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THE EMERGENT QUALITIES OF DIGITAL SPECIMEN IMAGES IN BIOLOGY

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Whilst digital technologies are often popularly portrayed as inherently different from their material counterparts, recent research has accentuated continuities between the two. Research on the material aspects of digital technologies has emphasized that both material and digital technologies are embedded in practice and acquire their meaning in context. This is particularly so in science, where research in science and technology studies has illuminated the contextual interpretation of representations and their contingent manifestation through embedding in specific sociotechnical configurations. This article explores how digital technologies are experienced in a specific field of science, biological systematics. Email accounts were solicited from biologists who have been working with digital images of the biological specimens conventionally used in work on the classification and naming of organisms. Thematic analysis of the interviews shows that qualities of digital images were highly contextual, often defined in dialogue with their material counterparts which are also defined in fluid and contextual fashion. Discussing the use of digital specimen images involved distinctions between different forms of work and different organisms being studied and referenced the varied institutional and geographic positioning of respondents. The introduction of digital images offered the possibility of new sociotechnical configurations emerging and to some extent realized the aspirations of digitization projects to enable new forms of distributed working. This was, however, a qualified success restricted to only some aspects of the systematists’ work.
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Keywords: biology; digital specimen; digital technologies; images; systematics

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts & Human Sciences, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey, GU2 7XH, UK

Publication date: September 1, 2013

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