Collective Ferments is a comparative, multi-site ethnography, consisting of both participant-observation and semi-structured interviews and examining different types of fermentation and metabolic engineering—especially forms with significant “ethical” or “political” dimensions—in practice. The project seeks to use the case of fermentation to develop social theory in three key areas:
First, the project develops arguments for multiple ontologies (see Mol 2002). Fermentation’s multiplicity and fluidity means that it is shaped by scientists and non-scientists alike in a wide variety of projects. Scientists and engineers often explain and communicate their work through reference to other, more visible forms of fermentation like beer brewing, raising interesting questions about who has the authority to define what fermentation is and does in the biotechnological 21st century.
Second, the project suggests that despite the recent social-scientific fascination with microbial ecologies (Paxson and Helmreich 2014), and even with fermentation specifically (e.g., Bobrow-Strain 2012; DuPuis 2015), as material models for interrelatedness and complexity, microbial projects are not somehow inherently more ethical or concerned with justice. Rather, ethics-oriented microbial politics emerge in specific contexts of control, regulation, and resistance. The ways in which present-day bioengineers and other fermenters gather around and work with microbes shows that institutional and cultural constraints are often as important as the profound material fluidity, ubiquity, and accessibility of these microbes themselves—even when they serve as focal points and vehicles for ethical projects.
Finally, by focusing on the many different values that go into building worlds with microbial producers, especially in endeavors that explicitly challenge “big-money” operations, the project complicates the overdetermining lens of biocapital (Sunder Rajan 2006). Instead, it encourages thinking with how, particularly as biotechnology becomes more accessible, producers usher in biotechnological futures in pursuit of ends other than profit.