Rachel Douglas-Jones is one of the three Heads of Lab in ETHOS Lab, and a member of the ETHOS Lab research group. We asked Rachel some questions about her research and about her visions and hopes for the ETHOS Lab. Here is what she replied:
1: What is your position in the ITU and what sort of research do you do?
I am an Assistant Professor in the Technologies in Practice research group. My training in the UK and USA has been in social anthropology and STS, which makes me both highly empirical – my primary method is the ‘relentless contingency’ (Haraway 2016) of ethnography – as well as committed to theory as a way of doing basic research in the critical social sciences. As the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern put it, ‘it matters what ideas we use to think other ideas with (1992:10) and I take this to mean we have a range of thinking practices at our disposal, and it takes a great deal of care to understand how to think the new relations being created, particularly in the fields ETHOS addresses. At ITU, I am developing a research agenda based on my existing studies of ethics and decision-making – from the moralities of the biomedicalised body to infrastructural questions in the production of data on bodies and drugs. This includes work on the ethics of data more broadly, and where I can, I draw on my regional fieldwork expertise in South East and East Asia.<img
2: What is your role and connection to ETHOS Lab?
Since Spring 2016 I have had the role of co-head of lab, a thoroughly shared position which has already taught me a great deal about the integration of research, teaching and collaboration. As a faculty member not directly involved with Navigating Complexity – the course with which the origins of the lab are closely tied – I have taken on a role in supporting the lab’s research aims. This has involved working to build the faculty community associated with the lab, connecting research projects, supporting MA students in finding projects and supervisors, working to link often solitary thesis work with a community of peers, and integrating PhD students into a critical social sciences community. In practical terms, this means my favourite parts of my role in the ETHOS Lab are to do with seeing student projects emerge and develop, giving critical but constructive feedback on some of the themes that fall close to my own concerns, such as discourses of optimization and improvement of everyday life.
3: What role do you see ETHOS Lab performing at the ITU?
The word that comes most frequently to mind when I am working to lead and support the lab’s activities is ‘conduit’. Let me explain what I mean by that. The Lab is obviously a means by which techniques and skills are shared, as is evident in our study groups and Datasprints. Degree programs, in the larger picture, are short institutional stays, but the students who volunteer with the lab have a strong sense that they belong to it, and this means that when they contribute ideas, enthusiasm, research projects, they leave something behind. This is possible because we have a physical site from which to be based. And although the term “conduit” today has the connotation of simply the infrastructure through which something passes (e.g. water, students!) its origins are in the Latin of conducere, to bring together. This is what much of the Lab’s “strategy team” engage in on an ongoing basis: figuring out how to bring different people, interests and practicalities together, linking up potential PhD students with information they need, figuring how to make the interests of researchers known to students so that good collaborations can form, making space for the uncertain or the tentative. So rather than being a conduit in the sense of something through which ideas and people pass, the Lab space provides somewhere for these different influences to pause, experiment at the intersections, and pool experiences.
4: What is a laboratory in your mind? What does it mean to experiment in the social sciences and humanities?
I find the experimentation of the social sciences with the ‘laboratory’ concept a fascinating moment in the history and politics of knowledge making. On the one hand, it appears as a grand concession to the ruling logics of legitimacy: where else can ‘real’ knowledge be made and witnessed except in a laboratory? On the other, it can play out as an audacious appropriation, to make literal physical space for humanities and social science research, and to use the clothes of the emperor to find new ways of making space for different forms of knowledge. There is a danger, I think, in the trend for social sciences laboratories coming at the same time as computational methods for social science, to imagine that now the social can be “computed” it has its own laboratories. In my own work, I have explored what it means to think about the rooms and offices used by ethical review committees as a kind of laboratory (Douglas-Jones 2012). At the time, I was interested in the interplay between experiment and robustness, exploration and discipline. STS work on laboratory spaces has focused on both dimensions, and the kind of laboratory I consider ETHOS to be draws on both traditions. The phrase I used for committees described ‘spaces where questions are not disciplined’ – as in, not emanating from a specific disciplinary tradition. I think this suits the students of ITU, who are–through engagement with faculty and each other in ETHOS–continuously learning to ask better questions.
5: Which projects are you (interested in) working with ETHOS Lab on?
