Coming to #SCA2016: Infrastructures of Collaboration

I am excited to announce with my co-organizer, Amy Robbins, that our panel for the biennial meeting of the Society for Cultural Anthropology has been accepted and is on the preliminary schedule for Saturday, May 14 at 1:30 p.m.

Be there or be ■.

Banner for Infrastructures of Collaboration

Infrastructures of Collaboration

As Marilyn Strathern (2006) has noted, recent decades have seen increasing calls to encourage spaces for collaboration. In this regard, collaboration is valorized for its pragmatism, as well as for the creative or innovative results it will produce via boundary-crossing. This hoped-for creativity is not only a matter of epistemic concern. In art worlds, for example, collaborative engagements are mobilized as a means of refiguring relations between art, artist, and public (Bourriad 2002). Governmental or industrial research programs, by contrast, might invoke collaboration as a driver of economic growth (Born and Barry 2010). This conviction in innovation has animated various calls for collaboration, including C.P. Snow’s classic The Two Cultures (1993 [1960]), and more recent art-science collaborations in the UK studied by James Leach (2011, 2012). Anthropologists such as Leach and Anthony Stavrianakis (2015), however, are pausing to ask about the nature of such collaborative experiments, in the process demonstrating that idealizations of collaboration often fail amid the constraints of collaborative infrastructures.

Following Stavrianakis, this panel is organized around infrastructural issues – technologies of communication, the organization of labor, material arrangements of workspaces, professional habitus, and the accountabilities institutions are beholden to – that are more fundamental to the success or failure of collaborative engagements than individual personality and socialization. As anthropologists seek to collaboratively engage experts that are already negotiating these infrastructural milieu, we must address how ethnography might navigate infrastructural issues that shape and restrict collaborative relations. Drawing from research on collaborative projects at the Corning Museum of Glass, healthcare sharing ministries, the Deal Island Marsh and Community Project, translational medicine and phage therapy, and information technology and programming, we ask what might be learned through the study of collaborative infrastructures that can inform collaborative ethnographic engagements. How do the expectations and assumptions embedded in the design of collaborative projects shape their outcomes and perceptions? How do the values and moral commitments of collaborative partners shape collaborative potentials? How might we shift the role of the ethnographer from side-lined observer to collaborative participant? How are collaborative projects impacted by complexity and bureaucracy? How do mediums of communication and making shape collaborative relations? And, how far into the territory of experts must the ethnographer cross to be an effective collaborative partner?

The Panel

The Museum as Laboratory: Experiments in Collaboration at GlassLab

Amy Robbins, Binghamton University

Through their examination of the interdisciplinary ACE (Arts Computation Engineering) program at UC Irvine, Born and Barry (2010) have demonstrated the need for ethnographic attention to the complexities of interdisciplinary collaboration. In this paper, I will consider an experimental collaborative project in glassmaking, GlassLab, administered by the Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) – an institution that takes pride in its agenda of interdisciplinarity and innovation. The philosophy underwriting the project is that glassmaking in industrial settings has resulted in a division of labor between the design and production of glass, effectively closing off creativity in glass design. In order to reinvigorate the aesthetics, market, and publics for glass, the program brings together the expertise of glass artists, designers who are unfamiliar with working the material, and technical staff from neighboring Corning Incorporated, in both private working sessions, as well as public performances. Describing the project as “…an immersive and collaborative experience that is informed by the ever-changing and immediate nature of the material itself,” (CMoG 2012) the program encourages these designers, who typically don’t have access to the material of molten glass, to collaborate with glass artists in order to “…realize new forms, functions, and meanings for glass” (CMoG 2014). The program rests, therefore, on the conviction that new and significant possibilities can emerge from the collaboration of experts in an experimental environment in which the material is the catalyst for innovation.

GlassLab, then, was created and implemented with the expectation that interdisciplinary collaboration will lead to innovation – an expectation embedded in many contemporary calls to collaborate (Strathern 2006). Given the complexity of participants involved in the program however, I will consider other “logics” (Barry et al. 2008) that GlassLab might be operating under. Functioning as a laboratory, GlassLab combines various experts, institutions, materials, and publics, calling for an emphasis on experimentation in collaboration, rather than on achieving a perfect product. Within this environment, what are the salient institutional infrastructures in play that shape perception of the program, and how are they experienced by the collaborators? What are the issues raised by collaboration as a public versus private endeavor? Finally, what lessons might GlassLab offer ethnographers who seek to enter domains of expertise (Holmes and Marcus 2008)?

