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Life as engineerable material: an ethnographic study of synthetic biology

Finlay-Smits, Susanna (2016) Life as engineerable material: an ethnographic study of synthetic biology. PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.b4gp58v6f2uz

Abstract

Synthetic biology is an emerging hybrid discipline that aims to apply an engineering approach to biology, in order to render biology controllable, predictable, and ultimately engineerable. Herein I explore synthetic biology as a project to control life at the molecular level through the lens of an ethnographic study of a newly formed academic synthetic biology research centre. Within this overarching narrative, I tease out two main stories regarding the field. First, I explore the topic of disciplinarity, investigating the work being done to establish synthetic biology as a hybrid discipline. Drawing on the ideas of repertoire, doability, and epistemic cultures, I explore the conflicts and compromises inherent in the attempt to form a hybrid discipline out of biology and engineering. I describe the strategies being employed to bridge this epistemic cultural divide, and the challenges in doing so. Second, I explore the work being done to bring the goals of the discipline to fruition. Synthetic biology’s dream of rendering biology engineerable is rooted in a reductionistic vision of life. This approach to biology raises both practical and conceptual issues. Thus, in exploring this story I address both the practical day-to-day work of synthetic biologists attempting to apply an engineering approach to biology, and the challenges these synthetic biologists face in conceptualising the products of that work. Third, I draw these stories together and show that synthetic biology is one among many disciplines emerging at the intersection of biology and engineering. I suggest that this fertile, if complicated, disciplinary crossroads may be the site of a conceptual shift in the way we ‘do’ and think about biology and ultimately, life.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2016 Susanna Finlay-Smits
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
Sets: Departments > Sociology
Supervisor: Friese, Carrie and Rose, Nikolas and Lentzos, Filippa
URI: http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/id/eprint/3570

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