments in and out of time” (Turn­er 1969: 96), and to find bet­ter ways to talk to each oth­er. But whether we decide to read the papers or not, that expo­nen­tial poten­tial for syn­cret­ic mul­ti­pli­ca­tion remains pow­er­ful­ly con­strained by insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures and bias­es out­side the con­trol of indi­vid­ual researchers, even as we learn to inter­nal­ize and repro­duce dis­ci­pli­nary bound­ary work. If “sci­ence not com­mu­ni­cat­ed isn’t [even mean­ing­ful] science”—science defined then through its com­mu­nica­tive immi­nence or failure—why do we con­tin­ue in prac­tice to so dis­trust, and dis­am­biguate our dis­ci­pli­nary visions from those in oth­er fields? Tom and I, like so many oth­ers tele­work­ing, reach­ing out elec­tron­i­cal­ly and hes­i­tant­ly, spon­ta­neous­ly join­ing and col­lab­o­rat­ing, were per­son­al­ly moti­vat­ed because the pan­dem­ic con­front­ed us with death and sick­ness, and an iso­la­tion we could bare­ly make sense of with the rough tools we had been giv­en. In response to one prompt from the MMS project, Tom wrote that: “COVID and COVID-19 are loud ener­gy pro­claim­ing death is com­ing, and death lays to total waste my sense-mak­ing and sig­nif­i­cance-mak­ing.” Even in a moment such as this one, a chance to reach across a gap we nor­mal­ly bare­ly ever attend to, a moment that demand­ed we come togeth­er for the sake of sci­en­tif­ic advance­ment to speak togeth­er about the “awful uni­ty of all liv­ing things,” as Tom once described it, we even­tu­al­ly lost sight of, or came to the end of, that thread.

In the final stages of our col­lab­o­ra­tion, Tom and I draft­ed a let­ter to the pres­i­dent of his sci­en­tif­ic insti­tute, sup­port­ing an ini­tia­tive for the inte­gra­tion of the nat­ur­al and the social sci­ences. Togeth­er, we wrote:

In any dis­ci­pli­nary field, researchers learn to draw rel­a­tive­ly arbi­trary bound­aries around their object of study. Col­lab­o­ra­tive inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research requires researchers to con­front these bound­aries, to under­stand them bet­ter and to rewrite them when nec­es­sary; it is in this process that mean­ing­ful inno­va­tions in sci­en­tif­ic think­ing and prac­tice can occur.”

I know now that it isn’t enough to make an inde­pen­dent push for a col­lab­o­ra­tive cross-dis­ci­pli­nary approach to research on the ground, although we tried in our own way. What’s need­ed is a sup­port­ive insti­tu­tion­al struc­ture that sees the val­ue in cross­ing that ground in the first place.

Acknowledgements

I want to thank Tom [pseu­do­nym] for his gen­eros­i­ty and insight, and the time and effort he devot­ed to this col­lab­o­ra­tive project. I also want to thank Paul Stoller who wrote recent­ly of “Trou­bled Times” (2017) and whose work helped to inspire me to reflect on the com­plex­i­ties of rela­tions in the field and the lim­its of anthro­po­log­i­cal (in)sight. I want to fur­ther thank three anony­mous review­ers who pro­vid­ed help­ful and detailed sug­ges­tions for improve­ments. Jonathan Corliss great­ly influ­enced my vision for this paper, just as he does for every­thing else. Of course, the many, many blun­ders are all 100% mine. This research is sup­port­ed by the Japan Soci­ety for the Pro­mo­tion of Science’s Grant-in-Aid for Sci­en­tif­ic Research © 20K01188.

Works Cited

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Image Notes

Fig­ure 1: Mice with var­i­ous coats, includ­ing piebald (top left), from the 1787 Japan­ese book Chin­gan Sodate­gusa, pub­lic domain. (Mod­i­fied by author.)

Fig­ure 2: Objects cross­ing bor­ders, becom­ing sub­jects. Images from British Library Col­lec­tion, pub­lic domain. (Col­lage by author.)

