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.


Helmreich, S., 2014. Waves: An anthropology of scientific things. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, 265–284.

Vrieze, J. de, 2017. Bruno Latour, a veteran of the ‘science wars,’ has a new mission [WWW Document]. Science | AAAS. URL (accessed 6.11.19).

See Also:

What is Deep Sea Mining? Video with Stefan Helmreich

Embrace the Serpent: Representing Anthropological Relationships

Karamakate, Theo, Manduca (R-L)

Embrace of the Serpent is a 2015 film by Colombian director Ciro Guerra that shows two anthropological journeys into the Colombian Amazon. It cuts between two timelines, 1909 and 1940, to show two journeys up the Colombian Amazon by Western researchers Theo and, later, Evan—who are based on ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg and ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. In the film, the two journeys are connected through the single character, Karamakate, a shaman and their guide. Karamakate is one of the surviving members of a fictionalised tribe, who have access to powerful medicinal plants, that Theo believes he needs to survive. The film blends Amazonian mythology with the diaries and writings of the Koch-Grünberg and Evans Shultes, depicting these journeys from the indigenous point of view as much as the explorers’. In an interview Guerra says that,

in order for the film to be true to that [the indigenous point of view], I had to stop being faithful to the “truth” because, to them, ethnographic, anthropological, and historical truths were as fictional as imagination and dream, which for them was valid. (Guerra, 2016)

Guerra worked with local indigenous communities in the writing and production of the film and, after the film’s premiere in Venice, it was screened a number of times in the Colombian Amazon. The film is spoken in nine languages, one of which, Ocaina is only spoken by sixteen people, and Guerra says that it was a powerful experience for them to see their language represented on the screen (Guerra, 2016).

Embrace of the Serpent, while a kind of parable or mythological story, gives a complex depiction of field relationships between the two social scientists and their indigenous interlocutors. They are characters that are sympathetic to the indigenous Amazonians, with Guerra on stating that Koch-Grünberg was, “the first to refer to the indigenous people in humanistic terms as the people of the Amazon” (Guerra, 2016). And they are shown in a very good light in comparison to the other Europeans of the film, who are either missionaries or rubber barons. The gravely ill Theo travels with Manduca, who is local and loyal to Theo because he payed out Manduca’s debt to the rubber plantation. Yet both Theo and Evans, as characters, have a ‘dark’ side to them, they are conceited and can’t full empathise with the local tribes and, at times, their attempt to extract knowledge without considering the indigenous perspective emerges.

In one scene, a tribe that Theo has visited before, and seems to be on good terms with, steals his compass. He confronts them and grabs one of the children pushing him to try and get it back.

Karamakate: You’re nothing but a white 
Theo: Their orientation system is based on the winds and the position of the stars. If they learn how to use a compass, that knowledge will be lost.
Karamakate: You cannot forbid them to learn. Knowledge belongs to all men. But you can’t understand that, because you’re just a white.

Here Theo’s obsession with maintaining the purity of ‘traditional’ local knowledge turns into a form of paternalism, in which he feels he knows what they should want or need better than they do.

Embrace of the Serpent skilfully balances the complexity of representing historical anthropological research. It depicts multiple relationships that developed and change between the characters, as individuals not just archetypes, throughout these journeys. Manduca and Karamakate are not simply victims, rather they choose to help the white interlopers and, for good and bad, feel like these researchers were their best shot at telling their stories to the colonisers and capitalists that were destroying their communities.

Guerra doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable actions and opinions of the researchers, and yet, these relationships are never ‘black and white’. Well, in a literal sense, they actually are because the film is shot using black and white 35mm film. The decision to shoot without colour was originally inspired by seeing the old daguerreotype photographic plates, which were “devoid of exuberance and exoticism”, and then going to the Amazonian jungle Guerra realised that colour film couldn’t begin to really represent the multiple colours there (Guerra, 2016). It also has another effect, which I found shone through when watching the film:

“[W]hen I talked to the Amazonian people, I realized that with black-and-white images there was no difference between nature being green and us being something else. Every human, every bird, every drop of water is made up the same in black and white so it was perfectly coherent. ” (Guerra, 2016)


Embrace of the Serpent 2015, video recording, Ciudad Lunar Producciones, Colombia. Directed by C Guerra

Guerra, C., 2016. Embrace of the Serpent: An Interview with Ciro Guerra [WWW Document]. Cineaste Magazine. URL (accessed 6.9.19).

Mauna a Wākea: Whose culture is the most important?

Have you ever felt so connected to a piece of earth that you can feel the appreciation in your heart swell? Or perhaps you envision that place in your mind, recollecting the memories, and become very upset at the idea of it no longer being there? What if I told you that the connection you feel to this land is just imagined in your mind, and has no material precedence and should become developed for Western intellectual pursuits? Would you feel devastated?

