Three Questions I get Asked

Here are three questions that natural scientists and engineers often ask me, and which are commonly asked of social scientists participating in interdisciplinary collaborations. 

  1. Why do people not like X?

e.g. why do people not like synthetic food additives?

This question usually has to do with a perception that scientists, or a particular field of scientific work, is not viewed favourably by ‘the public’ or by industry, governments, NGOs, and so on. Natural scientists and engineers sometimes have the impression that social scientists will be able to explain why it is that their technical ambitions have been thwarted by a political misconception or misunderstanding.

The question is sometimes embedded in a range of other faulty assumptions about public understanding of science and science communication. As a question, it can position social scientists as experts in the irrational behaviour of individuals and groups. Social scientists can also be positioned through this style of questioning as brokers, and so be expected to help to open governance and/or public doors.

I’d rather talk about:

What do people actually say and do in relation to X? What practices are involved in regards to X and how do you envision X changing, supplementing or supplanting those practices?

When it comes to something like food additives, for example, I’d be interested to know how people make sense of ‘synthetic’ and ‘natural’ from within cooking, eating, feeding and caring practices. We could ask in what ways are these concepts important to the organisation of such practices, or in what ways do these practices organise our demarcations of those concepts? It could be important to explore how novel methods of producing food additives sit alongside or displace existing methods of production, and with what global socioeconomic implications.

In this regard we could begin to understand why the notion or production of synthetic food additives might raise socio-political, economic or ethical questions from publics, NGOs, governments and so forth, rather than assuming people don’t like it because of ignorance.


  1. What will people think of X?

e.g. what will people think of brain-based lie detection?

This type of question usually has to do with natural scientists’ worries about what ‘the public’ will think about their planned innovations or technical recommendations. It comes from a recognition that publics are interested and invested in scientific knowledge production. However, it is often motivated by a desire to ensure that people will think positively about X and so sometimes accompanied by a will to understand how to encourage people to feel positively about X.

The question is sometimes embedded in a range of other faulty assumptions about how people’s negative feelings about proposed technologies will inexorably lead to market failure and that this is necessarily a bad thing. It positions social scientists as PR gurus or pollsters, who can help to take the public temperature and design marketing strategies for innovations.

I’d rather talk about:

What kinds of imagined (necessary, likely, possible or peripheral) actions, routines, relations and social structures are being embedded in the sociotechnical work being conducted? In other words, putting the emphasis not so much on the object of technical interest but on how the envisaged object might impact upon existing practices of life, relations and social order, or open-up new practices. Do we want these kinds of practices and why/ why not? What effects will these changes have and with what implications for people’s experiences of social and technical phenomena?

In the given example of brain-based lie detection, I would want to know more about how we do lie detection now in different contexts and why we do it that way. I’d be interested to know how brain-based techniques would change these contexts if implemented and what implications such changes might have for our ways of living with each other. If we were talking about using brain scanning as evidence for use in legal proceedings, for example, we’d have to think carefully about why we currently use the investigation, interview, interrogation and jury systems. How would brain-based technologies fit in these practices and what would change? What kinds of life and forms of justice are implicated in such changes?

In this regard we could begin to unpick some of the tangle of concepts, practices, norms, politics and so on that are bound up with our current ways of doing lie detection and thus better understand what would be at stake for someone who is asked to give an opinion on a new lie detection technology.


  1. Is it okay to do X?

e.g. is it okay to engineer life?

This question usually has to do with a perceived ethical ‘implication’ of some proposed technical innovation. The questions often centre on technical objects. They involve a recognition that sociotechnical innovation generally implies changes in how things are done or understood. They might have to do with abstract concepts like life or nature. However, by emphasising the objects of technical innovation or abstract questions these kinds of concerns largely miss the everyday practices that are at the heart of how ethical decisions and dispositions are made and formed.

This type of question is sometimes embedded in a range of assumptions about scientific objectivity and how ethical implications arise only from the implementation of knowledge and new technologies in the world rather than in the practices of knowledge production itself. In addition, such questions often come with the implication that X is going to happen anyway, but it would be good to know what moral status it is going to be given when it does happen.

