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HomeNatural, synthetic, and digital: socio-material connections

Natural, synthetic, and digital: socio-material connections

Naturel, synthétique, digital : connections socio-matérielles

Natürlich, künstlich, digital: Sozio-materielle Wechselbeziehungen

Numéro Spécial « Tsantsa » 26

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Published on Friday, December 06, 2019


Ce numéro spécial de la revue Tsantsa souhaite initier une réflexion anthropologique autour des questions suivantes : Com­ment et dans quelle mesure le synthétique et le digital peuvent-ils aussi être biologiques, et qu’y a-t-il de naturel dans des produits et processus artificiels ? Quelles sont les frontières et les formes de contamination entre intelligence humaine et artificielle, entre production digitale et matérielle, ceci aussi bien dans les espaces économiques que dans les sphères intimes de la vie ? Quels questions et enjeux l’émergence de cultures digitales et synthétiques posent-elles à la condition humaine et post-humaine ? Comment le travail, la santé et les pratiques sociales sont-elles transformées par la digitalisation et le synthétisation croissantes des processus de production ? Comment la valeur est-elle créée et définie au travers de ces différents ordres épistémologiques, matériels et sociaux ? Quelles sont les conditions politiques, épistémologiques, écologiques et sociales qui sous-tendent un futur où propriétés digitales et synthétiques sont toujours plus imbriquées ?



The world is experiencing today new relations between synthetic, ‘natural’, and digital materialities, from industrial laboratories to tropical rainforests, in agrifood systems and synthetic meat production, from computer simulations to medical bio-technology. In spite of their empirical imbrication across various industries and economic processes, anthropological approaches have commonly privileged the material specificity and separateness of the synthetic and the digital in their relation towards what is framed as “natural”. Rather than considering natural, synthetic and digital worlds as politically antagonistic, materially distinct, or ontologically separate, this Special Issue of Tsantsa interrogates how digital, synthetic and natural materialities are interlocked in socio-material processes of mediation, transmutation and valuation. Drawing inspiration from earlier conceptualizations of “hybrid” collectives of human and non-humans (Latour 2005), the frictions of global interconnections of movement, forms, and agency (Tsing 2005), or the cyborg blurring of natural and artificial boundaries (Mitchell 2003), we seek to highlight how the separateness and distinctness of these material orders are produced, and the interconnections between them. Our approach to mediation privileges the conceptual and actual entanglements between materialities; transmutation takes into account the transformations of forms and substance across material orders; valuation, finally, implicates the commensuration, evaluation, and marketization of biosocial and economic processes within and across natural, synthetic and digital orders.

Synthetic fibers, plastics, and fabrics have long been a mainstay of modern mass consumerism. With recent attempts to engineer and synthesize life itself, and the growing prospects of digitally-mediated, algorithm-powered, and AI-driven futures, social scientists are now taking stock of the emergence of, and transgressions between, natural, synthetic and digital products in a wide range of socio-cultural, political, and economic contexts. Along with studies of virtual realities, anthropologists and other social scientists have examined the social and political effects of digital and algorithmic processes, including the interface and mediation between humans and computers (Coleman 2013; Kockelman 2017), and have taken an acute interest in exploring how scientists engineer new life forms (e.g. Roosth 2017). We push these analyses further through the prism of socio-material processes of medi-ation, transmutation, and valuation. For example, diamonds or human cells are organic-based material substances that can be grown in a laboratory and be the target of digitally-mediated crypto-certification and data management. In these transmutations, synthetic, digital and natural materialities are imbricated in ways that lead to new forms of mediation, bio-economies, and valuation.

This Special Issue inaugurates a reflection of anthropological relevance around the following questions: Can the synthetic or digital be biologic, and what is natural about artificial materials and processes? What are the boundaries, leakages, or forms of contamination between human and artificial intelligence, digital and synthetic production, from economic spaces to intimate spheres of life? What questions and challenges do ever-more synthetic and digital material cultures raise about the conditions of the human, and the posthuman? How is health, labor, or sociality transformed by digital or synthetic production processes? How is value created and defined across these different social, epistemological, and material orders? What are the political, epistemological, ecological, and social conditions underpinning a future that promises to be increasingly enmeshed in synthetic and digital properties?

By providing answers to these questions, this Special Issue will pursue two main objectives. First, we theorize the social in processes of mediation, transmutation, and valuation of natural synthetics, the humanness of artificial intelligence, or the materiality of digital elements. Second, this Special Issue examines the relationship between digital and material properties, organic and synthetic substances, to move beyond their essential qualities. We welcome ethnographic contributions along these lines of enquiry with the aim of opening up a new space for reflection on the naturalness of digital and synthetic propperties; the phenomenological experience of embodying synthetic substances and inhabiting digital spaces; as well as the meaning of new social and working practices enabled by the entanglement of natural, digital and synthetic materialities.

Submission guidelines

Please send paper abstracts (max. 2000 characters) to: filipe.calvao@graduateinstitute.ch; matthieu.bolay@graduateinstitute.ch; lindsay.bell@uwo.ca; info@tsantsa.ch.

Publication timeline:

  • Abstracts: 7th January 2020

  • Full articles: May 2020
  • Publication: Spring 2021


  • Filipe Calavo,
  • Matthieu Bolay
  • Lindsay Bell


Coleman, G. 2013. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. Kockelman, P. 2017. The art of interpretation in the age of computation. Oxford University Press. Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP Mitchell, W. J. 2003. Me++: The cyborg self and the networked city. Cambridge: MIT Press

Roosth, S. 2017. Synthetic. How Life Got Made. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Tsing, A. L. 2005. Friction: An ethnography of global connection. Princeton University Press.


  • Tuesday, January 07, 2020


  • synthétique, digital, naturel, matérialité

Information source

  • Matthieu Bolay
    courriel : editors [at] tsantsa [dot] ch


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Natural, synthetic, and digital: socio-material connections », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Friday, December 06, 2019, https://doi.org/10.58079/1409

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