Four Genealogies for a Recombinant Anthropology of Science and Technology

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From the first page of the article

The call of and for an Anthropology of Science and Technology requires a new generation of robust switches to translate legacy genealogies to public futures. Just as we have moved from Mertonian sociologies of science (stressing the regulative ideals of organized skepticism, disinterested objectivity, universalism, and communal ownership of ideas) to analyses of what scientists actually do (the slogans of the “new sociologies of science,” i.e., social studies of knowledge (SSK), and “social construction” of technology [SCOT], and of the anthropologically informed ethnographies of science and technology of the 1990s), so too we need now to formulate anthropologies of science and technology that attend to both the cultural switchesof the heterogeneous communities within which sciences are cultured and technologies are peopled, and to the reflexive social institutions within which medical, environmental, informational, and other technosciences must increasingly operate.

"On the technology incubator at Sabanci Research Park, Istanbul, humans scaling and vaulting over the walls of knowledge." November 2007 via Michael Fischer.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a range of essays that address philosophical and methodological challenges in the anthropology of science and technology. See, for example, Michael M.J. Fischer's "Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems" (2007); Peter Metcalf's "Global 'Disjunctive' and the 'Sites' of Anthropology" (2001); Anna Tsing's "The Global Situation" (2000); and George E. Marcus's "Editorial Retrospective" (1991). 

Cultural Anthropology has also published a range of essays that exemplify the anthropology of science and technology at its best.  See, for example, Chris Kelty's "Geeks, Social Imaginaries, and Recursive Publics" 
(May 2005), Karen-Sue Taussig's "Bovine Abominations: Genetic Culture and Politics in the Netherlands" (August 2004), Stefan Helmriech's 
"After Culture: Reflections on the Apparition of Anthropology in Artificial Life, a Science of Simulation" (November 2001) and 
Emily Martin's "The Ethnography of Natural Selection in the 1990s" (August 1994).

About the Author

Michael M.J. Fischer is a professor of STS at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1.  How have the "four genealogies" developed over the years?  What new areas of study have emerged for science and technology studies in recent decades?

2.  What makes a social institution "reflexive"?  What are the advantages/disadvantages of such institutions, and what role do you think they will play in the future of technoscience?

3.  What is the role of anthropologists and other social scientists in the relationship between scientists and the publics affected by their research?


"Atrium, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Basic Sciences, Zanjan, Iran. With geophysicist and earthquake researcher Farhad Sobuti (right), anthropologist Mazyar Lotfalian (left), and author (center)." November 2007 via Michael Fischer.

"Microbiology Ph.D. student Shahareh Tavaddod explains her work on the motion of E. coli." November 2007 via Michael Fischer.

"Institute of Technology, Bandung, Indonesia." November 2007 via Michael M J Fischer.

Editorial Overview

How might we formulate anthropologies of science and technology so that they attend to both the "cultural switches" of heterogeneous communities implicated in technoscience, and to demands for "reflexive social institutions" capable of ethically orienting technoscientific practise and development?  These questions are taken up in a momentous essay by cultural anthropologist and Professor of STS at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michael M.J Fischer, in the November 2007 issue of Cultural Anthropology.

"Four Geneologies for a Recombinant Anthropology of Science and Technology" maps legacy systems of thought that are channeling the anthropology of science and technology into the early 21st century: "cultural skeins, sensibilities and democracies" (1930s and 1960s); "programming object-oriented languages of the SSK, SCOT and ANT" traditions (1980s); "anthropologically informed ethnographies of science and technology" (1980s-present); and, finally, "emergent cosmopolitical technoscientific worlds of the 21st century".  Fischer emphasizes that in an increasingly interlinked world, scientists  are accountable not just to instrumental values but also to the differential cultural sensibilities of invested people.  And in a world in which multiple technologies interact to create complex terrains or "ethical plateaus", anthropologists of science and technology can no longer be satisfied with broad claims about the alienation of the market, the technicization of life, or globalization. Instead, we require enriched anthropologies that "inform, critique, and iteratively reconstruct" the "emergent forms of life" developing around us, with particular attention to "civic epistemologies,"  "cultures of politics", and the presuppositions of policy formulation.

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