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Regular version of the site

MIT Professors Discuss Microbiopolitics Through the Lens of American Cheese

On Monday, October 3, two professors of anthropology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Heather Paxson and Stefan Helmreich – delivered a seminar for students of HSE St. Petersburg Master's programme in Applied and Interdisciplinary History. The seminar centered around Professor Paxson’s recent paper ‘The Microbiopolitics of American Cheese: Taste, Safety and Risk in a Post-Industrializing Food Landscape’. A presentation by Professor Paxson focused on how the microbiopolitics of cheese making in the U.S. presupposed and promoted industrial methods and standards and how in recent decades interest in producing and consuming artisanally made, raw-milk cheese has risen dramatically. Following the presentation, Professor Helmreich led a discussion on questions in current anthropology of science that drew on his work on how contemporary scientists—biologists, oceanographers, and audio engineers—are redefining the concepts of life, water, and sound.

Following their seminar, Professor Paxson spoke with the HSE News Service about what drew her toward cheese as a subject for research, her view on how professions will be shaped by developments in biology and IT, and her recommendations for how young people can tailor their studies to best prepare for the future.

— Why cheese? What motivated you to choose this as a subject for your research? How does it fit within the study of anthropology?

— I began noticing more and more American-made, artisanally produced, European-style cheeses for sale in the United States around the year 2000. These cheeses didn’t exist when I was growing up. Where had they come from? My research began with a personal curiosity: who were these new cheesemakers, how did they learn their craft, and what did it mean for them to handcraft cheese using old-fashioned methods and obsolete technologies within a fully industrialized society? My research fell at the intersection of economic anthropology and the anthropology of food, which is a rapidly growing field in the United States. 

— In today’s world, how are the boundaries being changed with new technologies and new scientific achievements in biology and IT?

— Social media technologies and international trade, for example, are both blurring and shoring up borders — political, economic and cultural — all the time. 

— What are some of the professions that will emerge in the near future following these developments? What would you recommend that young people?

— I recommend all students to take at least some courses in the humanistic social sciences — history, social geography, anthropology, sociology — because these fields give young people conceptual tools with which they can make sense of and, hopefully, in whatever their future professions may be, improve the infrastructures, technologies and social norms that connect and divide today’s societies, economies and political systems. Engineers, managers and research scientists do better work when they have an understanding of how their technologies and infrastructures may be used, re-appropriated and valued by the diversity of people who will encounter them.

— How did your cooperation with HSE develop? What about the lecture and discussion – any impressions?

— I was invited by a member of the HSE faculty, Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov; Nikolai and I attended graduate school together at Stanford University in the 1990s. I enjoyed the discussion following my lecture very much. It’s exciting that your Master’s students come from all over Europe and well beyond. They will learn as much from each other — just as Nikolai and I did — as they will from their supervised research and tutorials.

— What's next on your research agenda?

— I am just beginning a new research project on moving perishable foods across international borders. How does international trade work on the ground? I am interested in what the temporalities and materialities of food can tell us about the semi-porosity of international borders, and various governmental strategies to regulate them.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service


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