Thinking Science, Figuring Anthropology

Category Archive

The following is a list of all entries from the Science + Technology category.

How does it feel?

When I had only been in Hong Kong for less than a week, I remember being surprised by the fact that it felt like months had already passed. It feels so good to have been awarded this research opportunity–I have never been closer to what I want to understand about the relationship between how we make sense of ourselves and how science works to shape and reshape that making. But there is also this heart swollen feeling of being nowhere …of unbearable isolation. There is no village life into which I can insert myself. There are no social routines that I am a part of. There are no rituals that have shown themselves to me. There is only my white walled office and living space, the white and primary colored accents of the buildings, the white haze of clouds that blanket this green and blue island everyday. There is silence only broken by harsh winds.

There are nights when I have drinks with the scientists and engineers who I am interested in understanding. Language is not a barrier because everyone seems to live here through English. In fact, when I ask where I can learn Cantonese or Putonghua I am told over and over again that there is no need to learn anything Chinese. And this advice makes me feel that much more alone because my values and desires are so far from the people who are the objects of my stated interest …and people who I actually like.

In the social spaces where some scientists and engineers meet, I am invited to join them. I am welcome. They too have come here from distant places–from almost every continent. But I am dislocated in ways different than them. They are married and most have children–some have grandchildren. And this family life is separate from work and from drinks and from the social space of the university and bar. I have no family and I have no one here to take my leave from or to return to at the end of the day.

I wondered early on what kind of anthropologist I would be here. And I still can’t quite answer that question. But my experience so far has me wondering more about institutions all over the world rather than this particular institution in this particular time-space. I love the tropical weather and views here. I love the urban centers and the sound of the people talking in languages I do not yet understand. But would this really be the place that I would come back to in order to learn about how science proceeds? I am not so sure that I need to be tied to a place or an ‘ethnic’ people. I think that I would like to learn about scientific knowledge production and circulation across various spaces during my career. If I were to do this over the years I am not so sure it would be possible for me to pick up the “native” languages. But then again it seems that English has become the “native” language of global science. And it turns out that this native-ness is interconnected with nation building, imperialism, colonialism, and ethnocentric values set in particular histories across space–and I am fascinated by this too. Is this still anthropology? My heart says “yes,” but my mind says that no one will take me seriously. Maybe my feelings of lonely dislocation are easier to think about than all of my fears regarding the future.

Not Thinking Science

A recent conversation between Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson has had me thinking about the many ways we make sense of science through the ways that we make sense of how we belong, or don’t belong, in relation to this system of knowledge, method, and practice.

Stephen Colbert + Neil deGrasse Tyson June 28, 2009

Stephen Colbert + Neil deGrasse Tyson June 28, 2009

The following exchange was of particular interest to me:

Stephen Colbert: So what is Nova Science Now? Why do we need science now? Why not science later?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: If not now, then when?
Stephen Colbert: How about Nova Science Then where we explain science like Alchemy and leaches?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah, that wouldn’t be science. That’s somethin’ else.
Stephen Colbert: It was back then.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: And that would be a whole other kind of society in which we live.
Stephen Colbert: Well, the society I live in doesn’t think about science that much.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Except that science drives all the cameras and technology of the studio …allowing the Colbert Nation to exist at all.
Stephen Colbert: Yeah, but we don’t have to think about it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Laughs
Stephen Colbert: Right? We got guys like you who like thinking about it.

Daily conversations that I hear, unending corporate-induced mediations, and practical rationality all communicate very similar messages: Science, with a big “S,” belongs here and we must have some kind of relation to it, but we don’t really belong within it because it is not recognizable as human. Thus, Science becomes suspiciously (a)kin to magic and trickery, promise and failure, hope and revenge. It is a total system—a collective organizational force of procedures and regulations that manage activity of us-and-it.  But while the ways we might feel managed or regulated through materialized Science are tangible, whether It is managed is open to question. Here, Science becomes both total system and Other—it knows us, but we don’t know it. And it’s too big to think about so we align ourselves with this force while dissociating particular human relations by not thinking Science.