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Home / Blog / A Respite from the Disciplinary Home: An Interview with Professor Jim Griesemer

A Respite from the Disciplinary Home: An Interview with Professor Jim Griesemer

Posted by Aaron Norton at Nov 05, 2013 02:10 PM |
Alexis Caligiuri interviews Professor Griesemer about his relationship to STS and Interdisciplinary Study

Alexis Caligiuri (AC): What is STS to you?

Professor James Griesemer (JG): What is STS to me? It’s many things. It’s a respite from my disciplinary home; it’s closer to the way I think about what I do when I do my own work. I sometimes describe what I really do as biology studies, so STS is a way of thinking about what my discipline is. It’s also a set of questions and tools with various theories and ways of understanding what science is. Science is the integration of the people and the things they study. I’m not going to go on at length because I usually do, so if I don’t answer your question I can try again.

AC: So you mentioned at first that STS is a respite from your disciplinary home, so could you go into detail about that?

JG: Maybe the easiest way is historically: my undergraduate degree was in Genetics, but I was always interested in big ideas more than doing the experiments. Well, I was interested in the experiments too, but it seemed more like hard labor (laughs). I moved from genetics to evolutionary biology and ecology, and I always had a kind of interdisciplinary focus, because my goal is to understand how the biological sciences work and it seems to me that a variety of tools is needed—you need a lot of tools for your toolbox and the disciplines are one-tool toolboxes. My PhD was in a program called “Conceptual Foundations of Science”, but my home at UC Davis is Philosophy, which is a discipline. So it’s like going to a place where people recognize that there is more than one tool out there and people recognized that we should use them all.

AC: And in that way STS is its own discipline out of this expanded tool box?

JG: Well it’s an interesting question of what is a discipline. When we sit around the table of STS and share the different kinds of methods that we bring to the subject matter do we share a discipline, is STS a discipline, or do we share an intersection of other disciplines? It’s a home away from home or a second home or a different home, different in character too. Some people would like to think that STS has a core and that there are certain kinds of theories or methods that are THE methods, but I don’t think that is true.

AC: What sort of research are you looking at right now?

JG: Well I usually have more than one project going simultaneously. My long term project which I wish had been finished a decade ago is a book called Reproduction and the Evolutionary Process, which is about the units of evolution, heredity, and development and kind of the intersection of a number of philosophical problems. And that takes me in a number of different directions because the historical influences on this project are how ideas before Mendelism really took off in biology and were shaped around how to visualize what cells do, and visualization is an important feature, but that’s largely a philosophical project.

Another project is called model taxa. A lot of people know about model organisms and how scientists reason and experiment about life sciences using model organisms and there are other model systems besides using model organisms. I’m exploring the idea that whole collections of species rather than single ones are models and what way they are models, following historically some uses of whole species as model systems.

Lately I’ve also gotten interested in a project I’ve called formalization. It’s a project about the relationship between theory and practice. There are different ways of thinking of the function of a theory in science. One of them is that theory is a summary of our knowledge of the natural world. And another is that theories are a descriptive thing. We describe what we know in theory and our theories guide our practice and I’m interested that relationship, how those theories guide projects and how those descriptions become guiding and how that guidance leads to a new description.

Another project is kind of an out-growth of the book project on reproduction and that’s to go back and rethink the history of genetics. Most of our stories about the history of genetics have been from the point of view of the big ideas and I think a much better or more interesting way of describing the history of genetics in terms of its’ practices, and I’m not the only one doing that kind of thing, but my particular take on the practices is part of the story I call tracking. And I think much of what goes on in science is not the experiment to test the hypothesis or the observation that puts us on the path to a new concept, I think it’s figuring how to follow stuff around and see where it goes. And so I’m interested in characterizing the work of scientists as tricks of tracking. So, all of the fancy things you see in biology today have this underlying them, like labeling molecules with fluorescent tags so that they light up in a cell or radio tracking organisms or DNA bar-coding or putting chips in things, using pieces of DNA as tags and tracking organisms based on what sequences they have and finding new ways to light up what is otherwise invisible. I think a lot of science is really about the tracking work and the great discoveries are almost side effects of new ways of tracking.

And probably some other projects but I don’t remember them at the moment.

AC: What made you view tracking in this way?

