Skip to main content


All lectures are open to the public, thanks to the generosity of the Klopsteg fund, and (unless indicated otherwise below) are held in the Hagstrum Room (University Hall Room 201) on Mondays from 4:00-5:30pm.

Program Director: Professor Steve Epstein (Sociology)

FALL 2015

October 5, 2015
Michelle Murphy: History, University of Toronto

"Dying, Not Dying, and Not Being Born: Experimental Exuberance in Bangladesh"

Description: How has life been governed and altered for the sake of improving the macro-economy of the nation? This paper describes the rise of infrastructures of postcolonial experimentality in Bangladesh as a key development in the larger history of the economization of life.   In the history of the economization of life,  "economy" and "population" are two crucial social science objects of intervention that were mobilized to recompose governmentality in many postcolonial nations around the world in the 1960s throug 1980s, including Bangladesh.  The paper argues that Bangladesh was a globally important site for the production of innovative techniques that made up the late twentieth century economization of life.  Experiments were not confined to the lab, the clinic, or the field site, but became the very form of a new kind of governmentality.  Concentrating on the proliferation of family planning projects and the Matlab field site, the paper traces the biopolitical/necropolitical trilogy of dying, not dying, and not being born that was built into infrastructures of postcolonial experimentality.  In so doing, it queries the historical emergence of widespread technoscientific techniques for differentially valuing life in conditions of precarity.

**co-sponsored by the Department of History 


October 12, 2015
Fredrik Meiton: SHC and History, Northwestern University

"Electrical Palestine: Jewish and Arab Technopolitics under British Rule"

Description: In 1921, the British mandatory government in Palestine granted an exclusive, countrywide concession to electrify the area. The concessionaire, a Zionist engineer by the name of Pinhas Rutenberg, soon set to work realizing his grand scheme: a hydro-electrical power station at the confluence of the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers, connected to a countrywide electric grid.           

   Drawing on records from the Palestine Government, Jewish and Arab press and political organizations, and the archives of the Israel Electric Corporation, the talk highlights an important instance in Palestine's history of negotiating nature, technology, and people. Specifically, it charts the building of mandatory Palestine’s first and only hydro-electrical power plant, and the critical role it played in creating a national electric grid in mandatory Palestine. Naharayim, as the plant was called, was a hydro-electrical machine made up of organic and inorganic elements. Envisioning and building it involved a calculus of environmental, technological, economic, and political variables. And it relied on various and seemingly incongruous forms of expertise. At every step of the process, Rutenberg’s undertaking had to contend with competing claims, emanating from the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine, as well as the non-human environment. By generating electricity and distributing it over an imagined Jewish national space, the imaginary acquired a material dimension. This in turn allowed for the emergence of a national space capable of hosting a number of national objects, such as an economy, industry, agriculture, politics, and culture. The talk demonstrates how the character of those national objects was shaped in critical ways by the negotiations involved in producing them, while also influencing Arab-Jewish relations in ways that reverberates through to the present.


October 19, 2015
Stefanie GraeterSHC and Anthropology, Northwestern University

"An Ethical Objectivity in a State of Corruption: Catholic Science and Heavy-Metal Monitoring in Peru’s Mantaro Valley"

Description: This talk will analyze the situated production of lead exposure data in the Central Andes of Peru. In 2012, a group of Catholic environmental scientists completed six years of longitudinal research in the Mantaro Valley to generate evidence of pollution by the mining industry. The scientific and political practices this Project undertook to generate evidence of environmental contamination formed in relation to local and national opposition against environmentalism, widespread political corruption and violence, and inter-faith Jesuit ethos. Out of this tense political climate and a state of epistemic murk, I show how alliances between transnational and local Christian organizations, scientific practitioners and institutions, and the region’s Archbishop fortified the moral and technical legitimacy of their joint scientific project. While scientific practices and institutions factually legitimized the Church's ethical concerns about heavy-metal contamination, the Church, along with the support of the region's Archbishop, morally sanctified the scientific research. This techno-ethnical congealment made the data collection possible, as well as generating the moral credibility needed to impact regional and national mining policy debates.


