Science Studies is Anthropology

I’ve just come off of a week long visit with Bruno Latour. He came to Rice as the “NEH Distinguished Visiting Scholar” and gave a public lecture, three seminars, screened a video about his recent art exhibit and participated in three classes (two in anthropology, one in architecture), in addition to dinners, lunches, talks with undergraduates and graduate students, trips to the mall, and a tour of Houston. In short, we got our money’s worth. It reconfirmed for me my sense that Latour is a gentleman and a fantastic teacher; his curiosity is boundless, as is his ability to converse, in depth, with an astonishing range of people–from scientists to lawyers to evangelicals to architects to philosophers to American historians to undergraduates to the wine buyers at Specs (The World’s Largest Liquor Store, about which Bruno said of its immense and varied selection from all over the world “Now I understand relativism. You know, you aren’t supposed to be that open-minded”). The only people he seemed unable to connect with were the French, which is not entirely ironic. He is a fantastic teacher– better at clarfying his ideas in person than in print–and incredibly patient with questions and the inevitable attacks that come based on his reputation (one colleague asked if he felt responsible for the Holocaust– I think this was meant to be “provocative” rather than puerile).

It also reconfirmed my sense that, to put it “provocatively”, science studies is anthropology. Certainly this does not mean that I think all anthropology should be about science and technology; but it does mean that, I think, that science studies has produced the possibility (and perhaps only the possibility) for bringing social theory out of the 19th century and into the 21st through a careful engagement with the forms of actually existing rationality in the world today. And I mean that :). Latour’s empirical sensitivity (he always had his notebook or his palm pilot out), and his constant curiosity are what drives his philosophy–and not the reverse. In this, I see him as the consummate fieldworker–someone for whom the constant, shocking, unpredictable flow of events is experienced as such, as wonders and as changes, and not as a constant test of his theories–theories which he is happy to abandon if the changing world so demands it.

Of course, I speak from having had a kind of privileged access to Latour, if only for a week. Certainly the industry that has grown up around him, the texts that people read in classes, and the ways in which his work is introduced, narrated and critiqued look quite different from what I describe. In this, I think he shares something with Bateson, who was by all accounts an extraordinary personal communicator, pedagogue and interlocutor–something only barely recognizable in his texts. The public Latour, whether you know it as the hero of Science Studies or the villain of the science wars,
has little to do with the real thing. Nonetheless, I was confirmed in my sense that there is something special about the approach that science studies offers to anthropology, and to take it out of the domain of science per se, I would suggest that it is the re-institution of pragmatism as a basis for progress in anthropology–and I should qualify that I am thinking primarily of social-cultural anthro, less of the other three+ fields.

The claim that “science studies is anthropology” thus has less to do with this polemical set of debates–probably most visible to anthropologists in We Have Never been Modern–than it does with Latour as a pragmatist. He is perhaps the only pragmatist in France, and this might explain his disdain for the French. He did not, for instance, have very nice things to say about Baudrillard, Ranciere, or especially Badiou– though Deleuze and Derrida were both spared his ire. By contrast, for Latour, James, Dewey and Whitehead carry the day–with a tincture of the obscure in French philosophy (Etienne Souriau and Gilbert Simondon) and the controversial Carl Schmitt. This commitment to pragmatism grows directly from his commitment to a radically empirical philosophy–an experience based approach (Dewey’s Essays in Experimental Logic and James’ Radical Empiricism would be the core texts here) in which it is precisely the changing worlds of science, technology, economics, law, religion, love that provide the impetus for philosophy, and not philosophy which analyzes and makes sense of these “surface” phenomena. I believe he referred to Kant as a “catastrophe” if that helps clarify his position.

It is from this radical empiricist perspective that I think science studies is anthropology/anthropology is science studies. Certainly when I teach a science studies class to graduate students in anthropology, I do not approach it as a sub-field of anthropology–I approach it as a method–one that is equally as useful in the study of Native American politics as it is Human Stem Cells. This is precisely because of the kinds of entanglements that permeate the contemporary world: Native Americans are bound to be tied up in debates about technology just as stem cells are inevitably entangled with theological concerns. In this respect, the Rice graduate students helpfully confirmed this when they introduced themselves to Bruno. With each student he became more flustered (read: delighted in a self-deprecating way) that even the most traditional-sounding projects (ethnomusicology and turkish wedding customs) had learned to encounter their objects through science studies (and not just because I told them to do it, though there is that). What all these projects had in common was a developed sense of openness to the field–a concern for finding the emergent and for inserting onself inside changing practices that have a rich, technical vocabulary and process. What drives all of them is the question of, in Latour’s terminology from I. Stengers, “cosmopolitics”–the collective, progressive creation of a common world. How will native americans and religious bio-ethicists find ways to create, occupy and share a common world? Pluralism, not relativism. Rather than becoming concerned with this or that culture, this or that “logic” this or that story of origins, Latour wants to understand the way people are dealing with entanglements that have resulted from both the crimes and the successes of “modernity”.