I like to keep myself up to date with the controversies surrounding natural and sacred spaces, and their ongoing protection and destruction from capitalist developments. Divergent concepts and understandings of culture around the world have laid the groundwork for multiple controversies surrounding environmental protections, the rights of nature and climate change; from the protection of water at Standing Rock, the scheming of the Australian government to bulldoze 800 year-old sacred Djab Wurring trees, to El Salvador becoming the first country to recognise the inherent rights of natural forests. I think it is important for all beginner anthropologists to consider how different understandings of culture play into these debates.

Recently on October 30, 2018, the Supreme Court of Hawaii approved the building permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of the sacred Hawai’ian mountain, Mauna a Wākea. This decision came after years of legal battles between the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawai’ians) and scientists, as well as multiple country stakeholders (India, China, Japan and Canada).

“A panorama of the Milky Way from Mauna Kea, Hawaii. From left, University of Hawaii 2.2 Meter Telescope, Mauna Kea Summit, Kilauea Volcano under cloud cover and Mauna Loa.”
Mauna Kea

The Kanaka Maoli and environmentalists opposed the development of the giant telescope because it would be built on one of the most sacred natural locations in Hawaiian culture. The Mauna a Wākea is a sacred mountain for the Kanaka Maoli. Wākea, sometimes translated as “Sky Father”, is considered the father for many of their peoples and in other respects the “piko, umbilical cord, or centre of existence for Hawaiians” (Sacred Mauna Kea 2015, p.1). The summit is a sacred place for their spiritual connectedness, practices and sense of oneness with the earth – all of which are fundamental elements of their culture (Ibid).

Many of the telescope’s stakeholders failed to acknowledge the importance Mauna a Wākea had in Hawaiian culture and instead, focused on the scientific exploration and commercial production that the telescope would bring. This was evident in the TMT International Observatory’s commitment to “a new paradigm of development on Mauna Kea founded on integrating culture, science, sustainability and education” (TMT 2017, p.1). Their investment in the TMT, as the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, was ultimately embedded in their desire to bolster Western cultural and astronomical contributions.

This opposition between the worldviews and values of the TMT and the Kanaka Maoli brings into question: What counts as culture and who determines what cultural perspectives “win” in developmental conflicts?

The struggle over Mauna a Wākea is a struggle over the meaning and making of sacred places, nature and Indigenous cultures. Native Hawai’ian scholar, Marie Alohalani Brown (2016), describes that the kinship relations between the Kanaka Maoli and the island-world environment are not validated by the West unless they are materially visible. She states, “The Hawaiian Islands…[and] culture is something to be enjoyed as long as it is presented in a form that is palatable, saleable, and consumable” (Brown 2016, p.166). The traditions and sacred elements of Indigenous cultures are recognised insofar as they do not limit the economic and cultural projects that strengthen Western domination.

The western ideologies of scientific exploration and commercial exploitation are imposed on the Kanaka Maoli by the TMT as being for ‘the better good of humanity and culture’. This prioritisation of western thinking is clear in the Hawaiian Supreme Court’s decision to approve the construction of the telescope – it alludes to how scientific discoveries and explorations have become a fundamental aspect of Western culture that is treated with the upmost regard.  This is completely at odds with the spiritual relationship to Mauna a Wākea and the island world that is central to Native Hawaiian culture – the sacredness is not merely a concept or label as perceived by those holding the western ideologies. The sacredness of the mountain stems from their understanding of it as a kin relative – “Sky Father” – which they maintain a sacred and traditional relationship with. The mountain is, in many respects, a lived experience that is representative of the Kanaka Maoli’s connection to the natural and spiritual worlds (Brown 2016, p.166).  

This is evidently a highly contested space, within and beyond, the anthropology discipline. But these cultural complexities leave us with some key anthropological questions to ponder: what ‘counts as culture’ in our Western society? And who decides whether nature is incorporated into these understandings and protections of ‘culture’?


Brown, Marie Alohalani 2016, ‘Mauna Kea: Ho’omana Hawai’i and Protecting the Sacred’, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture, vo.10, no. 2,150–69.

Sacred Mauna Kea 2015, Sacred Mauna Kea-He Makahiapo Kapu Na Wakea, viewed 5 June 2019, <>.

TMT International Observatory 2017, Thirty Meter Telescope: Astronomy’s Next-Generation Observatory, viewed 6 June 2019, <>.

