Food-body-entanglements, or tasting as an ethnographic experiment

by Nadine Levin and Tanja Schneider

Well, how to start or rather when to start summarizing a tasting experiment that some of us conducted inspired by a recent article on ‘Mixing methods, tasting fingers: notes on an ethnographic experiment’ by Anna Mann and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam? At that point in time when we all met in a colleague’s kitchen? Or while doing the food shopping? Or when making the shopping list? Or when reading the article and attempting to find out more about the experimental set up of the original study?

The Amsterdam ExperimentPresumably once we sit at the table? As tasting only happens when food enters the mouth, or does it? Our colleagues in Amsterdam tell us that we might want to reconsider this as tasting happens in other bodily parts such as the fingers. We were intrigued by this and the ethnographic experiment they described. Wanting to know by tasting fingers ourselves we came up with the idea to ‘replicate’ their experiment.

So, two of us checked what our colleagues in Amsterdam cooked and decided on a menu inspired by the dishes mentioned in the original article. We didn’t have (and didn’t ask for) a detailed menu or shopping list but that allowed us to introduce some variations (based on our tastes?).

Our list read as follows:

Pakwan: what is called Bhajias
(onion + cauliflower + aubergine+ spinach + chillies+ bicarbonate of soda)


Vegetable oil (I litre) + olive oil
Red onions one kg at least + tomatoes one kg
Garlic + ginger (one small)
Spices: coriander + garam masala + turmeric + mustard seeds


Salad (Kuchumber salad) (lemon+ cucumber + tomatoes + baby mushroom + onion)
Dal (red lentil)
Spinach and tofu (3 packet big spinach + 2 packet)
Baigan Bharta (aubergine) 4 big aubergines
Dahi Raita (yogurt dish) yogurt + cucumber
Rice (Basmati)
Paratha malabar / Chapati (frozen)
Pickles + chutneys

Dessert: (bought ready made)
Gulab Jamun

+ chick pea flour
+ lots and lots of napkins

While doing the shopping in two places Tahmid and Tesco’s along Oxford’s Cowley Road, we couldn’t help but wonder whether tasting (with fingers and otherwise) does take place in other timescapes? For instance, when doing the food shopping. Touching, gazing at and smelling the food and imagining what it might taste like. Or in the process of cooking the dishes? Fingers were washed or weren’t and everyone seemed happy to get their hands dirty and helping to chop vegetables and taking on related tasks such as setting the table or cleaning frying pans that needed to be used again. Did we taste the food already at those stages? Would it be useful to focus on how these pre-eating experiences contribute to tasting?

Once we all sat down at the dinner table to start eating with our fingers, each of us seemed preoccupied with coordinating food and fingers. Those of us who had eaten rice, daal and similar dished with their fingers before told us how their experience of using cutlery had seemed strange when they first had to use it. Or how not being able to eat with your fingers – as cutlery had been the norm at home – had caused awkward moments, if they had to use their fingers for eating during certain social gatherings in the village.

Tasting without cutlery, but with tableAt the end of the evening, as we paused around the dinner table digesting our food before we finished the evening with dessert, we began a discussion on how we should best engage with Tasting Fingers article. As we opened up about our experiences, the most pressing topic was how we should best engage with this type of open-ended, experimental scholarship. Should we respond critically, or should we use the article as an encouragement to think creatively? Should we focus on those aspects of the article that we did not like and respond in a “scientific revolutions” style refutation, or should we build upon our experiences to suggest future directions for ethnographic cooking “experiments”?

In thinking carefully about our engagement with the material, we decided to focus our discussion on several “amendments” we could make to the cooking/eating experience. For a start, we wondered about the advantages of calling the experience an “experiment”. While the article illuminated the advantages and drawbacks of referring to ethnographic cooking in this way, we wished it had included more details about the process of eating/cooking. We found that the article lacked many of the intricacies or logistics—the recipes, the timings, the spatial configuration, the expertise of the participants—but we found that these had a significant impact on our experiences of the night.

