A Cultural Anthropologist Reads a Science Journal

One morning, chasing down a lead about research on plant memory from an article published in The Economist, I ended up at the journal Oecologia. This trajectory is increasingly familiar: a news source renders a popular account of life science research, and, trying to learn more, I end up at the academic source. The table of contents quickly overwhelmed me, though, and provoked me to stop for a moment and take stock of what I look for or find interesting in journals on genetics, biology, and botany.

Working on race, I initially began reading science journals as a way to keep up with claims and counterclaims in the polemics over its social construction. But as my focus shifted from people to plants (still keyed in on race), and as I developed an ethnographic project on biodiversity research, I began reading the journal articles to better understand what these plant scientists are up to. Along the way, the items in these reports (concepts, techniques, analytics) shifted, in my view, from socially constructed artifacts to crucial means for comprehending the very subjects that interest my ethnographic subjects. Now my approach to cultural analysis is changing.

Looking at the TOC highlights this shift. There were so many articles—beside the one I was looking for!—that I wanted to read. Why? Before answering that question, here’s a glimpse of what I encountered.

“Competing neighbors: light perception and root function”; “Testing the risk of predation hypothesis: the influence of recolonizing wolves on habitat use by moose”; “Can transgenerational plasticity contribute to the invasion success of annual plant species?”; “To breed or not to breed: past reproductive status and environmental cues drive current breeding decisions in a long-lived amphibian.” Then there was the section on plant-microbe-animal interactions, which featured “Thermal tolerance affects mutualist attendance in an ant–plant protection mutualism”; “Generalist birds govern the seed dispersal of a parasitic plant with strong recruitment constraints.” This was followed by a section titled, Community Ecology,” with such articles as “Partitioning the non-consumptive effects of predators on prey with complex life histories”; “Woody plant phylogenetic diversity mediates bottom–up control of arthropod biomass in species-rich forests”; “The effect of habitat structure on prey mortality depends on predator and prey microhabitat use”; “Niche-habitat mechanisms and biotic interactions explain the coexistence and abundance of congeneric sandgrouse species”; “Habitat fragmentation, tree diversity, and plant invasion interact to structure forest caterpillar communities.”

The first one, “competing neighbors,” involves an effort to analyze forms of plant sociality while raising the issue of anthromporphizing in the very title. But “recolonizing wolves” and “forest caterpillar communities” quickly destabilizes the assumption that the principle association for such terms should be or is humans. But how can the question, “To breed or not to breed?”, ever be regarded at a neutral remove from the recurrent forms eugenics or the immense agential complexities of domestication? Mulling that, I recognized that plant-microbe-animal interactions are crucially important to pursuing multispecies ethnography; so I need to learn something more about how these work, regardless of the species involved. That means reading about “microhabitat use,” “niche-habitat mechanisms,” and “bottom–up control of arthropod biomass.” Then topics such as “seed dispersal” and “plant invasion interactions” caught my attention, because many of the plant scientists I study are concerned with this aspect of species dynamism. Finally, though, I was perplexed at the recognition of a primary fodder of ethnographic work—“complex life histories”—turning up in a discussion of prey mortality. Oh my, where do I start?

Before proceeding further I had to settle on a typology of my interests in life sciences journals and research projects. There are articles here that 1) I need to read to keep up with the plant science, whether pertaining to the species my researchers are studying or the questions they’re trying to answer; 2) toss up interesting challenging objects to think about; 3) illustrate concern with “naturalizing” or “biologizing” social hierarchies or concepts; 4) open the possibility of analyzing culture/sociality across species lines; and 5) are the kinds of things I need to consider if I’m doing multispecies work in cultural anthropology on biodiversity. Taken in concert, these suggest a dual role for cultural analysis in the life science—maintaining an attention to the socially interested (or “loaded”) aspects of scientific objects while also learning (through gleaning and rearticulating) new means of looking at and developing interesting accounts of the world.

3 thoughts on “A Cultural Anthropologist Reads a Science Journal

  1. More anthropologists should be reading science journals. Or if not journals at least online sources like Quanta or Nautilus. One thing that is striking and also very sad when I look back over the past view decades is how much science has moved on and how little most cultural anthropologists (at least those encountered online) seem to know about what’s been going on.

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