Race, Gender, and Science

Let’s say you’re a scientist – I’m pretty sure this isn’t my audience, so it’s a safe bet you’re not.  But let’s say you are… You’re looking at a lake, and you see that there is one portion of the lake where you find mostly male fish with a certain speckled pattern.  This in spite of the fact that this lake is full of this species of fish with plenty of both males and females and a large array of colorings and markings.  You think – this doesn’t make sense, the probability must be really low.  Indeed, you run some statistics and find that the probability of finding only male speckled fish clustered in this portion of the lake is less than 0.05.  That’s statistically significant!  So, you think, there must be something going on here – there must be some causal factor.  In fact, you eventually find that male speckled fish tend to prefer a particular type of food and this area happens to be rich in that food source.  Science!  Nice job investigating that anomaly!

Now let’s say you’re still that scientist.  You’re sitting in a room with your fellow scientists and some policy makers discussing some issue that has regulatory potential.  Let’s say you look around and see that everyone around you, with a couple of exceptions, is a male with a particular coloration pattern (generally, a lack of melanin and often a slight speckling).  What do you do?  Do you look at the probability of this happening in a diverse population, and then look for causal factors?  I doubt it.  More likely, you come up with some explanation for why this is natural and dismiss it.  Then again, you probably didn’t notice it to begin with.  Is it your fault? No, of course not – not in any direct causal sense.  Then again, that you didn’t notice or failed to call it into question is part of the cause, and in that sense, that you didn’t do anything about it is part of the problem.

I am part of the problem…

Friction – Work – Mangle

I’ve been preparing lately for a conference on Monday about the use of multiple models in evaluating water quality on the Chesapeake.  I’m part of a panel that will be discussing the social and cultural implications of multiple modeling, and the gist of what I want to present is that models don’t simply represent or help us understand the complexity of the Bay (or whatever they happen to be modeling), they also add to that complexity (the subtitle of my talk is “Making a Mess with Models” paraphrasing the title of a paper by John Law on methods – pdf).  In order to make this case, I introduce three concepts that I’ve come to see as tied together – Friction, Work, and the Mangle.

Friction – I borrow this concept from two sources: Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, and Paul Edward’s A Vast Machine.  Edwards discusses the concept of computational friction and data friction where the problem is integrating different data sets with one another in order to create a more comprehensive data set (e.g. global climate data).  Tsing describes friction as “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” and uses this concept to explore the phenomenon of globalization – specifically, the global lumber trade that has shaped the Indonesian landscape.  So, very simply, friction for me is a metaphor for the resistance to interconnection across some difference.  This difference keeps two or more things from connecting, but also offers an almost infinite possibility if the two things are made to connect.

Work – This is a concept I’ve talked a lot about already, but in this context, it’s the process of overcoming the resistance produced by friction.  It’s through work that the possibilities contained within the space of difference are actualized.  In the process of bringing things into relation with one another, a new world is created, and different ways of working to build relationships produce different kinds of worlds.

Mangle – Another borrowed concept – this time from Andrew Pickering.  This is merely to remind us that everything is mangled in the encounter between work and friction.  People are mangled (altered and affected) as much by the technologies, knowledges, organisms and other beings they work with as those beings are mangled by us (the result of the efficacy of beings).  In other words, humans are not engineers of reality – safely reshaping the world from a distance – we are active parts of the world and are continually reshaped by it.

It is my hope that these three concepts, in the context of my presentation at least, will be able to get the modelers, policy makers, and others at the workshop to think differently about their practices.  My goal is to think about the ways that different modeling practices (e.g. participatory modeling, open access models, etc.) can remake the reality of the Chesapeake – not just for the people, but for all of the beings involved.

