Research Areas


Biocapital has served as an important framework for thinking about the organization of biosocieties (see Helmreich 2008). However, as Helmreich (2008) and others have noted, thinking with “biocapital” assumes that capital is both over-determining and a stable referent (c.f. Sunder Rajan 2006) and is liable to miss the ways in which more informal and less fungible types of value operate. Such informal types of value are particularly important in microbiosocieties, where producers try to foster value relationships with often invisible and inaccessible companion species. Some scholars try to gain distance from these assumptions by thinking with more encompassing forms of value, including Haraway’s “encounter value” (2008) and Waldby’s “biovalue” (2002). Following work in this vein and infusing it with a performative bent, this study focuses on the interwined processes of assessment and valuation, combined as (e)valuation (see also Durkheim 2009 [1953]).  Thinking with (e)valuation provides room for both formal value systems like commodification, patenting, and proprietorship—and the more flexible and less institutionalized forms that are common in the worlds of both food and speculative technoscience—like appeals to taste, aesthetics, tradition, or novelty—by examining how value operates as it is identified, lived, and felt. This serious engagement with taste also contributes to recent conversations in agrifood studies that take taste seriously (e.g., Combris et al. 2009)

Since the Supreme Court’s microbe-informed precedent for patenting life forms (Diamond v. Chakrabarty 1980),[1] it has been possible to formally establish ownership of “improved” or “manufactured” strains of microbes in the United States. In Europe, where genetic modification has been far more controversial than in the United States, the ability to patent living organisms through the European Patent Office (EPO) also dates back to the 1980s (Then and Tippe 2014). Cases of genetic modification—like the hydrocodone- casein-, or whey-producing yeast strains—are easily relatable to these precedents and therefore relatively straightforward in terms of patentability.[2] Other measures of establishing property rights over yeast strains exist in industries that do not make use of GM technology and therefore do not make such clearly patentable materials. Some yeast laboratories, such as White Labs, offer yeast banking services that maintain confidentiality, refraining from selling cultures or disclosing information about yeast strains without the consent of the sample’s originator (White Labs 2016). However, because many beers still contain active, reproducible yeast, it is important that this proprietorship does not function in the same way as a patent, by preventing others from using the strain. Therefore, particularly in industries that do not make use of GM technology, practices of assessing value and ownership over microbes, aside from these more clear-cut forms of capitalization and commodification, are important. Grasping these will help understand how microbiosocieties are being constituted in subtle ways that escape biocapital frameworks.

The framework of (e)valuation asserts that because practices of assessment are so closely tied to the values that fermentative producers are trying to realize, different values result in different ways of being attuned to production processes and their agents; in the case of fermentation, this notably includes microbial collaborators. Where forms of value are formal and institutionalized, quantitative forms of knowledge, like DNA sequences, may be expected. But where these forms of value are fluid and quantification proves difficult, the forms of knowledge created for purposes of assessment may be correspondingly less quantifiable, more multisensory, and more affective, like the novelty, uniqueness, or consistency of taste or appearance. These forms travel and change as producers draw from, stoke, and cash in on forms of (e)valuation originating elsewhere: Perfect Day compares its work to “craft brewing” and “old-world fermentation” (2016a; 2016b), the Smolke Laboratory (2016) draws extensively on engineering and programming metaphors, and beer brewers invoke purity and the drive to innovate. Fermentation is the lynchpin holding these worlds and values together, and because it brings together so many values, it provides a good case for studying the ways the tensions of (e)valuative practice both produce the diverse worlds of fermentation and provide potential points of intervention in their making. By inserting themselves into processes of (e)valuation— ways in which producers understand, pursue, and assess values—across different sites of practice, social scientists can foster broader conversations about values between these producers, their stakeholders and publics, and the social sciences, with their own core values of equality, justice, care, and informed democracy.

Biological and Biochemical Control

Closely linked to questions of (e)valuation are questions of control. This study does not approach control as something that producers simply exercise more or less of, but rather as a rich material-semiotic landscape wherein producers choose which factors to control and how. A control-focused approach also puts this work in conversation with recent trends within anthropology of thinking with multispecies ecologies (e.g., Helmreich 2009; Paxson 2012; Tsing 2015; Kirksey 2015), but with a different emphasis. While much of this work focuses heavily on complexity “itself” and the diverse agents and relationships that ecological thinking introduces, focusing especially on unforeseen emergences, a control-focused approach also aligns this project with histories of the modernization and industrialization of agriculture. Approaching biology as a form of engineering—as the Smolke Lab and Perfect Day do—has close historic ties to agricultural science (Pauly 1987) aimed at increasing yields and improving efficiency. This framework acknowledges that such attempts at control and enhancement are often successful in achieving their immediate goals, even if these successes are accompanied by unintended effects and consequences. This acknowledgement resists the temptation to downplay or negate the power and importance of modernist attempts at control as significant world-making projects, approaching the constancy and consistency they produce as a consciously sustained achievement rather than an illusion. At the same time, it emphasizes the ways in which paying attention to unexpected developments, gritty details, and limitations (technical or otherwise) lays the groundwork for more substantive and engaged critiques of specific practices of control and their problems.

