Experimenting with data: ‘Collaboration’ as method and practice in an interdisciplinary public health project

Emma Garnett
King’s College London

In this chapter I explore the relations and practices of ‘collaboration’ in a multi-disciplinary public health project called Weather, Health and Air Pollution (WHAP). I focus on the shared challenges of ‘collaboration’ faced by the scientists on WHAP and myself as an anthropologist, and reflect on some of the ways in which the roles of ‘scientist/ collaborator’, ‘anthropologist/ collaborator’ were negotiated and developed in practice. Scientists on WHAP materialised and implemented a number of different strategies to ensure they effectively translate their knowledge (data, methods, technologies) on air pollution between different scientific disciplines. Practices of translation and exchange seemed to be how collaboration was performed, a process which implies an act of comparison and transformation of information. The work of translation was also considered an appropriate subject for anthropological inquiry by my co-collaborators, during which researchers reflexively took on ‘other perspectives’ in order to develop a shared object of inquiry. The practices of scientist and anthropologist were, then, made the same. At first I was apprehensive by this shift in roles, but the para-ethnographic practices of scientists became an opportunity to reflect on both doing science and anthropology. I found that ‘playing with data’, where both what counts as ‘good data’ and what air pollution ‘is’ were under negotiation, was a space within which a particular set of sensibilities emerged: of patience, humility and creativity. By taking on the role of ‘anthropologist’ and ‘collaborator’ I was able to capture the in-between states of knowledge, but also reflect on how the particular roles collaborative science encourage fosters an experimental mode of ‘doing together’.

Emma Garnett is a visiting researcher in the Division of Health and Social Care, King’s College London. Her PhD was situated in Social Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies and explored the socio-material practices of air pollution science and public health knowledge-making. Focusing on the intricate ways in which science is made and mobilised, her doctoral work studied the collection, production, processing and re-use of multiple kinds of air pollution data (digital, visual, quantitative), and the relations – of technologies, people and ideas – imbricated in these. Since then, she has held a post-doctoral fellowship from the Sociology of Health and Illness at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and has published on the topics of interdisciplinary research, Big Data practices and post-human approaches to public health.