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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Reflections on Objectivity and Political Responsibility

Date and Time: 
Thursday, May 31, 2018. 04:30 PM - 06:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Humanities Center Board Room
Workshop: 
Approaches to Capitalism
Meeting Description: 

Objectivity is widely recognized as a fundamental value in the sciences. Yet objectivity may be deployed as a filter or screen that discourages scientists from reflecting on the political consequences of their work. This article examines the relationship between scientific commitment to objectivity and recent critiques of the influence of corporations on research. It does so by analyzing a combination of legal documents and examples of ‘life writing’, including a prominent environmental sociologist’s candid reflections on his decision to consult for Exxon after the Valdez oil spill in 1989. The article considers how scientific commitment to objectivity may facilitate participation in research intended to promote doubt and uncertainty about the harm caused by corporations. It asks whether such decisions are better understood as unavoidable blind spots in research or examples of willful blindness.

Stuart Kirsch is professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Reverse Anthropology and Mining Capitalism. His most recent book, Engaged Anthropology: Politics Beyond the Text, was published by the University of California Press in 2018. Kirsch has conducted long-term ethnographic research in Papua New Guinea and undertaken short-term investigations on indigenous rights and environmental concerns elsewhere in the Pacific and the Amazon. His interests include the corporation, engaged anthropology, political ecology, property, and questions about loss.

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