Anthropologising the West

Essays on the Anthropology of Reason
August 8, 1997

Suppose a reader of books about the prospects for new genetic technologies took a fairy-tale nap in the mid-1970s, and was woken in 1997. What would he notice? The technology has developed enormously fast, and with the advent of the human genome programme looks like moving faster still. The volume of commentary, too, has expanded enormously. But the concerns raised, and the way they are discussed, have changed rather little. Shelves full of new books on the subject contain much that is worthy and well intentioned, but relatively little that is new or distinctively expressed.

I hope, though, that such a reader would notice Paul Rabinow. Tentatively, and with the self-consciousness about theory, practice and method that pervades contemporary anthropology, he is developing a body of work on molecular biology and human genetics which speaks to his broader aim to "anthropologise the West".

The main axes of his project have been a study of the conception and path to market of the standard technology for amplifying DNA, the polymerase chain reaction, already presented in the widely praised book Making PCR, and an investigation of the important French genome research centre known as the CEPH, whose results we have yet to see. In between, we have this challenging book of essays in which Rabinow reflects on this work, on the genome project in general, and on social research.

The nine pieces here, all but two previously published, range from ground-clearing discussions of anthropological practice, notably a 1986 essay "Representations are social facts", through a taste of an earlier study of modern French town planning, to essays on a range of biotechnological topics, including DNA fingerprinting and commercial use of human tissue. Different readers will note different highlights. Anthropology students will want to digest the theoretical essays with some care. For me, the most valuable item is a 1992 essay, "Artificiality and enlightenment", which tries to extend Foucault's analysis of power to the world of genetic testing and probabilistic medicine.

The genome project helps unite nature and culture, suggesting new ways of forging identities based on genetic endowments and susceptibilities while simultaneously opening up the possibility of altering them in calculated ways. In such a world, definitions of what is normal, what pathological will acquire new importance, one reason for Rabinow's interest in historian and philosopher of biology Georges Canguilhem, who also gets an essay here. But he is interested in French thought in general and the book gains much by his use of a whole range of French writers.

Beyond this, these essays gain immeasurably from a particular kind of tough-minded open-mindedness. Rabinow is not about to buy into anyone else's theoretical framework entirely, though he has sampled many of them. He is determined to take seriously the idea that when he goes out to talk to his scientists he is working to construct a research style as well as studying other people's. This creates a hypersensitivity to nuances of interaction and expression which could grow tiresome in less skilled hands, but is put to good use here.

In particular, it has clearly helped foster some unusually fruitful working relationships with thoughtful scientists, as shown in the fascinating closing essay on his collaboration with Tom White, the research manager who is the most engaging subject in Making PCR. This is particularly heartening against the background of the science wars in the United States. A serious intellectual curiosity combined with a little humility works wonders, it seems, in inducing scientists to acknowledge their own doubts, curiosities and uncertainties in a fast-changing field. As Rabinow describes the stance he took towards the molecular biologists in the book's opening essay: "the natives did not have a stable point of view but were themselves engaged in questioning their allegiances, their dispositions. Their culture was in the making. Further, it was partially my culture. Their self-questioning over how to shape their scientific practice, the limits of their ability to do so, partially overlapped with my own scientific practice."

Building on that overlap, while recognising that it is far from complete, Rabinow has produced a rich and elegantly written set of reflections for those who want to study a culture in the making, or are part of one. It is, of course, part of his argument that they include all of us.

Jon Turney is lecturer in science communication, University College London.

Essays on the Anthropology of Reason

Author - Paul Rabinow
ISBN - 0 691 01159 1 and 01158 3
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £40.00 and £12.95
Pages - 190

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