From Anthropologist to Actant (and back to Anthropology): Position, Impasse, and Observation in Sociotechnical Collaboration: Supplemental Material

This post builds on the research article “From Anthropologist to Actant (and back to Anthropology): Position, Impasse, and Observation in Sociotechnical Collaboration,” which was published in the February 2015 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published several articles on the broad area of science and technology studies, including Daniel Segal’s “Editor’s Note: On Anthropology and/in/of Science” (2001), which is the introduction to a special issue (16.4) on the anthropology of science, Michael M. J. Fischer's “Four Genealogies for a Recombinant Anthropology of Science and Technology” (2007), and a curated collection edited by Nicola Bulled and Anna Zogas, “Ethnographies of Science” (2012).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a wide range of articles about anthropologists engaging with practitioners of science. Some of them include Michael Montoya’s “Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research” (2007), Deepa S. Reddy’s “Good Gifts for the Common Good: Blood and Bioethics in the Market of Genetic Research” (2007), Carlo Caduff’s “The Semiotics of Security: Infectious Disease Research and the Biopolitics of Informational Bodies in the United States” (2012), John Hartigan’s “Mexican Genomics and the Roots of Racial Thinking” (2013), Damien Droney’s “Ironies of Laboratory Work during Ghana's Second Age of Optimism” (2014), and Arpita Roy’s “Ethnography and Theory of the Signature in Physics” (2014).

About the Author

Anthony Stavrianakis is currently an Institut Francilien Recherche, Innovation, Société (IFRIS) post-doctoral fellow based at Centre de Recherche Médecine, Sciences, Santé, Santé Mentale, Société (CERMES 3). He received his PhD in anthropology from University of California, Berkeley, where he collaborated with Paul Rabinow and the Anthropological Research on the Contemporary (ARC) collaboratory. His recent work focuses on forms and practices of ethical judgment in science and medicine. Together with Gaymon Bennett and Lyle Fearnley, he has edited and introduced a pedagogical reader for an anthropology of science, titled Science, Reason, Modernity: Readings for an Anthropology of the Contemporary (Fordham University Press, 2015). Stavrianakis is currently working on a historical and anthropological project about assisted dying, understood as a contemporary crucible of experience, which takes up changes in medical practices toward the ending of life since the nineteenth century. As part of the endeavor, he is conducting fieldwork on assisted suicide in Switzerland with the support of the Wenner Gren foundation.

Other Works by the Author


2015. Science, Reason, Modernity: Reading for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, edited with Gaymon Bennett, and Lyle Fearnley. New York: Fordham University Press.

2014. Designs on the Contemporary: Anthropological Tests, with Paul Rabinow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2013. Demands of the Day: On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry, with Paul Rabinow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


2014. Review of Writings on Medicine by Georges Canguilhem, Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

2014. “Science and Fabrications: On Synthetic Biology,” with Gaymon Bennett. BioSocieties 9, no. 2: 219–23.


Andrés García Molina: In discussing the core methodology of Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR)—“a dialogical protocol that aim[s] 'to modulate' the 'midstream'”—you note that using such a method “might be considered unanthropological.” Could you say more about the implications of this? In what sense might this be considered unanthropological, and what is at stake when doing this kind of work as opposed to the more common methodology of participant observation?

Anthony Stavrianakis: I considered what I was doing, as an anthropologist, very much as what anthropologists have called participant-observation. We are all familiar with the longstanding discussions of the oxymoronic character of attempting to both participate in, and observe, situations and practices. What was perhaps a little different was that it was a project both in and on collaborative participant-observation. Methodologically, the challenge was to take up participation using a method, the STIR protocol, as an object, and to think through the anthropological mode in which I could do that. As I explain in the article, the challenge was to produce a second-order reflection on what I suggest is a second-order method oriented to first-order interventions into how scientists were going about their work and how that could be transformed. What I worried was “unanthropological” was the binding of a mode of inquiry to the stakes of first-order intervention, that is to say, to observe the use of the method and its effects or limits, without producing and occupying a position from which to render it as an object of reflection.

One very important aspect of the capacity to create such a space and to occupy such a position was the multiplicity of subject positions that I inhabited during fieldwork. I could only very briefly gesture toward this in the article because of genre constraints including framing, length, and audience. The fieldwork in the STIR project was one of two projects that I was undertaking, the other being collaborative fieldwork with Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett in the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC) and our larger collaborative engagement in the Anthropological Research on the Contemporary collaboratory (ARC). The anthropological mode of inquiry that we had forged in our collaboration in SynBERC and ARC was not only crucial for me as an outside to the STIR project but also the very conditions in which the “significance” of such a project could be observed.

