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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Flourishing and Discordance: On Two Modes of Human Science Engagement with Synthetic Biology
by Stavrianakis, Anthony, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2012, 237; 3555943
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation takes up the theme of collaboration between the human sciences and natural sciences and asks how technical, veridictional and ethical vectors in such co-labor can be inquired into today.

I specify the problem of collaboration, between forms of knowledge, as a contemporary one. This contemporary problem links the recent past of the institutional relations between the human and natural sciences to a present experience of anthropological engagement with a novel field of bioengineering practice, called synthetic biology.

I compare two modes of engagement, in which I participated during 2006–2011. One project, called Human Practices, based within the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), instantiated an anthropological mode of inquiry, explicitly oriented to naming ethical problems for collaboration. This project, conducted in collaboration with Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett, took as a challenge the invention of an appropriate practice to indeterminate ethical problems. Flourishing, a translation of the ancient Greek term eudaemonia, was a central term in orienting the Human Practices project. This term was used to posit ethical questions outside of the instrumental rationality of the sciences, and on which the Human Practices project would seek to work.

A second project, the Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR) project, based at the Arizona State University's Center for Nanotechnology in Society (ASU-CNS), was an explicitly `method driven' project, whose rationale was for human scientists, through the use of a method, to act as mediums for the reflexivity, and self-observation, of research scientists relative to their on-going projects. The aim was for such interaction and self-observation to produce modulations of thought and practice within research settings. I used the method, from May-December 2009, within a bioengineering laboratory of a newly established Department of Biosystems science and engineering (D-BSSE) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH).

The comparison on which I reflect is between one mode of engagement characterized by its encompassing ethical orientation, and a mode characterized by it methodology and orientation to the latent social aspects of research decisions, made within on-going work. With respect to their relation, I diagnose the problematic effects of parameterizing the goods of biology and the stakes of collaboration solely within the dominant ameliorative and industrial norms and values of the scientific field.

The general demand in the present, to modify the practice of science with respect to ethical questions, was in this case unable to be actualized. I argue that the projects in which I participated were structured in a double bind situation in which the transformation of the ethical field in which bioscience operates, was simultaneously demanded (by a range of funding agencies, political activists, bio scientists and human scientists) and undermined. I argue that the discord comes from incommensurable conceptions and embodied stances to the ethical ends and practices of knowing.

This blockage is set within a broader historical problematization of the relation between forms and practices of science, within research venues from the mid-19th Century to the present. The intellectual and ethical breakdowns arising from within the practice of collaboration in the present, between a specific set of bioscientific and engineering practices and two social science modes of engagement, are thus situated within a historical problematization of the relation of science and ethics.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Rabinow, Paul
Commitee: Liu, Xin, Thompson, Charis
School: University of California, Berkeley
Department: Anthropology
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 74/07(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Biology, Cultural anthropology, Medical Ethics
Keywords: Collaboration, Ethics, Synthetic biology
Publication Number: 3555943
ISBN: 978-1-267-97561-4
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