Pride in choppingRoasting aubergines the Australian-Indian wayCrossing cucumbers

Firstly, we found it challenging to coordinate the cooking and eating, such that all members of the group could be present when the tasting began. The challenges of cooking Indian dishes are not small: the food was delicious, but it required constant monitoring and checking, in particular by the two of us who were “experts” in Indian cuisine. Although the article discussed the importance of “expertise” in relation to how some people knew how to taste with their fingers while others did not, we found that the greatest impact of expertise was actually on the time demands of cooking (to those who knew how to cook Indian food). In other words, those of us who were experts had the “burden” of orchestrating the event, in terms of cooking the food and also instructing others how to “properly” taste it.

Secondly, when it came to a discussion about whether tasting was more “natural” for the two of us who were “experts” on Indian cuisine, it became clear that (as the article mentioned briefly in its conclusion) tasting with fingers is situated in particular contexts. One of our experts, who had been brought up in India, had been taught as a young girl to eat with a fork rather than fingers as a mark of “distinction” in her family. As such, she felt—despite her familiarity with Indian food—that the experience of tasting with fingers was strange. In contrast, one of us who had no experience with eating with hands finished her food the fastest, and showed (arguably) the greatest skill and ease with eating in this style. In this way, we began to question our assumptions about the nature of tasting with the fingers, and the contexts in which it is familiar or appropriate.

Thirdly, we wondered about the advantages and disadvantages of engaging with Indian food as a medium, and whether this was a necessary aspect of the eating/cooking experiment. In particular, we were unsure whether it was necessary to cook “strange” or “exotic” food in order to reconfigure the experience of tasting. How would the experiment have been different, for example, if we had gone to a pub in Oxford and tried eating British cuisine with our fingers? How would it have been different to eat roast chicken and potatoes using only fingers, by contrast with, say, eating hamburger and chips? Isn’t fish and chips most usually eaten without utensils? Would this have produced an experiment that was more uniquely “British” in some way, and which brought out some of the intricacies or tensions in British sociality and expertise? Perhaps the very enactment of the “Britishishness” of certain foods is tied up with the conventions we draw upon in deciding which utesnils are “appropriate”? To push ourselves further, we wondered if we even needed to eat with our fingers in order to reconfigure the experience of taste. Would it be possible to carry out the experiment with utensils, simply by being mindful of the how engaging with food through the medium of a fork/knife/spoon affects our perception of taste?

The two of us who had the happy benefit of “inheriting” the leftovers from this event experienced a further sense of the temporal dimension of taste. The following evening, some of the considerable uneaten quantities of the food were reheated and set out for consumption, with the two participants this time reverting to the use of conventional utensils: knives and forks. Both post-experimenters reported profound disappointment. The vibrant tangy taste sensations of the previous night seemed to have all but disappeared. Could this be because they had now switched from fingers back to conventional utensils? Could it be that the conviviality and novelty of the previous night was lacking? The same food in different “circumstances”, or might we prefer to say that the food itself had been differently enacted?

In conclusion to the “eating and tasting experiment”, we greatly enjoyed coming together to discuss the mundane, everyday experience of cooking, eating, and tasting food. While most ethnographic material cannot be easily recreated by non-experts in the field, this “experiment”—because it deals with the mundane dimensions of food in everyday life—affords us the opportunity to exchange information and experiences across bodies, geographical locations, and disciplines. As such, in the spirit of challenging ourselves to engage with the original Tasting Fingers article in a critically constructive way, we would invite other members of the STS community to recreate the experiment with the above points in mind. As you go about experiencing taste, we would enjoy hearing your experiences with how you selected your cuisine/location/tasting panel/methods, and how this reconfigured/influenced taste.

PS: Some of us discovered after our experiment that eating with your fingers is discussed quite controversially across a range of online media:

This leaves us wondering whether we would have approached our experiment differently, if we had been aware of these media debates before our tasting experiment. It seems that more than taste is at stake in these debates about eating with your hands versus eating with utensils. Or at least another facet of taste, well beyond sensory aspects, reminding us of the considerable symbolic power of food which has been vividly documented by anthropologists and sociologists of food in the past and present.

Contributors/participants: Michele Acuto, Teresa Davis, Amy Hinterberger, Chandrika Parmar, Natalie Porter, Anna Sparrman, Steve Woolgar and Malte Ziewitz.

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand.