Fig­ure 3: The cas­sowary, pub­lic domain. (https://​pix​abay​.com/​v​e​c​t​o​r​s​/​c​a​s​s​o​w​a​r​y​-​b​i​r​d​-​f​e​a​t​h​e​r​s​-​n​e​c​k​-​4​8​0​00/).

Fig­ure 4: Map­ping excep­tions, Paul Stoller, 1980. (Used with per­mis­sion of the author.)

Notes


  1. http://​www​.med​.miyaza​ki​-​u​.ac​.jp/​A​n​i​m​a​l​C​e​n​t​e​r​/​m​o​u​s​e​D​B​/​l​a​b​o​m​i​c​e​/​h​t​m​l​/​0​4​1​.​h​tml

  2. https://​www​.nig​.ac​.jp/​n​i​g​/​2​0​1​3​/​0​5​/​r​e​s​e​a​r​c​h​-​h​i​g​h​l​i​g​h​t​s​/​2​0​1​3​0​5​2​8​.​h​tml

  3. When Tom read this quote lat­er in anoth­er paper I was draft­ing, he high­light­ed the word “impor­tant” and replied to me in a com­ment box: “I’m not sure what I meant by this ‘impor­tant,’ but I guess I made my point. Trump-ian.”

  4. A key point of con­text for this hope is that I have long ide­al­ized the col­lab­o­ra­tive, provoca­tive approach of the anthro­pol­o­gist and ethno­graph­ic film­mak­er Jean Rouch. His work insist­ed that col­lab­o­ra­tion “afford[s] a much more pro­found under­stand­ing of the sub­jects’ world than one posit­ed, in the name of sci­ence, on a rad­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion between observ­er and observed” (Hen­ley 2020, 225).

  5. Although there is already live­ly work on this top­ic with­in dis­ci­plines such as bio­log­i­cal and med­ical anthro­pol­o­gy, these fields at times often fail to reach, or fail to be appre­ci­at­ed as rel­e­vant to, the broad­er bio­science com­mu­ni­ty.

  6. In his final review of this paper, Tom wrote in a com­ment box: “To qual­i­fy this a bit, I think I meant that while the ‘tools’ of sci­ence applied to any ques­tion might reveal some­thing of truth to an indi­vid­ual, unless it gets com­mu­ni­cat­ed, I would not con­sid­er it ful­ly a part of the social activ­i­ty we (most?) rec­og­nize as sci­ence.”

  7. Glob­al health presents count­less exam­ples of “local biol­o­gy” (Lock & Nguyen 2010, 90) and behav­ior that is well adapt­ed in con­text reversed by pol­i­cy mak­ers and pub­lic health prac­ti­tion­ers who cite it as the root cause of pover­ty and dis­ease.

  8. When review­ing the final ver­sion of this paper, Tom wrote to cor­rect my descrip­tion: “This arti­cle looked for genet­ic vari­ants on auto­somes that were sta­tis­ti­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with sex. This is inter­est­ing because the sim­ple assump­tion is that the genet­ic vari­ants asso­ci­at­ed [with] sex are the sex chro­mo­somes them­selves (i.e. NOT the auto­somes). This descrip­tion of the arti­cle doesn’t reflect that under­stand­ing, to me, although I am not sure it mat­ters.” His cor­rec­tion for me demon­strates again the neces­si­ty for col­lab­o­rat­ing and cal­i­brat­ing across dis­ci­plines.

  9. Although more recent­ly referred to as eth­nic groups, where “trans-eth­nic” com­par­isons for GWAS are a com­mon method, such stud­ies might take nation­al pop­u­la­tions as genet­i­cal­ly salient. This ten­den­cy has been cri­tiqued by bio­log­i­cal and med­ical anthro­pol­o­gists, along with oth­ers (see for exam­ple Serre and Pääbo 2004, Full­wi­ley 2007, Fujimu­ra 2014).

  10. Paul Stoller has used this very phrase recent­ly (2017). I want to acknowl­edge his gen­er­al influ­ence here, as I bor­row from one of his titles in my own for this arti­cle, as well as his map­ping of Song­hay social space which I dis­cuss above (1980). This phrase also appeared as part of prompt #17 from the MMS project.