Fermentative producers pursue and realize value in large part through the manipulation of biological and biochemical matter, and the direction and limitation of its movement and circulation. Focusing on practices of control helps to foreground questions of agency, technique, and regulation (in both the sense of making systematic or regular and in the sense of institutional restrictions on the flow of organisms and substances) and highlights the occasions when either: (1) the availability of particular forms of control directs forms of (e)valuation; or (2) attempts at control are frustrated and result in a failure to produce value. The reproduction of genetically modified organisms has often been an area of concern and a source of public distrust in science and scientists (see Schurman and Kelso, eds. 2003). Though rigorous forms of control and containment may be desirable both to maintain control over property and to stem concerns about unintended and unpredictable ecological and health consequences, it is also difficult in the case of microorganisms, which have exceeded human containment in high-profile food scares and regulation in such familiar historical cases as Prohibition in the United States. For these reasons, it is worth remembering how attempts to control the biological or to take it “in hand” (Landecker 2007) also produce the threat of biology out of control (Franklin 2007[3]) and out of hand. In this way, control and its opposite are part of the same efforts, with the development of fermentative industry as one powerful example. Acknowledging that forms of control are often effective but never total highlights the need for flexible and responsive governance in microbiosocieties, which includes grounded reckoning of their promises and perils. This includes how making particular forms of control seem more or less necessary expands the authority and accrues value disproportionately to scientists and brewers, and to the classes and constituencies to which they belong.


Thinking in greater depth about fermentation as a transformative, relational, and multispecies process raises the possibility that fermentation is useful as a theoretical concept for social science, helpful for thinking through processes of cultural and technoscientific change more broadly. The current surge in fermentation’s popularity occludes the ways in which it never really goes away. Fermentation is an ongoing multispecies relationship that, while it may “bubble up” and become especially active at certain times under the proper conditions, never ceases being a significant part of human lifeways and ecologies of production (Paxson 2012). These proper conditions consist of the right patchwork of factors: the presence of sugars and the absence of oxygen. Similarly, the bloom and success of fermentative industry depends on complex conditions: the absence of certain legal restrictions,  the development of a technoscience of fermentation (including technique, physical infrastructure and equipment, and strains of microorganisms that ferment well for various purposes), the existence of restrictions on other forms of production that make fermentation a desirable alternative, as well as people becoming interested in (Hustak and Myers 2012) fermentation, fermenters, and their capabilities. This is far from a complete list; these conditions are complicated, but fermentation takes time,[4] and thinking “fermentatively” encourages a nuanced engagement with them.

Aside from multispecies ethnography, approaching fermentation as theory also grounds my work in foundational social theory, including the work of both Marx, who referred to labor power as “living ferment” (1978 [1867]) and Durkheim, who initially theorized what would become “collective effervescence” as “collective ferment” (2009 [1953]). Considering Marx’s understanding of labor as the fundamental human process of world-making, his decision to characterize this process as “ferment” is significant. Marx compares the relationship of “the capitalist” to the effort of wage laborers as akin to the relationship between a winemaker and fermentation. After Marx’s writing, Pasteur identified yeasts as the microbial agents of this fermentation, making yeasts analogous to human laborers in these “living ferments” of value production. Recently, scholars working in the “Marxist-feminist” strain of biocapital theory (Helmreich 2008) have stressed paying attention to often-overlooked agents and forms of both productive and reproductive labor (e.g., Franklin and Ragoné, eds. 1998; Thompson 2005). In a sense, Marx’s analogy has come full circle, and the importance of these tiny companion species in forms of production and the value creation is more apparent than ever. Durkheim used “collective ferment”[5] to describe the creation of a sacred or “ideal” world through community. Durkheim argues: “A society can neither create itself nor recreate itself without at the same time creating an ideal. This creation… is the act by which [the society] is periodically made and remade”; this ideal “is not outside of the real society; it is a part of it” (2012 [1912]: 251). This passage summarizes Durkheim’s similarities and differences with Marx on the question of historical change, understanding the relationship between the real and the ideal not as a reflection of the material base in the cultural superstructure,[6] but as a repeated collective process of coming together and crafting shared images and visions of society and its future. With both craft brewers and fermentative engineers promoting idealized visions of the future, reconsidering how these ideals are formulated in relation to “the real”—materials, techniques, values, and practices—is crucial for understanding processes of social and technoscientific change.

Finding fermentation-as-theory in the complexity of fermentation-as-practice will deepen and enrich the metaphor beyond the straightforward production of value or the collective production of idealized futures. Combined with frameworks of (e)valuation and control, a richer theory of fermentation will acknowledge that in microbiosocieties, these are often subtle and highly contextual—but are powerful world-making practices nonetheless. Finally, fermentation-as-theory will move beyond simple aversion to tidy solutions and embrace of risk, multispecies relationality, and ecological thinking, opting instead to explore when and where tidy solutions are valued and why, and how producers assess and convey risk, relate to their microbial collaborators, and direct and manage fermentative ecosystems. And just as fermentative producers attempt to (e)valuate and control their churning ferments, this project attempts to rein in fermentation’s flexibility and generativity and to craft something valuable and useful: social theory.

[1] The ruling in Diamond v. Chakrabarty declared that the plaintiff had a right to patent a bacterium genetically modified to break down crude oil, based on the interpretation of the GM organism as constituting a non-natural “manufacture.”

[2] Even so, Jane Calvert (e.g., 2012) has explored some of the competing property models at work synthetic biology, including arguments for both privatization and open information sharing.

[3] Franklin (2007) explores this notion in contrast to Ian Wilmut (the scientist largely responsible for the birth of the cloned sheep Dolly) arguing that we have entered an “era of biological control.”

[4] Thinking “fermentatively” can also be linked to John Law’s “slow method” (2004).

[5] Durkheim later and more famously revised this to “collective effervescence” in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912).

[6] This is Durkheim’s reading of Marx.