Human and Non-human Animals

by Natalie Porter

This week’s situated seminar on human and nonhuman animals took place at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, where we discussed John Berger’s “Why Look at Animals?” (1980), and Gail Davies’ “What is a Humanized Mouse?” Body & Society (forthcoming).

Museum of Natural History, OxfordAmy Hinterberger explained to us that the museum has been an important site for both entrenching and dismantling nature-culture, human-animal distinctions. Established in 1855, the museum sought to promote the study of natural history in a curriculum weighted toward the humanities. Thirty years later, the Pitt Rivers ethnological collection was erected in an adjacent building. Proximate yet distinct, these spaces reflected a nineteenth century emphasis on separating the domain of God (nature) from that of man (anthropology).

But this separation has proven difficult to uphold, and as early as 1860 the museum became a venue for reformulating the relationship between humans, animals and the divine. Here, in a debate on Darwinian evolution, Thomas Huxley famously told Bishop Samuel Wilberforce that he had:

No need to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather, but that he would be ashamed of having for an ancestor a man of restless and versatile interest who distracts the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digression and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.

One hundred and fifty years later our relationship to nonhuman animals remains open to critical reflection and reformulation. In Berger’s piece we find nostalgia for an “unspeaking companionship” between humans and animals, which he suggests has been lost in zoological displays. Berger promotes anthropomorphism as a means to recapture proximity between species, and to bring animals back from the margins. Davies considers anthropomorphism of a different kind. In her investigation of human-animal chimeras, humanization is less about recuperating lost relationships than establishing new ones. The humanized mouse is a species remade, an experimental object that reproduces the human immune system for biomedical research and drug testing.

Why only look at animals?Our discussion touched on themes of likeness and unlikeness, space and context, and species mixing at different scales. Davies shows how translational medicine maximizes overlaps between species to create opportunities on multiple scales. Humanized mice promise everything from personalized medical therapies to global research collaborations. This seems a departure from nonmedical sectors (sanitation, agriculture), where human-animal differences are maximized for productive ends.

Given this diversity, we questioned the utility of Berger’s anthropomorphism as a way to bring animals back from the margins. How do discourses of human rights and animal rights map onto each other? And how might placing animals in the role of ‘victim’ occlude their capacity to resist and respond? Indeed, anthropomorphism suggests an asymmetry in getting to know the other. Are there other ways of engaging with animals that do not involve recourse to humanity? Yes, but we should be wary of efforts to capture any pure or untrammeled animal aura. After all, are dolphins in petting pools less authentic than their ocean-dwelling relatives? Should meerkats be indifferent to human observation?

Questions surrounding the terms of engagement between species resonate with efforts to define relationships between observer and observed. Here, examples from artificial intelligence may prove instructive. In the same way that humans have been distinguished from animals by their capacity for language, the threshold of AI hinges on a machine’s ability to create discourse. But does an emphasis on communication again risk asymmetry, wherein estimations of proximity are conditioned by human perceptions of the other?

Finally, we asked how useful human-animal distinctions are with regard to chimeras, where species mixing occurs at the cellular scale. Humanization here manifests in biology rather than behavior. Likeness and unlikeness is mediated not by language or ancestry, but rather by cellular lineage and design. What does this mean, then, for the separation between natural history and anthropology? Will the humanized mouse end up next to the strokeable pony, or alongside the ethnological artifact?

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme.

An Algorithmic Walk

by Morten Jensen Øllgaard

This week’s seminar challenged the participants to devise an algorithm that could act as a tour guide for the situated STS seminar. Our first instruction was to meet at the Martyrs Memorial, at the intersection of St Giles, Magdalen Street and Beaumont Street in Oxford. We managed to meet somewhere on the south side of the Memorial at the usual time at 4.30pm last Thursday.

Google’s obscure algorithm

First, Malte Ziewitz gave us a short briefing on his research on the practices of search engine optimisation and explained how an entire industry has developed thanks to Google’s obscure algorithm. The complexity of the algorithm running Google’s search engine makes it difficult for ordinary people and businesses to figure out what the algorithm actually does and how to achieve a good ranking on Google. Given the importance of a good ranking many businesses, hire consultants who are specialized in search engine optimisation to help them perform better in various searches.

