Friday, January 25, 2008

Materialising Scientific Imaginaries Workshop

Materialising Scientific and / or Biomedical Imaginaries

Venue: Institute of Advanced Studies / Conference Centre Lancaster University
22nd and 23rd January 2008

Cesagen researchers were invited to submit abstracts for presentations that fleshed out and / or specifed the concept ‘materialising scientific and biomedical imaginaries’ in ways drew together research already conducted or underpinned new work. This could involve using the concept as a lens through which to re-view empirical research. Alternatively, discussions of theoretical and methodological resources speaking to the concept were also welcome. Researchers were invited to think about ways in which it might provide a useful conceptual catalyst for future research.

It was assumed from the outset that the concept, ‘Materialising Scientific and / or Biomedical Imaginaries’ would be a contested one, with each of its component terms also open to critique. The workshop did not aim to achieve consensus; rather it was designed as a space for fruitful and focused discussion which will inform ongoing research within Cesagen, and may lead to new cross-site and cross-theme research relationships.

The workshop comprised a single strand which all delegates attended to ensure that discussions were carried across all the presentations. Roughly half the time was devoted to presentations and half to dialogue.

The proceedings published here are intended to provide an ongoing resource for Cesagen, and the wider research community. The abstracts, power points and papers are below (this will be updated as some are still forthcoming).



Panel 1
Genomic Imaginaries and Social Categories

Richard Tutton

There are differing expectations about the future conceptualization and utilization of race/ethnicity in the development of novel therapeutics and diagnostics. One expectation is that high-throughput genotyping technologies will allow geneticists in both medical and forensic contexts to develop well-characterized genetic markers that can be used to ascribe individuals to specific racial/ethnic groups as opposed to replying on self-perception or other subjective measures. There is also another expectation that these technologies will allow the identification of the precise alleles involved in differential drug response and disease susceptibility, and that this knowledge will lead to an era of personalized medicine. With this knowledge of individual genotypes to guide medicine, some also anticipate that racial identity will become biologically irrelevant. Every patient will be treated based on their specific genetic traits rather than on those they are presumed to have because of their affiliation to a particular racial/ethnic group. Taken together, these differing expectations suggest that understanding the genetic determinants of population variation in disease susceptibility and therapeutic efficacy may no longer require, or benefit from, the use of race/ethnicity as a proxy for genetic variation. This paper explores these future imaginaries and how they impinge on current practices to do with race/ethnicity in genetics, biomedicine and pharmaceutical research. I consider how they offer positive visions of the way technological advances might resolve some of the current difficulties associated with the use of current contested social categories in science and medicine. I also address concerns that these future expectations can serve to justify the continued use of crude proxies of genetic (and cultural) difference in what Fortun (2007) calls ‘the meantime’.

Biomedical Imaginaries: On the discourse of hopes and fears
Bernhard Weiser, Visiting Fellow at Cesagen, Cardiff

The discourse of promises and warnings plays a major role in the development of biomedical research. Researchers promise that a deeper understanding of the human genome will allow us to prevent diseases, to cure them or at least treat them more efficiently. But also warnings about possible risks and threats have become a vital part of the biomedical discourse.
In essence I understand such promises and warnings to be claims about the future. I propose that foretelling the future has become a strategic enterprise not only for scientists, but also for social scientists and ethicists. One of the key functions of such kinds of biomedical imaginaries is to mobilize capital. Funding bodies are susceptible to such accounts, but they also contribute in their own way to the discourse of promises and warnings. From scientists they request that research will be socially and economically beneficial and social scientists and ethicists they ask to explore the limits of acceptability. Along these lines I intend to problematise the rhetorical function of biomedical imaginaries when expressed either in the form of promises or warnings.
Inquiring into the materialisation of such imaginaries could be addressed as a methodological question. Where would we find traces of the aforementioned discourses? Of course public representations in the media would be a rich source of data. Beyond that it would be most interesting, what scientists write into their proposals if they apply for research grants and how they justify the greater social good of their work. However, it’s save to assume that such kind of data are very hard to obtain. But it would be possible to analyse for example the written outlines as provided along with the calls for research grants. Furthermore internet presentations of funding institutions could equally be examined regarding their biomedical imaginaries. I will try to do that in an exploratory form for the Austrian Genome Research Programme in order to exemplify how the discourses of promises and warnings materialise in the respective internet presentation.