Working Together For God and Our Health: The Collaborative Engagements of Healthcare Sharing Ministries

Carolyn Schwarz, Goucher College

In this paper, I consider the collaborative relations that are at work in non-profit organizations in the United States known as “Healthcare Sharing Ministries” (HCSMs). HCSMs are Christian-based organizations that operate as alternatives to conventional health insurance plans by sharing the monthly dues of members to provide coverage for medical expenses. HCSMs have grown considerably in the last few years, in large part because the Affordable Care Act (2010) explicitly exempts members from the individual health insurance mandate. Thus an ethnographic account of the collaborative work of HCSMs can be used as an entry point into understanding how collaboration might be envisioned in the emergent healthcare milieu more generally. I argue that collaboration is a key infrastructural practice and value of HCSMs that shapes the creative, technological, and intellectual work that is done to appeal to evangelically oriented sensibilities and to provide affordable healthcare options. I take up recent lines of inquiry in collaborative anthropology to examine HCSMs as “experiments in collaboration.” What are the technological, organizational, and epistemic challenges of the collaborative engagements of HCSMs? In what ways are certain ideological and moral commitments translated into the infrastructure of HCSMs? To what extent does this infrastructure in turn shape everyday communicative and collaborative practices? And, how does doing fieldwork at an HCSM speak to the changing character of ethnographic research and to emergent collaborative methods in anthropology?

Learning Through Collaboration: Failure as Inspiration

Katherine J. Johnson, University of Maryland

The Deal Island Marsh and Community Project is an ongoing effort to build resilience to climate change in a rural coastal community on the Chesapeake Bay. The Deal Island Peninsula area has an average elevation of three feet while climate change projections indicate sea level rise of over two feet by 2100. The project combines science and social science research with a process of collaborative learning (Feurt 2008). In building knowledge and shared experience, the project seeks to build bridges between diverse positions within the social-ecological system that will produce increase resilience in both marsh and communities. Activities promoting collaboration include research, workshops, and public meetings. Additional work is planned for a collaborative coastal resiliency assessment designed around a participatory process for applying GIS analyses. Project stakeholders include science and social science researchers, environmental managers, governmental and nonprofit representatives and local community members. This complex stakeholder network serves as both a body representing the social-ecological system and as a social network for collaboration.

“Resilience design” (Curtin 2014) offers a perspective that instantiates collaboration as resilience, positioning it not as an external and added-on process, but rather integral to the functioning of the overall system. Curtin focuses on adaptive management, scientific experimentation, triple-loop learning, and local knowledge as key features for designing resilience practice. The Deal Island Project incorporates all of these in its efforts to build resilience—we are doing a lot. But are we doing it enough, and are we doing it well? Evaluating the success and failures of collaboration requires sober mediation between ideals, intentions, and possibilities on multiple scales. Engaged anthropology does not sit on the side assessing the product of collaboration(s), but participates in ongoing process of improving collaboration. As social scientists and stakeholders, researcher positioning complicates the evaluation process as we are both embedded in particular research projects and efforts, and, designing and promoting support to the overall social-ecological system. Our work is collaborative and promotes resilience, but does it do enough to influence and support environmental governance and decision making within the Deal Island Peninsula area effectively? In our case, more work is needed to design processes that can produce workable coping and adaptation strategies to climate change impacts.

Translating Phage Medicine

Olivia Plante, Binghamton University

The recent paradigm shift in modern drug discovery, known as, “translational medicine”, echoes a broader call in healthcare for closer theoretical and infrastructural relationships between laboratory and clinical settings. The aim is an expedited “bench-to-bedside” pharmaceutical R&D and approval process which necessitates a highly collaborative and multidisciplinary approach to a previously fragmented system. Approaches include the construction of translational research centers on medical school campuses, new laws like the FDA Safety and Innovation Act’s Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now (GAIN), and precise, quantifiable methods of pharmacodynamic response target validation measuring “efficacy” and “safety”. Most significantly, the translational approach has spawned the emergence of international consortiums and collaboration between entrepreneurs and university research labs. One example of this has been through the recent reinvigoration of an anti-infective medicine, based on bacteriophage and predating antibiotics, that was nearly extinct in the U.S. and Western Europe until it received a second look about decade ago.

