Tracing Microbial Ontologies in Scientific Practice - From Object of Inquiry to Technological Tool

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Sociology, Philosophy, Anthropology


The central questions in philosophy of microbiology focus on how microbial evolution challenges key tenets of evolutionary theories and definitions of legitimate life forms. On the other hand, science and technology studies has explored the material features of microbiology, while specifically focusing on questions surrounding value and responsibility in scientific practice. Helmreich and Paxson have also highlighted the increasing social relevance of microbes by calling attention to how insights surrounding microbial communities have become prescriptive for the arrangement of human relations (2014).

Through case studies of relevant scientific experiments, the thesis will ask whether theories within science and technology studies, including theories of experimental systems, agential realism and ontological politics could be adopted to explore the ways in which scientific practices affect the microbes they study. These theories postulate that experimental practices do not only produce knowledge about their objects of inquiry, but they also configure what these objects are-in other words, experimental practices shape the ontology of the objects they target. Indeed, Rheinberger's experimental systems approach foregrounds that objects of study and the "technological tools" (1992a, p.310) of observation do not preexist scientific practices but are realised by the material conditions of experiments (1992a). Similarly, Barad's agential realist approach foregrounds that straightforward subject/object distinctions do not exist before scientific practices take place, but are created through "boundary-making practices" (2007, p.148) which differentiate agents and objects.

The thesis will contribute to discussions of the interplay between material practices and the ontology of scientific objects by situating the analysis of microbes' interactions with experimental practices within the context of ontological politics. This approach is concerned with the processes by which material practices enact agent/object distinctions in disparate ways, while also focusing on the relations between the distinct enactments of objects in different contexts. As such, the thesis will ask whether addressing the relations between disparate enactments of microbes in microbiology, molecular biology or biotechnology from the perspective of ontological politics could lead to new insights about the role microbes play in a variety of scientific experiments.

By bringing together a range of philosophical and sociological approaches concerned with ontology, the thesis will provide an original theoretical contribution to understanding the relationship between scientific practices and the ontology of the organisms they enrol. The project will be the first study to address how the status of microbes changes from object of inquiry to technological tool across a range of biotechnological applications. The central question guiding the thesis will be to what extent the ontology of microbes changes as their status shifts from objects of study to technological device as microbiology comes into contact with new scientific fields and biotechnological applications.

The first half of the project will adopt a literature-based approach in order to provide case studies of microbes' involvement in scientific practice and biotechnology. The analyses will be based on scientific papers which describe microbiological experiments, as well as research which proposes the use of microbes in biotechnology. Where available, the analyses will also include scientists' personal accounts of their experiments available in autobiographies or publicly accessible interviews. The second half of the proposed project will draw on ethnographic studies based on laboratory observations, as well as interviews with scientists in order to ask how microbes become tools in biotechnology and climate change research.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2414092 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2020 30/09/2024 Boglarka Kiss