Of course, the term “modernity” tends to get in the way-and this is where I think most students and anthropologists abandon him. There is the question of definitions of “modernity” course, but that’s a red herring. Then there is the question of whether or not we have ever been modern, and what that means– but I think the interesting point of Latour’s emphasis on this word is simply that we live in a world in which fact and value are increasingly more confused, entangled and wrapped up together–not less, and for everyone on the planet, not just “the West”. This doesn’t mean that fact and value aren’t distinguished; indeed that happens every day, in all kinds of ways, and not only in the ways that philosophers, scientists, political theorists or ethicists say that it should. The fact of this entanglement is what makes “modernity” problematic for Latour: it suggests that either in the past, or in the present fact and value were or are not entangled. It’s a straw man argument in many ways, precisely because Latour wants us to stop arguing about the proper conditions for, or critique of modernity, and start looking at (and cherishing) the experience of people engaged in distinguishing facts and values every day: lawyers, theologians, economists, politicians, engineers–to say nothing of gypsies or Brahmins or sufi mystics– all have extremely rich tools for doing so.

The question of “cosmopolitics” thus is more than just cosmopolitanism, and more than just a question of the contradictions of global society: it directs our attention towards the absence of a common world. It points at the need for finding new ways to bring these diverse, cherished traditions of distinguishing fact and value into a common sphere that allows for a politics beyond the politics we have now. Like Dewey he is asking for “a kind of knowledge and insight which does not yet exist.” The task is not to describe it in its absence (which would be “the height of absurdity”)[1] but to start to indicate the conditions for bringing it into existence.

[1]Dewey, John, The Public and it’s Problems, Swallow Press 1954 [1927] p. 166. About which I have more to say, e.g. here.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

19 thoughts on “Science Studies is Anthropology

  1. but there are elements of science studies that are not anthropology, or cultural studies oriented. There are more sociological studies, policy studies of the positivist sort, etc. etc. However, I think there is a tendency to write ones disciplinary perspective as expansive and not limited, so sociologists will say science studies is sociology, and there have been several conferences that say science studiess is a business discipline too. All are correct to the extent that the disciplines are not fixed expanses whose faux borders have meaning.

    Science studies is, as everyone knows (where everyone is the set of people who agree with me), what might be thought of as a transdisciplinary, which means in my definition that ‘one discipline cannot capture it from one disciplinary perspective,’ its ‘globality’ is not limited to disciplines, but aspects are certainly existent in a variety of disciplines, but can anyone capture the whole of science studies without discussing and creating new ways of thinking about it that breaks disciplinary assumptions? it depends of course as to whether the discipline in quesiton has any assumptions that can be transgressed, but… the answer i tend to think is no… we cannot do science studies properly without a plurality of perspectives, some of which will be within one discipline, but there will always be outside perspectives.

  2. this is a good place to distinguish between “profession” and “discipline”. Whatever jeremy is talking about, I would put it in the “profession” box–the place where departments and centers and programs and conferences and programmatic claims about transdiciplinarity go. I don’t know what a “traditional” discipline is anymore… I doubt they exist. Departments and journals and conferences and jobs do thouugh.

    Opposite this, in the box of “discipline” I would put concepts and methods, and arguments about method, practices, and theoretical claims. For me, this is what I mean when I say “science studies.” And that’s a pretty narrow set of texts and ideas, in the grand scheme of things. Anyone, from any profession, can engage with these concepts, and many do–but this is not determined in the first or last instance by where their job is, or what school they went to, or what journal they publish in.

  3. a narrow set of texts? gee whiz, as compared to what? science studies is hugely published from 1920 on there are clear american and french traditions, not merely single threads. i must own a good 200 books, and i’m fairly particular, virginia tech had more shelf feet by far for science studies than anthropology as i recall, especially if you include technology studies.

    anyway, i think you dismissed the brunt of the disciplinary argument unjustly, as your title is a disciplinary argument. x endeavor is in y discipline. my argument is that x endeavor cannot be in y discipline, but it spans x, y, z… disciplines, and if y claims it it will always be y sub(x,z), and never y.

    your rejoinder is just reaffirmaton that x is y on a generalization of concepts and methods, which… i think upon reflection is a generalization that does not hold. not all concepts and methods of science studies fit into any give discipline. if you want to say, there is no thing as anthropology, and science studies is in it… which is what i think your conclusion must be, then i agree that if there is no discipline of anthropology, then science study is anthropology because in a world where A and not A exist, anything is possible.