I decided to see if I could find out just how big a share of the market for search engines Google’s has, trying to understand the importance of a good ranking on Google. I ‘googled’ “search engine market share” and got 55.400.000 results in 0.18 seconds! What I could discern from the different homepages I found via Google was that Google’s global market share is probably more than 80%, whereas Google’s market share in the U.S. is approximately 65% (some uncertainty arises here because the Americans tend to mix up what is global and American). This little exercise made me realise the difficulty in verifying these numbers, as the great many different sites that turned up in my search used different numbers and statistics. I must also admit that I did not care to go beyond the first page of my Google search, anticipating that I would not find a more authoritative answer among the remaining 55.399.990 results, just more numbers. (Actually, I cannot remember the last time I went beyond the first page on a Google search…) In this case Google’s algorithm ranked certain homepages over others, so the question is how we should evaluate this algorithmic intervention? Was it good, bad or neither of the two?

Can algorithms be wrong?

On the seminar’s reading list was an interesting blog post by Tarleton Gillespie, discussing if algorithms can be wrong (link). The blog post uses the dispute over why Occupy Wall Street did not make Twitter’s trends list as a starting point for discussing potential political and moral consequences of algorithmic interventions. The question is: was Occupy Wall Street censored and deliberately removed from the trends list or was it simply not trendy according to Twitter’s algorithmic definitions? We do not know as Twitter has declined to disclose its trend algorithm to protect its business and keep people from speculating in creating trends (that are not real trends, whatever that is). Would it have made a difference if Occupy Wall Street had made it on to Twitter’s trends list? The people behind Occupy Wall Street seem to think so.

I found the comments attached to Gillespie’s blog post to be both very interesting and entertaining as they represent different stands on the issue. In general, the commentators agree that the ‘algorithm reality’ is a particular perspective or view on what is trendy, but their agreement ends here. One comment stipulates that Twitter’s algorithm is a messy and complex piece of software developed over the years and consequently no one should be held accountable for the actions of the algorithm. Some discuss the technical possibilities of constructing so-called ‘open algorithms’ that promise less bias, abuse and misunderstandings. Others do not see what the fuss is all about, as they find Twitter’s trends to be mundane and unimportant. Finally, there is one person claiming it is all one big conspiracy as Twitter, Facebook, Google etc. are all controlled by the wealthy elite, who do whatever they can to reduce visibility of anything they do not like. This commentator offers us a red truth pill and points to parts of the Internet, which do not show up on Google’s algorithm reality.

The victory of the minimax algorithm

The second item on the reading list was an article by Nathan Ensmenger titled “Is chess the drosophila of artificial intelligence? A social history of an algorithm”. The paper explores the link between the game of chess and the development of artificial intelligence (AI). Starting in the 1970’s and up to the defining moment when Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997, Ensmenger demonstrates how chess became the experimental technology within the AI research practices. In that respect chess is similar to Drosophila, which was the experimental technology of the genetic sciences.

Both the game of chess and the record-keeping communities of chess players turned out to be a good match for AI researchers. Chess was perceived to be a game that requires some “thinking”. Simultaneously, it is a finite game with a finite number of positions and moves, ensuring the game will eventually end in a conclusive way (win, draw, or loss). In the early stages of the development of the chess computer, Ensmenger tells us, there were two competing algorithmic principles. The ‘Type-A’ algorithm, also called the minimax algorithm, which uses a brute-force method, and the competing ‘Type-B’, which was considered more “human” as it used heuristics to make decisions, trimming the decision tree by privileging certain branches over others. In the end, the minimax algorithm prevailed despite the fact that it was considered to be an inaccurate reflection of the ways in which human beings played chess. However, the minimax algorithm turned out to be fastest way to reach the goal set by the AI community: to beat the best human chess player. To cut it short, Ensmenger’s point is (a) it could have been otherwise and (b) that software algorithms like minimax or Twitter’s trends and Google search are parts of heterogeneous environments, therefore it is meaningless to isolate these algorithms from their social, economic, and political contexts.

The good walking algorithm

Both Gillespie and Ensmenger conclude that we need to develop a language and methodologies for studying and speaking about algorithmic interventions. It was against this background that we were asked to discuss and devise an algorithm that could act as a tour guide for our situated seminar.