This style of questioning is more comfortable for some social scientists than others, since some of us are experts in ethics. However, in the way the question is generally posed it positions social scientists as ethical arbiters, who themselves are being asked to judge the moral status of objects and so assess the social value of proposed innovations in order to help scientists justify actions they know they are going to take. This is a bit tricky and can be a far less comfortable space to inhabit.

I’d rather talk about:

What kinds of moral or ethical values are embedded in the scientific practices out of which the question has emerged? In other words, what has been decided about ethics already, what kinds of questions have been closed off and with what justification?

I’d also be looking to explore what kinds of ethics and norms are used in contexts in which the proposed X is being invoked. Are there differences in the ethical frameworks used to think about X across different spaces and times and in what ways do these differ? If there are differences of opinion about the ethical valence of X how do we decide amongst such opinions in governance, regulation, and technical innovation practices?  


Dementia and Everyday Life: Creative Approaches

7th April 2016, University of Manchester

 Understanding dementia and its entanglement with everyday life presents a conceptual and methodological challenge to a range of disciplines in the humanities, health and natural sciences. In this day of academic seminars, we explore some of the work being conducted in humanities and health research to examine this topic, focusing on the creative approaches that are being developed to tackle questions of selfhood, relationality, materiality and narrative.

The event is co-hosted by the Morgan Centre for the Study of Everyday Life, the Dementia and Ageing Research Team and MICRA, the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing.

clock-photo.jpg Photo and art by Lynne Chapman


Time and Location

7th April, 2016. 11am-5pm
Jean McFarlane Building Oxford Road, University of Manchester

Building 92 on the Campus Map

Nearest train stations: Oxford Road and Manchester Piccadilly, both around 10-20 minutes walk from the Jean McFarlane Building. 


Dr Andrea Capstick and Dr Katherine Ludwin, School of Dementia Studies, University of Bradford

Dr Christina Buse, Department of Sociology, University of York

Dr Lucy Burke, Department of English, Manchester Metropolitan University

Dr Jackie Kindell, Specialist Speech and Language Therapist, Older People’s Mental Health Service, Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust.

Early Career Speakers

We have a few opportunities for early career researchers (including PhD students) to present their work and some limited funding to cover their travel expenses. If you are working on dementia and everyday life phenomena, particularly if you are using creative methods, then please consider putting forward a proposal to speak. We are open to creative suggestions for format, although ECR speakers should bear in mind that their slots will likely be limited to 15-20 minutes. To apply, contact the organisers with a suggested title and abstract of no more than 300 words by 21st March 2016. We will inform successful applicants by 23rd March.


This is a small event and is open to academic researchers working in the field of dementia and everyday life, or related areas.

To request a place at the workshop please email with your name and a sentence or two about your area of research.


Dr Andrew Balmer, Sociology and the Morgan Centre for the Study of Everyday Lives, University of Manchester.

Sarah Campbell, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work, and the Dementia and Ageing Research Team, University of Manchester.




PhD studentship on Dementia and Friendship

My Morgan Centre colleague, Vanessa May, and I have received funding from the North West Doctoral Training Centre for a scholarship for a PhD student to study dementia and friendship, in partnership with Manchester Carers Forum. The information is below, please encourage any prospective students to apply.


The University of Manchester’s Morgan Centre for the Study of Everyday Lives is offering one fully-funded ESRC CASE PhD studentship in partnership with Manchester Carers Forum. The funding includes payment of tuition fees as well as a doctoral stipend at the UK Research Council’s required level of £14,057 per annum. The studentship is available to outstanding candidates wishing to commence their doctoral studies in September 2016.

Project description: In the past decade, friendship has become a concern in sociology as well as in anthropology and related disciplines. This PhD project will examine questions of friendship in the context of dementia, focusing on the experiences of people with dementia and their carers, as well as their friends. A crucial feature of this study will be to take seriously the relational perspective, understanding changes in the lives and friendships of carers and people with dementia as being fundamentally entangled. The project will develop a variety of elicitation and sensory methods (for example photo or music elicitation), as well as more conventional narrative and biographical methods, for the study of friendship and dementia. As an ESRC CASE studentship, this project will also involve close work with Manchester Carers Forum. As part of the funding requirements, the successful candidate will volunteer at Manchester Carers Forum as a member of the peer mentor coordination team, working directly with carers and peer mentors to support people living with dementia. The PhD student will work for 3 months of the year at the Carers Forum, broken down into a certain number of hours per week.

