An Anthropology of Scientific Things

A profile on Stefan Helmreich

Stefan Helmreich Lecture Slide

Whether anthropology is an art or a science is a long debate (see Julia’s post here), but what can the anthropology of science look like? Anthropology and sociology of scientific research has an extensive history and now a lot of that research, along with the philosophy and history of science, falls under the inter-disciplinary category of STS, or Science and Technology Studies.

Bruno Latour is perhaps the most well-known science studies scholar within anthropology, with the book he co-authored with Steve Woolgar Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), having been very influential in the social studies of science (and very controversial at the time, part of the so-called ‘science wars’. Latour and Woolgar argued that ‘facts’ both emerged from and only had meaning within social networks of people and institutions. Often simplistically portrayed as a ‘science-denier’ he now has taken up climate change advocacy to find ways of engaging the public with scientific knowledge (Vrieze, 2017).

Stefan Helmreich, a professor at MIT, is another important anthropologist of science whose research delves into human and non-human relationships, specifically through the lens of scientific research. He has written on artificial life—Silicon Second Nature (1998)—, marine biologists—Alien Ocean (2009)—, and most recently his research has been on waves: from a variety of points of view including from oceanographers, computational life scientists and audio-engineers—Sounding the Limits of Life (2016).

Speaking about waves Helmreich, in a 2014 lecture, says that he is interested in studying them as scientific things, in other words, things that simultaneously exist ‘out there’ but “cannot be separated from the formalisms describing them” (2014, p. 267). Because, in the ocean, it’s so hard to determine what a ‘single’ wave is, working with oceanographers, Helmreich sees that their understanding of waves is totally bound up in the representations, the computer models:

“Waves are mash-ups, amalgams of watery events, instrumented captures of those events, and mathematical portraits of those events, often described statistically rather than singularly” (2014, p. 272)

The waves that oceanographer’s are modelling are, in some ways, human creations at the same time as things in and of themselves. Particularly when ocean waves are of such importance in anthropogenic climate change, waves are inherently connected to human activities. In this way Helmreich proposes that waves have a history, intimately connected with human history. Even the scientific models of waves depend on an entire technological and social infrastructure of buoys, satellites, and computer models.


References:

Helmreich, S., 2014. Waves: An anthropology of scientific things. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, 265–284. https://doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.016

Vrieze, J. de, 2017. Bruno Latour, a veteran of the ‘science wars,’ has a new mission [WWW Document]. Science | AAAS. URL https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/10/bruno-latour-veteran-science-wars-has-new-mission (accessed 6.11.19).

See Also:

What is Deep Sea Mining? Video with Stefan Helmreich

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/10/bruno-latour-veteran-science-wars-has-new-mission

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