Science and Universality

Members of this working group are interested in enactments and contestations of universality within and through the sciences in a post-colonial world. We train our analysis on universality in science as an ideology, an aspiration, and a social fact. How does science count as science, and which science counts? We attend to the critique of science – for example through decolonizing and feminist approaches – and also to science as critique. We begin by engaging with the ways in which science as a form of knowledge and practice becomes crucial for (re)imagining and producing lives and worlds in specific socio-political contexts. By following the work of scientists from fields as varied as astronomy, psychiatry, genetics, field biology, and artificial intelligence, we investigate processes of localization as well as various forms of political mobilization with, for, and against science. In analysing the universality of science, we aim to explore the possibilities of “critique” in and of the sciences today. While our focus is on the natural sciences, our discussion may lead us to break open the dichotomy of the sciences and humanities, also by reflecting on our own situated positionalities.

Our inquiries are located not only in the conceptual domain of our terms of engagement, primarily “science” and “universality”, but also in the politics and repercussions of knowledge production in science and its application. We engage with the topic in four ways.

First, we document how science itself comes to be through its active engagement and encounter with the material world, both animate and inanimate – with infrastructures, atmospheres, target groups, and experimental populations. We are curious not only about how sciences make the world but also about the disjunctive ways in which knowledge becomes science. We ask about the relationships between discovery, innovation, and science in associated temporalized spaces of knowledge production. How are apparatuses of knowledge production made to work, and what work is done to yield results that count as meaningful?

Second, we are interested in the configuration of universality within and across scientific disciplines. We ask what kind of universality is inscribed in concrete practices of doing science, and how scientists themselves engage, produce, and contest notions of universality within and across their disciplines. Considering scientists’ engagement with humans and nonhumans, we scrutinize how universality is evoked in the processes of “worlding”, constituting and constituted by science.

Third, we explore science within larger political, economic, and ecological contexts. By focusing on political mobilizations of and against science, we also open a passageway to the highly dynamic spaces in which (techno-) science becomes enmeshed and participates with “other” discourses – for example, indigeneity, post-coloniality, ecological conservation, health inequalities, or the digital divide – to understand how universality is claimed, modified, or rejected in conflicting imaginaries of truth and power. In this respect, we are also interested in boundary making, exclusion, and participation in science – in non-knowing and strategic ignorance as well as in (alternative) science’s alignment with nationalist or left-wing politics.

Fourth, we reflect on how the above engagements of science have been mobilized in caring for and controlling bodies, behaviours, and ecosystems. In efforts to calculate risks, promote health, secure livelihoods, or mitigate disasters, specific configurations of universality authorize political strategies for the implementation and distribution of care and control. Here, we pay special attention to how “big data” re-inscribe universality as a form of technocratic governance, engendering a universal techno-optimism. How does the streamlining of data change the ways in which social problems are envisioned, studied, and approached as objects of intervention?

To start the conversation about these four aspects and their entanglements, we will form a reading group. The list of possible readings is open and subject to change, based on the direction that discussions take within the group. Situating our own projects and the working group within current debates in anthropology and social studies of science, we will trace the genealogy of relevant debates and engage with cutting-edge approaches in these fields.

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