Studentship Details: The successful candidate will be supervised by Dr Andrew Balmer and Dr Vanessa May in the department of Sociology. It is anticipated that the studentship will be for direct entry onto the three year (+3) PhD programme in September, however candidates for the 1+3 (MSc. Sociological Research followed by the 3 year PhD programme) will be considered. Continuation of the award is subject to satisfactory performance.

Entry Requirements: Applicants must hold a Bachelors First Class or Upper Second Class Honours UK degree in a relevant social science discipline, which should generally be in Sociology or Anthropology, although other disciplines will be considered. Candidates must also have (or expect to gain before the start of the programme in September 2016) a UK Masters degree (or overseas equivalent) recognised as a research training masters by the ESRC. They should be qualified at minimum Merit level, with a coursework/examination average of 60% or more. Students without a Masters degree (intending to enter the 1+3 programme) will be considered but preference will be given to those with a Masters qualification. You must satisfy ESRC UK residential criteria to qualify for this studentship (information here:

Candidates meeting the following criteria will also be given preference: above 70% in their Bachelors or Masters; some demonstrable knowledge of the sociological literature on personal life and/or friendship; demonstrable expertise in qualitative research methods, particularly creative methods.
Enquiries should be directed to

Deadline: 7th February 2016. 

How to apply

Applicants should email Dr Andrew Balmer, with a full CV (including grade transcripts) and a covering letter explaining your interest in the project. Please note that applying for this PhD studentship funding is a separate process to applying for entry to the Manchester PhD Programme.  The successful candidate will therefore also be required to fulfil the normal admissions procedures for the School of Social Sciences once they have been offered the NWDTC scholarship.

Affect and Dementia

Affect and Dementia

Some definitions of ‘affect’ hold it to be pre-linguistic, something fundamentally ‘non-representational’ (Massumi, 1995), like the sensation of anxiety conjured by a particular urban environment. Red Road Glasgow

Affect in this guise is automatic. It is something the world conveys upon us as if by magic. The brain and wider nervous system are often crucial to such arguments, since they react to stimuli so rapidly it is easy to see how unconscious some of our responses can appear. In contrast, Margaret Wetherell (2012) understands affect to be entangled with all the rest of the mess of the world. Something that can happen in the blink of an eye, something embodied and habitual, yes, but also something that we designate to ourselves and others as part of situated everyday life. Affect is something that we reflect on, foster or discourage. It is structured and also specific.

In my own work I have been musing on affect and emotions as part of studying a very messy situation: what it is like to be caring for someone with dementia. Primarily I have been interested in how we deal with change in this context. No matter which kind of dementia a person is living with, there will be a lot of change involved, not least in their behaviour, but also in their relationships and in their capacities. website-bvftd-2-imaging-reformatted-1140.1140.409.sOne form of dementia is particularly pertinent to understanding affect and emotion. Behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD) involves a range of symptoms, but central to its manifestation are changes to a person’s affective disposition. People can become disinhibited and lack shame, empathy and insight. They might cry or laugh uncontrollably. Sometimes their tastes change, particularly as regards their appetite for sweet and sugary foods. They can also become obsessional, repeating routines and behaviours without relent.

Pyle_Pro_PTED01_PTED01_Electronic_Table_Top_1290002513000_744392For example, arranged around the living room of a carer I interviewed, Mike, there were several electronic drum kits. However, Mike told me as I we walked in that he doesn’t play the drums. They were for his wife, Lucy, who was living with bvFTD. Lucy would repeatedly bash and drum on anything she could find. Mike had bought the drums because at least they made familiar sounds, had a volume control and weren’t easily demolished.

This led me to ponder on whether Lucy drums things because of a change in her brain. Certainly there is a neurological problem causing a disruption in her everyday life. But why drums? This was a question Mike regularly posed to himself and doctors. Some answers he received were that it might stop some unpleasant sensation that Lucy feels, or that she might derive some pleasure from the physical activity, from the sound or from the effect it has on others. Mike wonders if she’s angry, and says that she doesn’t show any empathy for him as he struggles to tolerate the endless cacophony. And Mike struggles to manage his own anger as he soldiers on. But why do the drums bother him, exactly? It seems that there’s certainly an element of automation here. The drums make an unpleasant noise, which makes him feel angry even against his will. But how do we judge a pleasant noise versus an unpleasant noise? There are physical factors. Some noises hurt our ears. But cultural ones too, having to do with the way in which rhythm and melody has been structured in the West. These physical and cultural factors also inform each other.

