Max Planck Institut for the History of Science

Data – Difference – Diversity: Technologies of Differentiation in the Life Sciences

A Workshop at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

24-26 November 2011

organized by Susanne Bauer, MPIWG, Christine Hanke, KHM Cologne, Sabine Höhler, KTH Stockholm

Convener: Independent Research Group III “Historicizing Knowledge about Human Biological Diversity in the 20th Century,” Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

With contributions from Susanne Bauer, Soraya de Chadarevian, Gabriele Gramelsberger, Orit Halpern, Christine Hanke, Sabine Höhler, Felix Keller, Thomas Lemke, Sabina Leonelli, Veronika Lipphardt, Adrian Mackenzie & Ruth McNally, Amade M'charek, Erika Mansnerus, Martina Merz, Michelle Murphy, Bruno Strasser, Brit Ross Winthereik

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Kenya Long-term Exclosure Experiment (KLEE) False Color QuickBird image from DigitalGlobe Satellite Imagery (June 2003)
Courtesy of Truman Young and Dan Kelly

In the late twentieth century, concepts of diversity have gained momentum in the life sciences – they proliferated in population studies, ecology and genetics as well as in the biomedical sciences. With the Human Genome Diversity Project, the HapMap Project, natural heritage databases, and the declaration of the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010 we have witnessed a veritable celebration of diversity on multiple levels, implying that diversity is a key feature of life (human and non-human), an economic resource, key to biomedical knowledge, and key to survival in ecology. Spurred by genomics and information technologies, the life sciences generate, measure, and track markers of difference to an unprecedented extent. From genomics to epidemiology and biodiversity research, late twentieth century technologies of difference production and large-scale data infrastructures bring about new modes of categorizing, grouping, and managing populations.

The workshop explores the modes and technologies of differentiation at work in the production of difference/diversity in the late 20th century. Beyond diversity as a discursive figure we will focus on the technologies that have crucially stimulated research in late twentieth century life sciences, in particular in biomedicine and ecology. Albeit the two fields address distinct levels (diversity within species, diversity of species and habitats), they involve similar frameworks and practices in knowledge production – co- shaped by "big science" projects, information technologies and the "new genetics". In both fields, data accumulation and storage through digital technologies were accompanied by earth-spanning research projects and endeavors to monitor life: Unprecedented modes of international communication and cooperation emerged within the sciences after World War II, and newly founded international organizations established the necessary political relations to coordinate highly distributed but networked research. Whether in biomedicine or nature conservation, concepts of diversity rely on technologies of differentiation. The workshop’s main focus will be on the developments since the early 1970s – when information technologies and electronic infrastructures began to speed up data processing and exchange in the life sciences.

The workshop will bring together scholars from history of science, science studies, sociology and media studies. Drawing on science studies' approaches to material practice as well as poststructuralist and postcolonial theory will move discussions beyond disputing appropriate uses of diversity and taking sides hailing or disclaiming difference in biomedicine and ecology. Rather, we expect theoretical tools to help us deepen our understanding of the intricate relations of data – difference – diversity in their entanglement with technological infrastructures, medial constellations, socio-technical assemblages, and biopolitics.

Participation in this workshop is open, but space is limited. If you wish to attend please contact Birgitta von Mallinckrodt (