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1/2 idea No. 36: Cronon-style biotech

By Jon Agar, on 3 September 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

Like many, I am a great admirer of William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, published in 1991. It is a history of the growth of the city, and the transformation of the regions around, as natural resources were brought to the centre and processed. It’s a story of grain, lumber, pigs and cows. It is a story of the past, but also the future. Literally, indeed, ‘futures’: how organic life became systematically processed, standardised, commodified, and, eventually, dematerialised, sold as  promises of future delivery. It draws the line between the technology of grain elevators and modern finance. It is extraordinary.

In terms of historical method, Nature’s Metropolis shows what an integrated environmental, urban and technological history can do if the historian follows material flows. The grain from the hinterlands that arrives in standardised sacks to be sold in central markets, or the livestock herded from afar to the central slaughterhouses, to be sent out again as commodified products, are the materials of interest.

In 2006-2007 I was lucky enough to spend a year in Boston. This research idea comes from time spent in that city, which then was very much in its biotech boom phase. I compiled a detailed list of Boston biotech companies, and I still have the 49-page Word document. Here are just some of the biotech ‘B’s of Boston: Biogen, Biomeasure Inc., Biopure Corp., Biotricity, Biotrofic Inc, BioVentures, Biovest, BioVex and Biovolutions Inc. I wonder how many still exist.

Reading Cronon in Boston gave me an idea. What would we find out if we followed the material flows into and out of the biotechnology centres? Does biotech transform nature in any even vaguely comparable way to the ways that Chicago’s lumberyards, stockyards and grain elevators transformed wood, meat and grain? What are the regional effects? How might it reach into the past and future?

Biotech is usually analysed from the perspective of innovation studies (does it return on investment?), or as the vehicle that carried commercial, entrepreneurial culture into the life sciences (does it undermine traditional academic values?). or around questions of the public response to GM foods. Taking inspiration from Cronon, but also from (the good) Latour’s analysis of the levering power of laboratories, as well as from recent scholarship that has focussed on the history of the laboratory animal, following the material in and out of biotech centres might provide a different path to studying the modern life sciences.

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