See Also:

Dyan’s articles: No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide and Mary Douglas’s Garden; Imo and Sarah’s Part I The Anthropo Scene and Part II The Anthropo Scene

Here are some sources to keep up to date with all environmental news, conflicts and controversies:

For subjects relating to the rights of nature (also find them on Facebook): Earth Law Center

Environmental News (also find them on Facebook): EcoWatch

For subjects on spirituality, ecology and and nature (also find them on Facebook): Spiritual Ecology: Emergence Magazine

The Elephant in The Anthropological Room

In the ‘Anthropological Room’ (or space), there are multiple peer-reviewed journals publishing new and upcoming anthropological research with various aims from ‘what it is to be human’, ‘ethnology’ to ‘critical analysis’. Had I known of these resources in my first year of anthropology, I would have been able to peruse through multiple journal volumes and discover my love for the anthropology of nature much sooner – because if we’re being honest, I was never entirely sure what the scope of ‘anthropology’ really covered.

Recently, I was introduced to a new academic journal that I hadn’t come across before when I was discussing colonialism with my supervisor. It is named, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. This is an international, peer-reviewed anthropology journal that seeks to situate ethnographic material “at the forefront of conceptual developments in the discipline” (HAU Journal 2017, p.1). To the novice anthropologist, such as myself, it sounds like a fine and dandy resource to keep up to date with emerging anthropological research! But wow, on further investigation it sure does have some problematic practices and colonial underpinnings.

On the home page, the journal explains its name as:


In Mauss’ classic work, The Gift, he included the Māori example of the ‘the hau of the gift’. He interpreted the ‘hau’ as the spiritual force of the giver in the gift, which demanded to be returned (Mauss 1925). However, his interpretation of ‘hau’ completely excluded Māori voices. His work is an explicit illustration of the Eurocentric appropriation of Indigenous knowledges and cultural belief systems that have, for so long, been a dark feature (or the elephant in the room) of anthropology.

On June 18th, 2018, a group of Māori anthropology scholars wrote an open letter to HAU. They asserted that the lack of acknowledgement for the term Hau – being taken from Māori culture – exhibited “an absence of ethics of care, respect, inclusiveness and openness within HAU’s leadership” (Mahi Tahi 2018, p.1). The scholars further questioned whether the journal upheld the spirit, understandings and ethos of the Hau concept in their practices. The journal responded, providing a justification for their appropriation of the term:

“Although this Maori concept has become anthropologist’s common parlance, HAUshould have consulted you before using it” (Ibid).

HAU’s unethical practices are unsurprising given the wider controversy surrounding the journal, involving issues with the practices of the journal’s management and their lack of response to public critiques. However, this was an extremely disappointing moment for the anthropology world, particularly as it undermined all decolonial efforts that many scholars had been engaging in. HAU have merely extended the appropriation and colonisation of Indigenous knowledges that Mauss established in his work by further misappropriating it as a marketing, and thus economic, tool for the popularisation of the journal.

The cultural appropriation practices of HAU spark broader concerns about how we can continue shifting the colonial patterning of anthropology. For many students just entering and exploring the anthropology discipline, this can be a daunting task. 

I believe it is our responsibility – particularly those self-locating as white settlers – to engage consciously and directly with Indigenous peoples. We must continually learn what practices can be integrated to best rectify the harm that continues to be inflicted against their communities in academia.

I am no expert in what decolonisation should look like or how it should be engaged with; but Indigenous scholars, Jeff Corntassel, Rita Dhamon and Zoe Todd, have suggested practical ways we can work towards this in academia. To monitor your personal ethics as beginner anthropologists, I would recommend actively incorporating at least two of their points into your work:

  • Self-location: We must self-locate to the conceptions of “settler” and settler colonialism (Snelgrove, Dhamoon and Corntassel 2014). This involves articulating (in your research, essays and day-to-day lives) how you situate yourself and your awareness of the colonial occupations of Indigenous lands (see my bio for an example).
  • Centring Indigenous scholars: As stated by Zoe Todd (2017), it is our responsibility as anthropologists to centre Indigenous scholars to “disrupt the privileging of euro-colonial thinking over Indigenous praxis”. We must not conceptualise Indigenous thought through a euro-colonial and philosophical lens. Instead, we must incorporate and centre Indigenous thinkers in our academic work to de-stabilise the Euro-American anthropologists that have been conventionally relied upon for the understanding of Indigenous philosophies.

*side note: the journal still has not, one year later, revised the description of their name on the website to recognise the Māori origins of the Hau concept (yikes…).*.


Davis, H. and Todd, Z 2017, ‘On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene’, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, vol. 16, no.4.

Mahi Tahi 2018, ‘An Open Letter to the Hau Journal’s Board of Trustees’, accessed 5 June 2019, <>.

Mauss, M 1925, The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. Routledge.

Snelgrove, C., Dhamoon, R.K. and Corntassel, J 2014, ‘Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol.3, no.2.