  4. a narrow set of texts? gee whiz, as compared to what? science studies is hugely published from 1920 …

    Which is exactly the point Chris was making in the distinction between discipline and profession…


    concepts and methods, and arguments about method, practices, and theoretical claims

    By and large, that gee whiz pile of science studies texts (which you distinguish from technology studies texts, which is again a professional distinction (and RPI by and large makes the distinction too)) do not really break new ground in what Chris is calling discipline. They fit (not so) nicely into the profession.

    Oddly, the rotating STS Graduate Student Conference (this year themed around “Metamorphosis”) is happening at RPI this weekend. I’m giving a talk called “‘Thank you Mario. But our Princess is in Another Castle!’: On Finding Some New Research Punch-lines.” In it, I make the argument that to a too great degree we aren’t doing the work of breaking “concepts and methods, and arguments about method, practices, and theoretical claims”.

    To do this, we’re going to have to look a bit further/more-closely. Which is precisely why the return to Dewey for Chris and Bruno. It’s going to require new methods/concepts/materials for us to make sense of our materials, no matter what they be.

  5. STS is ping-pong: An often frivolous back and forth sport played typically by sorta nerdy people with little balls… wait a second… well, you know…

  6. jeremy, i’m not quite clear on what you are objecting to… if any thing I expected to piss off some anthropologists, not folks who would be STS’s defenders 🙂 but when I say “science studies is anthropology” i’m not confused about its multiple genealogies or its potential expansiveness. Believe me, my bookshelf is filled with the same stuff yours is. So for your benefit, let me specify: science studies in the form it has taken in the careers of Latour, Shapin and Schaffer, Haraway, Callon, Law, and a handful of others that you and I will both keep teaching in our STS classes for the forseeable future, is anthropology. Shapin is a sociologist, Haraway and Schaffer historians, Callon a crypto-economist… so obviously I’m not talking about professions. What has made this work distinctive in the last 30 years is that it has removed from philosophy and history of science, and also from anthropology and sociology, the ability to attribute to science a special kind of rationality AND at the same time, removed from sociology or anthropology or history, the ability of providing “social” explanations of science (or law or culture or economics or …). The former point is readily conceded by anyone except the dwindling ranks of Sokalites and people who haven’t read anything, while the latter is harder to communicate, but just as central to what Latour, Haraway and Shapin/Schaffer have achieved… and just as problematic for method and theory in quarters of anthropology that treat STS as only about science and technology.

    does this help?

  7. I think its a well-documented fact that the current arrangement of disciplinary professions reached its current form more or less by the early 1920s, and that worries that we weren’t being ‘interdisciplinary enough’ started in the mid 1920s… 🙂 Setting aside Jeremy’s Naive Stack Measurements (you know what they say about the size of a man’s book collection…) I agree with Chris that the ‘living edge’ of a lot of typically anthropological question (the ‘social construction of reality’ e.g.) has migrated into science studies. I also agree that anthropology and stss both share a certain delight in particularity and an unwillingness to decide — as it were — what the categories are before hand.

    But at the same time, while it is good to be reminded that stss and anthro are ‘adjacent disciplines’ it strikes me that stss and anthro may be out of tune in many ways because of their relation to the paradigmatic ‘native’ that they study. E.g. anthros still imagine that what they mostly do is study people Less Powerful Than They while stss still stereotypically is engaged in Bringing The Scientists Down A Notch.


  8. Or….

    This anthropologist has said for years that he studies people who are mainly smarter, richer and more powerful than he is and regards them as fellow professionals and colleagues.

    Thus, in the acknowledgements for my book on Japanese consumer behavior, I write,

    This book is dedicated to the memories of three men: Victor Turner, Tio Se-lian, and Kimoto Kazuhiko.

    The first was an anthropologist whose teaching is inscribed in the shape of this book. He taught me that an anthropologist works with three kinds of data, things observed (here the Lifestyle Times, the internal newsletter produced by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living that provides much of this book’s content), the native exegesis (represented here by the conversations with HILL researchers interleaved between the chapters), and the economic and demographic background that cultural analysis neglects at its peril.