It was in such collaboration and especially through writing a first book with Paul Rabinow, Demands of the Day (2013), that we began systematic reflection on the phases, standards, and forms of our inquiry with bioscientists, and in particular the question of how our movement in the inquiry produced a transformed position and afforded the working over of the objects of inquiry. Such attention to logic and form has a long history in social-science inquiry and is a kindred concern of both John Dewey and Max Weber (i.e., see Weber 1949).

AGM: In what ways would you say reflecting on position and modes of engagement is different from the usual problematics built around the anthropologist's reflexivity and subjectivity? What does this shift in focus allow us to (re-)consider?

AS: Let me try and answer the question through a conceptual orientation: Michel Foucault in The Hermeneutics of the Subject (2005) distinguishes between three forms of “reflexivity,” by which he means the work of thought to make thinking an object of thought, which has been useful in orienting reflection on subject-positions and modes of engagement. He distinguishes between memory, method, and meditation. For more background on this you can look at how Paul Rabinow has honed and mobilized this distinction in Anthropos Today (2003). Lyle Fearnley, Gaymon Bennett, and I have also put Foucault’s reflection on subjectivity and truth into a historical and anthropological frame in the introduction to our pedagogical reader, Science, Reason, Modernity: Readings for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, that will be published in Fordham University Press’s Forms of Living Series (edited by Todd Meyers and Stefanos Geroulanos) in June.

To put it briefly, method as a form of reflexivity posits the possible separation of the search for knowledge and the means by which a subject works on himself, herself, or itself, such that the subject can have a relation to that knowledge. Method is very much at play in the STIR project, which is to be expected to the degree that STIR is very much a modern form for working on a modern problem of science, ethics, and what some would call “politics.”

Memory, as a form of reflexivity, is an exercise in which a truth emerges through a recognition of something that was already present, already known. Foucault talks of a truth that the soul knew, perhaps Plato’s Meno would be the exemplar. To a degree, the STIR project also partook of this form of reflexivity. Erik Fischer has a long and deep self-formation in philosophy, having been educated in, as well as having grown up in, the Great Books tradition of St. John’s College. Rather than getting into all the complexities of referring back to Plato, I used Niklas Luhmann’s concept of enlightenment to show how the process of rendering “latent concerns” sayable and visible was supposed to move subjects toward a truth of the situation. What I think is precisely interesting about this is that the STIR project recognizes the “outside” to modern forms for reflexivity. The problem, however, is what to do with the breakdown in such modern forms.

Foucault’s third form of reflexivity is meditation: those of us at ARC have spent a lot of time thinking about this third form, and our collaboration has endeavored to give form to such reflexivity. Meditation, Foucault tells us, drawing on his return to several Stoic philosophers (including Seneca and Marcus Aurelius), is the work of inquiry in which knowledge is not arrived at in the “element of identity” but “in the test of thought.” No doubt, we could (and should) have a long discussion about what exactly that means. Nevertheless, for an anthropologist it primes a very basic and critical question: whether I am the subject of the truth that I know?

Our whole project at ARC has been oriented to finding a collaborative practice for asking this question. It is furthermore of great interest given that, as I explained, the subject position I inhabited was a multiple and shared one, forged with my collaborators at ARC. As I point out in the article, one of the problems of the STIR method was precisely its status as method, leading to an impasse with respect to creating a shared position with the bioscientific and social-scientific collaborators, in which we could engage in such a test of thinking together.

For the past year and half or so, I have been working on a new project about assisted suicide and forms for ending life, particularly in Switzerland. What is absolutely central to the anthropological work of engaging such an object and problem is what place, position, and practice of testing an anthropologist could occupy and engage in, when pursuing such an inquiry.

AGM: Part of what I have found inspiring in your work is the ability to engage with an uncommon, yet crucial, object of study: collaboration. It differs radically from classic and in some sense more boundable objects of study in anthropology: for example, a group of people, a cultural practice, or an institution. So here is an open-ended question: what kind of study object is collaboration?

AS: Let me reiterate that I engaged this object and problem through a practice, through an invitation to collaborate, which was then tested in a series of practices, such as STIR, being undertaken under the sign of “collaboration.” Gaymon Bennet, Lyle Fearnley, Paul Rabinow, and I (2014) have recently had an exchange with Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard in which we explain what we think the stakes of collaboration are, namely, scientific and ethical. To answer your question, collaboration is a contemporary object and problem. Let me return to that point: with a meditative orientation, collaboration as an object is always connected to the ethos in which knowledge of that object can be tested and given significance. What we wish to know about is deeply connected to who we are, and what we might try to become. Now that’s a short answer to a long question. The second book Paul and I (2014) wrote works through some of the elements of the contemporary as a problem space, testing such an ethos with two cases: that of Gerhard Richter and Salman Rushdie. The Rushdie case has taken on a new hue, in light of the murders in Paris in January, as has the problem and task of inventing a contemporary response. The chapter actually takes up Rushdie in relation to the work of Charlie Hebdo.