November 9, 2015
Maurizio Meloni: Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University

"Postgenomic Biopolitics: Race, Class, Gender at the time of Epigenetics"

Description: Postgenomics means an unprecedented temporalization, spatialization, permeability to material surroundings, and plasticity of genomic functioning. In my talk, I argue that postgenomics is a style of reasoning distinct from that of genomics and focus on some of its implications in the relationship between biology and society. There are many entry points to distinguish between genomics and postgenomics but I take the return of soft-heredity, driven by the ascendancy of an epigenetic model of explanation, as the clearest marker for a postgenomic paradigm-shift. Soft-heredity means heredity affected by the parents’ or grandparents’ lifetime experiences, not fixed at conception (Bonduriansky, 2012; Jablonka and Lamb, 2005; Meloni, 2015, 2016). Epigenetics – often confused as a case of G×E interactionist paradigm - is conventionally defined as “the study of changes in gene function that (….) do not entail a change in the sequence of DNA” (Armstrong 2014). However, it means something more profound than trivial interactionism. Epigenetics is about the possibility of transmitting the inherited effects of G×E “inherited “effects that last for many generations even when the environment no longer induces the phenotype” (Jablonka, 2004; Jablonka and Lamb, 2014). Epigenetics is plasticity across time and generations (Jablonka).

  In the light of these novelties, it makes no longer sense to equate biology with genetics, the innate, or a hermetically-sealed bedrock upon which sociocultural differences are laid, three ghosts against which social scientists have been fighting for decades. It is meaningless in postgenomics to think the biological and the social as standing in a relation of mutual exteriority.

  But is for these reasons epigenetics ‘good news’? How the (re)turn to ideas of soft-heredity will impact (and is already impacting) the construction of key sociological categories such as race, gender and class? How the politics of plasticity will contribute to the reclassification of social differences and the understanding of how social inequalities reproduce? What about epigenetic models of health and disease? If, just to give an example, our ancestors’ conditions are transmitted across time, does this mean that poor and oppressed groups are not only socially but also biologically disadvantaged from the beginning of their lives? Are the poor also ‘poor in their genes’? What does it mean the emerging biomedical category of ‘abnormal’ methylation (a key epigenetic marker) levels by which different social groups are being classified? And, more broadly, what about the global dimension of epigenetic findings, their usage in countries like Russia with a tradition of soft-hereditarian science (Graham, forthcoming?). As I will illustrate drawing on historical examples and contemporary applications of epigenetics, it is illusory to expect that soft-heredity will be of necessity less exclusionary than is a genetic view of innate differences.


November 16, 2015
Katayoun Shafiee: Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore

"Machineries in oil: A socio-technical history of Anglo-Iranian oil and its world"

Description: How did the calculative work of formulas shape the history of oil in Iran in the first half of the twentieth century? Instead of offering a complete and chronological history of an oil firm operating in the Middle East, I tell the story of the emergence of a new political actor of the twentieth century, the multinational oil corporation, by working through a series of calculating technologies for managing information that made the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, renamed British Petroleum after 1954) a success in the first fifty years of its existence. Few historians have looked at the kinds of non-human actors, tools, and machinery involved in the building of such a large-scale political project as an oil industry. Focusing on a series of crises punctuating this history, the talk considers the kinds of puzzles and political possibilities that are opened up in the battle over defining what shape the oil industry and national state will take. I zoom in on the role of an unexpected and unusual actor in this history, a formula, and the ways in which this calculating technology helped transform political issues, such as the replacement of foreign workers with Iranian ones, into a purely technical-economic calculation ensuring the oil company’s total control of not only its recruitment policy, but production rates, and profits. The history of these tools, technologies, and techniques of information management is crucial for understanding the twentieth century politics of the Middle East and the peculiar ways in which countries of the Global South have served as irreplaceable laboratories for producing knowledge and know-how on nature and on society.

Poster of Winter SHC 2016 lectures


January 11, 2016
Paul Ramirez: History, Northwestern University

"How to Immunize a Colony: Promoting Medical Techniques in Mexico"

Description: James Scott recently explored "how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed." This talk considers how others have succeeded. Late in its colonial history Mexico witnessed an upheaval in the practice of preventive medicine, one in which Spanish merchants, Indian peasants, free and enslaved persons of African descent, and others across the viceroyalty voluntarily adopted inoculation with human smallpox, followed by Jenner’s cowpox vaccine, for themselves or their children. Part of a mercantilist moment in which monarchs and ministers viewed the wealth of an empire in terms of the health of the populace, immunization campaigns depended on many state and non-state actors whose promotional efforts helped make the procedure accessible and acceptable to laypeople. This talk examines in particular the efforts of a French physician, a royal attorney, and the bishop of the diocese of Oaxaca in the years leading up to Spain’s imperial-wide Royal Vaccinating Expedition (1804). It argues that the "circulation" metaphor, commonly used in academic writing to describe enlightenment medicine and other domains of knowledge in the Atlantic world, obscures our understanding of these public health programs; other metaphors with broad colonial purchase, by contrast, were indispensable to the effort.