See Also: Imo’s A few lessons learned from Anthropology’s past; Lani’s Cultural Appropriation & Cake? A Bittersweet Analogy; Rob’s Acknowledgement of Country; Dyan’s “Go Back To Where You Came From!”: An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy and Classification

See also:

My favourite anthropology journals:

American Anthropologist

Critique of Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology

Current Anthropology

Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Imagining Notre Dame: A Global Perspective

On the 15th April, the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France became engulfed in flames underneath the structure of the roof, leading to the collapse of the centuries-old Spire. As the Cathedral continued to burn with flames lighting up the sky, Parisians, tourists and international residents were seen gathering across the Seine River to pray and sing hymns together. It was a pivotal moment in history that pierced the national consciousness of France, a piercing that was felt in communities around the world as an iconic, international masterpiece began to fall.

For centuries, the Notre-Dame Cathedral has been the centrepiece of local and international societies; as an exemplar of French Gothic architecture, for the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparate, the blessing of Joan of Arc and as the sacred meeting place for millions of Catholics around the globe. From the religious perspective of many individuals, the Notre-Dame is a Catholic icon that inspired many to engage in larger devotional lives. As one onlooker to the Cathedral’s fire described:

“It (Notre-Dame) represents our ability as human beings to unite for a higher purpose” (Patel and Yuhas 2019, p.1).

Even more so, the Cathedral is a symbol that reinforces how influential Christianity was in structuring Western civilization and European culture, providing it with its morality, virtues and understanding of the cosmos. Over time, the significance of Notre-Dame has expanded beyond the boundaries of France, and it now includes an international community of Catholics that admire its religious symbology in the practice of their faith. When images and reports of the burning Cathedral flashed across televisions, newspapers and social media around the world, the international Catholic community united to donate to its reconstruction.

“New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan announces a fundraising effort from St. Patrick’s Cathedral April 18, 2019 to help support the restoration and rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.”
New York

I argue that this collective effort to save and rebuild Notre-Dame emerges from the importance of having the Cathedral as a unifying symbol of Catholic faith. Why is this so important? Well, it reinforces imaginings of an international Catholic community. This collective imagining, according to Benedict Anderson (1983), is facilitated through the distribution of cultural materials that seek to construct and represent social cohesion. The significance of these cultural materials is then reinforced by the collective imagining.

It is the cultural force of the Notre-Dame Cathedral that Anderson (1983) argues promotes the strength of the Catholic community. The Cathedral is a cultural symbol that reflects the Catholic community back to themselves, which creates a unified imagining of the religious beliefs that rule their community.

While this is an effective way of analysing the importance of Notre-Dame as an international Catholic symbol, I’m not convinced that Benedict Anderson would be too pleased with me applying his theoretical assumptions from Imagined Communities (1983) in this context. Sorry Benny, but you laid excellent theoretical groundwork here that was too good not to build upon!

In Anderson’s original text, he asserted the “imagined community” is created by our collective imagining of the spaces we inhabit – spaces that are locally and geographically bounded. He limited the scope of the imagined community to the nation. Anderson (1983) focused on how the collective identity of the nation was spread through print capitalism (newspapers, language, literature, material maps, museums and census’), which strengthened the shared culture and nationalism that reinforced the boundaries of the nation. However, this is a major flaw in Anderson’s theory. He thought that the nation (aka community) had to emerge from a “local” group that differentiated itself from other communities and societies. He further neglected to question and understand the different forms of “community” and how these were not always bounded to one place in space and time.

It pains me to limit Anderson’s analysis locally, and I think his theory is just as effective in a global framework! I, similar to other scholars, have taken inspiration from Anderson’s ideas and used them to understand the transnational context of Notre-Dame and the Catholic community. Surely Benny would be pretty impressed with how far-reaching his original theories now are!

Let’s look again to Notre-Dame. Catholics around the world saw representations of the Cathedral burning and the devastated reactions of Catholic (and non-Catholic) Parisians on television, social media and in newspapers. These representations reinforced their imagining of Notre Dame as an iconic Catholic monument, which re-stablished their collective knowing of its sacred importance to Catholics around the world. As one facebook user described:


As a result, this collective ‘knowing’ reassured them – whether they were in Brazil, the Philippines, the United States, Ireland or wherever – that they were part of an international Catholic community devastated by this destruction. And… to try and please Benny, this global community does still consist of what he required must be “outsiders” – who in this case could be viewed as people in different religious groups.

The importance of Notre-Dame to the international Catholic community is a prime example of how it is possible to be part of a community that expands beyond the borders of France, Europe and the West; a global community that is imagined across multiple cultures, identities and languages.


Anderson, B 1983, Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, pp.427-449

Patel and Yuhas 2019, ‘Fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral Leads to Expressions of Heartbreak Across the World’, viewed 3 June 2019,

See Also: Maddie’s article on Subtle Diasporic Traits; and Rita’s article Battle of the Ethics: Subsistence Looting