anthropological perspectives on the natural sciences

Andrew Hodges is PhD student and a Teaching Assistant at Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, UK. He received his BA degree in Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge and MSc in History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester. His research focus is anthropology of science..

Social anthropology is concerned with describing human experience and cultures in different locations throughout the world. Typically, social anthropologists work with a community, and spend an extended period of time (usually a year or more) working with a particular community. During this period, they will learn the necessary language(s) that the community speaks and participate in the day to day life of this community. The community I worked with was a group of scientists, principally in Serbia, where I conducted a year of research at the astronomical observatory of Belgrade and Astronomy department at the University. I then followed this up with six months of research with students in Zagreb, Croatia, in order to look at networks of scientists and science education after the break-up of Yugoslavia.

The worlds of human experience in which anthropologists are interested contrasts sharply with the more much more neatly and theoretically parceled world of many scientific theories. Anthropological studies of the natural sciences then, focus on this messy world of human experience which we all inhabit, and which scientists often try to minimise the influence of, or ignore. When this messiness is brought into the foreground, then the relative order of laboratories and theory does not seem self evident. Instead, this order may be seen as something to be explained rather than assumed. Anthropologists such as Woolgar and Latour, who conducted an ethnographic study of a scientific laboratory, attempted to answer this question of how order is possible in the laboratory, and the mechanisms through which it is produced (a question many anthropologists, particularly those in a structuralist tradition, were working on in the 1960s and 70s).
Latour and Woolgar's success was in showing that there is nothing 'special' or otherworldly about the natural sciences: what the scientists they observed were often doing was sitting in rooms frantically scribbling in notebooks, exchanging pieces of paper with one another and making observations and measurements of liquids in test tubes. They also observed that in a laboratory environment, scientists are faced with a number of different ways of interpreting statements and results. Just as points on a graph can be joined together in a potentially infinite number of ways, so scientists had to form some kind of way of 'joining the dots', turning disparate information, statements and observation into something resembling a coherent theory. This was the process by which 'order' was created, according to Latour and Woolgar. They, and a number of other social scientists who subsequently developed this project, proposed a social process based on consensus amongst the scientific community regarding the best way to make these interpretations. Consequently, they came to the conclusion that much scientific knowledge production is in a deep sense social, and much more contingent than it may feel to many practicing scientists. The problem Latour and Woolgar faced – trying to understand how scientists move from a number of disparate observations and statements which could be interpreted in different ways, to a coherent theory – is an instance of a classical problem in philosophy called underdetermination. Other philosophical problems, such as skepticism – how can I ever know that I am not in fact dreaming? – are also instances of underdetermination. There is no easy way out of this problem, but many practicing scientists, and myself included, would vouch for a 'faith' in scientific processes and procedures as reliable and truth producing rather than the deeply sociological answer Latour and Woolgar offered. Indeed, this faith is perhaps reasonable, especially in order to get things done - just as a faith that one is not dreaming and that this world is the 'real' one is necessary to get anything except for abstract philosophising done.
Latour and Woolgar's project posed interesting questions, and anthropologists not comfortable with their methods or results can still study the natural sciences ethnographically from a number of different perspectives. A more 'old-fashioned' perspective, for example, would be to focus on the ways in which politics intrudes in science, as only the most naive would argue that science is in any kind of way free from political influence. At the very least it is highly dependent on funding from either the state or private sector, who seek to shape research priorities. An important topic of interest today for example, would be to look at how the global marketplace shapes scientific research. Other topics of interest include a 'modes of production' approach: how do scientific communities produce and reproduce themselves over time, and what aspects change? An anthropologist named Sharon Traweek focused more on these questions in a fascinating study of communities of particle physicists in Japan and the USA. Finally, at the very least, the cultural authority of the natural sciences over the past two hundred years is in need of critique. The focus of Latour and Woolgar's project on the everyday world of experience in which scientists work was a positive step in this direction. Why did and do many scientists have an elite status, and in some cases, the cultural authority to talk in the national media sometimes about subjects they know little about? Examples of 'iconic' scientists abound. Albert Einstein is perhaps the most famous example who has become an icon in popular culture, although Nikola Tesla and Stephen Hawking are other important examples. Stephen Hawking's fame in particular, can be partly attributed to his disability - his lack of mobility fits a stereotypical category reserved for scientists as indivi-dual geniuses with deep insights into the nature of reality. Perhaps I have pushed the stereotype here a little, but the important point to get across is that much of these iconic representations completely ignore the fact that scientific know-ledge production (in fact all knowledge production) is in a fundamental sense a group project. One analogy through which to think this process is mountain climbing. Supposedly, Mount Everest was first 'conquered' by the mountaineer Sir Edmund Hilary in 1953. Yet when you actually think through what went on, the idea that his name should be put to this 'great achievement' is little short of ridiculous. He did not climb alone - he climbed with a team of Sherpas who knew the area much better than he, and who were much more acclimatised to the conditions of the mountain - they had much more local knowledge. This team of Sherpas did not only act as guides but also carried lots of equipment to camps up the mountain. The fact that they received relatively little credit or acknowledgement is shocking. Besides the Sherpas, Hilary relied on an artificial supply of oxygen to climb part of the mountain. Without these people and technology, he would not have made it. Finally, he did not scale the very top of the mountain alone – he did so with a Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, who received considerably less credit than he. When you look at Hilary's so-called achievement in this way, it is clear to see how ridiculous the idea of an individual 'great man' view of the event was. The same applies to many achievements in the natural sciences, where teams of workers and other important conditions are often ignored while a small number of individuals, often middle-class, European males, take the credit. The production of science requires buildings and people who maintain them, specialist equipment and people who produce them, people who can make coffees, keep morale up and so forth, and all of these people are just as important. I am not making the point here that some people don't have a larger capacity for say mathematical reasoning or a particular creative thought process which is necessary for completing natural scientific work. The point is rather that these skills are often overvalued or fetishised and seen as more abstract, pure or detached from the real world - and that this is an elitist position.