Taking a walk around Oxford for about an hour seems a simple task, but having to put it on an algorithm form was a reminder that practical everyday activities like walking entail things that are difficult to articulate, especially in an algorithm. This ethnomethodological lesson was frustrating as it turned out to be quite hard to create an operational algorithm suitable for our purpose.

A complicated crossing

Our discussion was centred on two main topics: (a) the algorithm had to provide a decision rule, which could produce a definitive output and (b) it had to be something we could remember. We came up with a walking algorithm consisting of two main components:

  1. The intersection rule: We would toss a coin at every intersection we encountered. If the result were heads, we should walk to the right. Tails and we would walk to the left.
  2. The pub rule: We would enter the third pub encountered on our path.

The coin flipOther rules were suggested but they were either non-operational or conflicted with other interests. The application of the walking algorithm rules where subject to some discussion. For instance, there was some debate over what constitutes a proper intersection. The different interpretations were clearly influenced by the different interests of the participants. Some wanted to attend a lecture at 6pm at Green Templeton College, nobody was interested in walking all the way to Banbury, and all of us wanted to experience an algorithmic walk. Whether it was conspiracy, luck, or just really good design, the algorithm managed to devise a route that took us around the city and ended at a pub, leaving enough time to have a beer and be at Green-Templeton at 6pm.

The algorithmic route

Here is the route devised by the walking algorithm:

The route

I can warmly recommend taking an algorithmic walk if you get the chance, as it is good fun and interesting at the same time.

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme.

A Brief History of “Choice”, and Some Questions

by Lucy Bartlett

Two weeks ago, the STS discussion group convened to listen to Stefan Schwarzkopf present his new paper ‘The invention of Choice: the making of a Cognitive-Semantic Field’, and to think about Choice. Not choice with a small c but Choice with a capital C. Stefan’s ‘history of a concept’ came from his odd observation that we seem to be a world where our own and emerging economies are being structured around the people’s right to choose, even though we are inundated with new research form neuroscience and social-psychological which suggest we, human individuals, are inherently bad at choosing.

Stefan Schwarzkopf on ChoiceOn top of this paradoxical situation Stefan illuminated the present gap in the literature. Although, we research choice in its contemporary enactments, there is little on the history and contingent factors which brought about the reification of choice as a essential human right.

This was rectified as Stefan took the STS discussion group on a history of Choice starting a millennium BC with the first politicised example of choice, the original ‘chosen ones’, the Israelites. Then we moved through history to the time of the Ancient Greek Philosophers and Aristotle’s ideas on ‘deliberate desire’. Before embarking on a descriptive discussion of 12th-century Europe’s choice and their inability to cope with new found ‘Freedom to choose’. This all lead Stefan to the 17th century, characterised by both religious and political upheaval which built the ground work for the overt politicisation of the term.

From this pivotal point the term of choice no longer meant to ‘be chosen’ but rather referred to something that should be preferred. This preference became mundane in use and with the proliferation of the conscious decision was also meet with more random processes of choice, linked to all areas of social life. It became a term of empowerment and an individual right. A right that was then expanded to become the luxury of ‘consumers’ – a marketing opportunity.

The talk ended where it started in the paradoxical ‘contemporary’ situation. As Stefan acknowledged the history of the concept presented is just the tip of the Choice-iceberg. We have much more to explore. For example, how did Choice materialise? The history presented so far was based on documents. Did anyone not have choice? And for those who didn’t have choice at times, do they know? And what processes meant they do get it?

The final provocative question of the session left us all thinking reflexively about our own contemporary Choice. Do we really actively think about choice, specifically mundane choice? Or is it more of a habit now than a deliberate ‘preference’? And, if so what does this mean for the future of Choice?

This session was a Special Event in the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme. A copy of the draft paper is available here.

Public Foraging

by Amy Hinterberger

In this week’s Situated Seminar we met outdoors at OxGrow, Oxford’s Edible Community Garden to discuss two pieces: Noortje Marres & Javier Lezaun‘s ‘Materials and devices of the public: an introduction’ in Economy & Society (2011) and Dimitris Papadopoulos’s ‘Alter-ontologies: Towards a constituent politics in technoscience’ in Social Studies of Science (2011). Since January 2011, OxGrow has turned two unloved tennis courts in the heart of Oxford into a thriving food garden. Doireann, our garden guide explained that OxGrow is a combination of intellectual and physical energy in the spirit of community building. Sitting on the grass we could see a wind generator producing energy, a bee hive, raised garden beds and the new addition, a composting toilet. At OxGrow, planting, weeding, harvesting, composting, foraging and feasting build community.