Michael Arribas-Ayllon, Katie Featherstone, Flo Ticehurst and Paul Atkinson

Psychiatric genetics: pathways and futures

In this paper, I explore a range of potential pathways for imagining research within the `Biomedicine, identity and behaviour’ theme. `Psychiatric genetics’ is a relatively new field of scientific inquiry which promises to discover susceptibility genes for a range of mental illnesses – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, etc. Despite all the talk of `paradigm shifts’, the notion of susceptibility is not a new idea, but a reformulation of the distinction between predisposing/occasioning causes. Nonetheless, in the current climate wherein mental health services are considered a failing enterprise – under-resourced, disorganised and ineffective – talking cures and psychological therapies are giving way to pressure from neuro-genetic explanations. Chemical treatment based on an individual’s specific genotype will revolutionise mental health care and perhaps one day replace more expensive psychological treatment. Pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists will almost certainly benefit from this new bioeconomy. But we can also imagine other utopian/dystopian trajectories. For instance, how do scientists themselves materialise and imagine the future of psychiatry? I will briefly examine some of the rhetorical strategies employed to defend discourses of hope and counter potential criticisms. Drawing on a small sample of articles, I will show how `ethics’ and `the social’ are crucial to promoting the moral accountability of the science. Lastly, I will draw on three concepts – autonomy, responsibility and blame – to visualise potential pathways of self-formation. In the predictive/molecular politics of the future, it is not impossible to imagine a form of life that must engage in the constant management of risk, the constant monitoring and modulation of his or herself, in order to fashion a life with and through these biomedical technologies.

Panel 2
Neil Stephens

Title: Materialising sterility - make cleanliness visible in a clinical grade laboratory space

This paper explores how a clinical grade laboratory environment is made material in the UK Stem Cell Bank. Clinical grade implies biological material that is suitable for transplant into a patient and the environments in which it is handled must demonstrate adherence with stringent standards of sterility. In relation to human embryonic stem cells the Bank is leading both the UK and world efforts to establish such facilities. The materiality of the space operates on several levels - in the physicality of the building and the documentary resources used to display its legitimacy. Yet there is a paradox here because sterility is imagined as a freedom from contamination and as such a clinical grade laboratory is 'materialising absence'.

The empirical work of the paper details the journey an individual must take to enter the UK Stem Cell Bank’s laboratory space, making explicit the crossing of boundaries and associated rituals that demark the sterile space from other areas. The paper then considers exactly what is happening in this materialising of absence, using the work of Mary Douglas to highlight further paradoxes in, what we term, the (potentially multiple) metaphorical vision(s) of sterility operationalised at the UK Stem Cell Bank. These visions play into the Banks social legitimacy. They constitute the imaginaries of the Banks various stakeholders of the Bank as a safe, pure and sterile environment. By highlighting the paradoxes within the practices of materialising absence I demonstrate a distance between that that is imagined and that that is materialised.

Adrian Mackenzie, Cesagen, Lancaster University
Ethico-dynamics: collective imagining in synthetic biology

This paper will present an initial set of conceptual approaches to the notion of a contemporary 'scientific imaginary' in the context of genomic sciences, with a particular focus on the 'ethics of speed.' It will also explore some theoretical approaches to imagining that move away from individual or shared mental states to imagining as a collective process that occurs across architectures, infrastructures, media and practices of design, narrative, experiment and argument. The key theoretical resources I will use are recent anthropological work on new economies and circulation processes (Gaonkar, Lipuma), feminist political theory (Gatens, Lloyd), and post-Marxist accounts (Lazzarato, Tarde) of the communicative subject. The paper will investigate the usefulness of these different approaches in making sense of the materials, processes and forces that comprise synthetic biology, particularly in its overlaps with media and information cultures in the New Economy. Although the paper does not draw on empirical research, it will make use of preliminary results drawn from online sources (news, corporate websites, databases and repositories). The two critical questions that motivate the paper will be: 1. how do the practices of imagining generate effects of speed? 2. how do different kinds of imagining generate different speeds of engagement and interaction with processes of change?

Paul Oldham and Brian Wynne

“Synthetic Biological Imaginations of scientific agency and public good”

Synthetic Biology, or Synbio, has become the latest in a historical succession of “flashes in the pan”, or promises of what are taken to be wonderfully beneficial social outcomes imaginable and feasible only through the agency of modern post-genomic biological sciences. Much of this scientifically-credentialed political economy of promise can be seen as a mode of stimulating big economic investment in the increasingly huge and concentrated R&D activities from venture-capital and other global investment houses. Articulation of promises of important social benefits directly from this scientific innovation is a central element of this process, such that implicit normative imaginations of what should count and be recognised (and given privilege and funds) as ‘the public interest’ are not only expressed but materially performed at least in expectation, experimentally, through this. These specialist arenas of articulation and ‘negotiation’ of such heavily-weighted social imaginations show no sign whatsoever of being exposed to normal forms of democratic political accountability, despite their extensive implications for particular forms of socioeconomic relations and their exclusion of other alternatives. In this paper we will take the case of synthetic biology as it has developed since the 1990s, much of it under the auspices of Craig Venter’s research group, and we will analyse aspects of the imaginations, technical and social together, which form the tacit vision of social futures shaping this field’s claim on the large volumes of social resources which fund it, and which may also be shaping technical choices, visions and directions of development within the techno-scientific research itself. This will include imaginations of technical fixes to climate change and related global environmental issues, and of developed world economies’ relations with those of developing countries in the synbio future as articulated thus far.

