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

Truth and Lies in Translation (November 2010)

Leaders: Ilana Gershon (Communication and Culture), Kalpana Shankar (Informatics, Library and Information Science)

In the past twenty years, science studies scholars have begun to pay attention to how the material artifacts of science and technology contribute to the social construction of truth. Scientists, activists and journalists use instruments to represent scientific reality through various means - databases, ultrasounds, DNA sequencing through PCR techniques - all media which people must interpret. In the course of scientific work, information becomes facts by traveling through different media in patterned ways that imbue the piece of knowledge with authority and relevance. As information travels from field notebooks to computer programs, people are engaged in processes of translation on several levels. They are re-combining the ways in which data is located vis-a-vis other accepted facts as well as translating information from one medium's techniques of claiming authority to another. They are also moving knowledge from one community of interest to another, switching from how one community attributes expertise and authenticity to another community's strategies. For example, UK researchers have been using local gardeners' logs and nature journals to examine annual weather patterns over long periods of time (Whitfield 2001). The researchers are faced with the task of sifting and re-codifying this information to make it acceptable as scientific evidence. In the process, the researchers are re-formulating both the gardeners' local knowledge and the ways in which this local knowledge is presented, omitting details the gardeners themselves consider essential markers of their own authority. As scientists increasingly rely on other communities' knowledge practices as sources for their own data, issues of legitimacy and power underlie both how to accomplish translation and how the materiality of the classificatory tools shape the form of the knowledge. This is fundamentally a comparative project as we look at how knowledge is constituted in particular communities of interest and then circulated into others. In this subtheme, we are looking at how circulating scientific knowledge is always a process of translation, and thus of constructing truth through different media and with context-specific assumptions about how different media affect the representation of reality.

We will examine how circulating knowledge using the material artifacts of science and technology shapes the loss or corruption of information, knowledge, and power. This is increasingly a conscious process, as activists are using databases and other information technologies to capture and document indigenous medical knowledge to forestall corporate interests intent on exploiting such knowledge (Bodeker 2003). As the other subthemes point out, the boundaries between communities of interest are blurred. Issues of translation and mistranslation need to be foregrounded as corporations, scientists and activists interpenetrate. When scientific artifacts are used to "translate" from one person to the next, from one community to the next, or across and between any barriers, what is lost in translation? What breakdowns occur? How do peoples' assumptions about the ways the medium shapes the message affect when and how knowledge circulates successfully, and when knowledge does not? How are the artifacts themselves transmuted in the process?


October 29
Classroom Office Building (COB) 800 East Third Street Room 272, 1:30-3:00pm

Talk by Matthew W. Wilson, PhD
(Assistant Professor of Geography, Ball State University)
"Coding Community: Interdigitations in the city street" [Abstract]

For an introduction to Dr. Wilson's work, see his article "Data matter(s): legitimacy, coding, and qualifications-of-life," available on Oncourse.

November 12
Classroom Office Building (COB) 800 East Third Street Room 272, 1:30-3:00pm

Meeting to discuss
Don Brenneis, "Anthropology in and of the academy: globalization, assessment and our field's future," Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale (2009) 17, 3 261-275.
Marilyn Strathern, "Prototyping prototyping," Anthropological Research on the Contemporary, Nov. 2010, Episode 2.

Available on Oncourse. If you do not have access to Oncourse, e-mail Elizabeth Nelson.

December 4
Capstone Seminar

Maurer School of Law, Room 335 (Faculty Conference Room)

NB: The Seminar will begin an hour later than was previously scheduled


Geoffrey Bowker (Center for Science, Technology and Society (CSTS), Santa Clara University)
Title TBA


Marilyn Strathern (Emerita, University of Cambridge)
"Wilful Mis-translation?"


Debbora Battaglia (Anthropology, Mount Holyoke College)
"Outer Space in Translation: Moments in the Life of a Cosmonaut and His Diary"


Debbora Battaglia is the author of On the Bones of the Serpent: Person, Memory, and Mortality in Sabarl Island Society and is currently working on Seriously at Home in 'Zero Gravity': Acting Human in Outer Space. She has also published numerous scholarly articles, including "Multiplicities: An Anthropologist's Thoughts on Replicants and Clones in Popular Films," in the journal Critical Inquiry, and "Toward an Ethics of the Open Subject: Writing Culture 'In Good Conscience'," in Henrietta Moore, ed. Anthropological Theory Today (Cambridge: Polity Press). Battaglia has conducted anthropological fieldwork in the islands off the New Guinea coast and urban fieldwork in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. She has also worked in Quebec Province, the East Coast of the U.S., and on the Internet with a new religious movement focusing on faith-based science. Her honors include the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. A frequent presenter and keynote speaker at national and international conferences and academic institutions, she has served as a member of the editorial board of American Ethnologist, Cultural Anthropology, Material Culture, and Anthropological Quarterly.

Geoffrey Bowker's research interests are in the field of classification and standardization and how these play into the development of scientific cyberinfrastructure. His recent Memory Practices in the Sciences examines information infrastructures and storytelling in a science over the past two hundred years. It looks at geology in the 1830s, cybernetics in the 1950s and environmental sciences today - weaving together their information infrastructure and the stories that they tell about their objects. Bowker's work on information infrastructure involves looking at shifting classification systems in medicine, distributed collaborative work practices in environmental science, data sharing practices and biodiversity informatics. His central analytic question is how scientists in the various sciences contributing to the subject of biodiversity communicate both with each other and with policymakers - and in particular how do the data structures and practices in use affect this communication. Bowker is also the author of a book on information management and industrial geophysics at Schlumberger, Science on the Run, and (with Susan Leigh Star), Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences. He currently working on a book called How to Read Databases.

Marilyn Strathern is one of the leading social anthropologists in the world today. She has conducted fieldwork in Papua New Guinea and the United Kingdom; her anthropological work has used Melanesian conceptions, as well as feminist insights, to question the universality of some Western categories often taken to be fundamental: society, the individual, relation, property, substance, effect, nature, culture and so on. She has also written about new reproductive technologies and intellectual property law and her most recent work focuses on the complexities of transparency, accountability, and audit, especially within the academy. Strathern has held a string of academic appointments and been awarded many formal distinctions. She was Research Fellow at the New Guinea Research Unit of the Australian National University in 1970, and later Senior Research Fellow in the Research School of Pacific Studies at the ANU. She was a Fellow and Lecturer at Girton College (1976-83) and Trinity College (1984-85) at Cambridge. In 1985, she was appointed Professor of Social Anthropology at Manchester University. From 1993 until her retirement in 2009 she occupied one of the most prestigious chairs in the dscipline, as William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University, and was Mistress of Girton College from 1998 until 2009.