Author Archives | Rachelle Annechino

October 2013: Social contexts of genes + jeans (Music mix)

picture of DJ RobynnDJ Robynn is a Bay Area DJ who has been called “one of the last avatars of the vinyl.” You can find some of her original mixes here.

For our edition on Genes, DJ Robynn put together this special mix of songs collected from this month’s contributors.

MixCloud supports SoundExchange, PRS for Music and PPL

The songs in this mix are:

The music in this mix was selected by this month’s contributors:

Alondra Nelson talked to EM about the sociocultural implications of genetic screening tests, touching on uses of genetic analysis in such varied settings as the early Black Panthers’ community-based genetic screening programs for sickle cell anemia, the criminal justice system, and popular TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are. She also described the music that came to mind for her when thinking about her research:

Both Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane are making what you might call scientific music, but it’s also metaphysical music. Part of what’s so interesting to me as a researcher about contemporary genetics and what we think it means in society, is that it’s making claims about science or the scientific, but we’re also asking it to do some pretty significant metaphysical work. The work of Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane resonate with me in that regard. And Sun Ra also of course because there’s a lot of discord and cacophony in the work. Coltrane is a bit more melodic. Sun Ra, you have crashing, booming — depending on what your taste is, even difficult to hear –  combinations and recombinations of sound. So I think that the Sun Ra pieces are also a manifestation of the discord in how we think about ourselves and our communities after the genome. But also discord with the hyperbole that does not render the full complexity of human experience and human societies.

(Alondra Nelson on the Social Life of DNA)

Julia Serano described the ways in which cultural boundaries can be replicated in people’s (mis)understandings of biology (…):

Biology as it gets taught in school, you learn to put things into categories: These are dogs; these are cats. These are women; these are men. We learn to organize everything into these clear cut categories — but in biology, there really are no clear-cut categories. You can put dogs and cats into separate categories, and sometimes that’s useful, but they once shared a similar ancestor together. There is a lot of overlap between the types of genes they have, and their behaviors.

(Genes, fruit flies and the Ramones with Julia Serano)

Clare Wilkinson-Weber selected a popular song from the 1994 Bollywood film Dulaara to go with her piece on Jeans, Indian film and fashion:

Certainly, the remarkable capacity of jeans to find a place within schemes of dress worldwide is testament to the powers of worldwide production and distribution networks that now bring jeans within the reach of so many. Equally important though are those material qualities of jeans that, in interaction with the wearer’s body, make jeans such a supple and appealing garment. What all of this entails for what jeans “mean” is complicated, though.

(Jeans, Indian film and fashion)

And thanks to Christopher Kelty for sharing Jonathan Coulton’s music.

Genes, fruit flies and the Ramones with Julia Serano

picture of Julia SeranoJulia Serano (@juliaserano) may be most well known for her groundbreaking book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, but she is a person of many talents. In addition to having just released a new book (Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive), did you know that Julia is also a musician, a performer, and a geneticist with a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Physics? And although she doesn’t work as an ethnographer, she is an insightful explorer and student of culture.  Her experiences as both an activist and a biologist give her a unique perspective on this month’s theme.

We talked to Julia Serano over beer and french fries in Uptown Oakland.

EM: I don’t know anything about molecular biology, but I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your PhD and your research.

I was a life science major in college, and then I went to get my PhD at Columbia. My degree is in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, which is weird because I don’t really do biochemistry or biophysics. A lot of times the specific titles are related to history, when the fields were more separate, but now there’s more interaction between different subfields.

Most of my thesis research is related to developmental biology, and genetics and molecular biology. Developmental biology involves trying to understand how all animals and plants start out as one cell, and then they develop into animals that have different types of tissues and skin cells and nerve cells and muscle cells.

Genetics started out as a field where people found mutations — where, you know, an animal someone was studying became somewhat different. Now genetics is not only about studying mutations, but trying to understand the underlying genes. Molecular biology started out almost as the reverse, where it’s looking at specific molecules, whether they be DNA or proteins, and from there trying to figure out what they do… Mostly what I did as a developmental biologist was study questions related to how cells and embryos develop, using tools to look at the genes that are involved in that process, and trying figure out how genes work.

EM: Were you interested in that growing up?

Sort of. I was generally interested in science as a kid. I remember especially my parents and relatives getting me dinosaur books and outer space books — I was just generally science curious as a kid growing up. But then in high school when you have to start thinking about ‘What am I going to do for a living’, I really had no idea. Biology was the field that I liked the best, so that’s why I majored in it. I didn’t have any idea of what I would necessarily do with a biology degree, but I was just like, well, that’s the class I like the most, so I went into that.

