Capturing Complexity: Experimental Systems and Epistemic Scaffolds in Animal Behavior

Nelson, Nicole. “Capturing Complexity: Experimental Systems and Epistemic Scaffolds in Animal Behavior Genetics.” PhD diss., Cornell University, 2011.


This dissertation examines knowledge production practices in the field of animal behavior genetics. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork at a laboratory at “Western University” that uses rodents to study the genetics of alcoholism and anxiety, I investigate how practitioners establish experimental systems to model human behavioral disorders in the laboratory and manage the excess of uncertainty that they associate with the “complexity” of behavior. To illuminate the dynamics of knowledge production in animal behavior genetics, I develop the metaphor of an “epistemic scaffold” to describe how practitioners establish and act on the conceptual foundations of particular models or tests. The image of a scaffold highlights two different processes taking place in the research community: the process of making specific links between the animal and the human using available data and theory, and the process of making more or less general claims about the utility of animal models and the applicability of animal behavior genetics findings. Methodological discussions about tests such as the elevated plus maze demonstrate how researchers negotiate about what counts as sound evidence for the connection of this test to human anxiety, and about whether researchers should claim that test models “anxiety” or only “anxiety-like behavior.”

The assumption that human behavioral disorders are likely to be “complex” animates many of these discussions about the practices and conceptual foundations of the field. I analyze how researchers stabilize particular representations of multi-faceted human behaviors such as binge drinking by developing new models, and show how some researchers use these models to highlight the role of environmental factors in behavior rather than solely “reducing” human behavior to genes. Different understandings of the “complexity” of human behavior are also associated with different expectations about the stability of animal behavior genetics experimental systems and how quickly knowledge will accumulate in the field. I demonstrate how practitioners attempt to manage expectations about what associations can be made between genes and behavior not only in the laboratory but also with other audiences in mind, such as funding agencies, policy makers, and the public.