Archive for September, 2017

Following an expanding a conceptual proposal by Terry Shinn and its adoption by Erik Lettkemann (Shinn 2002, 2008; Lettkemann 2017), we can deploy the concepts “research technology” to the way that BioEconomy deploys biotechnologies – even though it does so in the a decidedly vague sense, whereas Shinn’s conceptual framework is usuallu deployed to more concrete cases such as for example by Lettkemann to the case of transmission electron microscopy. For Shinn, “research technologies” form a “transverse regime” for the production of knowledge as well as “artefacts” (we could maybe also say, instead with Rheinberger with whose work there are similiarities, “epistemic objects”) , meaning that those practitioners who use these technologies are not bound by the institutional boundaries their disciplines, fields, institutions, and facilities normally set up.

The social locus of the transverse regime is conceived as an ‘interstitial arena’ arranged around ‘generic instrumentation’ designed to meet the requirements of a wide range of academic and industrial audiences. Each interstitial arena is populated by a community of research-technologists. They work on widening the application possibilities of their instrumentation, collaborating with heterogeneous audiences who seek to adopt the instrumentation’s generic uses. Generic instrumentation designates a research-related type of multipurpose device, including, for example, ‘automatic switching systems, the ultracentrifuge, the laser, cybernetics, Fourier transform spectroscopy, the Cooley-Tukey algorithm, the C++ object oriented computer language, the scanning tunnelling microscope, etc.’ (Shinn, 2008: 2). The widespread diffusion of generic instrumentation is accompanied by the development of a ‘metrology’ that serves as a cross-disciplinary lingua franca. (Lettkemann 2017: 394)

Lettkemann further proposes the distinction between

between nomads and settlers : while nomads live the life of freelancers, travelling from one laboratory to the next, settlers establish host laboratories and invite researchers from neighbouring fields to collaborate. (395)

This conceptual distinction is particularly useful, because when we introduce to it the geopolitics of Global North and Global South and the epistemological attitude/entitlement exuding from the Global North that Colin Scott described in “Science for the West, Myth for the Rest”, it points out how Western sciences establish host facilities in non-Western/Global Southern territories and (epistemically) coerce non-Western interlocutors. Thus, we can speak here of a form epistemic settler colonialism. The biotechnologies of the BioEconomy are an excellent example.


Lettkemann, Eric. 2017. “Nomads and Settlers in the Research-Technology Regime: The Case of Transmission Electron Microscopy.” Social Science Information 56 (3): 393–415. doi:10.1177/0539018417719396.

Shinn, Terry. 2002. “Intellectual Cohesion and Organizational Divisions in Science.” Revue Française de Sociologie 43: 99–122. doi:10.2307/3322759.

———. 2008. Research-Technology and Cultural Change: Instrumentation, Genericity, Transversality. GEMAS Studies in Social Analysis. Oxford: Bardwell.

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For Gilles Lhuilier

Inspired by his friend Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt in 1807 publishes with his Essai sur la gèographie des plantes what has been called the world’s first ecological book, originating a way of seeing and thinking about “nature” as an interconnected whole. This “whole” became quickly understood under the term “ecology” (coined by Ernst Haeckel in reference to an idea of “economy of nature” in 1866) and the (developmental) connection between the unit of interest in biology (“organism”) or the social sciences (“society and/or individual)” was construed to be with the “environment”/”Umwelt”. Today, and especially in reference to the European and French discourse on bioeconomy, the term “écosystéme” is is seeing a renaissance, given that a main area of both theoretical, empirical-conceptual, and practical interest in the bioeconomy is geared towards so-called “ecosystem services”.