And surely Mike is also angry because of the sense of injustice he feels. That dementia has affected Lucy in this way and that she does the things that she does. And that he is losing her. He is still angry with her even though he knows this, which makes him angry with himself, and further angry with the disease and that he can’t do anything about it.

Clearly there are multiple forces shaping the manifestation of anger in Mike and Lucy’s relationship, each time situated, specific and multiple, but also part of a broader story of changing embodiment, capacity and everyday life, one that is at least partly shared with others living with bvFTD and their carers.

Encounters like these with changes in affect lead me to believe that we need to better understand its entanglement with the body and the brain, certainly, but that such an investigation has to be conducted from within the relational world in which these changes take place.


Massumi, B. (1995) ‘The Autonomy of Affect’, Cultural Critique, 31, 83-109.

Wetherell, M. (2012) Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding (London: Sage Publications).

Choosing an iGEM Project

iGEM is promoted to undergraduate students as an exciting and playful competition in which you get to create a cool new organism. The jamboree, for example, is organised as a way of performing this enthusiasm, through the way in which trophies and medals are awarded, but also through the parties, and workshops and all the photo opportunities.

Lots of the concepts embedded in the idea of iGEM are borrowed from the world of software engineering and computer gadgetry. Take ‘biohacking’, for example. This set of concepts, ways of thinking, images and so on also relate to certain values of judgement and decision making. Trying to make something ‘cool’ or ‘exciting’ pushes thinking and design in some directions and not others. It influences the choices we make and how we evaluate our work.

Which is cooler? Designing an organism that uses bioluminescence to signal air quality, whilst also removing pollutants from the atmosphere; or making an organism that produces an enzyme involved in the industrial production of paint for ship hulls. They both sound reasonably helpful and there might be a commercial market for each one, but I think most people would say bioluminescence is a bit cooler than ship hulls. But why should science be designing things on the basis of them being cool, or fun, or exciting?

The way the iGEM competition tends to work is to prioritise and celebrate projects not only for their scientific success but for their fun spirit. I am not trying to make a case for or against the notion of fun and excitement as a relevant factor in the judging process or indeed in science more generally. It is just to begin to point out that there are dimensions to the choices that iGEM teams make and the decisions that judges make that are not simply objective. Instead, making choices of this kind involves a range of values and emotions that we tend not to see, and that we often erase from our descriptions of why we chose certain projects over others.

In this regard, I want to remind iGEM teams that the ways in which they choose their projects are laden with values and social features of everyday life that aren’t captured by the usual assumptions about how science and innovation progress.

Indeed, iGEM isn’t all about fun and playfulness. In fact, the fun and playfulness are part of a larger issue: iGEM is often more about demonstrating that synthetic biology as a field is useful itself.

Being useful, being industrially-relevant, solving a problem and so on: these are some of the values that engineers often prize in their work and they have become central to synthetic biology. And perhaps these seem obvious and uncontested.

But in order for synthetic biology to be funded and to distinguish itself from previous forms of genetic engineering, it has had to organise itself directly in relation to making stuff that’s useful to industrial partners.

And hopefully here we can see that there are certain ethical implications. If we just focus on the ideas of being useful and industrially-relevant there are a number of questions we can pose. To whom will the work be useful? To what uses will they put it? Will it be used solely in the ways intended? Why should we make something that is industry relevant in the first place? And which industries do we prioritise? What are the values of those industries? What do they do in the world and with what implications? How do the values of these industries and companies align with your own values?

In this regard it becomes important to think about the specifics of the project you’re considering working on and whether the context of the industry in which you plan to work makes a difference to how the object you produce will be used. Is making something useful for the pharmaceutical industry just the same as making something useful for the agricultural industry, or for the weapons industry, or the space industry?

The common assumption that iGEM teams should make something that is useful is generally attached to making something industrially-relevant. But this embeds a certain relationship between science and industry into the process of choosing a project. Generally, it puts science in the service of industry.

