Ron Eglash, Dept of STS, RPI

Review of David Turnbull’s Masons, Tricksters, and Cartographers: Comparative Studies in the Sociology of Scientific and Indigenous Knowledge. Published in Science as Culture, pp. 129-134, 12:1, 2003.

For those of us who have struggled to have non-western knowledge systems recognized as a legitimate topic in Science and Technology Studies, Turnbull’s Masons, Tricksters, and Cartographers is a exciting demonstration for the viability of these interdisciplinary hybrids. But the text is far more than just vindication for indigenous technoscience, as Turnbull’s reason for juxtaposing these more traditional anthropological case studies with their complimentary western STS examples is to map out a path to Enrique Dussel’s new category, the “transmodern.” In Turnbull’s account, modernist and postmodernist frameworks both have failings which render them inadequate to the task of guiding us to a “technoscience that does not dominate nature but is compatible with it, that does not exploit and demean people but enhances their lives” (pg. 3). Moreover he finds these failings are complimentary; we simultaneously need the advantages of both— “the joint preservation of the liberatory elements of the enlightenment project and a wide diversity of other knowledge traditions” (pg 14).

Turnbull’s path to the transmodern is similarly complimentary in structure. He has two primary goals: to show that putative local knowledge is more mobile than we commonly assume, and to show that putative universal knowledge is more local than we commonly assume. The main mechanism for both demonstrations is the “assemblage” – a term he equates with “Foucault’s epistemes, Kuhn’s paradigms, Callon, Law and Latour’s actor-networks, Hacking self-vindicating constellations, Fujimora and Star’s… boundary objects and Knorr-Cetina’s reconfigurations” (pg 44). Though a bit all-encompassing for someone who champions the partial and incomplete, Turnbull’s use of assemblage works well throughout the book, showing how the local assemblage of indigenous knowledge allows it a surprising (technoscience-like) mobility, and how revealing the truth of western technoscience’s assemblage behind its façade of universalism illuminates its parochial limitations.

Turnbull’s first chapter beautifully illustrates this concept of mobility, showing, for example, how the Inca’s knotted string record, the quipu, served as a visual analogue for their network of geographic markers, and vice-versa. Another striking visual comparison is generated for Australian Yolgnu kinship systems and their geographic mapping. I was disappointed that his account of the mathematics in Yolgnu kinship was merely in comparison to western counting, which is a trivial case of recursion in comparison to the more complex binary recursion of the Yolgnu (a better comparison would be pseudorandom number generation using addition modulo 2).

The next chapter reviews the architectural controversy over Gothic cathedrals: evidence suggests that they were created by several teams over many years without any single master plan, but many experts say that is surely wrong – anything design so complex and effective must be the product of top-down organization from a single master architect and his unitary vision. Turnbull brilliantly exploits this skepticism of architectural historians as an analogy to skepticism over the assemblage: surely science must be based on universal laws, not mere local assemblies? Here he finds the opportunity to show some detail on how an assemblage can produce such robust outcomes (the Charters Cathedral is 345 feet high, and has stood for 800 years) with such localized tools. The tools themselves are not as local as we thought: templates, for example, can be moved through time and space, and serve as material manifestations of the ratios and proportions required for successful coordination of construction.

I found Turnbull’s chapter on cartography somewhat less convincing. He begins with the book’s cover illustration: the intriguing “Fools Cap” map of 1590, a geographic sketch of the world appearing as the face in a court jester’s costume. Turnbull delves deeply into the origin of the term “motley,” originally referring to the jester’s costume, and accurately describing the heterogeneous assemblage of local practice, specialized tools, social networks and empirical observation that lead to the development of modern mapping science. All well and good. The chapter does indeed undermine the claim
for a seamless, unitary cartographic revolution; it makes a fool of the myth of cartography’s birth through the discovery of universal scientific laws. Beneath this façade Turnbull reveals the trickster of assemblage—the messy hybrid of local knowledge mobilized by technosocial networks. But in this historic comparison of the co-evolution between science, navigation and maps between various European cultures—Portugal, France, Spain, England, and Germany—it becomes clear that some assemblages work better than others. I came away with the distinct impression that it was the least assemblage-like efforts—those with the most standardized quantitative rules, the most centralized control, and the least heterogeneity—that worked best (e.g. the triumph of the French survey culminating in the Carte de Cassini).