This is all fruit fly stuff

Drawing of fruit fly with text from William Blake's poem "The Fly"

Saint Drosophila, CC BY-SA Sage Ross
(Poem by William Blake)

EM: Your band is called Bitesize, right, and then I saw your paper about “bitesize” (“The Drosophila synaptotagmin-like protein bitesize is required for growth and has mRNA localization sequences within its open reading frame“), so I was curious about that.

Sure yeah, yeah. While I was doing my postdoc, I was also in a band and we were called Bitesize. I remember in the lab — we were studying fruit flies; this is all fruit fly stuff — someone who I worked with had discovered a gene in which, when it’s mutated, the flies are smaller in size than normal flies, or wild-type flies. Generally if you identify a gene, you get to name it. So she was trying to come up with ideas, and I suggested to her “Lilliputian.”

She ended up using that, and then afterwards I’m like, “I should have told her ‘bitesize’! I could have had my band’s name be a name of a gene.” Then one of the genes I was working on, when I finally got mutations in it, it had a similar phenotype in that they were smaller than average. So I used it as a way to have a little inside joke and call it “bitesize.” Especially in drosophila, fruit fly genetics, there’s a tradition of people being creative with their names.

EM: There was something in your paper about protein coding…

Basically when we talk about genes, a gene is a part of DNA that is like a blueprint to do something for the animal. When a gene is turned on in a cell, you make copies of RNA. They’re temporary copies, called mRNAs for Messenger RNA. So then, mRNAs get translated into proteins. Proteins are little machines that more often than not are actually doing things in the cell.

Some RNAs get made and just float around the cell, and some proteins get made. When it’s advantageous for the cell to only make the protein in one area, RNAs can get transported or localized to that particular part of the cell. The whole thing with bitesize was about those RNAs that get localized. Usually the part of the RNA that makes that happen isn’t also the part that makes the protein. But in bitesize, the part that’s responsible for the localization of the RNA is actually in the part that codes for the protein, which is very unusual. So it was esoteric, kind of an intriguing finding — not necessarily like an ‘oh my god’, earth shattering thing. It’s possible, but it’s rare.

The natural/unnatural binary

EM: I wanted to ask about the new book.

Cover of the book "Excluded"The new book is called Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It takes off where my last book, Whipping Girl, left off. In Whipping Girl I talked about different types of sexism, and especially my experiences of them as a trans woman. Being a trans woman who’s very active in feminist movements and also in queer or LGBTQ spaces and movements, there’s a long history of those movements — while they’re all trying to fight sexism in certain ways — that sometimes they exclude people who are a part of their own movements. Sometimes the way people are excluded is through — sexism! Or through the idea that certain types of genders and sexualities are more legitimate, real, natural or righteous than others.

Over the years I have been writing as a trans woman, and also as someone who is bisexual, and also as someone who is feminine — all three of which can be seen as suspect. I’ve critiqued those types of exclusive attitudes in the past, but kind of on a one-by-one basis… like explaining why trans women shouldn’t be excluded, or why bisexuals shouldn’t be excluded, and so on. In noticing the parallels between those, with this book I wanted to take a wider view and ask why we create movements that are exclusive. What’s wrong with our theories and our strategies that we create movements where a lot of people, who should feel empowered by these movements, are left out?

EM: Thinking about that, do you have a sense of what people mean when they say “natural”?

In trans politics, people often talk about the gender binary and why the gender binary is bad. I would add to that: lots of binaries are bad, and probably amongst the ones that I would like to see destroyed the most are the real/fake binary or the natural/unnatural binary… In our society we tend to see things that are natural as being automatically healthy or automatically moral, and things that are unnatural as being automatically unhealthy and automatically immoral. People are constantly using the word “natural” in this way, and we buy into it — but there are natural products that will kill you. Snake venom is natural.

As a trans person and as a queer person, whenever I hear things humans do described as natural or unnatural, I’m always a little worried.