Lytic bacteriophages (phages) are viruses that enter bacteria, hijack their metabolic machinery and burst them open. Phage science thus holds the possibility of providing new, sustainable means for fighting antibiotic resistant infections. Research centers currently employing phage therapy include the Eliava Institute (Tbilisi, Georgia), the Hirszfeld Institute (Wroclaw, Poland), various O.T.C. and medical facilities in Russia, and the French Ministry of Defense in an ongoing clinical trial examining phage therapies for the treatment of bacterial infections in burn victims. Biotech startups have sprouted up around the U.S. developing phages, and phage-encoded products, for agriculture, biodefense, food safety, and human health.

One such company is ContraFect Corporation in Yonkers, NY, using phage lysins derived from the lab of Dr. Vincent Fischetti of The Rockefeller University to treat human Staphylococcus aureus bacteremia and endocarditis. Negotiating collaboration within infrastructures of global regulation and landscapes of competition demands the work of scientists, physicians, business experts, global investors, military, government and contract research organizations (CROs). The aims and professional habitus of these diverse stakeholders can be difficult to synergize in the “lengthy… and inherently unpredictable” approval process, but ContraFect contends to face these challenges by working their products into established frameworks (i.e. lysins with antibiotics), fostering the company’s “collaborative culture”, and creating “strategic alliances” for marketing, distribution and licensing. Meanwhile, collaborations may potentially put the company in positions that “relinquish valuable rights to technologies, future revenue streams or product candidates or grant licenses on terms that may not be favorable to [ContraFect]”.

Having recently completed a Phase I clinical trial, ContraFect is now in the process of obtaining Current (‘flexible’) Good Manufacturing Practice (CGMP)—that is, minimal acceptable standards of production including establishment of operating procedures, reliable testing laboratories, quality management systems and sound procurement of biological, evolving raw materials. Given the current structure of clinical trials, FDA and comparable foreign entity approval processes, and the dynamic nature of the virus-bacteria evolutionary interaction that lysins are hoped to overcome, there are many questions surrounding the way in which antibacterial alternatives such as phage-derived technologies will enter the medical market.

Design by Committee: Learning from the Lore of Collaboration in Computer Programming

Angela Kristin VandenBroek, Binghamton University

Over the last eight years working as a web developer in both information technology departments and as a freelancer, I have found programmers and other software professionals to be a highly reflexive, epistemic community that is concerned not only with the development of software but also the nature of their work, its material conditions, and their social entanglements. Collaboration has emerged as a theme in both published literature (e.g. Brooks 1975, Brooks 1995, and Britcher 1999) and the informal discourse of programmers (e.g. Figg 2012, Spolsky 2004, and Welch 2014). The prevalence of collaboration in the discourse of programmers reflects the multiple collaborative engagements that are involved in the everyday labor of programming, including collaborations with other programmers, clients, users, and other technical experts. Brook’s law, Conway’s Law, Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, and other axioms have become common staples of conversation on collaborative projects as entry points for discussing the problems with collaborative infrastructures. In this field, the nature of code, coding software, team organization and management, elaborate versioning and documentation, and other forms of infrastructure in the collaborative programming workspace often hinder rather than produce fruitful outcomes. Essays and rants fill the websites, discussion boards, and listservs of programmers on the troubling nature of collaboration, lamenting the scarcity of good code written by lone, uncorrupted programmers: “Every programmer occasionally, when nobody’s home, turns off the lights, pours a glass of scotch, puts on some light German electronica, and opens up a file on their computer. […] This file is Good Code. […] It has never had to live in the wild, or answer to a sales team. […] It was written by a single person, and never touched by another” (Welch 2014).

Yet, in response to these diatribes and adages, programmers have developed manifestos, programming paradigms, and professional associations around collaborative efforts, such as Software Craftsmanship (McBreen 2002), Pattern Programming (Gamma et al. 1995), and Agile Software Development (Beedle et al. 2001). Within this field, the catharsis of dwelling on collaborative challenges has produced multiple, fruitful collaborative methods. This paper will discuss collaboration in information technology with examples from this community as well as from my own experience as an entry point to considering the challenges of collaboration with experts in ethnography. I suggest that the axioms of collaboration in programming apply to ethnography, suggesting that we must attend to the burden of added infrastructure with each new collaborative partner, to the ways that collaborative infrastructures shape our understandings of their outcomes, and to how our own limited knowledge of other’s expertise stunts understanding and collaborative potential.

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