This is a summary of my sociology thesis about activity around a DIY biology community.
DIY biology is a recently emerged movement of small self-organized groups revolving around attempts to practice laboratory biology and biotechnology in open community settings. It can be seen as a part of a broader cultural trend relating to the democratization of access to development and modification of technology, which includes various kinds of community-run physical spaces, particularly the so-called “hackerspaces”.
In this thesis I investigate how social activity around biology and technology unfold in a DIY biology setting, and which kinds of meaning and sociality unfold amongst the participants in relation to the activity. My analysis is based on a qualitative study of social activity related to a Copenhagen-based DIY biology group, Biologigaragen (BG). My empirical material consists of field notes from participant observation, interviews, as well as various digital materials.
Inspired by actor-network theory I structure the main parts of my analysis around descriptions of processes involving “assemblages” of specific biological or technological objects and various actors engaging with those. As sensitizing theoretical tools I furthermore draw on notions of “practice” and “community of practice” as perspectives on some of the patterns of activities and social configurations involved in the processes.
In the central part of my analysis I analyze the course of a single project, focusing on the dynamics of how various actors becomes part of its assemblage. I suggest that for the project I analyze, the character of those dynamics can be summarized in how the object of the project becomes a “fluid object”: An object that’s gradually transforming and expanding, both materially and in the sense of what meanings are connected to it. I furthermore argue that this dynamic is enabled and promoted by several aspects of the local context in which the project takes place.
In the subsequent part of the analysis I describe some of the meanings the participants relate to activities in BG. I base this on accounts of two additional projects, the construction of a DIY version of a scientific instrument and a workshop on the production of yoghurt using vaginal bacteria. From interviewees’ descriptions of participating in these projects I identify a variety of practices, and thus forms of meaning, related to BG. Some of these relate to knowledge sharing, and to achieving deeper understanding of technical systems. As such, I argue, DIY biology practices have a clear continuity with a longer tradition related to the so-called “hacker ethic”. However, in addition to that, I show that for some it also include practices that more explicitly relate to cultural, philosophical and symbolic aspects of biology. These include challenging taboos related to microorganisms and confronting oneself with ethical issues relating to ones relationship to living non-humans. For some, participating in DIY biology gives rise to broader reflections about social implications of technology.
Rounding off the analysis I draw on the theoretical perspective of communities of practice. I argue that rather than one stabilized community of practice, the sociality emerging in relation to BG can be conceptualized as a “boundary zone” that continuously creates dispositions for the formation of new communities of practice. These are involving hybrids of practices that the participants bring from other communities of practice they are or have been part of, many of which are related to various university educations.
Extending this point I conclude the final discussion by suggesting how DIY biology’s broader social role and potential relates to how it constitutes a “heterotopia” for the knowledge society. Through the people and objects, practices and ideas it gathers in its activities it juxtaposes several otherwise incompatible spaces. Through this it is capable bringing about transformed and broadened socio-technical outlooks for the people moving through it.