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New bioinformational knowledge production in education: a ‘social life of methods’ approach
Research on human biology in fields such as neuroscience and genetics is increasingly enacted with advanced digital technologies. Methods including neuro-imaging and bioinformatics are highly data-intensive and depend on complex sociotechnical infrastructures of digital technologies, scientific epistemologies, and social relations and practices. Rather than deriving from the ‘wet lab’ of bio-specimen examination, new knowledge about human bodies and life itself is produced in the ‘dry lab’ of computers, databases and analytics algorithms, generating novel biocomputational renderings and understandings of internally-embodied states and processes. As such, human bodies, lives and actions are understood as ‘bioinformational’ forms accessible with biocomputational methods of analysis. Bioinformational research is thus typically ‘postdigital’ in producing new computational understandings of biology, and transforming the ways biological research itself is practised. In recent years, the digital methods of neuroscience and genetics have been put to the task of analysing educationally-relevant biological processes, including the neural processing and genetic associations that underpin learning and educational achievement. This emerging body of research related to education translates the biological into bioinformational formats, opening up human subject data to a range of novel forms of analysis and potentially policy-relevant knowledge production, with profound consequences for how educational phenomena are understood and acted on. In collapsing the biological and the digital, this new biological research in education adopts particular ‘postdigital methodologies’ that have their own distinctive histories, contexts, and practices. This presentation presents a ‘social life of methods’ approach to the postdigital methodologies of bioinformational research and knowledge production in education. Research on the social life of methods investigates the lively sociotechnical enactment of research devices and practices ‘in the lab’, as well as the social consequences that follow when specific methods circulate knowledge into new settings ‘out of the lab’. This presentation explores the social lives of two distinctive bioinformational methods: the use of mobile, wearable neurotechnologies and brain-computer interfaces to generate neural information related to learning; and the use of bioinformatics software to produce knowledge about the complex genetic associations underpinning educational attainment. It introduces an ensemble of appropriate methods and reflects on conducting research into the social lives of these postdigital methodologies, exploring the social, historical and inter-organizational contexts in which they have been developed and deployed, and the specific sociotechnical infrastructures and practices through which education-relevant knowledge is constructed from bioinformation. Studying the social life of postdigital methods in the neural and genetic sciences requires a challenging combination of network mapping, documentary examination of scientific texts, fieldwork with science experts, and technographic analysis of highly complex science infrastructures and devices. Such studies can illuminate how knowledge claims and proposals for educational intervention based on ‘objective’ insights into human biology are in fact inseparable from postdigital research infrastructures through which biology itself has been translated into bioinformation.