Finally, ethnographies of the natural sciences can draw attention to issues of ethics and social justice, which have also been historically ignored. New inventions and technologies have social implications, although these are often unpredictable: nobody predicted that text messaging would become popular for example, and the success of text messaging has shaped how people communicate with one another over the past twenty years. By drawing attention to possible ethical issues and importantly, by arguing for a focus on ethical process when conducting research (a position well developed in social anthropology, particularly over the past thirty years), scientific research may be directed in more humanistic, and humane ways, perhaps reducing the possibility of atrocities such as atomic weapons research.




antropološko razumevanje prirodnih nauka

Endrju Hodžis
(prevela sa engleskog jezika Marina Simić)

Svet ljudskog iskustva za koji su zainteresovani antropolozi u velikoj meri se razlikuje od znatno uređenijeg, teorijski jasno podeljenog sveta mnogih naučnih teorija. Tako se antropološke studije prirodnih nauka fokusiraju na neuređeni svet ljudskog iskustva u kojem svi živimo, a čiji uticaj naučnici često ignorišu ili ga minimiziraju. Međutim, kada se ova neuređenost svakodnevnog iskustva postavi u prvi plan, onda relativno uređeni svet laboratorija i teorija ne izgleda tako samoočigledan. Umesto toga, ovaj red postaje nešto što treba objasniti. Antropolozi kao što su Vulgar i Latur, koji su radili etnografska istraživanja naučnih laboratorija, pokušali su da daju odgovore na pitanje kako je moguća uređenost laboratorijskog znanja i koji su mehanizmi kroz koji se ono proizvodi.
Laturov i Vulgarov uspeh bio je u tome što su pokazali da se u laboratoriji ne odigrava ništa “specijalno” i izvan-zemaljsko što bi kreiralo teorijski red prirodnih nauka – ono što su naučnici koje su posmatrali obično činili bilo je sedenje u prostorijama, brzo i frenetično zapisivanje, razmena beležaka i posmatranje i merenje tečnosti u epruvetama. Takođe su primetili da su naučnici suočeni sa više različitih načina da interpretiraju rezultate i zaključke. Prema Laturu u Vulgaru ovo je način na koji se stvara “red”. Oni, kao i mnogi drugi koji se nastavili njihov projekat, smatraju da je ovo stvaranje naučnog reda rezultat konsenzusa unutar naučne zajednice o tome koji je najbolji način da se raznoliki rezultati interpretiraju. Konačno, oni su došli do zaključka da je produkcija naučnog znanja u velikoj meri socijalna i mnogo više socijalno zavisna nego što se to čini mnogim naučnicima koji se bave prirodnim naukama.
Problem sa kojim su se suočili Latur i Vulgar pokušavajući da shvate na koji način se naučnici kreću od određenog broja disparatnih opservacija i zaključaka koji mogu biti interpretirani na različite načine, prema kohrentnoj teoriji, klasičan je primer filozofskog problema koji se naziva subdterminacija. Neki drugi filozofski problemi, kao što je skepticizam (na primer, kako mogu znati da u stvari ne sanjam) su takođe vidovi subdeterminacije. Ne postoji jednostavno rešenje za ovaj problem, ali mnogi naučnici, u koje i sam spadam, verovatno bi se umesto duboko sociološkog odgovora opredelili za “veru” u naučne procese i procedure kao pouzdane načine za proizvodnju istine.