Whether this was a flaw in Turnbull’s theory of assemblage or merely my own misreading, the chapter on indigenous navigation in the Pacific brilliantly recovers his thesis by providing a profound counter-example: a global positioning system that works without maps. In contrast to the dismissal of Pacific navigation as mere “dead reckoning” in less thoughtful accounts, Turnbull provides strong evidence for the ways in which Pacific island navigation allows for the integration of an indigenous star compass, heterogeneous sensory inputs (e.g. gauging travel speed from the sound of waves against the hull) and, most importantly, the etak system in which the navigator “conceives his canoe to be stationary and the reference island as moving backwards against the backdrop of rising and setting points of the stars” (pg 139). I was struck by the similarities to satellite GPS, which also works by measuring ego-centered relativistic shift rather than specifying a location on a map.

The account of malaria vaccine research is also quite convincing. Rather than the scholastic debates of historians in architecture or cartography, malaria involves high-stakes finances, international politics and the global biotech industry. And while the messiness of 13th century cathedral construction and map-making is easy to dismiss as ancestral error, its much more difficult to reconcile assumptions for 21st century scientific supremacy with Turnbull’s motley assemblage of malaria. Even the professional malariologists find themselves taking constructivist positions. Vaccines that work in one location do nothing in another, and the factors that govern the manifestations of the disease include differences between parasites, different mosquito vectors, genetic variation among human hosts, and local conditions as subtle as dog ownership (which apparently offers the mosquito a preferred alternative target to humans during sleep). Like other disasters caused by over-zealous first world development programs (international use of pesticides, nuclear proliferation, failures of the green revolution, etc) introducing a malaria vaccine in the wrong way could end up generating more deaths by disrupting local immunity strategies. Here it becomes clear that lives can be lost when first world scientific arrogance becomes an obstacle to applications of local knowledge.

For his final case study Turnbull presents his ethnographic research among turbulence researchers. Like Gilbert and Mulkay’s work, this study tells us that the constructivist dilemma is worse than we thought: not only are scientific truths the interpretive result of heterogeneous networks, but the structure of the networks themselves are open to interpretation. Some turbulence researchers seek canonical “structures” (horseshoe vortices, striations, eddies, etc.), while others seek underlying nonlinear equations. Some dismiss computer modeling as a minor tool, while others see it as the only viable methodology. One simulator claims his data is confirmed by an experimentalist, who in turn implies that the simulations were fine-tuned to produce the desired outcome. Popper’s falsifiability might work well if we could agree on what has been falsified, but what happens when we can’t? This was a vivid demonstration of assemblage in high-tech hard science.

The book ends with a brave attempt to resuscitate the term “relativism.” Turnbull maintains that STS researchers (SSK in particular) have unnecessarily allowed themselves to be scared away from relativism; that we have succumbed to the epistemological equivalent of red-baiting. He maintains that relativism need not be absolute: “[o]n the contrary, the relativist can and does makes choices, judgments and assessments about what to do and what to believe, but on the basis of criteria that are flexible and negotiable” (pg. 221). It strikes me as odd, however, that Turnbull is so willing to champion a kind of amended relativism, with an ability to make occasional non-relative judgements, while implying that the only alternative is an absolute rationalist positivism without hope of redemption. Why insist on such an asymmetric and static division? Couldn’t the fans of objectivity amend their universalism just as Turnbull has done for relativism?

It would have been useful, I think, for Turnbull to take more seriously his quotation of Haraway’s “god-trick,” a critique she levels not only at rationalist positivism but at relativism as well. If we are to replace the god trick with the trickster, then surely there must be a motley assortment of strategies, not a single path of salvation. Indeed, Turnbull’s familiar list of tricksters—Coyote in native American cultures, Anasazi in west Africa, Loki in Scandanavia, etc.—is starting to seem awfully tame for the wellsprings of uncertainity and disorder. Shouldn’t a study devoted to the motley include rude and unwelcome tricksters such as Mötley Crüe, a sleazy American metal band? OK, so they lack any redeeming social value whatsoever, but why is it we can champion the rude and obscene in indigenous cultures, yet are so reticent to do the same for the subculture of white working class youth?

All kibitzing aside, Turnbull’s book is a wonderful exploration of STS in the global age, and a well-documented argument for the strong version of SSK. It is, overall, a strong contribution to Dussel’s vision for the transmodern; that “third alternative” which steers us between the Scylla of rationalism’s arrogance and the Charybdis of deconstruction’s indecision. I highly recommend it.


Murry, Kevin. “Voices from the top end.” The Age 17 December D8 (1996). Online at

Nigel Gilbert and Michael Mulkay, Opening Pandora's Box: A Sociological Analysis of Scientist's Discourse, (Cambridge University Press, 1984