Field Notes: Studying Unformed Objects

Reflections on How Ethnographies of Science and Process Take Shape

© Paul Indigo, Courtesy of

 “…it is not enough for us to open our eyes, to pay attention, to be aware, for new objects suddenly to light up and emerge out of the ground.”  

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969/1971, pp 44-45

In July’s Field Notes, four writers reflect on their experiences carrying out ethnographies of not-quite-formed objects, or in other words, on the joint ‘taking-shape’ of their subjects and projects. 

As a prompt, we put two questions in conversation: 

(1) How does an ethnographic project’s focus take shape? (be it in contemplative stages, pilot work, during grant-writing, in the midst of fieldwork, or in reflection and writing)?


(2) What does it look like to conduct ethnographies of people’s efforts (successful or not) to pull together certain issues or problems as a cohesive topic for scientific investigation and public action? 

In short, what does it look and feel like to study the “coming-into-being” [1] of objects, be they scientific, medical, or other, or to study the failures to quite do so?

As a graduate student attempting to undertake a project that specifically took into account competing efforts of residents, activists, and government scientists to negotiate and define what it was they were trying to study, measure, and address through environmental risk assessment, it struck me that defining my own question and object of study needed a certain unfinished openness and fluidity to be attentive to this unfinished work itself that I was tracking.

I am happy to have the opportunity to host this conversation through SCA’s Field Notes, with several experienced scholars, to reflect together, and in contrast, on the different ways our projects, whether ethnographic, historical, or otherwise, take shape. 

Please log in and join us this month in posting comments and reflecting: How have your own projects – and their foci - grown over time, become clearer, less clear, come together, pulled apart?

We look forward to playing with these ideas with you all!

Go to the Discussion:

Post one, Provocation: Kathleen Stewart

Post two, Translation: Britt Dahlberg

Post three, Deviation: Michelle Murphy

Post four, Integration: Amy Moran-Thomas 

Writers for this round of discussion are: 

Provocation: Kathleen Stewart is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin. She writes on place, the senses, affect, the ordinary, worlding and ethnographic writing as a form of theory. Her experiments in ethnographic creative nonfiction attempt to find ways to capture, or help compose, modes of living as they come into being. A Space on the Side of the Road (Princeton) approached the shared lived impacts of class as an intense plane of expressivity. Ordinary Affects (Duke) theorized the affects of everyday life as public-private events. Her current book, Worlding, is written as a prism of shards or angles on the phenomena of worlds throwing together as moods, refrains, rhythms, tactile compositions, sensory labors, atmospheric attunements and the arc of a life.

Translation: Britt Dahlberg is a PhD Candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, funded by NSF, Wenner Gren, and the American Philosophical Society, explores the interplay of “blight” and “risk” in shaping how risks emerge, crystallize, and fade during a community-government environmental risk assessment process at a U.S. EPA Superfund site. She is interested in how different modes of attending to, seeing, sensing, and experiencing place, self, and community, relate to practices of diagnosis and risk assessment. Her previous work has explored the interplay of self-making and diagnosis of depression among older Americans. Her work can be seen at:

Deviation: Michelle Murphy is a feminist technoscience studies scholar and historian of the recent past who works as an Associate Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Seizing the Means of Reproduction: Entanglements of Feminism, Health, and Technoscience (Duke UP 2013) and Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers (Duke UP 2006).  She is also co-organizer of the Technoscience Salon:  For more on her work visit:

Integration: Amy Moran-Thomas is a Cogut Center International Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University in Anthropology and Population Studies.  Her work, appearing in publications such as Annual Review of Anthropology (with João Biehl) and When People Come First: Critical Studies in Global Health (Princeton UP 2013), examines metabolic and parasitic disorders as windows into health politics, environmental change, and the ethics of care more broadly.  Her current book project focuses on the global diabetes epidemic. 

*Special thanks also go to photographer Paul Indigo for kindly sharing his work as a visual element of our discussion this month! For more of his works, visit:

[1] Daston, L. (2000). Introduction: The coming into being of scientific objects. Biographies of Scientific Objects. L. Daston. Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 1-14.

Posts in This Series

Studying Unformed Objects: Integration

Studying Unformed Objects: Deviation

Studying Unformed Objects: Translation

Studying Unformed Objects: The Provocation of a Compositional Mode