Putting Science in its Place

In some corners of anthropology, it has been said that science studies lacks a robust sense of place. But many capable ethnographers have brought labs, hospital suites, and production facilities to life, giving readers a granular sense for what distinguishes these sites from other milieux. What, precisely, might be missing? Consider the word “place.” As science studies scholars have repeatedly observed, there are no universal or value-neutral terms in the social sciences, and we ought to be relentlessly symmetrical in denaturalizing both scientific and social scientific terminology. The problem with social science terms is that most of them are not neologisms. Theoretical terms pass as ordinary language. Like wolves in sheep’s clothing, social science concepts continue to be paraded by many of us as harmless explanatory terms.

“Place” is one of these. Place doesn’t just mean “here” or “there.” It indexes a specific way of constructing the spatial, temporal, and political embeddednesss of ethnography. “Place” captures what ethnographers deem worthwhile or important in a given historical moment. In the mid 20th-century, anthropology’s geographic areas neatly recapitulated Cold-War era regional boundaries. In the global 21st-century, we hear more often about the constitution of place. “Place” no longer seems to be a cartographical given; today, it is both a texture and a topology in the making. The recent “Science Studies as Area Studies” workshop at Duke University (February 28, 2014) explored a related set of concerns, focusing on the role of place in ethnographic writing and its relationship to the universal claims of science.

Organized by Ara Wilson (Women’s Studies, Duke) and Harris Solomon (Cultural Anthropology, Duke), the daylong STS/Area Studies workshop was the culminating event of a yearlong program which included lectures, seminars, and course offerings for undergraduate and graduate students speakers, generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The STS/Asia initiative was designed to explore the globalization of science and medicine in Asia and to ask how non-nationalist, non-reified ethnographic engagements with Asia can reframe STS theory through their attention to the specificities of place and region, particularly in ways that decenter Europe.

The workshop welcomed five anthropologists to discuss works in progress: Aihwa Ong (UC-Berkeley) on the development of bioethical norms in Singapore and Malaysia; Naveeda Khan (JHU) on the moral topography of silt dwellers in Bangladesh’s Jamuna River; Vincanne Adams (UCSF) on the affective entanglement of Western science and Tibetan medicine; Judith Farquhar (Chicago) on the politics of knowledge-in-translation; and Mei Zhan (UC-Irvine) on conceptual-empirical work in traditional Chinese medicine. Each guest speaker began by providing a précis of her paper’s development and aims. This brief presentation was followed by framing comments from one of the other guest speakers as well as discussion moderated by one of the other professors in attendance. Rather than examining the papers and discussion comments in turn, we discuss three themes which emerged as key sites of conversation and contention for this particular group of scholars: (1) ethics; (2) translation; and (3) ontology.



Ethics is not a new subject for anthropology, although lately it has garnered increasing attention (see e.g. Cheryl Mattingly’s recent reading suggestions for this website), particularly within medical anthropology (Haraway 1989; Anderson 2000; Cohen 2011; Redfield 2013). Three of the papers at the STS/Asia workshop explored the contingent production of ethics and morality in diverse settings: from the gleaming research labs of Singapore’s Biopolis, to a riparian society of silt dwellers in Bangladesh, to the maternity ward of an inpatient hospital in Tibet. As a recurrent theme, ethics presented the opportunity to discuss the particularities of these social worlds in relation to the universalizing claims of biomedical and social sciences.

Aihwa Ong’s paper, part of a larger project on biomedical research in Southeast Asia, examined how research scientists in Singapore and Malaysia construct bioethical norms in relation to specific animal and human populations. Ong showed that bioethics must be developed through specific social and cultural practices because the meaning of “informed consent” is not universal. Maintaining appropriate bioethical standards is a necessary condition for globalized sites of science to attract foreign investment in the form of clinical research trials, but it is not sufficient to distinguish one site from its many competitors. Ong argued that in Malaysia, research scientists signal their ethical stature to an international scientific community by sustaining ongoing care relations with the indigenous people whose DNA they harvest, while in Singapore scientists shore up similar affective value by ethnicizing their own research protocols and materials––for example, through discussions of “Asian entrepreneurialism” and “Asian genes.” Focusing on the contingent production of bioethics, Ong’s paper convincingly argued for a “post-orientalist STS” that would emphasize the interaction between moral and technical norms in science.

