Sainath Suryanarayanan


Assistant Scientist of Biology & Society
346C Agricultural Hall
1450 Linden Drive
Madison WI 53706

(608) 698-0592

Sainath Suryanarayanan’s Curriculum Vitae [147 kb]

Education: PhD., 2009, University of Wisconsin-Madison (Zoology, with minor in Science & Technology Studies)

STS 201: Where Science Meets Society (First-Year Interest Groups, Fall 2015)
STS 901: Science, Technology and Medicine in Society (Graduate Seminar, Spring 2015)
CES 248: Environment, Natural Resources & Society (Spring 2013, Spring 2014)

I am Assistant Scientist of Biology & Society, with partial appointments in the Department of Community & Environmental Sociology and the Morgridge Institute for Research. I seek to engage students, scholars, and non-academic stakeholders toward thinking critically about the social organization and consequences of knowledge production by drawing on frameworks spanning the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities. For the past several years, I have been publishing historically grounded social science scholarship on the relationship between epistemological politics and human/non-human dynamics in technoscientific cultures of knowledge production. My research is deeply interdisciplinary, collaborative and international in scope, and is primarily informed by three empirical projects that investigate: (1) a transdisciplinary deliberative model for just research to resolve the problem of dying bees (with Daniel Lee Kleinman, Community & Environmental Sociology), (2) interspecies resistance to genetically engineered plants in Luso-Hispanic regions (with Katarzyna Olga Beilin, Spanish & Portuguese), and (3) shifting ontologies of human in the emerging epistemic culture of computational systems toxicology (at the Morgridge Institute of Research). My work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, and has appeared in a variety of peer-reviewed journals including Social Studies of Science, Science, Technology & Human Values, Political Power & Social Theory, and Hispanic Issues on Line. My book co-authored with Daniel Lee Kleinman, Vanishing Bees: Science, Politics and Honeybee Health, is forthcoming in Rutgers University Press.

Research Areas:

Politics of Scientific Expertise (Prior research)
One strand of my prior research has sought to understand the factors that shape the circumstances under which different actors are listened to and ignored in technical debates that affect their lives and livelihoods. In particular, I have utilized an ongoing controversy over the role played by certain insecticides in colony collapse disorder (CCD)–an environmental phenomenon of accelerated honey bee deaths in the United States– to understand how the social and historical organization of scientific knowledge production marginalizes the perspectives of certain stakeholders. This work showed that– (1) separate approaches taken by different groups to assessing the factors responsible for complex social-ecological phenomena are underpinned by divergent professional norms, interests, and specific histories of the fields in which they practice; and (2) which understandings are given priority are questions of power and politics, and histories of domination and subordination.

A sample of this research:

Suryanarayanan, Sainath and Daniel Lee Kleinman. 2013. “B(e)ecoming Experts: The Controversy Over Insecticides in the Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder”, Social Studies of Science 43: 215-240

Social Production of Ignorance (Prior Research)
Another related strand of my prior research contributes to emerging scholarship in the sociology of ignorance by studying how ignorance– understood as the absence of knowledge– is systematically embedded in the very machineries of knowledge production. This work centers on the dominance of the experimental approach taken to studying the purported links between newer ‘systemic’ insecticides and ongoing honey bee deaths. Even though bee scientists conceptualize the problem as being multifactorial, in practice their approach is designed to isolate single factors and their direct, causal role through precise control of all other potentially confounding environmental variables– a ‘control-oriented’ approach. Consequently, complex scenarios, such as those proposed by beekeepers’ epistemologies, wherein the insecticides by themselves may not be causing CCD, but may do so through intricate interactions with multiple other environmental factors across a honey bee’s lifecycle and over a longer-term, tend to be excluded. These gaps in the biological knowledge on CCD are maintained, in part, by the career structure of academia. The high stakes involved in securing publications, grant funding and tenure orient disciplinary researchers toward adopting narrowly conceived epistemologies and practices, because they have a higher likelihood of leading to conclusive results.