OxGrow posterIn this setting, Catherine Montgomery introduced the pieces through four themes: politics, inclusion, materiality and experimentation. Is foraging for food political? Was it a public act? How does a garden, tools, seeds, fruit and veg help us think about materiality, as well as the objects and devices of politics? What was the relationship between politics and publics? With their focus on the materials and devices of the public, Marres and Lezaun offer ways to think about public action and participation. They focus on how materials, a merchant ship, a plastic water bottle, carbon accounting technologies, acquire what they call ‘political capacities’. The idea here is to consider not just how materials and devices shape the construction of publics, but how some objects, environments and infrastructures become invested themselves with political and moral capacities. Papadopoulos is also interested in the processes and practices of politics. His article presents a typology of the four ways that those working in STS-related fields conceive of politics: formalist, participatory, assembly and grounded. In seeking to foreground a materialist politics, Papadopoulos wants to take the best aspects of these four approaches and develop what he calls a constituent politics, which emerges from the account of politics already given in technoscience, but seeks to evolve from the limitations of these approaches by creating material alliances between groups of people and particular non-human others.

In the gardenLike the examples highlighted by Marres and Lezaun, we discussed how OxGrow is a site of experimentation. In bringing together the idea of experimentation with how the political comes to be constituted, we discussed how the papers both sought to identify the creation of what might be called ‘pre-political spaces’. We questioned how Papadopoulos sought to identify forms of actions and practices before they became codified as politics. How was this to be done? Marres and Lezaun also want to challenge conventional understandings of politics by focusing on mundane and everyday objects. It was suggested that the privilege awarded to ‘artisanal production’ by Papadopoulos may not be ‘material’ enough. Marres and Lezaun suggest that a focus on materials and devices requires a move away from the human. Some queried how this move to go ‘beyond the human’ overlooked the materiality of the human body in public space. What happens to our analysis of the category human in attempts to focus on materials and devices that are usually assumed to be non-human?

Coming back to the question of politics, Doireann explained to the group that people at OxGrow have political concerns, especially about climate change and global food systems. But at Oxgrow, politics is kept ‘low key’. The garden is there for the digging and in offering this kind of material engagement people work together. In reflecting on this comment, it was suggested that STS might not be very good at ‘keeping the politics low key’. Everything it seems is political. What then, is outside politics? And furthermore, what is the benefit of using the public for thinking about politics? And indeed, the emphasis at OxGrow on ‘building community’, as opposed to something called publics suggests that the multitude of ways people see themselves as kinds of collectivities matters for politics and what counts as political action, or participation.

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme.

Meeting the Universe Halfway: Reflections on Diffractions

by Catherine Montgomery

As we gathered at the Radcliffe Observatory to “meet the universe halfway”, the building itself seemed to comment on us, the group of us STSers, anthropologists and historians who had turned up to discuss Karen Barad’s seminal work. We were welcomed in by the Greek gods of the eight winds – were they there to encourage our knowledge-gathering or to toy with us mere mortals as we grappled with quantum mechanics and its ‘ontoepistemology’?

Feminist technoscientist analysts in actionIn Steve Woolgar’s introduction to our situated space, we heard how, in the eighteenth century, it was the role of the Observer to make meteorological observations, but the role of his successor to interpret them. He went on to tell us of the building’s transition from observatory to vascular laboratory in the 1930s, alluding to a photograph of sheep milling in its vestibule. Should we conceive of ourselves as sheep, following blithely in the footsteps of STS’s ontological turn, or as the esteemed interpreters of previous scholars’ scientific inquiry? Or perhaps, as Barad herself suggests, such analogical thinking takes us down a blind alley.

