Students in the University’s Science in Society Program (SISP) routinely do work in or adjacent to the sciences, and their senior theses are usually interdisciplinary, focusing on areas from anthropology to public health to environmental justice. However, prior to August 2020, there was little infrastructure for SISP students to do research prior to their thesis projects, that is until Associate Professor and Chair of SISP Anthony Hatch founded an interdisciplinary research program known as Black Box Labs alongside Assistant Professor of SISP and lab co-director Mitali Thakor. Hatch is also an affiliate faculty member in the Department of African American Studies, the College of the Environment, and the Department of Sociology, and this range of interests is manifested in the breadth of the lab’s research areas.
The Black Box Labs team includes Hatch, Thakor, and about ten student research associates. The team creates projects that cross disciplinary boundaries and are often presented in the form of interactive web sites, as well as papers or lectures. One project, “Visualizing Corporate Ecologies in the Carceral State,” includes an interactive map of food safety violations at prisons in Michigan. The project also analyzes society’s view of prisons as “metabolic cages,” which are systems designed to direct a “flow of commodities” through prisoners’ bodies and through the prison complex as a whole.
Hatch explained that students in SISP often have few opportunities to do this type of qualitative research before they write senior theses, and that faculty members generally have needed to teach them research skills once that time arises. One of Black Box Labs’ goals is to give students this type of training before their senior year.
“[Students] often know the literature, the key theorists and some of the core ideas,” Hatch said. “But as to how to go collect data…and make sense of it, that’s often the skill you’re not picking up until you’re doing it in a thesis.”
Hatch also hoped to assemble manuals detailing Black Box Labs’ methodologies and post them on the lab’s web page in order to help students learn more about doing research.
“We are considering developing manuals for small-scale ethnographies, discourse analysis, archaeology and genealogy (of knowledge), narrative analysis, visual studies methodologies, social-worlds analysis, and other experimental and archival practices,” Hatch wrote in an email to The Argus.
Hatch described these unique methodologies and approaches to research by pointing to the interdisciplinary nature of the lab.
“Methodology describes a process for conceptualizing, collecting, and organizing data,” Hatch wrote. “Black Box Labs opens up a space for experimental and critical methodologies that cut across critical race theory, science and technology studies, and performance and design studies.”
Hatch clarified that the lab’s projects do not adhere to traditional academic divisions between scholarly and creative work.
“We shouldn’t be drawing a line between academic speech and secondary speech or other speech,” Hatch said. “In fact, the voices of poets and artists and others, their stories, in my mind carry as much weight and material force as those of scientists and other narrators…. There’s several genres of creative production where you can insert and embed critical messages.”
Hatch articulated some of the fields of study, such as critical race theory, that have influenced not only the lab’s work, but also its name and icon, the “black box.” The phrase “black box,” traditionally a metaphor for a system whose workings are mysterious or concealed, can also refer to a black-walled room that serves as a theater for minimalistic performances with small audiences. It is also, Hatch explained, a term that connotes freedom: a wooden box was central to Henry Brown’s successful escape from enslavement in 1849.
“The story of Henry “Box” Brown, especially as brilliantly illuminated by Britt Russert in Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture, is a key point of engagement with critical race theory and the Black radical tradition,” Hatch wrote. “Mr. Brown was [a] Black man, born in Virginia, who made successful arrangements to ship himself to freedom in 1849 in a wooden box, subsequently becoming a performance artist and abolitionist.”
Hatch also described the way performance studies, especially hip hop culture, has provided inspiration for the creative collaboration and innovative modes of communication that define Black Box Labs’ work. This is especially true for a project called “The Data Will Not Save Us,” which examines the effects of widely sharing data about racial disparities in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am integrating critical ideas from Black artists into my work, for example, by referencing the construct of ‘anti-matter’ in Craig Mack’s 1997 song ‘Flava In Ya’ Ear’ to explain the ways in which the United States government negates Black matter in ‘The Data Will Not Save Us,’” Hatch wrote.
Hatch added that the lab also aims to expose and investigate science and technology, which can sometimes seem opaque. The black box’s connotations of secrecy and exclusivity are especially relevant to this facet of the lab’s work.
In keeping with its goal of unpacking technological “black boxes,” the lab aims to share scientific concepts with a wide audience.
“We aim to decipher methods, translate technoscience, and foster justice,” the website states.
Hatch expanded on this motto.
“Accessibility and translation are very important,” Hatch said. “Part of what I want the lab to do…is to develop interactive modes of engagement with that scholarly material.”
This new knowledge has been developed through unique methodologies and modes of inquiry.
“[The Visualizing Corporate Ecologies Project] utilizes an experimental critical methodology I call ‘quantum archeology’ to analyze new forms of metabolic dominance in the prison system and utilizes narrative and digital tools to muckrake food, drug, and prison industries,” Hatch wrote.
Although the lab’s members collaborated with success on these projects, Hatch acknowledged that COVID-19 has made work challenging, including the creation of a sense of community.
“Starting an experimental research and training lab during a pandemic has not been easy and there [have] been stumbles,” Hatch wrote. “This semester, we had a somewhat uneven but successful process of learning by doing, but too much of that work came from heroic individual as opposed to broadly collective efforts. The ideal process is one where we learn and teach each other methodologies, software, processes.”
Hatch explained that the process of taking on new student associates was not fully finalized, and the lab is not currently accepting new students. He noted that more information about the selection process would be available in the fall.
Hatch envisions a lab model similar to a Permission of Instructor (POI) course, where he will select team members with the whole lab group in mind, rather than considering contributors as individuals. He believes it’s important to have a group of student associates whose skill sets and interests complement one another. Such a group would likely include programmers, visual artists, archivists, theorists, and sociologists.
“Some students might have extraordinary design skill, or others have a really astute sense of the literature, as researchers or writers,” Hatch said. “Others are really good…articulators of ideas. There’s all kinds of skills that are almost an eclectic set.”
Other plans for next year include a physical space for lab participants, which Hatch hopes will contribute to a sense of cohesion.
“I see the lab as being a place where we host perhaps events or workshops around questions and methods that aren’t just for us, but are open to the campus,” Hatch said.
Anne Kiely can be reached at email@example.com.