Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Does Science Have Culture?


When have you been made aware of how comfortable you are in your cultural views about the world? It often takes traveling abroad, being forced to speak and think in a new language, or encountering beliefs quite different from our own, to shake up our passive acceptance about "how things work."

In this course we will not actually travel to any distant lands. Instead, we will venture into the worlds of scientists to explore how cultural norms shape scientific understandings. We will see how the historical conditions and political climates where discoveries happen can influence how scientific facts come to cohere. Why, for example, was sickle cell anemia posited as a 'black' disease that was seen as genetic proof of African ancestry in the 20th century United States, but used to differentiate people along ethnic lines for health economic and political purposes in West Africa? In Asia, how did the cultural revolution in China and its purge of certain types of scientists create the conditions for cybernetic experts and aerospace engineers (rather than demographers) to largely shape the country's one-child policy? More recently, how have instances of recorded climate change and environmental degradation drawn on human-centric scientific interventions? And when have more species inclusive methods been offered by global indigenous groups who might help us rethink planetary sustainability? Lastly, how has Covid-19 knowledge and research emerged amid cultural ideas of equality, healthy sociality, security, democracy and plays for power in the U.S. and abroad.

This seminar takes seriously the ways that we must think deeper about the connections between science and society. You will gain the skills to chronicle the cultural and political structures that condition and sometimes constrain scientific thinking. Through “fieldwork” cases and presentations, you will also have the opportunity to lay out your own assessment of how socially attentive, interdisciplinary approaches to science might allow for more ethical and inclusive solutions to the global problems we now face.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Duana Fullwiley

"I am an anthropologist of science and medicine. As a social scientist, I study geneticists who look at disease outcomes and why they vary between people in different global contexts (the US, France, and Senegal). I also observe scientific teams who are using different sorts of genetic data to: a) try to locate drug targets in different populations, b) to trace ancestry, and c) to create technologies to locate criminal suspects for forensics and policing. In all of my work I am attentive to how the societies where scientists work influence how they categorize data. Specifically, ideas of race and ethnic differences that circulate in the larger cultural contexts to which scientists belong often seamlessly enter into their categorization practices in the lab. My newest research looks at issues of how environmental degradation are framed. In particular, I am interested in how recent, man-made devastation and resource extraction contribute to human migration and illegal border crossings from the global south that are spawning new forms of xenophobia and racism. In this new work, which centers on oil extraction and overfishing in Senegal, I am also interested in how molecular biology and environmental surveys of biodiversity can be used to prevent environmental extraction and possibly foster more sustainable practices."