Sometimes it’s useful to talk about why things are good or why things are bad; why things are healthy or not healthy. But generally speaking I don’t see that the natural versus unnatural distinction helps us at all. What really hits me, as someone who has training in biology but also is involved in social justice movements, is that the whole idea of “unnatural” is usually used to put people down; to imply that whatever they’re doing in inherently wrong. I’ve always found it weird, because we’re biological beings, right, so isn’t everything we do natural? I just find that the idea of natural is used generally to make certain things seem better than others with no foundational basis… As a trans person and as a queer person, whenever I hear things humans do described as natural or unnatural, I’m always a little worried. Read More…

Alondra Nelson on the Social Life of DNA


Alondra Nelson

Ed. Note: Alondra Nelson (@alondra) is an interdisciplinary social scientist who writes about science, technology and inequality. Her forthcoming book is The Social Life of DNA. In this interview we did via Skype, she talks about the implications of the expanding use of genetic analysis, touching on subjects such as the early Black Panthers’ use of community-based genetic screening for sickle cell anemia, the criminal justice system, and popular TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are.
(PS: This edition of EM comes with a soundtrack. We asked Dr. Nelson what music the topics she is researching brought to mind for her, and she followed up with an email noting all the songs contained in this post, which will also be in our playlist.)

(Slideshow image:  DNA CC BY MIKI Yoshihito)

I wanted to ask you first about what you’re working on these days. I think you have a new book coming out.

My book The Social Life of DNA (@sociallifeofdna) is coming out next year with Beacon Press. “The social life of DNA” is both a methodological phrase and also an analytical or theoretical claim. The methodological use, you won’t be surprised to hear, comes from Arjun Appadurai and his edited collection The Social Life of Things, which was about material culture – much more material than the genetics ancestry testing that I follow in my work. Appadurai’s mandate is that scholars can understand social meaning, in part, by following things around. That important insight was from the late 1980s. And, then more proximate to us, about six or seven years ago Sarah Franklin and Celia Roberts wrote a book called Born and Made, which was on preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. In that book, they discussed what they called “the social life of PGD;” as ethnographers, they were in some regards following tests around and following users around. People who had done the diagnostic tests, and the various stakeholders who were involved in the tests…

I think what’s different about the way that I’m using [the social life of things model] is that there’s an ephemerality to genetics; you can’t see or follow necessarily with your eye — the gene or the genome. You can’t even really follow the genetic ancestry tests, which are often inferences about forms of identity: racial identity, ethnic identity. Increasingly, they’re inferences about health factors and the like. It’s harder to follow these around.

Interpreting genetic ancestry tests

[Jeans by Quadron]

In my earlier ethnographic work, I was trying to understand what people got out of the tests, because you’re basically sending cheek cells to a company in a FedEx package, and you get back pieces of paper that give you inferences about who you are. In some instances you’re getting sets of genetic markers written down on these pieces of paper, but the untrained eye doesn’t really know what to make of all of those As, C, G, and Ts. At any rate, these lists of genetic markers or “certificates of ancestry” that one receives are the outcome of the process. These artifacts aren’t always interesting in and of themselves. Far more interesting, I found, was the social life of the test results. I came to follow the way that these genetic ancestry tests came to be used in ways that we couldn’t necessarily anticipate. Read More…

Virtual identity edition: Subversive attention

Related posts:

Eddie Vedder, Damien Echols

Eddie Vedder embraces Damien Echols
(CC BY-SA CarolinaaPPaz)

While working on this month’s edition on virtual identity, I’ve been reading Life After Death, Damien Echols’ memoir of a ruptured life. At 18, Echols was convicted along with two other men of the murders of three children, allegedly in a Satanic ritual.

It wasn’t until 2011, after Echols had spent 18 years facing execution on Death Row, that he and the other two members of the “West Memphis Three” were released in the wake of new DNA evidence and critical media attention. The prosecution’s case had rested on contradictory confessions from a mentally challenged youth, and unfounded fears about the involvement of local heavy metal enthusiasts in Satanic orgies. Thus it seems that one horror — the murder of three innocent second graders — was followed by another, in which three teenagers were convicted of those murders based on little more than the crime of liking Metallica [1]. Unfortunately stories like Echols’ aren’t that surprising.

Identity gets intertwined with attention — how we see ourselves, and how others see (or don’t see) us.

In addition to its portrayal of grave problems in the American justice system, the book is striking for the layered and conflicting accounts of identity that come into play. Identity gets intertwined with attention — how we see ourselves, and how others see (or don’t see) us.

Echols first came to the attention of local authorities because of his outsider identity. He was a ‘freak’ because he wore black and t-shirts advertising metal bands. He explored a range of religious practices — Catholicism (which led him to change his name [2]), Wicca, mystical esoterica — in a community where evangelical fundamentalism held sway. His difference made him a magnet for rumors.

Read More…

The ethics of openness: How informed is “informed consent”?