Shifting the conversation away from bioethics, Naveeda Khan’s paper explored the “moral topography” of silt island dwellers (chauras) who live amidst the ever-shifting waters and sands of Bangladesh’s Jamuna River. Khan borrowed insights about morality and nature from Kant, Bergson, and Merleau-Ponty to give a nondeterministic reading of morality’s physical and social embeddednesss, exploring how the instability of riparian land – between floods and erosion – structures collective experiences of history, memory, and anticipation. In drawing out the materiality common to both nature and culture without assuming a division between them, Khan also nodded to now-classic STS accounts of the moderns’ (always incomplete) project to purify nature and culture (cf. Latour 1993). Khan’s paper is part of a larger project exploring the ethical dimensions of expert-produced climate science and lay experiences of meteorological changes. How, she asks, did climate change become an issue about which climate scientists were uniquely qualified to speak? And how do ordinary people experience the temporality of climate change as aberrations in observable weather or seasonal patterns? In the general discussion, Vincanne Adams drew a comparison to her recent work on market-driven disaster management in the aftermath of Katrina, observing that in New Orleans people imagine the wetlands as “man-made nature.” Adams’ comments emphasized that distinctions between what is natural and what is man-made entail different ethical obligations among social and nonsocial actors.

Discussion of Vincanne Adams’ paper further explored the subject position of the anthropologist and the ethical entanglements of her scholarship. Adams situated the recent rise of the “contemplative sciences” in the longer history of a kind of love affair between Tibetan Buddhism and Western sciences, two regimes of truth-making that “misrecognize” each other in their attempt at commensuration. Adams was courageous in her self-portrayal as she reflected on her early research in Tibet. She recalled passionately defending the efficacy of Tibetan medicine to American medical doctors, usually through appeals to Tibetan medicine’s “pharmacological complexity.” During the general discussion, Ralph Litzinger helpfully suggested the need to be specific about what “technology” means, particularly in the context of staging an epistemological romance between Western science and Tibetan medicine. Should roads, phone towers, and other industrial infrastructures count as “technology” in this reading? What role might non-medical technologies play in the transformation of Tibetan medicine? This final question suggests that as the affair between anthropology and science studies matures, we ought to remain aware of our own tendencies to cling to romantic ideals, whether we are inclined to celebrate the innocence of tradition, the purity of science, or the happy mess of nature-culture.



As a core concept in science studies, translation has been used to describe the process by which a particular problem becomes a matter of concern for a set of social and nonsocial actors (cf. Callon 1986). It is hardly surprising, then, that translation emerged as an important thematic throughout the workshop, most notably in the papers given by Judith Farquhar and Mei Zhan, and in the discussions that followed.

In her paper, “Knowledge in Translation: Global Science, Local Things,” Farquhar outlined a genealogy of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), highlighting the ways in which the “local” and the “global” comingle in TCM, often depending on its relation in a given historical moment to the Chinese state and to global politics. The translation of TCM terminology into the language of biomedicine was a central concern of the paper. Farquhar paired this conceptual translation with a more properly linguistic translation: that of TCM practitioner Lu Guangxin’s writings from Mandarin to English. As Farquhar pointed out in her introductory comments, one of the paper’s aims was to think about TCM as “subaltern,” and to show that TCM practitioners are often the objects of social denunciation. Farquhar related this idea to the broader global debate surrounding “indigenous knowledge” that emerged in the 20th century, but qualified this connection by pointing to the fact that contemporary TCM is profoundly modern. Not only that, as her discussion of Lu Guangxin’s medical theories made clear, TCM often seeks to make universal claims, an ambition that is generally assumed to be absent from ostensibly “indigenous” forms of knowledge. In her comments on Farquhar’s paper, Naveeda Khan reminded us of Farquhar’s attention to the ways in which indigenous knowledge movements pose a particular kind of threat to ostensibly universal forms of knowledge such as biomedicine. Michel Callon’s wordplay linking “threat” and “translation” becomes especially germane here. Local knowledge poses a threat to global knowledge precisely by proposing an alternate universality. Khan called our attention to the final line of Farquhar’s paper: “We must, in other words, rise to the occasion of being creatures who are always being translated and transformed into and out of the local.” For Khan, this provided a way to think about translation as a phenomenological state.