January 25, 2016
Marion Fourcade: Sociology, UC Berkeley

"The Ordinalization of Society"

Description: Society supplies us with three fundamental ways of making classificatory judgments, that is, of comparing things or people. I call these judgments nominal (oriented to essence), cardinal (oriented to size), and ordinal (oriented to relative positions). Most social orders throughout history are organized around the intersection between these different types. In line with the ideals of political liberalism, however, today's democratic societies have developed an arsenal of institutions untangle nominal and ordinal judgments in various domains of social life. In doing so, I suggest, they have contributed to the parallel amplification of both. In this talk, I specifically discuss the socio-technical channels through which ordinal judgments are being elaborated, a process I call "ordinalization." I conclude by exploring the political possibilities offered by a society in which ordinal processes are predominant.

**co-sponsored by the Department of Sociology 


February 22, 2016
Nicole Nelson: History of Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"Knowledge Byproducts in the Mouse Laboratory: Learning about Environments While Doing Genetics"

Description: What kinds of knowledge do mouse model models of psychiatric disorders produce? Animal behavior geneticists use mice as experimental subjects to generate knowledge that would be impossible in human studies, such as information about genetic risk factors gained through selective breeding or molecular mechanisms gained through probing the brain. But STS studies of tacit knowledge and non-knowledge suggest that these highly valued scientific findings are not the only kinds of knowledge produced through laboratory work. This talk will examine how these “knowledge byproducts”—knowledge that accumulates in the laboratory in the process of constructing findings that are explicitly valued and sought after—figure into the overall economy of the animal behavior genetics laboratory. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, I will show how practitioners who are explicitly seeking out genetic contributions to behavior also acquire knowledge about environmental factors impacting behavior through their work with animals. Indeed, researchers arguably end up accumulating much more knowledge about environmental factors than they do genetic ones, since so much of their daily practice is devoted to enacting the environmental controls that are needed to make the sought after genetic effects visible. Taking into account this environmental knowledge and its asymmetric distribution between practitioners and knowledge fields has implications for understanding how animal behavior genetics research frames the human. While practitioners may gain an intimate sense of how multiple factors work together to produce behaviors through their daily practice, it is typically only the sought after genetic findings that circulate in published or popular accounts, contributing to framings of psychiatric disorders that are myopically focused on genes.


February 29, 2016
Anto Mohsin: Liberal Arts, Northwestern University Qatar

"Powering PELITAs: Electrification and Development in New Order Indonesia"

Description: During the “New Order” Indonesia, two power systems were being constructed in parallel and they now make up the built electrical infrastructure of the country: an interconnected grid using a high-voltage transmission lines connecting three islands (Java, Bali, and Madura) and a “grid without a grid” network of thousands of diesel-powered electrical generators spread across the archipelago. In this talk, I focus on the historical development of the second power system. Drawing on my dissertation research, I will show that the majority of the diesel generators were installed to support one of the New Order government’s objectives to electrify as many villages as possible, tying it to a narrative of an Indonesian identity as a country working hard to achieve its national goals through its Five-Year Development (PELITA) programs.  This identity narrative lent the regime a powerful legitimacy to rule the country and to suppress dissenting voices when it deemed necessary. There were some proposals to build alternative power generating stations using non fossil fuels. But they were either underdeveloped or ignored by high-ranking officials of the state electricity company (Perusahaan Listrik Negara or PLN). As a consequence, by the end of the New Order era in 1998, diesel power stations existed in great numbers across Indonesia and they formed a crucial part of Indonesia’s power infrastructure supplying electricity to villages that were located far from PLN’s main power lines.  Outside Java, Bali, and Madura they powered many localities and without them electricity provision would only be available in only about a dozen regions.  But the outcome of the New Order’s efforts to electrify Indonesian villages produced mixed results. While some areas benefited from having electricity, in other areas inequality increased because their underlying socioeconomic structure was not considered in their overall village development planning.