That relationship is not necessary and doesn’t have to be part of how science and engineering work. However, it has become a background assumption in iGEM. It has been embedded into iGEM’s emphasis on demonstrating the relevance and usefulness of synthetic biology. And this plays out in team’s choices.

UCSF’s Sponsors in 2009.

So when you’re thinking about what to focus on for your project, consider why you want to make something for industrial use. What kinds of industry do you want to create things for? Think about how they might use it. Who will gain from this technology and who will lose?

It can be easy to get lost in making your iGEM choices, particularly if there are lots of options and you’re excited about a lot of different ideas. It is of course part of iGEM that you should have fun, but choosing your iGEM project has to be an ethical choice and it is one that you should make explicitly, that you should think about carefully, and that you should talk about with a range of different people before settling on an idea.

Public Perceptions, Knowledge Deficit and Expertise.

This is the third in a series of posts I’m writing about human practices. They are specifically targeted at undergraduate iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) teams currently working on summer projects to create novel microorganisms.


During past scientific controversies, natural scientists have often sought to convince people from ‘the public’ to trust that they know what they’re doing with science because they’re the experts. They also often seemed to feel that ‘the public’ and the government should just let scientists make decisions on their own because they are the most qualified to judge the science on its own terms. This was a common response, for example, to questions that were asked of scientists about the emergence and use of genetically modified foods, which forms an important background to the contemporary development of synthetic biology. Researchers largely seemed to think that people were frightened of GM foods because they didn’t understand the science. A related idea was that this ‘public ignorance’ of the science could be somehow cured if we educated people about GM technologies. In this regard, scientists assumed the main problem was a ‘knowledge deficit’ in public understanding of science, which meant that public perceptions of science were skewed and inappropriate but could be changed by better education and ‘outreach’.  So scientists set about telling people about the GM work they were doing, hoping to calm ‘the public’ fears by providing knowledge.

In iGEM much of the work that teams do in human practices still follows this model. Most teams go out into public spaces like schools, community centres and so forth, to tell people about the work they’re doing. Mostly it is a one way thing, where teams tell people the science and hope that this interests them or at least that it allays some of their fears. One reason for this is that there is a major constraint on human practices work in iGEM. You have very little time to read or explore HP scholarship, and – for the most part – having only studied a single subject at university, most of you will be unfamiliar with the methods and conceptual apparatus used in humanities and social sciences. So it is much easier to adopt these kinds of one-off outreach activities, talk to the public and then get back to the lab, to updating your wiki pages and preparing for the jamboree. After all, there’s no hope of a medal or an award if you haven’t actually got an engineered microbe to present no matter how many people you’ve talked to about your project or how much you’ve learned about social science. So the priorities of iGEM teams are set-up in part by the medal criteria.

So what’s the point of engaging with ‘the public’ in iGEM human practices or in synthetic biology more generally? Before I approach that question I first want to dwell on this phrase for a paragraph or two. ‘The public’ is usually invoked by scientists and iGEM team members alike to indicate the mass of people who are not familiar with the scientific knowledge that they themselves have developed. It implies a uniform group, made of non-scientists. But of course, ‘the public’ isn’t a unitary group. There are all kinds of differences in people’s lives, like gender, race, religion, class, age, education, profession, and so on, that change their experience of the world in ways that have nothing at all to do with whether they have studied genetic engineering or not. This is why social science researchers tend to talk about ‘publics’, in order to imply all those differences and complexities that make up the worlds of human life.

Moreover, scientists themselves are part of publics, since they also have lives that extend beyond the lab, they have concerns outside of academia, and most will have relationships and intimacies that are not part of their professional work. In this regard, scientific developments, innovations, knowledge-making practices and so on are just as important to different individual scientists as they might be to non-scientists. One chemical engineer who has a child with a genetic disease might think quite differently about how we begin to use epigenetics in our organisation of society than might another chemical engineer who doesn’t have children.

Importantly, scientists also comprise a number of different publics because they also have values and perspectives as part of their work. Scientific values and perspectives are part of the practices of different kinds of scientific education and research. So – as I’ve tried to describe in previous posts – these values and ways of thinking are going to be difficult to disentangle or even to see or describe by the scientists who are competent in those practices. Some of these values, for example, consist in a commitment to certain forms of evidence and argument, to certain ways of doing knowledge-making, to ethical principles about life, its meanings and what human beings are about and how we should relate to each other. Scientists also often have beliefs about the roles of science in governance of social life and how expertise should be used. And, much like riding a bike, these assumptions, values and perspectives are just part of how you do it – they’re embodied in how you do the work and how the practices are organised.

