Dr Hugh Williamson

Research Fellow

Byrne House SF6

Social Anthropologist and Research Fellow on the Alan Turing Institute-funded project "From Field Data to Global Indicators: Towards a Framework for Intelligent Plant Data Linkage". The project is a historical, sociological and philosophical investigation of contemporary data linkage efforts in plant science, specifically in relation to crop and agricultural research.

Based within the Data Studies group at Egenis, the Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences.

Research interests:

  • Plant, agricultural and ecological sciences
  • Data studies
  • Conservation and rural development
  • Liberalism and (post)socialism
  • Romania and Anglo-Romanian relations

Research group links

Research interests

My research interests have long been shaped by themes from within the anthropology of science and STS, especially studies of the biomedical sciences, although this has taken me to a range of different places. Currently, I am focused on the history, philosophy and anthropology of plant science, and in particular the sciences of crop diversity and their connection to global paradigms of development and conservation. A crucial axis of this research is understanding plant and related scientific data and their management, and I am an active participant of the Data Studies group within Egenis. The research project has a strong collaborative and interdisciplinary emphasis.

This work follows on from my doctoral research, for which I undertook ethnographic fieldwork in a biodiversity conservation area in Transylvania (Romania). But it is also in some ways an inversion of it. In comparison to the international networks of crop diversity conservation, largely oriented towards global food security goals and the production of new varieties of crop that can be commodified and then circulated around the world, conservation in my Romanian fieldsite was strongly place-based, organised around notions of agroecological systems and traditional agricultural practices. These explicitly "holistic" systems-principles were at times posed in direct opposition to the economies and ecologies of agricultural improvement and industrialisation from which crop diversity conservation emerged. A focal point of my research has been the significance of Anglo-Romanian relations in the emergence of this paradigm, including the extent to which agroecological holism was mapped onto existing values of sociocultural holism (specifically, varieties of what Douglas Holmes has called "integralism") present in British conservative intellectual circles.

From the Romanian fieldwork, I've come to have a strong regional interest in the culture and politics of post-socialist Eastern Europe and the Balkans. As well as the obligatory engagement with communism and its legacies, working with young, cosmopolitan Romanians in the Transylvanian countryside led me to think about liberalism and what it involves to enact liberal politics in rural places and on the margins of Europe. I am currently co-editing a special issue (to be published in Social Anthropology) on the anthropology of liberalism.

One of the things that connects my interest in the anthropologies of liberalism and of science is the place of reason in each. Recent critical work in anthropology on what has been called the "late liberal" condition has sought to contest the place of various sorts of utilitarian and calculative reason in governance and everyday life. This has often involved posing "reason" in juxtaposition with an ethics and politics rooted in affective relations and "intimate encounters" or events. I'm interested in thinking about how this critique relates to work in the anthropology and history of science that has sought to unpack the wide variety of forms of reasoning and their relation to epistemic communities, material circumstances, political orders and, indeed, affect. I am also interested in exploring how such ethnographic perspectives on epistemic reasoning can be brought into dialogue with work on ethical reasoning within the anthropology of ethics.

In future, I would like to close the circle between my current and doctoral research topics and to explore the place of agricultural science in socialist and post-socialist Europe—an unfairly neglected topic relative to the international significance of figures such as Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, arguably the father of crop diversity research.


I initially studied for a BA in anthropology at Durham University (2010-2013), an interdisciplinary course which encompassed anthropology's social, medical and biological/physical subfields, during which I first became interested in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and the social study of the biosciences in particular. I then moved to the University of Cambridge, where I received an MRes (2013-2014) and PhD (2014-2018) in social anthropology. My doctoral thesis was an ethnography of conservation and rural development in Transylvania, Romania, that focused on the multifaceted and sometimes peculiar history of Anglo-Romanian relations that underpinned local conservation programmes and how—via a succession of cultural, architectural and ecological holisms—these came to be a conduit for liberal politics among young Romanians in the Transylvanian coutryside.

At Exeter, I am Research Fellow on the Alan Turing Institute-funded project ‘From Field Data to Global Indicators: Towards a Framework for Intelligent Plant Data Linkage’ (2019-2021), where we are studying the development of infrastructures and standards for crop research data, drawing out—and connecting the dots between—the epistemological, sociological, political and ethical dimensions of this field.

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