    The second was a Grand Master of Daoist Magic who allowed a fledgling fieldworker to become his disciple and, by trotting him the length and breadth of Taiwan, made it perfectly clear how much goes on in modern, urban Asian societies that escapes the boundaries of the villages and neighbourhoods in which anthropologists usually work.

    The third was a Senior Creative Director who hired a hapless scholar and turned him, with much labour, into a copywriter unable to tolerate stereotypes of the kind this book attacks.

    Looking back what I see in all three is a willingness to listen, a passion for detail, a flair for the dramatic, and a breadth of humanity that transcends the places and moments in which we met. I am proud to call them my mentors and to try, however poorly, to follow their example.

    Isn’t it about time that we regard the people whose lives we share in the course of our research simply as people, fellow travelers who meet each other, wonder how that happened, and how the world in which we meet arrived at this particular moment.

  9. I guess I’m parting from the direction that this thread has taken, but I just had one question: what motivated Chris’s puerile/provocative colleague to ask if Latour felt responsible for the holocaust? I’ve heard other Frenchies (i.e. Baudrillard) accused of being ‘holocaust-deniers,’ but responsibility is another story. Is the implication that because Latour describes such widely distributed networks of agency, his theory might conceivably extend that agency in the case of the holocaust to any one of us, alongside Nazi generals, antisemitic philosophers, the steel industry, and sarin gas molecules? It’s weird, is all I’m saying.

  10. Question for the Science Studies experts here: How do people feel about the work of Michael M. J. Fischer? I have just been reading “Emergent Forms of Life: Anthropologies of Late and Post Modernities” in Emergent forms of Life and the Anthropological Voice(Duke, 2003) and finding it a bit heavy going. Since I like both erudition and complex prose, that’s saying something. Anybody else have an opinion?

  11. Yeah, I’d concur about Fischer’s prose style, it can be seriously dense in a sphere of pretty dense writers. Still, I usually find if I plow on (possibly with the help of cheap Chilean wine, my favorite study aid) that the insights are worth the struggle. I recently read his piece in the new Cultural Anthropology…
    which is encyclopedic, just stunning. How do people have that much in their brains?

  12. Adam,

    Thanks for pointing us to his new CA piece. I have to say that his “Worlding Cyberspace: Toward a Critical Ethnography in Time,
    Space, and Theory” in Critical Anthropology Now is one of my favorite pieces on the cultural significance of the Internet ( and my topic of choice computer hacking) and it is sometihng I teach time and time again, even if some of the information is a bit outdated (only because stuff happens to fast on the good ol’ Internet). It also is encyclopedic and does an amazing job at connecting the dots in ways that people were just not doing at the time (it was published in 1999).

  13. I usually find if I plow on (possibly with the help of cheap Chilean wine, my favorite study aid) that the insights are worth the struggle.

    I’m almost there. Could you give me a hand, though, and point out one or two of those insights and how they affect your thinking?

  14. A word of thanks to Biella and Adam. Encouraged by your comments, I am attempting a second reading of “Emergent Forms of Life.” Taken slowly, in small bites, it is making a lot more sense.

    The one notion that crosses my mind is that where Geertz is an essayist, whose articles may be dense but stay focused on one idea, e.g., thick description or deep play, Fischer is, at least in this piece, an encylopedist, surveying multiple fields of knowledge and expertise and trying to organize a big picture. The result is, however, more like a Chinese or Japanese scroll painting, in which they eye is drawn here and there, than a Rennaissance painting where, however rich the detail, the eye is drawn to a single perspective.

  15. John: i would definitely give Fischer’s recent CA article a spin. I don’t find it difficult at all–but in this case you can see the encyclopedic urge marshalled in an attempt to chart the 150 year history of the culture concept in novel ways that I think directly contribute to current debates about alternatives such as “experimental systems” social imaginaries, or for that matter, actor-networks.

    strong: I didn’t hear anything from Latour about Diamond, but he bought two copies of 1491 to give to the undergraduates who chauferred him around…

  16. I`m an anthropology undergrad studying the history of Science Studies. I`ve read “Emergent Forms of Life“ and Sarah Franklin`s article “Science as Culture, Cultures of Science“ (Annual Review of Anthroplogy 1995: 24: 163-84) and am trying to get a sense of how the field has developed and what questions it focuses on.

    Can anyone maybe point me in the direction of more articles or books that overview the current work in Science Studies? Does it have a special journal or online community?

    More specifically, would you say that Fisher`s article does a good job of explaining the current state of the field (pp. 459-467)? Did the “encyclopediaist“ make any major omissions as he reviews the history and present state of STS?

    Thanks. I hope I am not abusing your blog, and would love to hear from you.

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