In this way, we can begin to see that scientists are also just humans doing a specific kind of practice, namely, synthetic biology in the case of iGEM.

Why talk to publics then? Well, because it will help to explore what it is that you have assumed about your work, its purposes and how the technologies you’re making might be used. Importantly, though, this involves more than just asking people what they think. It means trying to see the significance of practices that you’ve invoked in your iGEM project work and to think critically about how you are intending to change those practices. It also means accepting that there are other forms of expertise that are relevant to changing practices with scientific innovations. The contexts in which innovations are imagined to be used in the future – like how we currently envisage the use of synthetic artemisinin – will involve a number of different people from different publics who will be competent experts in the practices involved in those contexts.

So, for example, imagine you’re designing an organism that will make a kind of sustainable cooking oil. Brilliant – there are lots of ways in which a sustainable cooking oil could be good for the world. But you should also use your human practices to explore how cooking oil is currently used. In what practices does it play a role? Of course, there’s home cooking, there is also restaurant and take-away cooking, there’s military and hospital and other public service cooking. Then there are various practices involved in the manufacture, distribution, marketing and selling of cooking oils that differ according to the practices in which the cooking oil is intended for use. All of these practices may differ across different regions of the world. In home cooking in the UK, for example, the use of oil is loaded with a range of different values and meanings by virtue of how cooking is connected to other practices, including eating, caring for one’s family, being healthy, getting sick, growing older, being in a rush, going to work, and so on and so forth. Your iGEM project might produce a cooking oil that disrupts some of the values and meanings that are embedded in these practices or that implies the adoption of new values and meanings that weren’t a part of these practices previously.

Imagine something as small and seemingly inconsequential as the cooking oil being a slightly different colour. The meanings of the colour might be quite important as part of these practices of cooking, eating and so on. For example in how the colour yellow of most oils has been connected to sunshine, blooming fields and farms, good and bad health, and so forth in their marketing or contestation.

Or imagine if it tastes a bit different. Practices of cooking and eating embed practices of taste. What tastes good and why is complex and not simply a biological phenomenon. In the UK at least there is also the phenomenon of ‘good’ and ‘bad taste’, having to do not only with the flavour of the food but also with what kinds of flavours that different groups of society associate with their lifestyles. So to have good taste is part of being seen as a competent member of the social group and forms a part of one’s expertise as a member of that group. Good taste is very much affected by class, ethnicity, and age. What counts as good taste in a working class, white household in urban London might be quite different to a middle class, Afro-Caribbean household in rural Kent. So what might be acceptable as a change in the colour or taste of cooking oil for these families might be quite different because the kinds of flavours and ways of cooking that the oil is involved in might differ. Moreover, cooking for one’s family is rife with important values that are embedded in how we live and organise our relationships with each other. How we use food might be different in the context of being a new father tasked with taking care of a child’s health, or in working at a hospital canteen trying to keep people happy and letting them still have their own choices, or in a mother appeasing a bossy teenager going through adolescence. People might have a problem with a GM cooking oil for reasons that have nothing to do with not ‘understanding the science’ and everything to do with their very detailed, situated and embodied understandings of health, taste, family, care and so on. Publics are multifarious and complex because practices are multifarious and complex. How we make sense of people’s reactions to scientific developments has to take into consideration the expertise that these people use in their practices and how this shapes the values and meanings placed on scientific change.

Much of the time, scientists of most varieties spend their time developing more and more specialised knowledge about a number of topics and so becoming far more expert in a smaller number of practices. Just like most professionals. Good lawyers, chefs, teachers, pilots, mothers, fathers, hairdressers, doctors, painters and decorators all become experts in sets of practices that affect the way that they think about the world. Our values and perspectives are tied to the practices in which we live and in which we have become expert. And when scientists seek to change something about our practices, like introducing a new product into the practice, there are many features to how we make sense of this proposed change that have very little to do with a knowledge deficit in molecular biology and more to do with our differences in expertise.

