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Tales of Emergence—Synthetic Biology as a Scientific Community in the Making


This article locates the beginnings of a synthetic biology network and thereby probes the formation of a potential disciplinary community. We consider the ways that ideas of community are mobilized, both by scientists and policy-makers in building an agenda for new forms of knowledge work, and by social scientists as an analytical device to understand new formations for knowledge production. As participants in, and analysts of, a network in synthetic biology, we describe our current understanding of synthetic biology by telling four tales of community making. The first tale tells of the mobilization of synthetic biology within a European context. The second tale describes the approach to synthetic biology community formation in the UK. The third narrates the creation of an institutionally based, funded ‘network in synthetic biology’. The final tale de-localizes community-making efforts by focussing on ‘devices’ that make communities. In tying together these tales, our analysis suggests that the potential community can be understood in terms of ‘movements’—the (re)orientation and enrolment of people, stories, disciplines and policies; and of ‘stickiness’—the objects and glues that begin to bind together the various constitutive elements of community.

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  1. 1.

    1 All the quotations in this section are from the unpaged workshop report (BBSRC, 2007).

  2. 2.

    2 Sand-pits are a kind of ‘close encounter’ and brainstorming approach—the rationale being that if you put people in close proximity to each other, and structure their activity over an intense period of time, you will generate a collective vision and/or agenda and/or project.

  3. 3.

    3 Perhaps this is a key difference between synthetic biology and other communities: the fact that the social sciences are posited as not only a legitimate but also a constitutive element of the community. This ‘upstream’ involvement of social scientists is commonly explained by the need to avoid controversies such as those around genetically modified organisms. Hence, it seems to us that, like other emerging communities, the synthetic biology community mobilizes hopes, expectations and promises, but unlike other communities, it has to a certain degree internalized a prominent fear and is thus institutionalizing and policing the involvement of social science in a rather novel way.

  4. 4.

    4 Also worthy of being mentioned is the first synbiosafe conference, an e-conference which lasted about a month and focused on the ethical, safety, public, etc. issues arising with synthetic biology.

  5. 5.

    5 Felt (1993: 375) lists six ingredients allowing the construction of a scientific success story: ‘political and economic interest; the flair of “little” science; the presence of hero scientists; the possibility of staging an international race; the absence of obvious risk; and, finally, the story's role as a counterbalance to political dissatisfaction’.

  6. 6.

    6 Some authors have argued that ‘metaphors begin to emerge, it seems, quite specifically in order to provide suitable analogies for the representation of the inner workings of synthetic biology’ (Balmer and Herreman, 2009: 221) and that there is a shift from literary metaphors (i.e. ‘the book of life’) to computational metaphors (2009: 231).


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We would like to thank participants in one of the BBSRC-funded Network in Synthetic Biology events for their cooperation, in particular our interview respondents R1, R2 and R3. Thanks also to Dave Phillips for his comments on an earlier draft and to three anonymous referees.

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Molyneux-Hodgson, S., Meyer, M. Tales of Emergence—Synthetic Biology as a Scientific Community in the Making. BioSocieties 4, 129–145 (2009).

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  • Community-making Devices
  • Emergence
  • Identity
  • Scientific Communities
  • Synthetic Biology