Classifying, Constructing, and Identifying Life: Standards as Transformations of "The Biological"

Adrian Mackenzie, Claire Waterton, Rebecca Ellis, Emma K. Frow, Ruth McNally, Lawrence Busch, Brian Wynne

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Recent accounts of "the biological" emphasize its thoroughgoing transformation. Accounts of biomedicalization, biotechnology, biopower, biocapital, and bioeconomy tend to agree that twentieth- and twenty-first-century life sciences transform the object of biology, the biological. Amidst so much transformation, we explore attempts to stabilize the biological through standards. We ask: how do standards handle the biological in transformation? Based on ethnographic research, the article discusses three contemporary postgenomic standards that classify, construct, or identify biological forms: the Barcoding of Life Initiative, the BioBricks Assembly Standard, and the Proteomics Standards Initiative. We rely on recent critical analyses of standardization to suggest that any attempt to attribute a fixed property to the biological actually multiplies dependencies between values, materials, and human and nonhuman agents. We highlight ways in which these biological standards cross-validate life forms with forms of life such as publics, infrastructures, and forms of disciplinary compromise. Attempts to standardize the biological, we suggest, offer a good way to see how a life form is always also a form of life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)701-722
Number of pages22
JournalScience Technology and Human Values
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • biology
  • infrastructures
  • proteomics
  • publics
  • standards
  • synthetic biology
  • taxonomy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Human-Computer Interaction


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