Talking to publics, then, has to be about understanding the human practices that are involved with the kinds of products that you’re envisioning in your iGEM work. Although you’re experts in science and in iGEM you might well be novices in growing crops, selling farm produce, distribution, marketing, managing a retail chain, cooking, being a parent, feeding a family, being a Buddhist, and so on and so forth. You’ll need lots of methods and concepts that don’t exist in synthetic biology in order to be able to understand these forms of expertise and relate them to your work. Human practices is about exploring these worlds and practices and trying to make sense of how your products and envisaged changes to the world will be made sense of. Investigating the human practices bound up with your proposed innovations should help you to critically think about and so possibly change how you design and construct those innovations. In this regard, human practices should be about your knowledge deficit, and not that of ‘the public’.


In a future post I’ll begin to discuss some of the methods that you might use to do human practices in a way that is more conducive to this kind of analysis and that goes beyond outreach and public understanding.

Why ‘Practices’?

This is the second in a series of posts I’m writing about human practices. They are specifically targeted at undergraduate iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) teams currently working on summer projects to create novel microorganisms.

Much work across academic disciplines has sought to describe and explain human life at two levels, emphasising either: natural laws, group life and social structures; or individual behaviour and personal life. When natural laws and social structure is emphasised we tend to see individual actions and meanings as being primarily determined by forces outside of individual control. On the other hand, when individual behaviour is emphasised, we tend to focus on how people make up their lives through their own free will, creatively negotiating interactions with each other in everyday spaces to maintain social organisation and order.

There are also those theories that try to make sense of both sides of the coin, individual creative freedom and social determination. Such theories try to understand how forces outside of individual control shape the patterns of social life whilst also maintaining the importance of individual differences and spontaneity. How such theories try to do this varies considerably. Indeed, within some of the social science disciplines, like sociology and anthropology, there are a wealth of approaches that can be used to think about the links between individual and group behaviour.

‘Practice theory’ is one such approach. Since around 1970 a number of scholars in sociology, anthropology and related disciplines have tried to develop accounts of how social structures shape individual behaviours whilst also attending to how those individual behaviours help to create the very structures that shape them. In this regard these thinkers have tried to explain how both levels reciprocally construct each other: how individual action and group patterns are made of the same kind of stuff. In short, it is ‘practices’ that make up the world for this approach. We can roughly understand practices to be things that individuals and groups routinely do in the world. Practices are patterns of actions that for most participants are just second nature.
Like driving a car. Indeed, although what counts as a practice is quite varied, examples often emphasise things we clearly do with our bodies, like riding a bicycle, but also extends to less clearly bodily-oriented actions, like talking to a doctor, reprimanding an infant, singing a hymn in church, buying groceries, taking a shower and so on and so forth.

Given some initial training, whether formally (through parents or teachers, for example) or informally through every day participation in group life, practices become part of how we do our lives day-to-day. So part of learning a new practice involves learning the rules so that it becomes second nature to do things in one way and not another. We rarely question the rules of how we do everyday life. Imagine if you were constantly challenging how to greet each other, eat, work or sleep. You would be hungry, unemployed and exhausted, and people would quickly get annoyed with you.  Many practices come with quite clearly legitimate and illegitimate ways of doing the practice. Like the rules of the iGEM competition that enforce how you should use the standard biological parts and how to submit your parts to the library. These rules help to shape how people do the practice and most iGEM teams don’t think to question them because they’re just essential to how iGEM is currently done.

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Theories of practices often place an emphasis on how skilful people are in their everyday encounters with each other and with the world. We seem to get by without much problem once we have learnt how to do something, even when practices are very complex, like flying an aeroplane. So theories of practice emphasise skilful routine and habit. As an iGEM team member you will become or will have already become very skilful at a whole bunch of different practices that are relatively new to you. Think about what it was like early on in your lab experiences to pipette very small amounts of fluids, at speed, from one tube to another, mixing them in appropriate quantities, in order to follow a protocol. By the end of iGEM many of you will have become so skilled at doing this that you will not need the protocols anymore, and may not even have to think about how much of the different substances you need to mix, in what order, for how long, and so on. You’ll also be far more dextrous with your pipetting.

