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Science and Socio-Cultural Anthropology

Alice Huaut

May 19th, 2023

Scientific facts and practices during the uncertain period of Covid-19 were politicized by states. For instance, government officials, instead of admitting not knowing how to respond to the spread of the virus, imposed contradictory regulations. With hindsight, we see how politics and culture influenced the mediatization of science. This article will illustrate how culture is intertwined with scientific practices. For example, cleaning will be associated with scientific practice. The empirical value of cleaning; followed by its symbolic value, giving it meaning, will be discussed.

Two main characteristics of scientific practice are empirical evidence and community census. The information must be gathered to conduct an experiment or an observation. Then the results obtained are interpreted and approved by members of a community. This definition is applicable to hard sciences, where facts and theories can be exactly measured, tested, or proved”, and social sciences, which focus on human interactions. Day-to-day scientific practices might include seeing a doctor, dieting, wearing a mask, washing hands, composting, or obsessively cleaning. These examples convey differing degrees of empirical evidence supported by community census. Their apparent scientific aspect can reinforce their reasonable and valuable dimension. Cleaning one’s home allows the analysis of the term scientific practice and its influence within a specific sociocultural context.

The reasonable dimension of this scientific practice; may be observed through Michel Callon’s set of tools for approaching fundamentally different forms of thought. He speaks of the stages of translation, by tracking the emergence of problems, actors, and the ways they all interact. Deep cleaning of the kitchen can be deemed a valuable scientific practice. The problem arises as the kitchen is dirty, dotted with grease spots, crumbs, and accumulating dust. The problematization consists of discussing the who and the how. For instance, gathering the cleaning supplies and organizing the tasks the inhabitants of the homes must perform. Interessement consists of identifying the “interest” of each member living in the home–all members, to varying degrees, wish to live in a clean space–. Then the enrollment process implies how the various actors will work together. For this example, a weekly cleaning schedule, rotating between the inhabitants. Finally, the mobilization stage involves analyzing how the initial problem–cleaning the kitchen–has been addressed and the response to the problem. The stages of translation allow the evaluation of how reasonable the scientific practice of cleaning the kitchen is. However, determining the value associated with cleaning the kitchen requires a more in-depth analysis of the “interlacement” of the actors concerned by this process and its symbolic value.

Since a scientific practice depends on a community consensus: it recalls the use of symbols and represents aspects of a culture. Actions might appear straightforward but can also have various meanings. Many individuals also clean their homes. However, cleaning may imply a different meaning for different people. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz focuses on how individuals construct meaning and uses the example of a Balinese cockfight that dramatizes social status, pride, and masculinity. The Balinese cockfight and cleaning are both symbolic. They are signifiers standing for something based on fundamentally arbitrary rules providing meaning. They say "something of something”. The Balinese cockfight might seem unreasonable to animal cruelty activists, and cleaning the kitchen when another person cooks may be considered unreasonable. However, cockfights allow for instances of fellowship and social status. Cleaning when someone else is cooking may convey held-back grudges toward the person currently cooking. Geertz focuses on the symbolic value of cultural practices. Since science is inherently part of culture, its associated symbolism can help determine its value.

Cleaning a space allows the removal of crumbs that might otherwise attract mice that one does not wish to welcome in their home (since these animals may bring diseases). Similarly, regular cleaning prevents rotting spots on walls or hidden corners of the kitchen. Hygiene and health support the act of cleaning as a reasonable scientific practice. However, cleaning a place also implies “ordering”. It may be a comforting task, spurring feelings of satisfaction and serenity. Callon's method allows a logical explanation for the act of cleaning. Geertz focuses on symbols clarifying the value and reason behind cleaning. While scientific practices may not always be reasonable, their valuable dimension derived from the cultural context they emerge in gives them a reason. Acknowledging the ties between science and anthropology allows individuals to be aware of the societal influences shaping our understanding of what is deemed scientific and the usefulness of empirical evidence.

Edited by: Youssef Eljarray

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