Tools for an efficient witness: Deskilling science and devaluing labor at an agro-environmental research institute

Timothy McLellan


Expectations that research should not only generate real-world impacts but do so in a way that provides “value-for-money” pervade academia and the contemporary knowledge economy. In agricultural research for development, this imperative has spawned “tools” that promise rapidly scalable scientific knowledge on everything from gender inequality to environmental degradation. This promise of speed and scale relies on formal protocols that attempt to deskill data collection so that it can be done by anyone. Drawing ethnography of an agro-environmental research institute in southwest China into conversation with the idea of the scientist as “modest witness,” I show that as well as marginalizing qualitative research, imperatives for efficiency suffocate space for the unspoken informal practices that undergird the ostensibly formal methods of agricultural and environmental scientists. I demonstrate, moreover, how efficient research extends hierarchies of epistemological worth that undermine the contributions of administrative and nonfaculty staff to universities and the sciences.

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