Mike Fortun

I am associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Insititute, Troy, New York, USA.   A historian and ethnographer of the life sciences, much of my current research focuses on the contemporary science, culture, and political economy of genomics. My previous work on the life sciences has covered the policy, scientific, and social history of the Human Genome Project in the U.S., the history of biotechnology, and the growth of commercial genomics and bioinformatics in the speculative economies of the 1990s. From 2006-2010 I was co-editor (with Kim Fortun) of Cultural Anthropology, the journal of the Society for Cultural Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association. 

I am currently completing a book manuscript titled Care of the Data, examining how genome scientists have developed new protocols for dealing with “Big Data” collections and flows, the challenge of analyzing “geneXenvironment interactions,” and the meaning of genomics research for both public health and basic science.   Through interviews, analysis of scientific publications and observation of scientists at work, the book characterizes four “modes of care” exercised by scientists when they are best attuned to the complexities of data, of genomics, and of the social implications of their research. The book is an ethnographic analysis of the data pitfalls and challenges that are part of genome wide association studies (GWAS), and how genomicists have invented new modes of analysis to address them.   It also examines the scientific and social challenges of the larger and even more heterogeneous data sets that characterize emergent studies of the “exposome” – the sum of physiological responses to a constantly variable environment comprised not only of chemical stressors, but of social and psychological stressors as well. Much of the book is focused on asthma, a complex condition that is highly variable at both the individual and population levels, and exemplifies the kind of scientific and public health challenge eliciting new “transdisciplinary” programs of research and intervention.

I am also a leader in an effort to build a digital humanities platform, the Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography (PECE), intended to support collaborative “empirical humanities” research projects of many kinds.  Kim Fortun and I have developed PECE based on our experience with The Asthma Files project to understand how individuals and organizations are working to address the global air quality crisis and epidemic incidence of asthma, and to advance understanding of factors that condition societal capacity to deal with complex problems such as environmental public health.  As an extension of this work, I am also a co-chair of the Research Data Alliance’s Digital Practices in History and Ethnography Interest Group, developing best practices, standards, and policy recommendations for ethnographic and historical research data and objects.




Promising Genomics: Iceland and DeCODE Genetics In a World of Speculation. University of California Press, September 2008.

Major Works in Cultural Anthropology (4 vols.). 2009. Edited with Kim Fortun.  London: Sage.

Muddling Through: Pursuing Science and Truths in the Twenty-First Century (co-authored with Herbert J. Bernstein). Washington, DC: Counterpoint Press, 1998. (Chosen as a Book of the Month Alternative Selection, Library of Science, June 1999) Excerpts: Muddling_through-_pursuing_science_and_truths_in_the_21st_century_By_Michael_Fortun-_Herbert_J._Bernstein  FortunBernsteinChpt9(5)


2014 (in press) “What Toll Pursuit: Affective Assemblages in Genomics and Postgenomics.” In Postgenomics, ed. Hallam Stevens and Sarah Richardson, Duke University Press.   Ch_03 Fortun-1        

2013       (co-authored with Erik Bigras, Brandon Costelloe-Kuehn, Tahereh Saheb, Jerome Crowder, Dan Price, Kim Fortun) “Asthma, Culture, and Cultural Analysis,” Heterogeneity in Asthma: Translational Profiling & Phenotyping. Series: Advances In Experimental Medicine And Biology. Springer. Chap 20, Asthma, Culture and Cultural Analysis

2012    “Genomics Scandals and Other Volatilities of Promising,” in Lively Capital, ed. Kaushik Sunder Rajan (Duke University Press).

2009  “Genes In Our kNot.” Handbook of Genetics and Society: Mapping the New Genomic Era, Paul and Margaret Lock (eds.).  London: Routledge. GenesInOurkNot

“For An Ethics of Promising, Or, A Few Kind Words About James Watson.” New Genetics and Society 24/2:157-173. August 2005.for an ethics of promising

“Scientific Imaginaries and Ethical Plateaus in Contemporary U.S.  Toxicology” (with Kim Fortun), American Anthropologist 107(1):43-54. March 2005.

“The Use of Race Variables in Genetic Studies of Complex Traits and the Goal of Reducing Health Disparities” (with Evelynn Hammonds, Patricia King, Caryn Lerman, Rayna Rapp, Alexandra Shields, and Patrick Sullivan), American Psychologist 60 (1):77-103. January 2005.

“Celera Genomics: The Race for the Human Genome Sequence.”  Encyclopedia of Human Genetics.  London: Macmillan, 2003. (http://www.naturereference.com/ehg/ehg.htm)

“Fluctuating About Zero, Taking Nothing’s Measure.” Pp. 121-160 in George Marcus, ed., Zeroing In On the Year 2000: Late Editions 8. University of Chicago Press, 2000. fluctuating

“Entangled States: Quantum Teleportation and ‘The Willies’.” In George Marcus, ed., Paranoia within Reason: A Casebook on Conspiracy as Explanation (Late Editions 6). University of Chicago Press, 1999. entangled states


The Care of the Data

The Asthma Files (under construction)

deCODE Genetics and Iceland

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