Mei Zhan’s paper linked translation to what she terms the inherent “transdisciplinarity” of traditional Chinese medicine. Terminologically, Zhan distinguishes between “traditional Chinese medicine” and “TCM.” While the former signifies a set of ancient somatic knowledge practices, the latter refers to the institutionalization and standardization of these practices in the post-Mao period. Zhan primarily sought to understand how traditional Chinese medicine is constituted as a transdiciplinary form of knowledge through continual epistemological translations between “traditional medicine” and “biomedicine.” (For example, a map illustrating connections between energetic points in the human body may be superimposed on an anatomical map that fixes these points according to standard positions of different organs and body parts.) In her introductory comments, Zhan highlighted her interest in understanding “how disciplines fold into one another.” This concern was inspired by what Zhan called an “anti-Cartesian” philosophy, which she attributed to Spinoza and Merleau-Ponty. The paper was also, for Zhan, the beginning of thinking about the possibility of using Tao philosophy as an analytic, and not merely an object of study. As Zhan pointed out in her introductory comments, even Heidegger read Tao philosophy.



Several authors’ papers attempted to rethink ontologies in order to dissolve classic conceptual binaries: for Khan, this was the nature/culture binary; for Farquhar, the difference between symptom and disease; and for Zhan, the distinction between conceptual and empirical forms of knowledge. Materiality and holism were central theme in each of the papers. In exploring the continuous cycle of floods and erosions in the Jamuna River, Khan treated them not as objects standing outside, above, or beyond people’s daily experiences, but as active carriers transporting, suspending, generating and reproducing forms of life on the part of human beings. A central aim of Farquhar’s work on TCM was to negate the assumption that patterns of disorders (zhenghou) are mere expressions of diseases (jibing). By engaging the healing practice of her co-author Lu Guangxi, she brought our attention to energy (Qi – composed of orthopathic Qi and heteropathic Qi) as an essential form of materiality with the capacity to transform Western biomedicine. Farquhar suggested we might understand objects and subjects to be inherently interconnected, an idea that emerges from the Mandarin word for “object,” which can be translated as the image we face. Echoing this discussion, Mei Zhan called for a revision of the epistemological distinction between analyzer (subject) and analyzed (object). Her paper proposed a combination of thinking, doing, and being as a way to restore a sense of Taoist oneness, and in her comments she encouraged anthropologists to “think the empirical as conceptual.”



The three themes that we have chosen to read these papers through and with – ethics, translation and ontology – were by no means the only set of concepts that emerged from the rich discussions of this workshop. They were though, by our own reading, three central pivots that the discussions circled around throughout the day. Emplaced, ethnographic knowledge within broader (bio)ethical discussions of medicine and the body, the translation of knowledge through cultures and/or epistemologies, and the ways in which medical anthropology has and/or will continue to take up “the ontological turn” within STS and critical theory were vital to the discussion, and were often the issues around which the most fertile conversations unfolded. All of the discussions pointed to a kind of symbiotic relationship between STS and anthropology: while STS can help move anthropology beyond the narrowly defined (and Cold War produced) provinces of “area studies,” anthropology stands to challenge the Euro-American bias in STS scholarship. Crucially, this workshop was organized around an argument rather than a theme, and the priority given to discussion of the papers allowed participants to really dig in. This was an exceptional conversation indeed, and one whose continuing development we are excited to witness.

Mackenzie Cramblit, Yidong Gong, and Jay Hammond are PhD students in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. 

Further Reading

Anderson, Warwick. 2000. “The Possession of Kuru: Medical Science and Biocolonial Exchange.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 42 (04): 713–44.

Callon, Michel. 1986. “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay.” In Power, Action, and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge?, edited by John Law, 196–233. Sociological Review Monograph 32. London: Routledge.

Cohen, Lawrence. 2011. “Migrant Supplementarity: Remaking Biological Relatedness in Chinese Military and Indian Five-Star Hospitals.” Body & Society 17 (2-3): 31–541.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. 1989. Primate Visions : Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. Routledge.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Redfield, Peter. 2013. Life in Crisis: The Ethical Journey of Doctors without Borders. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Image: Fumihiko Maki, Tokyo: Science Center: Ext.: model, 1989. ARTstor

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