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Nano Dreams and Nano Worlds: The Emergence and Disciplinary Formation of Nanoengineering


This dissertation analyzes the sociotechnical practices through which nanoengineering is produced as a new disciplinary and professional site of “innovation for the benefit of society.” I argue that innovation constitutes a rationalizing discourse that serves to justify the establishment of a field, department, and major. Additionally, it serves as an organizing logic that constitutes the nanoengineer as an inherently ethical actor, and nanoengineering as a benefactor of a universalized consumer-subject. I contribute an empirically grounded feminist science studies perspective on how material and discursive practices of innovation rationalize, define, and justify a new scientific discipline; how moral and ethical reasoning is figured within technical practices and pedagogies; and how sociocultural, historical, political, and technical imaginaries figure and are themselves refigured in the constitution of nanoengineering. My analysis is based on an ethnography I conducted from 2010-2014 of one of the world’s first nanoengineering departments and its new undergraduate nanoengineering major, located at the University of California, San Diego. This included observing most of the undergraduate courses; conducting 85 interviews with faculty, students, and administrators; observing a nanoengineering laboratory; participating in department meetings and events; collaborating with the department to produce a new department newsletter; and analyzing the media used in the department and curriculum. More specifically, my dissertation chapters examine how popular culture is enrolled in the consolidation of a new discipline; how a particular ethos, with a moral stance and value positions, gets taught in the context of technical education; how liberal and neoliberal logics of rational individualism, autonomy, and the invisible hand get worked into the material and discursive practices of self-assembly in the nanoengineering laboratory; how the institutional goal of producing human capital manifests in the undergraduate major in the form of entrepreneurialism; how translational research as a paradigm of innovation becomes the right tool for the job of aligning nanoengineering’s commitments to innovation and utility with the institutional imperative to produce intellectual capital; and how the higher-ed science classroom is an important site for considering the ethics and politics of knowledge production. I present my work in both prose and graphic novel style narrative illustration.

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