Barad’s (2007) book, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning provides a challenging and heady exhortation to rethink some of social research’s most fundamental, stock-in-trade concepts: power, agency, and causality (to name but a few), and in the process, the relationship between the epistemological, the ontological and the ethical. Barad fearlessly tackles these big questions through an exposition of quantum physics, rejecting the notion of inherent uncertainty and seeking to reinstate philosophy-physics as an apparatus for comprehending matter and meaning. She professes not only to provide a ‘rigorous’ re-telling of the Bohr/Heisenberg debate, but, in the feminist science studies tradition, to dismantle persistent dichotomies by questioning how ‘we are part of the world in its differential becomings’ (Barad 2007:185) – and thereby to contribute to making a better world.

The Radcliffe Observatory observedBut a better world for whom, where and when? And why the insistence on rigour and giving a definitive account of physics? And how does feminist technoscience help to dismantle dichotomies over and above other approaches? These were just some of the questions that arose from our discussion, often turning around the book’s location at the intersection of quantum physics and STS. Challenged by the dense subject matter, some among us wondered if it was really necessary to read about quantum eraser experiments or if we could skip straight to the STS insights. Perhaps, it was suggested, Barad’s attention to ‘serious science’ was an implicit response to the science wars of the 1990s, the legacy of which has been to squeeze out STS playfulness and irony? But what about the joy of uncertainty and the powerful moral positions that such uncertainty can engender? As we needled through these issues, the subject-object relationship in social-scientific research recurred, prompting reflections on the STS trope of the detailed empirical case study and (on cue) the need for a healthy dose of reflexivity. This culminated in the question as to what we should take from ethnographies of scientific practice, and why it is that we hanker after certainty and intellectual resolution?

The gods were obviously enjoying themselves. In our own reflexive moment, we imagined a group of physicists sitting around in a circle, as we were, wondering if they could skip the feminist technoscience and cut straight to the quantum mechanics. But this moment was short-lived, as the conversation returned to ‘serious’ STS concerns: were we witnessing a proto-split between Mollaw and Calltour? Should we escape the local and reach for a meta-perspective or embrace contingency, multiplicity and uncertainty? We left the Radcliffe Observatory with such questions playing on our minds, not a sheep in sight…

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme.

Encountering Science and Technology Studies (STS): Situated Seminars

by Tanja Schneider and Malte Ziewitz

The STS Reading group will take a special approach this term. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we will immerse ourselves in different locations that speak to the issues at hand. In a series of situated seminars, we will “meet the universe halfway” in the Green Templeton Observatory, “make the visual visible” in a pitch-black room, discuss the politics of algorithms on an algorithmic walk, engage with the materiality of publics in an Edible Community Garden, talk about human and non-human animals in the Museum of Natural History, participate in the performance of neurocultures at an exhibition of brains and replicate an ethnographic experiment in a hands-on dinner session.

If you missed an event, there is a series of brief notes and summaries for each session on this blog.

Encountering Science and Technology Studies (STS): Situated Seminars

Trinity Term 2012
University of Oxford

Meeting the Universe Halfway

at the Radcliffe Observatory

Thursday, 3 May 2012 — 16:30–18:00

Chair Steve Woolgar
Readings Karen Barad (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, Introduction and chapter 1

Trevor Pinch (2011) “Review Essay: Karen Barad, quantum mechanics, and the paradox of mutual exclusivity”, Social Studies of Science, Vol.41, No. 3, pp. 431-441.

Karan Barad (2011) “Erasers and erasures: Pinch’s unfortunate ‘uncertainty principle’, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 41, No. 3, pp. 443-454.

Location Radcliffe Observatory, Green Templeton College

The Invention of Choice:
The Making of a Cognitive-Semantic Field

— Special speaker event —

Thursday, 10 May 2012 — 16:00-17:30

Speaker Stefan Schwarzkopf, Associate Professor, Copenhagen Business School
Readings Stefan Schwarzkopf (2012) “The Invention of Choice: the Making of a Cognitive-Semantic Field”, Draft Paper.
Location Seminar Room 13, Saïd Business School

Material Publics

at OxGrow, Oxford’s Edible Community Garden

Thursday, 17 May 2012 — 16:30 – 18:00

Chair Catherine Montgomery
Readings Noortje Marres & Javier Lezaun (2011) “Materials and devices of the public: an introduction”, Economy & Society, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 489-509.