A sample of this research:

Kleinman, Daniel Lee and Sainath Suryanarayanan. 2013. “Dying Bees and the Social Production of Ignorance”, Science, Technology & Human Values 38(4): 492-517.

A Transdisciplinary Deliberative Model for Just Research and Policy (Current research)
My work with Daniel Lee Kleinman on the politics of knowledge and ignorance concerning honey bee deaths has led us to explore how one might facilitate a different structure and politics of knowledge production, which re-frames the issue in terms of human-honey bee relationships. Supported by a second NSF grant, I have brought together a set of beekeepers, growers, university scientists and policymakers to deliberate about the most effective ways to understand the challenges facing honey bees. This project is an experiment in a double sense: Can we facilitate productive collaboration between beekeepers, growers, scientists, and regulators? Can deliberation among these stakeholders lead to a mode of undertaking scientific research that can capture the social and ecological complexity of honey bee die-offs, provide data of use to stakeholders and policymakers, and serve as a model for further scientific research? An integral part of the deliberative process involves honey bees themselves, through a field experiment entailing interactions between beehives, beekeepers, growers, and scientists. The emerging results of this research, which I am preparing for publications, highlight the symbolic and organizational factors that affect stakeholder collaboration and how trust is developed in the face of epistemic, institutional, and cultural barriers.

A vision of this research is outlined here:

Suryanarayanan, Sainath. 2013. “Balancing Control and Complexity in Field Studies of Neonicotinoids and Honey Bee Health”, Insects 4 (1): 153-167.

Interspecies Resistance to Genetically Engineered Crops in the Luso-Hispanic World (Current research)
Another strand of my current research inquires into the intertwined connections between human and plant resistance to genetically engineered (GE) crops toward understanding the dynamics of Luso-Hispanic bioeconomies. This book project, which began in 2015, is in collaboration with my partner—Katarzyna Beilin, a Hispanic studies scholar specializing in the environmental humanities. It builds on a paper that we co-wrote titled ‘Still Different? Biotechnology, Politics and Culture in Spain’– forthcoming in a special issue of Hispanic Issues on Line– in which we delineate the social structure of Spain’s emerging bioeconomy, and trace the cultural and historical roots of the nation’s relatively enthusiastic embrace of GE crops. Luso-Hispanic countries constitute the largest producers of GE crops in the world, yet they remain understudied in social science scholarship on the politics of biotechnology development. While various Luso-Hispanic countries have embraced GE crops and their promises of human emancipation, solution to world hunger, and a guarantee of a sustainable environmental management, resistance to the perceived appropriation of lands and bodies by GE crops has also been steadily growing in these regions. This has been a mixed sort of resistance: an array of people’s movements opposed to GE crops has been surprisingly assisted by a rise of so-called super weeds that have mutated and acquired resistance to the pesticides accompanying GE crops. As agribusiness firms intensify crop fumigations to eradicate mutant non-humans that have become major obstacles to the expansion of GE crops, people in communities adjoining GE croplands complain of previously unheard of cancer clusters and birth malformations and begin to collectively organize. This project stands to demonstrate the critical role that interdisciplinary social science scholarship can play in public life by analyzing the dramatic antinomy created by models of biotechnological development, where economic interests allied with institutional scientific discourses are often in stark opposition to environmental sustainability and social justice concerns of small-holder peasants and indigenous people. We are pursuing two overarching research questions: (A) How do historically grounded naturecultural relationships between communities of people and plants shape different modes of resistance to GE crops in emerging Luso-Hispanic bioeconomies? (B) How are interspecies alliances shaping alternative pathways of knowledge in zones of contact between transgenic, indigenous, urban, and peasant realities? Using comparative and ethnographic methodologies, we are exploring each of these research questions in five key regions: (1) Spain, (2) Argentina and Paraguay, (3) Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, (4) Ecuador, Peru, and (5) Brazil. Supported by an interdisciplinary grant award from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we have already completed our field research in Argentina and Paraguay, and are in the midst of preparing a book chapter, publications for STS and environmental humanities journals, and an Op-Ed piece for broader audiences.