AGM: In your article, you use Vololona Rabeharisoa and Michel Callon’s (1999) engagement with the French Muscular Dystrophy Association (AFM) as a comparative instance. Can you think of other instances of what we could call sociotechnical collaboration that might afford generative comparative possibilities?

AS: That’s a good question. What I think is important to remember about the Rabeharisoa and Callon engagement is that it was connected to the medical field and a specific illness. Whether there are comparative instances of ethical collaborations on ethical problems between anthropologists and scientists in basic scientific domains, well, if someone could show them to me, I would be very interested. To a large degree, for me, movement toward the domain of medicine, the end of life, and ethical judgments is motivated by the fact that it is precisely in such a domain that I think a contemporary anthropology of ethics can be put to work.

AGM: In this article, you focus on collaboration between anthropologists and practitioners of science, concluding with reflections built around "critical parameters" of the problem of collaboration. To what degree would you say these critical parameters might be applicable to collaboration in domains different from the scientific, like the economic, the juridical, or the political? Taking your work as a departure point, what advice would you give to other anthropologists wanting to study and engage in collaboration within different domains?

AS: The scope and scale at which these parameters could afford further inquiry will need to be tested. We could summarize the parameters as: (1) attention to excess and deficiency, with respect to the ethical aims that subjects have; (2) the power relations at stake in the constitution of situations of excess and deficiency; and (3) the orders of observation one is operating at, at specific moments in inquiry.

To a degree, these parameters have already been tested in the domain of creative and artistic practice and we are continuing to test them in our collaborative work at ARC. For example, in Designs on the Contemporary: Anthropological Tests, Paul and I (2014) worked on two cases of creative practice—Salman Rushdie in literature and Gerhard Richter in art—in which the critical interventions of observers of these creators were themselves observed, with respect to the order of observation at which they operated, the ethical (or excessive and or deficient) character of those interventions and the power relations at play in the institutional arrangements in which such observation take place.

The first half of the book conceptualizes and expands the parameters for such work. I have no doubt that these tools and orientations could be of use in taking up economic, juridical, and political domains and practices. Regardless of the domain or the object, it seems the fundamental orientation is at each step to ask yourself what you are doing, how you are positioned and being positioned such that you are able to do it, and then how you are doing it. Tracking inquiry in such a way is one manner of attempting to observe participation that is oriented toward grasping an object of observation. Of course, all the while not forgetting one is doing all of that tracking of inquiry so as to be able to better seize the significance of the object of inquiry.


Foucault, Michel. 2005. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–1982. Edited by Frédéric Gross, translated by Graham Burchell. New York: Picador.

Rabinow, Paul. 2003. Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Rabeharisoa, Vololona, and Michel Callon. 1999. Le Pouvoir Des Malades: l'Association Française Contre Les Myopathies Et La Recherche. Paris: Presses Des MINES.

Stavrianakis, Anthony, Gaymon Bennet, Lyle Fearnley, and Paul Rabinow. 2014. “Confusion, Truth, and Bureacracy: A Reply to Fitzgerald and Callard.” Somatosphere, December 9.

Stavrianakis, Anthony, and Paul Rabinow. 2013. Demands of the Day: On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stavrianakis, Anthony, and Paul Rabinow. 2014. Designs on the Contemporary: Anthropological Tests. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weber, Max. 1949. “Critical Studies in the Logic of the Cultural Sciences.” In Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences, edited by Edward Shils, 113–63. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Additional resources

The recent debate between members of the Anthropological Research on the Contemporary collaboratory (ARC) and Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard regarding the “collaborative turn”:

Fitzgerald, Des, and Felicity Callard. 2014 “Entangled in the Collaborative Turn: Observations from the Field,” Somatosphere, November 3, 2014.

Stavrianakis, Anthony, Gaymon Bennett, Lyle Fearnley, and Paul Rabinow. 2014. “Confusion, Truth, and Bureaucracy: A Reply to Fitzgerald and Callard,” Somatosphere, December 9, 2014.

Multimedia content

A conversation between Anthony Stavrianakis and the Danish filmmakers Allan Alfred and Katja Gry on collaboration and Stavrianakis’s work with Paul Rabinow and STIR.