Panel 3
Joan Haran

Materialising Scientific and / or Biomedical Imaginaries

This presentation will outline some of the resources from gender studies and cultural studies that both provide tools for and emphasise the importance of exploring the material effects of discourse. In particular, I will highlight the work of Judith Butler and of du Gay and Hall et al. In the process, I hope to clarify the significance of the Media, Culture and Genomics team’s focus on mediation as practice, rather than media as artefact or institution.

Judith Butler’s focus on ‘the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names’, for example, is useful both for thinking through the subject positions made available by scientific and biomedical imaginaries, and to inspire commitment to constant and rigorous attention to the performative claims made by the various interested individuals and groups implicated in these imaginaries. I want to develop Butler’s insights to discuss the ways in which reiterative and citational practices may be flexed or spun in response to material threats to imaginaries.

I will also discuss what is gained through attentiveness to the plurality of imaginaries and / or cultures when researching the economic and social aspects of genomics. I want to point to the risks of conceptualising either imaginaries or cultures as unitary or simply cognitive. In relation to this discussion, I want to explore whether the ‘circuit of culture’ approach developed by du Gay, Hall et al, might provide a framework for articulating – without homogenising – different strands of Cesagen research.

The presentation will focus primarily on conceptual and methodological questions. It will do so, however, in relation to research on therapeutic cloning conducted within the Media, Culture and Genomics flagship project as well as research in process on the mediation of governance and regulation of human and transspecies embryo research.

Maureen McNeil, Cesagen, Lancaster University

The ‘scientific imaginary’: some theoretical resources

My contribution to this workshop will be a theoretically reflective piece in which I examine some key formulations and usages of the concept of the ‘scientific imaginary’. In particular, I wish to investigate Appadurai’s use of the concept which seems to have been influential in some science studies and feminist work in this field. I shall extend my investigation to include and to compare and contrast Jose Van Dijck’s and Sarah Franklin’s employment of the concept.

My intention is to tie the theoretical exploration back to the field of the biosciences to consider its strengths and limitations as a research tool in the field. I also hope to reflect about this concept (at least in the versions I explore) have been linked to materialisation or indeed what materialising might mean in this context.

Ian Welsh, Cardiff

Material Performance(s) of Public(s) and Genomics (Working Title)

There is a need to locate genomics as a series of fields depicted and represented within the public sphere, in both generic and specific terms, through sets of material practices in order to begin to produce an anatomy this emergent techno-science. As such Genomics cannot be analysed independently of the context within which emergence is taking place. Genomics became a key component of the ‘knowledge economy’ within the context of an ascendant global neo-liberalism with the selfish gene appearing as an adjunct to individual self(ish) interest, raising the prospect of a neo-liberal eugenics for some (Habermas 2003).
Genomic sciences offer the potential for new regimes of production and regulation based on knowledge which is being formalised in an entrepreneurial culture embracing the principle of prompt transfer of near market science to the corporate sector. This process of techno-scientific emergence has been accompanied by intensifying globalisation and hybridisation of social forms as national boundaries become increasingly permeable both physically and virtually. The intensification of these processes raise significant issues for influential formulations of reflexivity (Giddens 1990, 1991) and reflection (Beck 1992) associated with analyses of Modernity. Recognising that there is an inescapable contingency in terms of both scientific knowledge and wider symbolic claims framing them is an important starting point.
Bourdieu’s work on the symbolic use of language (Bourdieu 1992/ 2005) and his later ‘political’ writings (Bourdieu 1998/ 2004) emphasise the importance of sets of performative practices within specific institutional contexts. These establish, respectively, ‘new myths’ (broadly equivalent to dominant discourses) constituting identities and symbolic challenges with the potential for critical reflexivity on the neo-liberal context (Costa 2006). Bourdieu’s insights were useful in addressing the relationship between civilisation, terrorism and environmental politics (Welsh 2007) and can be applied to the genomics problematic sketched here. In particular the notions of ‘field’ and cultural resources offer a means of beginning to identify the key institutional and extra-institutional contexts and material performances consolidating ‘new myths’ and ‘symbolic challenges’ associated with genomics.
Given time constraints my focus will be limited to a brief outline of Bourdieu’s schema illustrations of their relevance in the declaratory stakes associated with genomics and the issue of critical cultural resources.

Panel 4

Kate O’Riordan, Department of Media and Film, University of Sussex

The genome incorporated: materialisation and reality genres

This presentation explores the concept of materialising scientific imaginaries through an analysis of reality television and human genomics (reality genomics). My interest here is in developing ‘incorporation’ as a way of bringing together materialisation (Butler, 1993), media ritual (Couldry, 2003) and biopolitics (Rose, 2007) more broadly, whilst examining the specificity of the television programs: The Face of Britain (Channel 4) and The Killer in Me (ITV).

