Rupture and Flow: The Circulation of Technoscientific Facts and Objects

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures
Indiana University, Bloomington

About the seminar

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Objects in technoscience seem perpetually in motion. Facts and technologies circulate among diverse communities of producers and consumers, acquiring or losing credibility and utility as they move. Indigenous knowledge of the medical properties of plants is recorded in an ethnobotanist's field notes, which get written up for publication in a scientific journal. There they catch the eye of a biochemist who designs laboratory experiments seeking to synthesize the active agents. A pharmaceutical company invents a new drug, which is then subjected to scrutiny in clinical trials. The drug is approved by regulatory agencies and marketed worldwide, resulting in healthy people and abundant corporate profits.

Reality is rarely so neat. At every step in this transit, the circulation of knowledge and technologies can be pre-empted or steered in different directions (Hayden 2003). The anthropologist might have deemed the indigenous knowledge as unreliable, or never published the field notes. The biochemist might have been distracted by a research grant on unrelated problems. The pharmaceutical company might be unable to develop the new drug because of an economic downturn. Patients might notice a pattern of deleterious side effects, and file lawsuits that move the drug, the experimental data, the field notes and the indigenous knowledge into the courts and the news (Healy 2004).

This seminar is anchored in the interdisciplinary field of science and technology studies (STS), and takes off from its longstanding interest in traveling facts and technology transfer (Akrich 1991; Callon 1986; Fujimura 1992; Galison 1997; Latour 1999; Star & Griesemer 1989; Verran 2001). However, we focus on processes that have not been explored in a systematic way: how and why do cultural, social and material forces interrupt the circulation of technoscientific objects, and with what consequences for what kinds of communities? We are especially interested in how these disruptions can be productive in often unanticipated ways (Strathern 1996).

The year-long seminar "Rupture and Flow: The Circulation of Technoscientific Facts and Objects" breaks down this question into four themes:

  1. How and why do scientists filter their findings, and has this pattern of the selective release of potential knowledge changed over historical time and does it vary among disciplines?
  2. How do the material technologies that enable the circulation of technoscientific objects themselves introduce a need to translate knowledge-claims as they move among communities with different normative standards of truth and credibility?
  3. How is the transfer of technological artifacts embedded in variable organizational, cultural and social contexts, so that the transit of objects from one community to another (each with its own utilities and values) either become impossible or requires fundamental re-formulation of the substance of the object or its meaning?
  4. How is the power to control migrations of technoscientific objects distributed among social groups and institutions, and how is that power changing over time in ways that enable or discourage the flow of facts and machines?