Fall 2005

M/W 2:45-4:00 TG 203



Instructor: Prof. Marianne de Laet
Parsons 1259
phone 73812
course website
Office Hours M/W 4:-5, or by appointment

Course topic, goals, and approach

In this course I challenge you to don and anthropologist's hat and to explore the academic environment in which you live as if it were a strange, foreign culture. This is your charge: you will, from the first class onwards, observe your own world as if it were a strange culture. The course is a semester-long exercise in mapping this culture and its relations with the broader contexts in which science and engineering work takes place.

Contexts are important here. For this culture of science and engineering is formed by the context in which it lives: (changing) economics, resisting environments, public controversies, historical traditions, and cultural differences. While we examine science and engineering as culture and in culture we will explore three themes:
     (1) science and engineering are practiced by humans;
     (2) science and engineering have profound but often unforeseen and uncontrollable impacts on the ways in which we reshape the world as we live it (including ourselves);
     (3) anthropological and other social sciences can be of use in understanding, and perhaps "managing" (better), how humans change their environment by way of technology and science.
In the course of our explorations you will learn and you will apply basic anthropological methods. My hope is that these methods will stick with you and will benefit you for life.

The assumption underlying this course is that understanding anthropology enriches and informs your experiences in engineering and science, and that acquiring an anthropological sensitivity will help you to become effective scientists and engineers. The only way of learning anthropology is by doing it. So I invite you to join me in "doing" anthropology for a while. By adopting an anthropological approach during this semester, you will acquire not only a better understanding of the concepts and ideas that guide science and engineering work but, more important, you may find some useful tools that you may carry into your future. My goal is that by the end of the semester you are able to use the core concepts of anthropology in a meaningful way, have a cultural understanding of your academic world, and have further developed your awareness of the cultural and societal contexts in which science and engineering exist.

Graded class work

You can accumulate a total of 100 points in the course of the semester. A 90-100, B 80-89, C 70-79, D 60-69, Fail below 60.
5 1-page response papers (25 points; 5 points each)
team research project portfolio (includes all milestones, presentation, and written report - 50 points)
collective test (15 points)
working knowledge - presence, participation, assignments and class exercises (10 points)

With each collective assignment you turn in a self-grade form. In fine-tuning your grade I will take your self-grade forms into account.

Culture Lab

This class is, in part, structured as a lab: in the course of the semester you will experiment with anthropological concepts and methods in a hands-on, team-based research project. On Mondays we discuss theory and methods; on Wednesdays we work on incorporating this new knowledge in your research project. The object of the project is to conduct an anthropological field study of a cultural group in your academic environment. Throughout the semester you observe this group, applying anthropological tools and methods to gain an intimate knowledge of its cultural and social particularities. Your research results in a portfolio, that includes all your project milestones, a collective research paper that provides an in-depth description and an analysis of the cultural characteristics of the group you have studied, and a digital or hard copy version of your group presentation.


I consider this course an experiment in collaboration: your learning depends on your participation in class discussions, team project, and collective assignments. For most classwork (test, in-class assignments, and the semester-long research project) teamwork is mandatory; for other work (argumentative essays) it is optional. Communication and accountability are crucial aspects of working in teams: as a team member you should be able to present or defend the product of your collaborative work; each of you needs to take responsibility for the team effort and for the team's result; each of you must to learn to keep track of your individual contributions, weaknesses and strengths. In order to guide you in mobilizing your strengths and shoring up your weaknesses, and in order to achieve fair grades, I must know to what extent each student contributed to a team effort. Therefore I ask you to document your individual contributions to group activities: I require that you fill out a (standard) self-grade form and include it in each completed group assignment; you will find a copy at the back of this syllabus or by following the link. Please consider this form a tool to help you work together effectively, achieve individual accountability, and maintain transparency.

For some assignments (response papers) team work is optional; if you choose to complete these assignments as a team my grading will take into account that collective work draws on a broader array of resources than individual work - but I will also take into account the greater challenge of successfully completing work in teams.

Required Texts (available at Huntley Bookstore)

Hugh Gusterson Nuclear Rites
Stefan Helmreich Silicon Second Nature
Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar Laboratory Life
Sharon Traweek Beamtimes and Lifetimes
Helen Verran Science and an African Logic

We will read considerable portions of these books; in addition, there will be handouts. Please consider the texts as resources; you will be expected to consult them in writing your test, conducting your team project, and doing your other assignments.


Reading responses
(5 mandatory, up to 5 points each). These short papers respond to the readings, class discussions, evening lectures, and/or exercises. I expect thoughtful, well-crafted commentary. Throughout the semester you have 7 opportunities to hand in your reading responses; you need to complete 5 and you may hand in the other two for extra credit. I encourage you to use these short papers to develop thoughts or raise questions that are pertinent to your group's research project; they are a great opportunity to get my attention, and to receive my feedback so that you can further develop your thoughts. You may feel free to use sections of these papers in your final group report, if appropriate.

Exam (15 points) I will hand out an exam on March 4; this is a study and collaboration day and the exam is due tuesday March 9. You will meet in class to discuss the questions on the exam on thursday; I will not be present for the discussion of the exam; the point is that you collectively grapple with the exam questions. Participation in this class discussion is mandatory. You submit the exam individually.

Working knowledge: presence, participation, in-class exercises (10 points). It is your responsibility to show me that you are actively participating, and that you are trying to get a soldid working knowledge of reading materials and of the approaches/concepts we discuss in class. You can do this by speaking up in class, in your contributionsa to the team project, by talking to me or emailing me, and in your papers and assignments.

Research Project: Milestones, presentation, report (50 points).


I encourage you to attend the conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science, which is held at the Hilton Hotel in Pasadena on October 20-22. The smorgasbord of papers that will be presented at this conference forms an excellent addition to the materials we cover in this class. You may substitute on of your reading responses and/or add an extra one with reports on papers presented at the confrerence (consult with me first); you may also use this conference as a part of your team research object.


In this class you learn by participating: your contribution is crucial to the quality of our discussions. It will be taken into account in the computation of your final grade. Team work is mandatory - you should know, however, that there is plenty of opportunity to make your individual mark as well. If there are any problems in your team, please signal these early on and ask me to help out. It is my job and my pleasure to ensure that this is a beneficial, effective, and interesting learning experience and so please consult me whenever you feel like it.

I can be reached by phone, email, and in person during office hours or by appointment. You are more than welcome to stop by my office unannounced, though I may not always have time to talk; please understand that you may be asked to come back at a more convenient moment. Same with email: please do not expect me to respond instantly; it may take a day or two before I can get back to you. I encourage you to take an active role in the class proceedings. This means not only that I expect you to participate in shaping class "content" (class discussion and exercises); I also hope that you will take responsibility for "process," and I value your thoughts and comments on the way the class is run.

Late assignments will not be accepted. I take it as a given that all classwork will be conducted in accordance with the honors code.

N.B. This syllabus is a collaborative work in progress - it will be adapted to class needs and interests as we go along. Reading assignments are scheduled for the first half of the semester and remain open for the second half, in order to maintain flexibility and to respond to our evolving needs for resources and information. We will cover all books, though not necessarily all chapters; please consider the books as resources and begin consulting them as you think useful - even when they are not (yet) scheduled for reading assignments. I encourage you to mobilize appropriate readings, knowledge, and experiences in class. In the second half of the semester we will be spending a serious amount of class time sharing, and brainstorming about, team projects.