Inscribing a discipline: Tensions in the field of bioinformatics

Jamie Lewis*, Andrew Bartlett

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Bioinformatics, the application of computer science to biological problems, is a central feature of post-genomic science which grew rapidly during the 1990s and 2000s. Post-genomic science is often high-throughput, involving the mass production of inscriptions [Latour and Woolgar (1986), Laboratory Life: the Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press]. In order to render these mass inscriptions comprehensible, bioinformatic techniques are employed, with bioinformaticians producing what we call secondary inscriptions. However, despite bioinformaticians being highly skilled and credentialed scientists, the field struggles to develop disciplinary coherence. This paper describes two tensions militating against disciplinary coherence. The first arises from the fact that bioinformaticians as producers of secondary inscriptions are often institutionally dependent, subordinate even, to biologists. With bioinformatics positioned as service, it cannot determine its own boundaries but has them imposed from the outside. The second tension is a result of the interdisciplinary origin of bioinformatics - computer science and biology are disciplines with very different cultures, values and products. The paper uses interview data from two different UK projects to describe and examine these tensions by commenting on Calvert's [(2010) "Systems Biology, Interdisciplinarity and Disciplinary Identity." In Collaboration in the New Life Sciences, edited by J. N. Parker, N. Vermeulen and B. Penders, 201-219. Farnham: Ashgate] notion of individual and collaborative interdisciplinarity and McNally's [(2008) "Sociomics: CESAGen Multidisciplinary Workshop on the Transformation of Knowledge Production in the Biosciences, and its Consequences." Proteomics 8: 222-224] distinction between "black box optimists" and "black box pessimists."

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)243-263
Number of pages21
JournalNew Genetics and Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2013


  • bioinformatics
  • disciplines
  • genomics
  • secondary inscriptions
  • technical work

Cite this