Talia Dan-Cohen

​Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology
Associate Director of the Center for the Humanities
research interests:
  • Sociocultural Anthropology
  • Anthropology of Knowledge
  • Science and Technology Studies
  • Social Theory
  • Economic Anthropology
    View All People

    contact info:

    mailing address:

    • Washington University
    • CB 1114
    • One Brookings Drive
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
    image of book cover

    Talia Dan-Cohen’s research and teaching explore the intersections between the anthropology, history, and philosophy of science. Her areas of interest include biotechnology, knowledge practices, the history of the social sciences, and contemporary social theory.

    Her book, A Simpler Life: Synthetic Biological Experiments (Cornell University Press, in press), approaches the developing field of synthetic biology by focusing on the experimental and institutional lives of practitioners in two lab at Princeton University. In these sites, Dan-Cohen examines the set of techno-epistemic practices that give both researchers' lives and synthetic life their distinctive contemporary forms. She is also the co-author of A Machine to Make a Future: Biotech Chronicle (Princeton University Press 2005, with Paul Rabinow). Dan-Cohen is currently working on a new book project on ‘complexity.’ The premise of the project is that the ubiquity of ‘complexity’ today can tell us as much about the social and political contexts in which knowledge is produced as it does about the kinds of phenomena experts seek to know. The book project presents a set of interlinked cases that examine the uses of complexity in anthropology, archaeology, feminist epistemology, philosophy, and STS. 

    recent courses

    Economies as Cultural System (L48 3391)

    Many contemporary approaches to economics downplay or bracket the importance of culture in the workings of economic systems. In this class we will focus on approaches to distribution and exchange in which culture and social institutions figure prominently, if not pre-eminently. We will sample a diverse array of economies, from gift exchange to the ceremonial destruction of wealth, from Melanesia to Wall Street, in order to evaluate some of the assumptions that undergird market capitalism. These assumptions include the perception of market actors exclusively as calculative, maximizing individuals. Topics to be covered include the Industrial Revolution; utilitarianism; economic anthropology; the formal vs. substantivist debates; ethnography of finance, and Marxist sociology.

      Culture, Power, Knowledge (L48 4367)

      We often think of knowledge as universal and objective. But anthropologists have long studied ways in which knowledge varies in different cultural settings. In this course, we will ask: What is knowledge, how does it arise, and what does it do? Is there such a thing as universal validity or is knowledge always tied to specific cultural practices? What happens when knowledge travels and how does knowledge figure in relations of power? We will approach these questions through works in anthropology, philosophy, and science studies.

        Selected Publications


        A Simpler Life: Synthetic Biological Experiments. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (In Press).

        2005 A Machine to Make A Future: Biotech Chronicles, with Paul Rabinow. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


        "I Heart Complexity." Anthropological Quarterly (accepted).

        2020 "Tracing Complexity: The Case of Archaeology." American Anthropologist (forthcoming).

        2019 "Writing Thin." Anthropological Quarterly 92(3): 903-917.

        2017 “Epistemic Artifacts: On the Uses of Complexity in Anthropology.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23(2): 285-301.

        2016 “Ignoring Complexity: Epistemic Wagers and Knowledge Practices Among Synthetic Biologists.” Science, Technology and Human Values 41(5): 899-921.

        A Simpler Life

        A Simpler Life

        A Simpler Life approaches the developing field of synthetic biology by focusing on the experimental and institutional lives of practitioners in two labs at Princeton University. It highlights the distance between hyped technoscience and the more plodding and entrenched aspects of academic research.

        Talia Dan-Cohen follows practitioners as they wrestle with experiments, attempt to publish research findings, and navigate the ins and outs of academic careers. Dan-Cohen foregrounds the practices and rationalities of these pursuits that give both researchers' lives and synthetic life their distinctive contemporary forms. Rather than draw attention to avowed methodology, A Simpler Life investigates some of the more subtle and tectonic practices that bring knowledge, doubt, and technological intervention into new configurations. In so doing, the book sheds light on the more general conditions of contemporary academic technoscience.