SteepRavineEditor’s note: In this final post for February’s ‘Openness Edition, Rachelle Annechino takes us on a journey with her to the homes of her research participants and asks some really important questions about the wild “foreign languages” (legalese/medical-ese) that supposedly produces “informed consent”, about the genesis of our understanding and practice of informed consent and challenges us to think about how we might redesign informed consent in our own projects. 


One open window (Chris Downer) / CC BY-SA 2.0

One open window (Chris Downer) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Today I’m interviewing a couple of people who participate in a free program offered through a local hospital. The program mainly serves older adults who are dealing with a range of health issues, like diabetes, cancer, and arthritis. Many of the participants belong to groups that are affected by health disparities (or “preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations” as defined by the US CDC [1]).

After hanging out at the hospital for a bit to check out the program, I go to the home of a woman in her 60s who couldn’t come to the hospital today. We talk about the study, its risks and benefits. It’s a small exploratory study, some semi-structured interviews; the hospital IRB gave it an expedited review.

The benefits, I explain, are that this might help improve the program or keep the program going. There aren’t really any direct benefits to you though. We wish we had something to give you to thank you for participating. Basically what we’ll do is just sit here and talk. A risk is that some of the questions could be uncomfortable, but we can skip anything you want. If it’s okay with you, I will record the interview. We won’t put your name on the recording or use your name in reports on the interviews.

We have this standard consent form that the hospital uses, I say. It’s kind of long. We can go over what’s in it together, and please feel free to take as much time as you want to look it over…

Et cetera. As I’m saying this stuff, I’m cautiously drawing out the consent form.

Which is eight pages long.

And crazy.

Read More…

In between is the place where you have to understand people: Social science, stigma, and data big or small

Judd and Tamar

Editor’s Note: Judd Antin @juddantin is a social psychologist and user experience researcher who studies motivations for online participation. In 2011, he was named an MIT Technology Review Innovator Under 35. Prior to joining Facebook, he worked with Yahoo Research.  His educational background includes Applied Anthropology, Information Science, and training at the French Culinary Institute. One of my favorite papers of his is Readers are Not Free Riders: Reading as a form of participation on Wikpedia (pdf) [1].

Tamar Antin is a research scientist who uses mixed and especially qualitative methods to critically examine public health policies and narratives. She has several years of experience in public health research. One of her recent publications is Food Choice As a Multidimensional Experience [2].   Her dissertation [3] combining three papers on food choices and body image is excellent reading for any student of qualitative methods. 

I’ve known Tamar and Judd for several years now, and Tamar has been a mentor to me. Every time Tamar and I talk about research and ethnography, it never seems to last long enough; I just want to ask her more questions. And every time I see Judd, I want to ask him a million questions too. So a post for Ethnography Matters was a great excuse to get together with them for a chat on anthropology, Big Data and Small Data, and other interesting things.  –  Rachelle

P.S. This isn’t a straight transcript of our conversation but a sort of Frankenstein transcript made out of chopped up pieces sewn back together. 


1. Two Ethnographers
2. What they’re working on
3. Stigma and hacking
4. Qualitative research as art, science and handmaiden
5. Big Data and Small Data

1. Two Ethnographers

What’s your background in anthropology?.

Judd: I have an undergraduate degree in anthro from Johns Hopkins, where I was one of seven anthropology majors I think, like in the whole university. It was a small department. I got interested in anthro primarily because of my adviser, who became our friend, Felicity Northcott. Coincidentally she also married Tamar and I. She was internet ordained and she officiated our wedding. She’s awesome.  She was just a very down to earth, foul-mouthed, passionate anthropologist.

Tamar: And for me, I have an undergraduate degree in anthropology also, from the University of Texas. I was having this conversation with the undergraduate adviser there at the end of my senior year, like okay now I have this degree, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. I went to the career center, and they had a list of all the jobs that you could do with certain majors, and I think the only job that was listed for anthropology majors was travel agent.

Judd: What?

Tamar: Oh yeah. I was thinking, well I don’t want to do that.

Judd: Travel agent?!

Read More…

Ethnozine: October edition

Gabriella Coleman’s research on the enigmatic Anonymous network has provided unique insights and dispeled myths about the group. In a guest contribution this month, Coleman writes about tensions in her work and what it means to be implicated in “the dance between Anonymous and journalism.”

Our other guest contributor, Cisco’s Mike Gotta, writes about rethinking enterprise social networking (ESN) design processes and the value of qualitative research for building ESN systems.

Heather Ford addresses the value of qualitative research in another context in her reflections on a WikiSym conference dominated by quantitative analyses of English language Wikipedia.