Laturov i Vulgarov projekat je otvorio mnoga interesantna pitanja, ostavljajući prostora antropolozima da proučavaju pri-rodne nauke etnografski i iz različitih drugih perspektiva. Tako se jedna od malo starijih perspektiva antropološkog proučava-nja nauke fokusira se na načine na koji politika utiče na nauku. Ako ništa drugo, nauka je vrlo zavisna od finansiranja države ili privatnog sektora, koji se trude da diktiraju istraživačke prioritete. Danas je jedan od važnih problema u proučavanju nauke uticaj globalnog tržišta na oblikovanje naučnih istraživanja.
Konačno, kulturni autoritet, koji su predstavnici prirodnih nauka uživali u poslednjih dvesta godina, mora biti doveden u pitanje. Zašto naučnici imaju elitni status i kulturni autoritet da često javno govore o temama o kojima znaju veoma malo? Primeri naučnika zvezda su brojni. Albert Anštajn, koji je postao ikona popularne kulture je možda najpoznatiji primer, a poznati su i Nikola Tesla i Stiven Hoking. Većina ovih ikoničnih reprezentacija poptuno zanemaruje činjenicu da je produkcija naučnog znanja u jednom fundamentalnom smislu uvek kolektivni projekat. Mont Everest je navodno prvi “osvojio” alpinista ser Edmund Hilari 1953. godine. Međutim, on se nije penjao sam, već sa timom Šerpasa koji su tu regiju poznavali bolje od njega i bili znatno bolje prilagođeni planinskim uslovima. Činjenica da su oni dobili malo priznanja za svoje učešće u “osvajanju” vrha je šokantna. Konačno, on nije sam “osvojio” vrh – učinio je to sa Tenzingom Norgajem, Šerpasom, koji je dobio znatno manje priznanja od Hilarija. Ako se na ovaj način posmatra Hilarijev takozvani podvig, jasno je da ga je smešno posmatrati kroz ideju individualnog herojstva. Isti princip može se primeniti na mnoga dostignuća u prirodnim naukama gde se često ignorišu timovi saradnika i drugi važni uslovi neophodni za naučna otkrića, dok mali broj pojedinaca, obično muškaraca, Evropljana srednje klase, ubira slavu i zasluge. Proizvodnja nauke zahteva zgrade i ljude koji ih održavaju, specijalnu opremu i ljude koji tu opremu proizvode i održavaju, ljude koji kuvaju kafu i dižu moral, i mnoge druge koji su podjednako važni za jedan naučni projekat. Moja poenta nije da neki ljudi nemaju sposobnosti za matematičko reznovanje ili kreativno mišljenje, koje je potrebno za rad u prirodnim naukama, već da su ove veštine često precenjene i fetišizirane i viđene kao apstraktne, čiste i nezavisne od stvarnog sveta, što je jedna neodrživa elitistička pozicija.
Etnografije prirodnih nauka mogu da osvetle etičke i druge probleme socijalne pravde, koji su istorijski bili ignorisani. Naučna otkrića i tehnologije imaju socijalne implikacije koje su obično nepredvidljive – pre dvadesetak godina, na primer, niko nije predvideo da će kucanje sms poruka postati toliko popularno da će to oblikovati način na koji ljudi komuniciraju jedni sa drugima. Usmaravajući pažnju na moguće etičke probleme i što je posebno važno, zalažući se za fokus na etičke procese u toku samog istraživanja, naučna istraživanja mogu biti usmerena na humanistički i human način, umanjujući možda mogućnost atrocita koja naučna istraživanja potpomažu (kao što je na primer istraživanje atomskog naoružanja) n


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