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Producing Anthropology, Producing Science: Citizen Science and Emerging Problematics

PrintIn the emerging sphere of citizen science, new forms of knowledge production are increasingly reworking scientific boundaries to incorporate lay actors, viewpoints and practices. However, in anthropology the boundaries of knowledge have long been conceptualised and reconceptualised as permeable and place-specific. Addressing the overlaps and engagements between citizen science and anthropology, the panel Producing Anthropology, Producing Science: Citizen Science and Emerging Problematics was the only session among hundreds at the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) Annual Meeting in Washington DC last week to address the growth of citizen science and its challenge to the scientific academy. I was privileged to have the opportunity to attend and present a paper on the ways in which ExCiteS seeks to incorporate anthropological methods and theories, co-authored by our group’s other PhD anthropologist Carolina. It was an excellent place to meet some other anthropologists working in a similar sphere and to really dig critically into some of the issues that are motivating the expansion of citizen science projects, and their attendant successes and failures.

The panel was organised by Ashley Rose Kelly of Purdue University and Michael Scroggins of Teachers College, Colombia University. Ashley discussed her research into the rhetorics of expertise and credibility employed in citizen science, taking as her key example the emergence of a group known as Safecast following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Frustrated by the lack of information available through official channels, the Safecast group built their own Geiger counters and gathered over 16 million data points measuring radiation contamination over three years. Their dataset became one of the most authoritative resources on the impact of Fukushima and members of the group were invited to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s international experts’ meeting. Ashley’s research shows how this group of citizens positioned themselves as experts through crowdfunding proposals, presentations, blog posts and interviews, and thereby established the credibility of their data and analysis.

Michael’s paper explored the failure of the Bay Area Dandelion Project, a citizen science initiative started by BioCurious in San Francisco, to attract enough public interest to generate the necessary data to answer the question: “How many species of dandelions inhabit the Bay Area?” He discussed the way in which the tension between the assumed expertise of the scientist and the assumed amateurism of the public affected both the choice of project and its design, arguing that rather than being a simple march towards equality citizen science is instead a space where conflicts between citizens and scientists can play out in new and productive ways.

Also on the panel, Mascha Gugganig of the University of British Colombia looked in her paper at the links between environment-based learning and activism in the context of land use, food production and GMOs in a Hawaiian charter school and among the public on the island of Kaua’i in Hawaii. Describing citizen science and similar projects as efforts by a range of actors to change the status quo by expressing civic epistemologies, or “fringes”, she showed how youth from the school used their understandings of traditional Hawaiian conceptions of emotion as a source of claim-making to challenge federal regulations that class genetically engineered crops as safe.

Meghan Ferriter of the Smithsonian Institution drew out some of the common themes in the papers and built up a framework for further thinking in her role as discussant. She highlighted the tension between expert and lay actors that ran through all of the panels’ papers, and which Michael elaborated on in the Q&A that followed, stating that citizen science is less about defining or redefining either “citizen” or “science”, but more about the productivity of the tension between the two. Meghan went on to discuss the ways in which resources constrain both what is possible in citizen science projects and the sustainability of those projects – definitely an issue familiar to those of us working on ExCiteS’ Sapelli software, for which developer time is a limited resource that needs to be employed as wisely as possible. Meghan noted that participants’ time is also a valuable resource that needs attention, as if the work of citizen scientists is not acknowledged they are likely to give up. Finally, Meghan drew out some of key dichotomies around which citizen science work is built, such as centre vs. periphery, objective vs. emotional and global vs. local. In each of these cases, the term that is less associated with modern science practice can be a place where productive things can happen. Moving into the discussion, we were left with the question of whether hierarchy is necessary to the formation of expertise, and what followed was an energetic and productive conversation with the audience that touched on the performativity of citizen science, the importance (or otherwise) of intentionality and the impact of science fiction on DIY and hacker spaces.

The AAA was a huge conference (5000+ people), and although there were only a few of us it was great to find a home among other anthropologists interested in citizen science issues. I hope we can keep the conversations going as we seek out more disciplinary link-ups, and I would be very interested to have all of my fellow panellists engage with the next Citizen Cyberscience Summit due in 2016.


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