My current research projects cluster around the intersection of ethics, governance, biomedicine and IT technologies. But I supervise projects with a much broader scope, and am particularly interested in working with students curious about three big themes. First, the temporalities of technology -how and what we archive, what forms of algorithmic prediction seep into our everyday lives, and how dashboarding technologies affect working conditions. I helped found the temporalities research area because I worked with the anticipatory timeframes of ethical review, and was challenged to examine the relationship between documentation and truth when it comes to data records. Second, issues of data ethics and governance – I have had students working on open government data initiatives that taught me a lot about this growing field, and a MA student who wrote about high level negotiations around the Safe Harbour agreements. Third, on the basis of some work I did during a postdoc, I retain an interest in the intersection of energy and computation, particularly the way monitoring systems and automation are designed with certain ideas of the human in mind. In this sphere, the ethical and the computational merge yet again.
6: How do you think ETHOS Lab “creates value with IT”?
The phrase is a challenging one. We live in a time where, across the English speaking world, being explicit about the value of things is deemed necessary. The metric of value is given as a key indicator, and yet a lot of statements and activities oriented at declaring or measuring the value of something counterintuitively diminish or do harm to that to which they intend to contribute. A recent collection of essays called “Against Value in the Arts and Humanities” (Ladkin, McKay and Bojesen2016) makes this point very clearly, pointing out the ease with which the language of value is instrumentalised, and the coimbrication of audit as value’s “regulatory ecosystem” in damaging what it seeks to measure (Ladkin, McKay and Bojesen 2016:1, Strathern 2000). One of the strongest contributions of the ETHOS lab can make to this discourse, I think, is through exploring the ‘messy inhabitations’ and ‘haunting of the normative’ (Ladkin McKay and Bojesen 2016:2) in data, databases, archives, visualisations, narratives, and our ethnographic insistence that it can only ever be a pretence that ‘complete knowledge is complete safety’. The folks over at Valuation Studies have a good handle on these debates. And from this situated position, to actually create a value we value with IT, we perhaps need to contribute to not taking value and its mechanisms itself for granted.
7: What do you understand ‘data’ to mean?
Data is not a word that formed part of my training – the anthropologists who trained me worked with material, fieldnotes, stories, observations. To call something data is to bring it into a political economy of meaning, wherein any worth it might have lies not in itself or what it might teach, but in what purpose it can serve. It is already use-directed, homogenised, denuded. Data tend towards data points, there is a given facticity to data, an immanent order and structure. The world as seen through anthropological eyes is not already that, rather it must be made that, and such work is the object of study. That being said, data is an appropriate term for the kinds of things ethnographers find fascinating about the social. We see sociality being done on, in around and through an explosive variety of new technologies, and as Marres has aptly pointed out, ‘this raises lots of questions about the ways in which technology participates in the representation and doing of ‘social life’, questions which in the past have been considered more of a specialist interest (for the sociology of technology)’ (Marres 2014). The point she raises is that data scientists may believe in society more than sociologists or anthropologists, and this is an interesting problem.
8: Finally, what are you reading these days and what are you currently working on?
I had a fantastic time at conference bookstalls this summer. I am finishing reading a book series I have set myself within the new books coming out as part of the “ethical turn”, which will help me work with the new Horizon 2020 VIRT-EU research project I will be taking part in with Irina Shklovski this coming Spring. So that includes books like Lambek’s “The Ethical condition”, Kean’s “Ethical Life” and the recent “Four Lectures on Ethics” from Lambek, Das, Fassin and Keane. I also love, and continue to read ethnographies. I recently picked up Madeline Reeves’ Border Work to help me think about the bordermaking being done with technologies (currently researched by Vasilis Galis and Vasilis Vlassis) and Stefan Helmreich’s Essays “Sounding the Limits of Life” which was inspired by the work Brit Ross Winthereik, Laura Watts and James Maguire are doing wrapping up the Alien Energy project. More closely related to ETHOS, the new collection “Writing Culture and the Life of Anthropology” (ed. Orin Starn) is on my desk, and it makes me smile because of Nick Cave’s amazing Soundsuits on the cover. My current work is preparation for the Bodies of Data subproject on the Data as Relation grant that will be starting in Spring 2017, and I’m getting back into the extraordinary literature on computation in biomedicine.
Douglas-Jones, Rachel. 2012. Locating Ethics: capacity building, ethics review and research governance across Asia Durham University PhD Thesis.
Haraway, Donna J. 2016 ”Staying with the Trouble Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene” in Anthropocene or Capitalocene: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Ed. Jason W. Moore
Ladkin, Sam, Robert McKay and Emilie Bojesen (eds). 2016. Against Value in the Arts and Education. Rowman and Littlefield International: London.
Marres, Noortje. 2014. Interview http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/12/03/philosophy-of-data-science-noortje-marres/
Strathern, Marilyn (ed.) 2000. Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. Routledge: London-
Strathern, Marilyn. 1992. Reproducing the Future: Essays on Anthropology, Kinship, and the New Reproductive Technologies . Manchester University Press: Manchester.