Poster of Spring SHC 2016 lectures


April 4, 2016
Nikhil Anand: Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

"Domestic Publics: On Gender, Urban Water and the Matter of Government"

Description: This paper focuses on the ways in which hydraulic publics are constituted through the material relations that form Mumbai’s water infrastructure. Building on the work of Noortje Marres (2012), I demonstrate how hydraulic publics are brought into being through the intimate political commitments to care for the extensive and enduring consequences of water distribution infrastructures in Mumbai. To do this, I attend to the gendered public performances around the demand for water connections at a city councilor’s office. I argue that materially mediated publics that emerge aren’t necessarily the unmarked subjects of the bourgeois public sphere, (Habermas 1991), nor are they easily be understood as counterpublics (Warner 2002). Instead the domestic publics that emerge from the extension of Mumbai’s water infrastructures are constituted by known communities of care, and are marked by the material politics of difference and distribution.


April 25, 2016
David Kaiser: Program in Science, Technology, and Society, MIT

"Cold War Curvature: Measuring and Modeling Gravity in Postwar American Physics"

Description: A popular image persists of Albert Einstein as a loner, someone who avoided the hustle and bustle of everyday life in favor of quiet contemplation. Yet Einstein was deeply engaged with politics throughout his life; indeed, he was so active politically that the FBI kept him under surveillance for decades. His most enduring scientific legacy, the general theory of relativity -- physicists' reigning explanation of gravity and the basis for nearly all our thinking about the cosmos -- has likewise been cast as an austere temple standing aloof from the all-too-human dramas of political history. But was it so? By focusing on two examples of research on general relativity from the 1950s and 1960s -- the Shapiro time-delay test and early efforts in numerical relativity -- this lecture will examine some of the ways in which research on Einstein's theory was embedded in, and at times engulfed by, the tumult of world politics.


May 2, 2016
Hans-Jörg Rheinberger: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin
Distinguished Visiting Max Kade Professor of German, Northwestern University

"Nature and Culture in the Mirror of Knowledge"

Description: According to the "two cultures" thesis, the natural sciences and the humanities have, in the course of the 20th century, grown apart into fields of knowledge that do not understand each other anymore. In this lecture, I try to destabilize the contours of this black-and-white thinking and present the history of disciplines as ever-changing – and dramatically so - formations. Contrasting respective positions of Ernst Cassirer, Karl Mannheim, Gaston Bachelard and Pierre Bourdieu, I will discuss concepts of nature and culture on the one hand, and formations of knowledge beyond disciplines on the other.

 The gaze beyond – or better, below – the disciplines can be understood as a reaction to the fact that the disciplinary dichotomy between nature and spirit has started to engage in a fundamental transformation throughout the 20th century. The plea from the point of view of a historian of science, instead of looking backwards, aims at promoting a new culture of mutual "call-out-and-in" to deal with an epistemic universe henceforth no longer comprehensible in a dual but in an irreducibly plural mode.


May 9, 2016
Cymene HoweAnthropology, Rice University

"Wind, Power and Species: Capturing Energy in Flight"

Description: Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec is home to the densest concentration of wind farms anywhere on earth; as a consequence, the country has been lauded for its proactive steps to temper further climatological harm and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Wind’s pressured and oscillating gases are the kinetic energy of the sky, but wind is likewise tethered to terrestrial concerns over human rights, ecosystems and the electric world. While elemental spheres of air, water and land have long maintained human and other life on the planet, they now represent both salvational “resources” as well as imperiled domains of extinction and climate turmoil. In this presentation, I take wind as a figure that gathers disparate species--human and not--that are transformed by wind power and consequently, wind’s powers. Where atmospheres and climate, birds and other airborne things, wind and weather, convene, we find ourselves in a pan-atmospheric domain. In this discussion, I try to think with species as a way into the relational value scales that balance between human desires for power, creatural life courses and wind’s ephemeral acts. Wind and its capture, I argue, are each indicative of energy transitions and a distinctive kind of animal testing: one that uncovers human attempts to establish calculative equilibrium in the Anthropocene, a time that might be more accurately described as species roulette.


May 16, 2016
Jimena CanalesHistory, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"Einstein Revisited: War, Fiction, Media"

Description: Recent scholarship on Albert Einstein and the publication of his collected papers have presented an unprecedented opportunity for historians and philosophers of science to rethink his work. My talk will focus on three axes, “War, Fiction and Media,” to show how the cosmological lessons of Einstein’s theory of relativity—usually considered as universal and fundamental—emerged from a particular historical context. My intention is to explore the relation of science to fiction and of theoretical science to technology in order to examine the formation of rationality more broadly. The realization that no message can travel at speeds faster than light, often associated with Einstein’s theory of relativity, was tightly coupled with the development of light-based communication technologies in the twentieth century.

Back to top