Rendering research visible – laboratory ethnography in the GM research space


Stoma, guard cells, Corn, Poaceae. Image: Taken from Pinterest

Recently I have been reading Natasha Meyers’ book: Rendering Life Molecular: Models, Modelers and Excitable Matter. I was interested in her approach to doing laboratory ethnography and also in her interest in the role scientists play in making visible the invisible and through this in rendering and ‘making’ life visible matter. As she expresses it – it is through the concerted efforts of researchers that “the stuff of life has come to matter at the molecular scale”. 

In reading this book I have been reflecting on what roles researchers play in the creation of knowledge and making information about biotechnology accessible, tangible and available, and further how this knowledge becomes part of our collective imagination and understanding of the subject. And how this technoscience has such a powerful place in decision making. In Meyer’s work she endeavors to explore and illustrate a different side of scientific research. Rather than a world of rational decision making and precision she explores the way in which researchers engage in a sentient or visceral way with their subject matter and the way in which they necessarily join dots in their research using hunches, feelings or sensory forms of ‘knowing’.

Meyers compares her work as a social scientist to the work of modelers explaining that like scientific modeling, laboratory ethnography is also a “rendering practice” in that it aims at making visible and “amplifying” practices, ideas, “subjectivities, sentiments, and values” that are not always so visible to outsiders or insiders within the field of science. Meyers acknowledges that just as is true of scientific rendering, ethnographic rendering animates some aspects but not others, it is always a subjective process. Making this clear she is motivated by a curiosity about “what is possible to see, feel and know about scientific practice and the living world”.

I am also interested in how scientists working in the field of biotech research relate personally and professionally to the work they do and how this fits into a larger landscape of Research and Development in South Africa and in turn globally. I hope that in engaging in this research I am able to try and render narratives about social-ecological relationships at play within the R&D space – between researchers and seed and the agro-ecological systems that this seed will be used in (here my specific interest is in small-scale farming systems here in South Africa). At the same time, I am especially interested in asking questions about the changing nature of these agri/cultural systems with the introduction of hybrid seed varieties and the introduction of GM seeds. I also hope that in doing this I am able to build up a picture about the kinds of knowing and knowledge that are valued within the debates on the use of GM seed.

Some weeks ago I attended the Annual conference of South African Association of Botanists. This was an opportunity for me to experience some presentations made by botanists on their work. A number of scientists presented within a food security panel on their work around genetic modification. An overarching theme was how to modify agricultural plants to be more stress resistant to drought, salinity and pests. A number were working on maize research. It was a  chance as a social scientist to  immerse myself in the making of scientific discourse and sharing of knowledge.