“Ecosystem”, as proposed by botanist A.G. Tansley in correspondence with A.R. Clapham in 1935, and was quickly introduced into the discourse of the social sciences – where “system” had already gained currency first through John Boodin and later was continued by Talcott Parsons (one should, however and in all fairness, not forget Parsons intake of biology, as well as his human condition paradigm’s reliance on environmental factors) – where from the late 1940s to the early 1960s human ecology was vividly discussed as being the main problem or reference point for the study of “the social” by anthropologists such as Alfred Kroeber or even – following in the footsteps of Parks’s and Burgess’s Chicago School – Leo Schnore and Otis Duncan Dudley, the latter becoming a founding father of “quantitative sociology”, with their POET scheme (population, organziation, environment, technology) and Schnore in particular saw lineage herein with Durkheim. Tansley’s contribution, it should not be forgotten, of “ecosystem” conceptualized as a system in terms of engineering and energy, had a rival in Jan Smuts – of “imperialist” fame – notion of “holism”. The Tansley-Smuts debate is, by some, viewed as symptomatic and archetyptical for the 1920s and 30s, which is – historically speaking in light of social thought – at the heels of Frederick L. Holmsted, Partick Geddes and other “conservationist” thinkers who began to assume connections existed between “the social” and “nature”, which required not only biological scrutiny but also preservation. And yet, repeatedly “nature”, “environment”, and “ecology” have disappeared from the “sociological imagination” for a variety of continuous theory-political reasons and eventually the rise of a school of social constructionism, that was decidedly human exemptionalistic – not entirely dissimilar from human exceptionalism in genetic research, a human exemptionalist stance propounds that humans and their technological civilization are exempt from the influences of the bio-physical environment. Even animal-human relations (anthropozoology) have – with the exception of perhaps reference by Gerhard Lenski – not held sociologists attention for decades and come under more intensified scrutiny only very recently and, perhaps, not without the rise of feminist and postcolonial science studies and the revere across disciplines that an eminent scholar like Donna Haraway would garner. In between times, and despite “ecological problems” such as “smog” being discussed since right after World War II, it wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that William Catton and Riley Dunlap voice their frustration with sociology’s ignorance toward the “biophysical environment” – right after psychiatry’s opening a new discourse with Georg Engel’s 1977 “biopsychosocial model”, which, too, would lead to new questions of “environments role” in the life of the un/healthy mind – and become the founders of what would be known today as “environmental sociology”.



Based on this history, a conceptual-disciplinary debate the social sciences, and especially sociology (and affecting its internal sub-disciplines rural-, urban-, economic-, xyz-sociology), face is the question what role “environment/nature” as a whole and non-human or more-than-human agencies in particular should play, a debate that can be exemplified in the distinction between environmental sociology and ecological sociology. Thought of as simultaneously a clear-cut distinction and a spectrum, environmental sociology defines, roughly, a that “environment” is treated by the sub-sociology “environmental sociology” with, at best, potential derivate consequences that general sociology or other sub-sociologies may acknowledge (based on the traditional German distinction between allgemeiner and spezieller Soziologie) and that this sub-sociology studies the relations and interactions between society and its bio-physical environment but maintains if not reifies sociologies underlying (Western epistemological) tradition of human exceptionalism and/or anthropocentrism; whereas the other pole, “ecological sociology” refers to a transformation of sociology entire to take into account the (dialectical, interdependent ontoepistemological, and/or ontogenetical) inseparability of whatever we may – between different disciplinary discourses, come to agree to understand under the terms “the social” and “the ecological”. But even in 1995, Canadian sociologist Raymond Murphy could state that sociology at large was still sociology-as-if-nature-didn’t-matter and that it was imperative to create sociology-in-which-nature-matters.

Academic disciplines often suffer from collective amnesia towards their genealogical chapters, and 20th century sociology post WW II, for a variety of reasons (beginning, certainly, with both its fear of being associated with Social Darwinism on the one hand, and its strange existential angst regarding equivocation), has largely forgotten its “debt to biology”. But among its founders, the ecological embeddedness of society was not a contested issue: Max Weber, for example, revered and took inspiration from Victor Hehn’s 1870 book on the transmission of plants and animals (Kulturpflanzen und Hausthiere in ihrem Übergang aus Asien nach Griechenland und Italien sowie das übrige Europa. Historisch-linguistische Skizzen.) among others, and can, as some have argued, serve as a “classical foundation for a postexemptionalist sociology” while such a sociology, surely, also needs to take inspiration form postcolonial theory and decolonial options.

Among the main challenges today, for such a postexemptionalist social sciences, especially with their focus on “Euromodernity”, is the transition to the so-called bioeconomy: In European biotechno-politico-economic elite circles, it is taken for granted that we already partially live in and continue along the transition to a bioeconomy. While national or supranational (European Commission, OECD) agendas differ in regard to both the composition (agriculture, biofuels, biomedicine, etc.) of what is to be understood as “bioeconomy”, a minimal consensus between them around the main unit of reference, “biomass”, emerges: “Biotechnology is to be deployed for human flourishing/social progress/sustainability while enabling profitability/competitiveness/exploitation-efficiency.” BioEconomy (sic!), as an extension of Euro-Modernity, continues to follow, thus, a logic of extraction, while promising to be a solution for present and future challenges from feeding 9.6 billion people by 2050 to climate change: It promises to be an agent of social progress, justice, and equality, but is conceptualized via an exploitative form of productivity, anthropic/anthropocentric (optimizable) utility, and value as monetizable/quantifiable/maximizable. It is imperative for us to get a genealogical and critical hold on BioEconomy (sic!) as an extension of Euro-Modernity today, expose some of its discontents and conflicts (such as functioning like a colonial archive technology by exercising forms of ontopower), and to create and assess possible alternatives that can help realize generative justice for circular economies that enroll more-than-human agents as partners based on past, present and future bioeoconomies in the plural.


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