Susan S. Silbey

Susan S. Silbey

Fellow: Awarded 2008
Field of Study: Law

Competition: US & Canada

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Head of Anthropology at MIT, Susan Silbey was elected President of the Law & Society Association in 1995, a Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 2001, and was awarded Doctor Honoris Causa from Ecole Normale Superiere at Cachan in 2006.  She has published The Common Place Law: Stories from Everyday Life (U of Chicago Press, 1998), In Litigation: Do the Haves Still Come Out Ahead (Stanford University Press, 2003), Law and Science (I): Epistemological, Evidentiary, and Relational Engagements, and Law and Science (II): Regulation of Property, Practices, and Products (Ashgate Publishers, 2008). Recent articles include, “After Legal Consciousness” (2005), “Talk of Law” (2007), and “Taming Prometheus: Talk of Safety and Culture.”

With leave support from the Guggenheim Fellowship, Ms. Silbey plans to work on her new book, Governing Green Laboratories: Trust and Surveillance in the Cultures of Science, describing the introduction of environmental, health, and safety management systems into research laboratories.  Using data from five years of participant observation in five science departments of a major American university as well as interviews and survey responses from a national sample of environmental health and safety managers at universities around the nation, she explores in this work the confrontation between the authority of law and the authority of science, and does so in the very heart of science: in the laboratory.

In many ways, scientific spaces are no different than most others, equally saturated with health and safety regulations, employment and financial regulations, susceptible to claims of loss and liability, and places of danger as well as discovery.  Yet, Ms. Silbey, has been finding that for scientists, who are authorized and insulated by layers of education and expertise, the law that is there has been, until recent years, largely unnoticed and inconsequential, not at all the colonizing, contradictory institution described by most citizens.  She asks, “How do scientists respond to recently passed laws and regulations that disrupt their usual practice by requiring them to change laboratory routines, complete new training and yearly retraining, and submit to periodic surveillance of laboratory practices in the name of environmental, health and safety? And, what would this tell us about the universal aspirations of the rule of law?”

Susan Silbey’s study contends that, as science contributes its knowledge to the institutionalization of safety regimes, it subordinates itself to the knowledge and principles–the laws–it helps to establish.  In this way, the commonplace expectation for a universal rule of law is reproduced in the uncommon world of laboratory science.


Spouse: Robert J. Silbey, Guggenheim Fellow in Chemistry, 1972
Daughter: Jessica Silbey, Guggenheim Fellow in Law, 2018

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