This kind of ‘reality genomics’ is a location at which both science and media have stakes in authorising reality. I am interested in how this plays out at the level of the text – as spectators what do we see, and how are audiences positioned? I am also interested in how this plays out in relation to production – or industry alliances – what is brought together in the making of this kind of programming? What does incorporation mean at the level of the corporeal, and the corporation?

These examples are part of a set of public engagements, which I bring together, that operate at the intersection of mediation, publics and science. These include sciart, bioart, novels, films, and new media/biotech companies. Reality television reaches particular audiences, and looking at this, in the context of examples that are directed to other audiences, such as sciart and its ‘gallery going’ publics, provides a way of thinking across different and overlapping audience genres.

This presentation provides ways of thinking about the specificity of genre, audiences, publics, mediation, and genomics in the case of UK reality television, whilst attempting to widen this examination, in relation to other cases, through the lens of materialisation.

Brian Wynne (with Claire Waterton and Rebecca Ellis)

“Some half-baked ideas about imagined publics and their material manifestations in techno-scientific cultures”

In this paper I want to explore how we might begin more fully to bring out into the open some of the ‘public’ aspects of what I have called ‘public scientific knowledge’. By the latter I have tried to mean scientific knowledge or research which may have no explicitly intended or expected (‘imagined’) public interest or effects, but which may nevertheless carry some such implications. Indeed I would adopt a hard-line here and say that all such ‘knowledge’ has such ‘public’ dimensions, as it is always in some way practised with some such cultural-social reference-group(s) in mind. (Thinking laterally to theme 3 and political economies of bioknowledges, there are also connections which we need to develop here with ideas of ‘value’). I will use a draft paper which Claire, Rebecca and I have produced, which deals with the techno-scientific field of DNA-sequencing taxonomy (of global biodiversity – plant, microbe, animal, everything in principle). A particularly prominent here is promoting the commitment to doing this taxonomy by “DNA-barcoding”, based on the belief that given DNA-segments can differentiate and thus distinctively and reliably identify all species, via each’s particular identifying DNA-barcode. Consistent with the STS-SSK perspectives of ‘mutual construction’ (Latour et al) or ‘co-production’ (Jasanoff et al) of techno-scientific and social orders, we have documented the kinds of ‘public’ which are imagined and brought discursively into being in this DNA-barcoding field, as an integral element of that field’s self-imagination and self-ordering, technically and intellectually. We use the theoretical insights of Ernsto Laclau (esp. On Populist Reason, 2005) to explore the forms of construction and ‘engagement with publics’ which is already going on in such techno-sciences, well before the more self-conscious, explicit and often self-congratulatory processes of “public engagement with science” which are the obsession of current science-policy. We also raise some questions as to how such imagined publics are, or might be, brought into material modes of performative being, and what kind(s) of science-related politics might be implied by or possible in these?

Alexandra Plows, Cesagen, Cardiff University

Embodied and Materialising Social Engagement: Bioscience, Identity Politics and Citizenship Stakes

Previous qualitative research has produced a database of emergent actor groups engaging with bioscience. New forms of “identity politics” are being materialised through highly localised- embodied- and simultaneously globalised, impacts of the “bioeconomy” in relation to human genetics, genomics and bioscience. In many contexts, and in relation to many different bio techno- scientific (potential) applications, “Prime Mover” actors are framing risks, hopes, and – importantly- complexities and ambivalences, and mobilising accordingly, having staked out important territory. The body itself is often the site of resistance or engagement. Existing issues of identity, self and citizenship are thus being materialised or at the very least thrown into sharper relief by the (potential) impacts and implications of bioscience as it manifests within the bio economy, and this is the proposed start point for future research which cross- cuts Cesagen themes and draws on previous findings.

This contributes to an ongoing debate over citizenship stakes in relation to the nature of choices, rights, responsibilities and duties of imagined [bio] citizens, (embodied) expertise and knowledge claims, and conceptualisations of global civil society. Such an analysis also draws on and develops social movement concepts which theorise social engagement, and in particular develops a critique of bio-labelling in relation to these new forms of identity politics, informed by issues raised by the “bio economy” and concerns over biological (genetic) reductionism. Specific issues and applications demonstrate that there are multiple points of entry into such a debate on bioscience, self and citizenship; for example, the globalised trade flows of human biomaterial; the proliferation of genetic tests and screens and their increasing commercial availability; self and the body as a site of resistance or engagement in relation to enhancement discourse. An anatomy of specific issues, applications and sites of engagement can be provided through use of existing datasets, providing an empirical basis for future project work.

1 comment:

Kate said...


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