Aug 17, 2016

SynBERC, anthropological inquiry and methods of research

Recently I've been searching for guidance on how to describe ethnographic methodology in a grant proposal and found P. Rabinow and A. Stavrianakis' commentary Movement space: Putting anthropological theory, concepts, and cases to the test, where they reflect on the challenges of anthropological inquiry, on what it means to observe in heterogeneous and changing spaces. I had no time to read it slowly and carefully, so now just filling this gap.

The essay is a response to another collection of essays, but also a reflection on previous ethnographic research with Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center SynBERC (I wish I paid more attention to it during my own dissertation research). An honest public account like that contributes to the ethics and methodology discussions more than any published "research" article.
Raising the question of "to what end" in anthropological inquiry, Rabinow and Stavrianakis' essay recollects previous collaborative participant-observations as attempts to bring the ethics that exists outside of the instrumental rationality of science into multidisciplinary research projects.

Flourishing is the concept they used to challenge and change the currently existing relations between knowledge and care (see Rabinow, Paul. "Prosperity, Amelioration, Flourishing: From a Logic of Practical Judgment to Reconstruction." Law and Literature 21, no. 3 (2009): 301-20, jstor). Flourishing helps to examine research practices from a holistic perspective, as practices that are performed by human beings without ethical compartmentalization into scientific, individual, and citizen values.

Then the discussion moves to temporality in anthropological research and the distinction between "contemporary" and "present" in ethnography. This distinction was hard for me to understand. Observations are made in the present, but somehow contextualization with experiences from the past (history) helps to challenge the "ethnographic present". Does it mean that something (objects or practices) maybe present but not contemporary? Or that contemporary may include the past? In other words, the distinction present vs contemporary vs modern allows us to stay tuned to the constant changes and not to fix descriptions as existing in certain times only. Sometimes it seemed that contemporary referred to attempts to reconcile diverse or contradicting practices (e.g., the practices of observation and observers and the practices of the observed).

An interesting point was made on citation (again, as a response to someone else's point). It is about acknowledging more recent work on similar issues.  Understanding that that's rules of the game (esp. to get grants), Rabinow writes that excessive citation also constrains thinking and writing, and authorizes such practices. Why would someone go back to reading and citing Weber, Foucault, or Dewey? Not because what they said is still relevant and true (althrough some of it is), but because they paid so much attention to problem formation, to the need for conceptual tools, and to the importance of experimentation with form.

Back to SynBERC, it is striking how empty expressions of support from bioscientists and engineers masked indifference and ultimately lack of respect and willingness to change. What made things worse was that social scientists' effort to develop effective modes of governance and interaction were blocked and downgraded to non-action and "soothing public relations". Moreover, the social scientists themselves failed to coordinate and reflect on their complicity with dominating technoscientific norms and values.

Even though I really appreciated this account of anthropological "failure" (as seen by others, but not by the authors who conceptualize it as an "anthropological test"), there is a larger purpose in it. As the authors put it,
... it is time to thematize the new configurations of power relations in which anthropologists are working today. Critique as denunciation, still the dominant mode in anti-colonial narratives, is no longer sufficient for the complexities of contemporary inquiry. We are arguing for a more fine-grained acceptance of the fact that by refusing the binaries of inside and outside, one’s responsibility for one’s position in the field is made available for reflection and invention.
Anthropology's major task is to map heterogeneity of human and cultural forms, including:
  • cultural heterogeneity with an underlying generality (American anthropology)
  • heterogeneity within common institutional forms such as kinship and law (British anthropology)
  • variations in structural patterns of society and the mind (French anthropology)
However, accounts of heterogeneity lost their force, in some ways losing their criteria of validity under the pressure of current norms of conducting research. At the same time critical evaluation of such criteria is an important task in changing present times. Such evaluation can be done through testing - constant re-evaluation of the existing conceptual tools in the context of new situations and experiences. The rest of the detailed discussion on testing was dense, but less relevant to me, so it was also harder to follow. 

One of the take-aways is that anthropology needs to be a collaborative endeavor, where individual inquiries examine specific cases and then many inquirers create a common space of concepts, problems, and cases. The constant movement between specific cases and topology of cases creates a space where anthropology can make justifiable warrantable claims about more than one case, i.e., about heterogeneity and associated generality.