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Designing Human Practices

An Experiment with Synthetic Biology

In 2006 anthropologists Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett set out to rethink the role that human sciences play in biological research, creating the Human Practices division of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center—a facility established to create design standards for the engineering of new enzymes, genetic circuits, cells, and other biological entities—to formulate a new approach to the ethical, security, and philosophical considerations of controversial biological work. They sought not simply to act as watchdogs but to integrate the biosciences with their own discipline in a more fundamentally interdependent way, inventing a new, dynamic, and experimental anthropology that they could bring to bear on the center’s biological research.

Designing Human Practices is a detailed account of this anthropological experiment and, ultimately, its rejection. It provides new insights into the possibilities and limitations of collaboration, and diagnoses the micro-politics which effectively constrained the potential for mutual scientific flourishing. Synthesizing multiple disciplines, including biology, genetics, anthropology, and philosophy, alongside a thorough examination of funding entities such as the National Science Foundation, Designing Human Practices pushes the social study of science into new and provocative territory, utilizing a real-world experience as a springboard for timely reflections on how the human and life sciences can and should transform each other.

200 pages | 10 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology


Designing Human Practices is a very significant, quite brilliantly conceived, at times quite fascinating, and always thought-provoking project. It both documents a particularly complex history of an experimental project in natural/human science engagement and provides a bracing and at times daunting set of schematics for thinking through not only the specifics of the SynBERC project but also its broader resonances.”--Donald Brenneis, University of California, Santa Cruz

Donald Brenneis

Designing Human Practices is a remarkable and original book. As ‘embedded’ humanists at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett tried to live up to the impossible task of, at the same time, sounding out what synthetic biology might mean for future forms of human life and analytically reflecting, designing, and redesigning their own engagement, which they understood as a kind of real-time anthropological ‘experiment,’ obviously not to the pleasure of their scientist partners. If Michel Foucault, so the authors claim, can be understood as having aimed at shaping the conceptual tools for a History of the Present as a diagnosis of our times, then Rabinow and Bennett see their task, with respect to the sciences of today, as designing an Anthropology of the Contemporary in the sense of a ‘therapeutically’ active, remediative, interventionist, and transformative engagement of the human sciences with the life sciences.”

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Max Planck Institute

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Productive Experiment

The Setting. SynBERC: The Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center
Principles of Design, 2006–2007: From Bioethics to Human Practices
Interfacing the Human and Biosciences 2007: Three Modes
Synthetic Biology 2008: From Manifestos to Ramifying Research Programs
Lessons Learned 2009: From Discordancy to Indeterminacy

Recapitulation and Reorientation 2009: The First Wave of Human Practices
The Second Wave of Synthetic Biology 2009: From Parts to Ontological Domains
A Mode 3 Experiment: Figuring Dual-Use—From Safety to Malice
Toward the Second Wave of Human Practices 2010: Figures of Dual-Use, Biopower, and Reconstruction
10 Lessons Learned 2010: From Indeterminacy to Discordancy

Notes  Bibliography  Index

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