JG: That’s a good question. I mentioned before about these visualizations about the subject matter about heredity and some of those are what I would now call tracking methods. So I think it started from thinking about how late 19th century embryologists understand what became the subject matter of heredity. So this is a period of history where the tools were looking at embryos under a microscope and watching the cells of an embryo divide. That’s not an easy thing to do, lots of these tissues are transparent and all you can really do is kind of see the ghost of the cell and a sort of vague outline as it’s a little more opaque at the cell membrane so you see this little translucent thing and you can see the cells dividing and so early on embryologists that were studying it at the cytological level, that is on individual cells in the embryonic body who called themselves cytoembryologists, developed the techniques for drawing pictures of these embryos and they used a clever apparatus that hooks a prism up to their microscope so that they can see a piece of paper, so that when they are watching the embryo under a microscope they can simultaneously see the piece of paper next door and they could draw pictures as if the image was superimposed on the paper, it’s called camera lucida microscopy, and what they would do with the pictures was they would draw arrows on top of the pictures of the cells so that they could track which cell divided to become these two other cells. And then they would use these pictures as a way of making diagrams of the way that development happens. And then they take those pictures away and the diagrams with the arrows would be turned into other diagrams that just had the arrows so you get a kind of tree diagram or network diagram of which cells produce which other cells. So I started to think of describing what they were doing as tracking the lineage of cells and then that kind of picture making seemed like a kind of tracking tool to me so I started thinking about that and these kind of lineage relationships are everywhere in biology so I started thinking about other parts of biology as tracking technologies and it just kind of snowballed. So I started reading what scientists say and it turns out that a lot of them use the word “track” to describe these sorts of interactions; we want to track these molecules, track this process, so it just became kind of obvious when I started thinking about it. Once I started thinking about it it’s everywhere.

AC: Are you teaching or planning on teaching any interesting science and technology studies classes?

JG: As opposed to teaching boring ones? (laughs) Could you clarify?

AC: Are there any in particular you’d like to share with the blog?

JG: The STS class I routinely teach is on Darwin, STS 131. I’m teaching that this spring. There are others that I’d like to develop, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

I’d like to do a class on the idea of experiment. It has a very complicated history and there are many thoughts about what counts as an experiment, and people from all over STS write about experiments and I think that it would be nice to have a class on that, but it’s not on the list.

AC: What drew you to STS? You mentioned earlier about Genetics, but if you wanted to describe other influences that attracted you to the subject, I’m sure that would be interesting?

JG: There are several influences in my career that are quite relevant. When I was in graduate school, there was a philosopher called David Hull (1).  He wasn’t at my school—I was at University of Chicago and he was at Northwestern, so he lived in the city and I was in a reading group with him and he, a few years later, published a book called Science as a Process(2), and although I disagree with the kind of sociology of science he favors, we talked a lot about science as a social process. So even though I was more headed to history and philosophy, the social dimensions of science as a kind of practice or set of practices was something interesting to me. And then, just before I came to Davis, I met a group of sociologists who were in San Francisco, and not too long after that we developed an interest in having a local field site to think about science studies, and this was the early 80’s, and Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life (3) had just come out and it was exciting and brand new, I think Latour (4) came out and visited this group in San Francisco; that was Elihu Gerson (5), Susan Leigh Star (6), Joan Fujimura (7), Adele Clark (8), all big names in social studies of science, and they were looking for field sites to branch out, Susan Leigh Star in particular was interested in questions of how taxonomy, as a science, works. And I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and I had studied with the person who directs the natural history museum there, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (9), so I knew about a possible site for us to talk about and we eventually (Leigh and I) wrote a paper about that museum and it became a pretty well known paper in the field (10). So the fact that I was meeting all these sociologists just as I was becoming a new assistant professor was influential. It gave me a place to go and people to talk to and common subject matter that I was already interested in. It hadn’t occurred to me to do research on it until I met them. So I’ve been working on that ever since, too. So I think it was influential people that attracted me as much as anything I read.

AC: This is my first interview, I hope that my responses aren’t too generic…

JG:  No, it’s good practice. It’s field work. I think that for STS, UC Davis is the field. One of the reasons I like being here; because I study biology and there are a lot of biologists here, so it’s like being in the field all the time. You can go talk to your data.

AC: Why do you think it’s important to cross these fields between philosophy and biological studies?

JG: Well there aren’t any jobs in biology studies. My job is in a discipline, and so somehow I have to make what I do fit into the discipline. And I am interested in philosophical questions, but not only. So one of the reasons I call what I do biology studies is because it’s biology that’s the focus and although my methods tend towards the philosophical because that’s where the bread and butter is for me, being in STS means that I don’t have to limit myself to the boundaries around philosophy, I can range into history and sociology not that I’m a practicing sociologist—I don’t do ethnographies in the conventional sense of anthropology either-- I do go into the field and talk to people and I do go into the archives and do historical archival studies and I guess I’ve never done a survey so I don’t do survey research, but I guess the idea of philosophy and STS together is that I find questions about theories and methods and concepts interesting and philosophy lively.

AC: That’s really interesting! Thank you so much for your time!

Additional Notes:

More information on Professor Griesemer:


(1)  More information on David L. Hull:

(2)  More information on Science as a Process by David L. Hull :

(3)  More information on Laboratory Life by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar:

(4)  More information on Bruno Latour:

(5)  More information on Elihu Gerson:

(6)  More information on Susan Star:

(7)  More information on Joan Fujimura:

(8)  More information on Adele Clark:

(9)  More information of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology:\

(10) Star, S. L. and J. R. Griesemer. 1989. “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations,’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907 – 1939.” Social Studies of Science 19: 387-420.

Additional thanks to Professor Joe Dumit, Aaron Norton, and Nara Caligiuri.

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