The knowledge and skill you are acquiring is ‘embodied’ – it is knowledge that is habituated in your body through situated training. A mini-prep has likely become part of your routine and habitual behaviour. Because the knowledge involved in practices is tied up with embodied abilities, these routines and habits become part of our background or ‘tacit’ knowledge, and it is very difficult to explain exactly where that knowledge is or what it is that you know in order to be able to do it. A classic example involves trying to communicate how it is that you ride a bicycle so that someone who hasn’t ridden a bicycle can then get on one and ride around based on what you’ve told them. It is extremely difficult – and some argue impossible – to tell someone how to ride a bike without actually getting them on a bike and showing them, and indeed guiding them as they learn practically how to do it. When we are riding a bicycle there a lots of techniques that we are unconsciously using through embodied skills that can be described mathematically, having to do with how we balance and so on. But most of us would be completely incapable of producing those equations, and yet many of us can still ride a bicycle.  So the emphasis in practices is on how everyday, taken for granted skilled actions, knowledge and meanings are practical – they only make sense and can be communicated within the doing of the practice.

Putting these two last points together, we can say that some of the rules of a practice are tacit too, so we cannot always easily identify why things are done in the way that they there are, and why they have the meanings that they do, even when we are proficient in the practices in question. Mostly we don’t learn the rules of a practice by sitting down and memorising them, instead we learn by doing it ourselves and watching others do it. Just like we learn language from being within practices of using language from birth.

Moreover, there are lots of rules that shape our basic movement through the world and how we relate to each other and organise social space. Think about the rules involved in choosing a seat on the bus. It can tell us quite a lot about some of those more invisible, tacit rules of everyday living in the world. Why do you go for one seat and not another? There are variety of rules that people seem to use to make a decision that only really become visible when they’re broken. The rule that roughly goes “don’t sit immediately next to someone if there is no one else on the bus” is an important one. Imagine how the person would react! We just seem to know these rules from having been brought up within the culture that we live within. They’re just part of the accepted practices for doing life in our culture. But some of these basic rules change from culture to culture and can help explain why we do life differently in different countries. Americans, for example, are often bemoaned by British people, because although we share much of the same rules about social space, many Americans are more comfortable with physical intimacy and cheeriness in their greetings than are British people. This is clearly an embodied norm of social interaction and when these two different forms of greeting conflict it feels palpable to the participants. British people experience discomfort and Americans presumably experience rejection or offence when a warm proffered American hug is met with a frosty British handshake. But this practice is currently changing and hugging seems to be more acceptable and frequent here in the UK than it used to be. At the same time, gender norms around doing masculinity and femininity seem to be changing. There may well be connections between these shifting practices, so how men hug each other might be changing in response to or alongside changes in what it means to be a man and how doing manliness is understood. So we can begin to see how practices are connected and how changes in some practices might result in changes elsewhere. It is also true that some practices are difficult to change because of their connections to other practices.

In the context of iGEM there are a whole bunch of practices, from the lab to the wiki to the jamboree and the competition itself. In the lab, practices include doing a PCR or running a gel, designing a BioBrick or cleaning a work surface. On the wiki they involve presenting the team, describing the research in a particular way, and so on. The jamboree involves lots of practices around celebration and cheerleading. Of course the competition has all of its practices, involving presentations, judging, awarding prizes, congratulating and so forth. And these are changing slowly, so what was expected of a team to be able to earn a gold, silver or bronze medal shifted over the years that the competition has been running. The judging practices are in flux and this shapes some of the lab practices that teams engage in across the world.

In my last post I described how the meanings of human life are myriad and complex and why human behaviour is so difficult to explain. In this post I hope it is clear that these meanings are helpfully understood from within a practice theory perspective. It helps us orient our thinking to what people are trying to do, skilfully, within a given situation. So ‘human practices’ in iGEM should be about understanding the meaningfulness of human life from within the practices in which we are all engaged. Remembering, of course, that iGEM and synthetic biology are themselves human practices, too. They are made up of smaller practices, and themselves contribute to broader human practices of doing science and making knowledge and training people and so on and so on. So human practices work in iGEM can be about how iGEM practices are taught, stabilised, change or are challenged. In my next two posts I’ll begin to identify how a human practices approach to iGEM work in synthetic biology can be a powerful way to think beyond the often used notions of ‘public understanding’ and ‘social and ethical implications’. Using a human practices approach we’ll be able to ask different kinds of questions and so provide different kinds of answers to the common concerns that scientists have about how their work is understood and judged.