Real Rainbows


Over at Circling Squares, Phillip has a nice response to Levi’s recent post on flat ontology, and I find a lot of valuable ideas in both posts in spite of the disagreement between them.  I don’t have anything to add, but just want to indicate that I am on the side of the reality of rainbows and other emergent phenomena.  For me (and for Levi, too, as this is his “ontic principle”), a thing is real if it has effects – if it makes a difference to others.  In my view, it’s not important how the rainbow is constructed or of what it is composed, the fact that it affects me is enough to justify its reality.  Nevertheless, I agree with Levi’s main point that many signifiers possess no referrant (e.g. God, race) – these things are real, but only to the extent that they are represented (thus, mine is a material-semiotic realism).

Work and Practice

This post is, in part, a request for help.  I’m trying to understand the relationship between Isabelle Stengers’s concept of “practice” and an “ecology of practice” and the practice theories of Bourdieu, Ortner, et. al.  Does anyone have any leads on this?  I see many similarities and many differences, but I’m trying to understand the lineage.  Is Stengers drawing on practice theory as such or is she developing an alternative practice theory?  My sense is the latter, but I don’t have evidence for this.  If anyone can suggest some readings to help me figure it out, I would greatly appreciate it.

Now on to the more substantive issue, which is my own concepts of practice and work.  I’ve tended to treat these two as synonymous, and will continue to do so.  Practice and work, for me, are the ways that we (beings, broadly speaking) constitute our worlds.  It is action that makes a difference – that alters and affects others.  It is also, in a sense, synonymous with “behavior” if for the simple reason that all activities make a difference and, thus, constitute a world.  However, I think the term “behavior” fails to make us think about the world constituting effects of our actions and those of others.  Behavior is just what we do, it doesn’t convey the sense of altering and affecting that I want to convey.  However, thinking about this today, I began to wonder if “practice” does this, and I’m increasingly convinced that it does not except in some very specific senses.  For example, to practice medicine is just to do something – the idea of shaping the world is left out.  However, to practice violin is a different matter.  Here an individual is building a skill in relation to another object – the violin.  But it just doesn’t seem strong enough.

In light of this, and also in light of my confusion with the origins of Stengers’s concept of practice and its relationship with Bourdieu’s (I say this because my use of the term practice in anthropology has caused me in some minds to be associated with Bourdieu, when, in fact, I don’t see myself aligned with his thought at all), I have thought about simply replacing the word “practice” with “work.”  As frequent readers will know, I like the concept of work – I think it is essential to my understanding of our social lives and our relationships with others (human and non-human) with whom we share a world.  Work, to me, conveys the sense of embodiment, but also the idea of constituting or composing that I want to convey.  We work, and this work builds relationships with and between other beings.  The world is shaped by our work and we are shaped by the work of others around us.  The one failure of the term is that it calls to mind manual labor, and, although I think that’s an important aspect, I don’t want to limit my conception of work to that kind of labor.  Instead, I want to think about the ways that all action, all behavior is work – the ways that all work makes a difference, and constitutes a world.  Still, I think it is a more powerful concept than either behavior or practice, though I still hold those two to me synonymous.

The Subjectivity of Nature

I’m reading Habermas’s essay Science and Technology as Ideology.  I haven’t finished it yet, and so will come back to it at another time to discuss the overall argument, but I read this paragraph and found it intriguing.  I thought I’d share before it slips my mind, though, I should say that it’s not Habermas’s argument and I’m not sure yet if he’s critiquing or building upon Marcuse:

Marcuse has in mind an alternative attitude to nature, but it does not admit of the idea of a New Technology.  Instead of treating nature as the object of possible technical control, we can encounter her as an opposing partner in a possible interaction.  We can seek out a fraternal rather than an exploited nature.  At the level of an as yet incomplete intersubjectivity we can impute subjectivity to animals and plants, even to minerals, and try to communicate with nature instead of merely processing her under conditions of severed communication.  And the idea that a still enchained subjectivity of nature cannot be unbound until men’s communication among themselves is free from domination has retained, to say the least, a singular attraction.  Only if men could communicate without compulsion and each could recognize himself in the other, could mankind possibly recognize nature as another subject: not, as idealism would have it, as its Other, but as a subject of which mankind itself is the Other.