Butterflies and Social Science

One of the really fun things about my fellowship  in Japan was meeting other students from different  fields.  One person who does especially cool work is my friend Annabel Vallard, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for South East Asian Studies  in Paris.  Annabel is an anthropologist who studies the silk production in Japan, Thailand, and Laos.  As I mentioned before, Silk worms are not technically butterflies.  However, they are in the same order (Lepidoptera), and I didn’t want to pass up the chance to interview a butterfly social scientist because of a technicality.

Silkworm farmer in Laos posing with a tray of silkworms

Annabel got interested in silkworms when she was studying textile industry in Laos and Thailand for her thesis. Since silk weaving is an important craft in the area, she started talking with rural silk producers about how they raise silk worms.  One thing she found out was that the Japanese government had started a collaboration in Thailand as early as the first decade of 1900’s and in Laos during the late 1950s in order to improve silk quality and to help impoverished Laotian and Thai silk farmers. Japan as a nation is very committed to international development and aid, and often sends its scientists abroad to do research or teach in developing countries.  Annabel’s work in Thailand and Laos focused on interviewing the silk farmers and the Thai and Laotian staff at the research station about how they raised silk worms as well as how they interpreted the scientific research and protocols for silk worm care.  Although scientists try to accurately follow standard protocols for their research, every person will perceive these instructions differently, and each culture has its own way of interpreting the same directions.  She’s now starting a new phase of the project here in Japan, trying to find the Japanese scientists who worked on the silkworm development programs in Thailand and Laos and to find out not only what they did in the project but what their current relationship to silkworms is.

Development programs and Silk

Even though the Japanese government started the program with the best intentions, silk

Postage Stamp Promoting Silkworm Production in Laos

production in Laos and Thailand was (and still is) a pretty different process from silk production in Japan.  In the previous blog post, I explained how the Meji emperor was influential in developing the science of silkworm breeding and rearing.  By the 1950s, silk production was a highly industrialized process in Japan, and silkworms were raised in sterile laboratories on artificial diet. However, Thailand and Laos were still using traditional methods of silk production.  Silk is still produced by individual households, where silkworms are raised in bamboo trays behind the kitchen and are fed mulberry leaves from the garden around the house.  At first, Japanese researchers tried to introduce the Japanese species of silk worms. However, the laboratory bred silkworms had evolved in sterile conditions and at cooler temperatures.  When they were crammed together in bamboo trays in the humid atmosphere of Laotian and Thai homes, they would get sick and die.  Eventually Japanese researchers hybridized the Japanese lab silk worms with Laotian and Thai native silkworms, and they produced a strain that could survive in the tropical heat in people’s homes. Today in Laos the Japanese government ships the research stations these special eggs produced in laboratories, the research station staff raises them, breeds the adult silkworms and supervises their reproduction. Then, they sell the new generations of eggs to local silk farmers that will raise them to maturity. More than half a century later, the Lao-Japanese program is still going, and every few years the Japanese government sends a diverse team of scientists to the field station to continue the research efforts.  The research team usually includes entomologists, soil experts, silk machinery engineers and silk worm disease experts.  Annabel’s new project is to find researchers who have participated in the project and to explore the manufacture of these biotechnological materials altogether in human imaginary and in practice. Annabel is interested in more than just silk worm raising technique though.  Just like Jess and I are interested in using butterflies to understand big questions about how insects can evolve in a changing climate, Annabel is interested in studying how two cultures can go about the same process in different ways, and what happens when people from those cultures try to work together.

A Day in the Life of a Butterfly Social Scientist

research station staff washing silkworm trays

Jess and I have talked a lot on the blog about what the daily life of a butterfly biologist is like.  Annabel’s work schedule is really different from that of a biologist.  Modern anthropologists use a method of data collection called “participant observation” where they try to become a part of daily life in the community they study.  They go about mundane tasks with the people while trying to observe and record what they are actually doing.   Since Annabel is just beginning her research here in Japan, her work right now consists of meeting with scientists and trying to track down the researchers who worked on the Laotian and Thai development projects.  In Thailand and Laos, however, her work day takes her to the silk research stations where she works alongside the staff to see what they’re doing.   If they’re breeding silkworms, cleaning cages, or answering questions from silk farmers, she’s right there watching how they work and sometimes working with them.  When they stop for a tea break or go out for a beer after work, she goes too.

While Jess and I use a lot of lab equipment, Annabel just uses a list of questions and a tape recorder or video camera to watch how people work.  She says recording is really important because it’s easy to miss something while you’re thinking of your next question.  However, it’s not just a simple interview process and you have to be a strong observer to catch and remember the smallest details.  Annabel says that you have sometimes to let your research subjects lead the conversation, and be flexible when they surprise you with a new topic or idea.  “In anthropology you have to be open to what will happen next”, she says.

Ethnoentomology: The Social Science of Insects

When I asked Annabel what surprised her the most when she started the silk worm project, she said “the fact that people can have such strong relationships with insects.”  Annabel says that there is a growing field related to anthropology called Ethnoentomology.  You may have heard of Ethnobotany, the study of how communities use plants, and Ethnoentomology is basically the same thing but for insects.   In the past, anthropologists usually studied human-insect interactions when insects were part of food, myths or ceremonies.  Now anthropologists are becoming interested in how people organize economic and social institutions around insects.  Most ethnoentomologists do this by studying a small scale example in detail.  For example one of Annabel’s colleagues, Nicolas Césard, studies urban bee keeping  in  France while another, Stéphane Rennesson, studies beetle fighting rings in Thailand.  Of course, biologists like Jessica and I are part of a community with our own beliefs, hierarchy and rituals surrounding insects.   Biological scientists are now becoming the subjects of research themselves, as anthropologists try to understand how the scientific community works .  While it can feel a little strange to be under observation yourself, I think it’s great that we have social scientists to help biological scientists understand the way we do our job.