And Jenna Burrell discusses the challenges of keeping up with fieldwork from afar in her post on read-along ethnography, in which she examines the possibilities and limitations of understanding a distant fieldsite through a collaborator’s notes and images.



Would you like to be our next guest contributor? Ethnography Matters is your space. you can feature a project/paper/book/syllabus, provide a fieldwork update, or share your thoughts. Here are some more ideas for how you can participate. We’d love to hear from you. Email us at ethnographymatters[at]gmail!

#ethnobookclub launches the first book: Death Without Weeping

Jenna’s post on ethnographic monographs inspired us to start an ethnography reading group. (You can join our Ethnographic Monograph group on Mendeley here.)

For our first experiment in reading together, we’ve picked Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, by Nancy Scheper-Hughes.

Death Without Weeping is based on Scheper-Hughes’ fieldwork in a rural village in Northeastern Brazil in the 1980s, and her decades of contact with the community there.  The book centers on maternal love in a context where scarcity and child death are the norm. Along the way, Scheper-Hughes explores conflicts between academic reflection and activism, and what it means to be an ethnographer:

The ethnographer, like the artist, is engaged in a special kind of vision quest through which a specific interpretation of the human condition, an entire sensibility, is forged. Our medium, our canvas, is “the field,” a place both proximate and intimate (because we have lived some part of our lives there) as well as forever distant and unknowably “other” (because our own destinies lie elsewhere). In the act of “writing culture,” what emerges is always a highly subjective, partial, and fragmentary — but also deeply felt and personal — record of human lives based on eyewitness and testimony. The act of witnessing is what lends our work its moral (at times its almost theological) character. So-called participant observation has a way of drawing the ethnographer into spaces of human life where she or he might really prefer not to go at all and once there doesn’t know how to go about getting out except through writing, which draws others there as well, making them party to the act of witnessing.

It’s gorgeous. Go get it! We would love to hear what you think of it. You can share your thoughts, your favorite quotes, your blog posts, etc. on twitter with the hashtag #ethnobookclub, or send us an email at ethnographymatters[at]gmail.  We’re still experimenting with formats, but our current plan is to post thoughts on the book every week or so starting in November.

User experiences: fear, delight, and drug use research

"User" definition from

Screen capture from

I work at a research center that studies the use of various legal and illegal drugs, generally with a focus on preventing “misuse.” It can be an awkward topic of conversation socially. The whole notion conjures up images of Mr. Mackey from South Park and terrible anti-drug propaganda.

And honestly, not without reason. Research funders have agendas, and a funder’s concept of misuse is not always the same as what a community sees as misuse — which can make ethnographic research complicated.

So many messages about alcohol and drugs seem fueled by moral panic,  but I don’t think it’s an ethnographer’s business to judge people’s consumption. Panics over drugs remind me of panics over technology and the things it “makes” us do.  This trailer for the 1936 anti-drug movie Reefer Madness reads like technological determinism (material determinism?). People don’t just use marijuana in Reefer Madness, but they are used by it:

What can make sex crazed zombies of us all?
What can force us to kill?
What is the most despicable danger facing our children today?
The reefer! The reefer! The reefer!

Also, Google is making us stupid, and Facebook is making us lonely. Read More…

The tools we use: Bring some colored markers

San Francisco, by Katie

My main field tools are: smartphone, paper, pens. And when I can, colored markers and a sketchpad.

The smartphone part can be touchy… Tricia noted in her post on Writing Live Fieldnotes that she used to carry around a beat-up Nokia feature phone in China because it was less distracting, but that eventually not having an IPhone became more distracting. In the US too there are situations where a smartphone can pose a divide between a researcher and a researchee (okay that’s not a word, but I hate the word “subject”). From my pov in Northern California, the smartphone divide seems less relevant every day, but it can still be an issue.

At this point though I choose the smartphone in all its tricorder glory over carrying around a bunch of other stuff.  I use it to take pictures, record audio and occasionally video, make notes — sometimes I even use it as a phone. To try to break down potential divides, sometimes I let my (genuine) awe at my smartphone show in an interview, and fuss a bit over whether it’s working right.

For recording interviews, I use an Android app, Tape-a-Talk. It’s free and it works. I’ve used other digital recording gadgets and apps too — meh, pretty much all of them have seemed fine to me, but I’m not looking for super clean sound or for audio that I can sync with video. I just want a recording that I can understand. If you’re looking for more from a recorder, the public radio and new media site Transom is a great resource.

Read More…