1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Cesagen · Research

Bringing Standards to Life in Contemporary Biology

Adrian Mackenzie, Rebecca Ellis, Claire Waterton, Ruth McNally

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This research is concerned with the increasing practices of standardizing biological things. Standards embody an inherently troubled relation to living things, because an unchanging attribute, which is essential to construct and maintain any standard, can only be sustained interactively and iteratively. Under this context, it focuses especially on the standardization that is carried out in increasingly quasi-globalized consortia of biological knowledge production, and asks what happens to material arrangements and the quest for a good?


The research examines three different cases: Barcoding of Life Initiative (BOLI), BioBricks and Proteomics Standards Initiative (PSI). In different ways, the three cases all mingle standardization with appeals to publics, as if publics could supply something to the regime of engagement that the sophisticated material environments of organisms, cells, proteins, instruments, algorithms and databases cannot.By examining both the standards that are sustained and are lowered, this research glimpses in these case studies of biological standardization the difficulties that contemporary biology experiences in coming to grips with its own shifting performances of the real.


The research project employs multi-sited ethnographic research methods, including participant observation, semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions with a variety of individuals and institutions in the UK and the USA, which are key to the issues being examined here. There are various ‘sites’ where the research was done, including laboratories in various senses, museums, conferences, software and research publications.


Mackenzie, A, Waterton, C, Ellis, R and McNally, R (under review) 'Bringing standards to life in contemporary biology', Science, Technology and Human Values. 

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