Dimitris Papadopoulos (2011) “Alter-ontologies: Towards a constituent politics in technoscience” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 177-201.

Location OxGrow, Oxford’s Edible Community Garden

Maverick Markets:
The Virtual Societies of Financial Markets

— Special speaker event —

Clarendon Lectures in Management 2012

Tue 22, Wed 23 and Thu 24 May 2012 — 17.30–19.00

Speaker Karin Knorr Cetina, Professor, University of Chicago
Recommended readings Karin Knorr Cetina (2002) “Global Microstructures: The Virtual Societies of Financial Markets”, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 107, No. 4, pp. 905–50.

Karin Knorr Cetina (2009) “The Synthetic Situation: Interactionism for a Global World”, Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 32, Issue 1, pp. 61–87.

Karin Knorr Cetina (2011) “What is a Financial Market? Global Markets as Microinstitutional and Post-Traditional Social Forms” (2012), in: Karin Knorr Cetina and Alex Preda (eds.) Handbook of the Sociology of Finance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Location Saïd Business School (please register)

An Algorithmic Walk

in the City of Oxford

Thursday, 31 May 2012 — 16:30-18:00

Chair Malte Ziewitz
Readings Nathan Ensmenger (2012) “Is chess the drosophila of artificial intelligence? A social history of an algorithm”, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 42 No. 1, pp. 5-30.

Tarleton Gillespie (2012) “Can an algorithm be wrong?”, Limn, Issue 2, available at (last visited May 23, 2012).

Optional, but interesting:

Peter Slezak (1989) “Scientific Discovery by Computer as Empirical Refutation of the Strong Programme”, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 19, pp. 563-600.

Location A walk through Oxford, guided by an algorithm. Meeting point: Martyrs Memorial at the intersection of St Giles, Magdalen Street and Beaumont Street.

Human and Non-human Animals

at the Museum of Natural History

Thursday, 14 June 2012 — 16:30-18:00

Chair Amy Hinterberger
Readings John Berger (1980) “Why Look at Animals?”, in: About Looking, New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 1-28.

Gail Davies (forthcoming) “What is a humanized mouse?”, Body & Society.

Location Museum of Natural History, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PW

Visualisation in the Dark

in a pitch-black lecture hall

Thursday, 21 June 2012 — 16:30-18:00

Chair Annamaria Carusi
Readings Annamaria Carusi (forthcoming) “Making the visual visible in philosophy of science”.

Catelijne Coopmans, C. (2011) “’Face Value’: New medical imaging software in commercial view”, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 155-176.

Location Video-conferencing room, Saïd Business School, Oxford, OX1 1HP


at an exhibition of brains

– Cancelled –

Chair Tanja Schneider
Readings Francisco Ortega and Fernando Vidal (2011) “Approaching the Neurocultural Spectrum: An Introduction” in: Neurocultures: Glimpses into an Expanded Universe, pp. 7-29.

Suparna Choudhoury and Jan Slaby (2012) Critical Neuroscience – Between Lifeworld and Laboratory”, in: Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience, pp. 1-26.

Location Excursion to Exhibition on “Brains: The Mind as Matter”, Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE

Eating Experiment

in a private kitchen

6 July 2012 — 18:00-??

Chair All as cooks, experimenters, notetakers, photographers, writers and eaters
Readings Anna Mann et al (2011) ‘Mixing methods, tasting fingers: Notes on an ethnographic experiment’, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 1(1): 221-243.
Location Private kitchen; please register for this one so we can plan ahead.

Please note: Meeting locations and times vary and may be updated on short notice. You can download the latest version here. For questions, please contact Tanja Schneider or Malte Ziewitz. We will also update this blog post as it happens.

Update 2012-04-27: Stefan Schwarzkopf’s draft paper on choice is now available — please e-mail us for a copy. Professor Karin Knorr Cetina recommended preparatory readings, which have been added to the list.

Update 2012-05-23: Algorithmic walk section now with a new and central meeting point.

Update 2012-06-05: Unfortunately, the visualization seminar this week had to be cancelled. We will find a new date later this term.

Update 2012-06-18: New dates announced for “Visualisation in the dark” and “Neurocultures?” sessions.