“Citizen Science”/”Science Citizen” At the Table: Dead Grammars and a Citational Lesson

by: Anna Nguyen

One of the many pandemic care packages my mother sent to me, from rural Delaware to Boston, was a box of her gardening successes at my brother’s home. A three-month long visit became a more than year-long stay. Along with the familiar thin red Thai chilies, eggplants, and cucumbers, she added a few modest-sized chayote.

“Trái su,” she reminded me on the phone. “You ate them all of the time, in cảnh.” She always made soups, to be paired with rice. She then launched into an oral history of the chayote that grew abundantly in her childhood home in Vietnam. They were bigger there, she compared.

I listened, eager to form a potential essay, on something about how cultural knowledge and sense of pragmatic displacement were necessary to grow chayote from one country to another and how to make sense of different geographies and climates. The task I had assigned myself was not to rely on scientific tropes but try to translate my mother’s unscientific language.

The first step was to research what had already been written about chayote.

A 2019 entry from The Guardian offered a brief perspective. Titled “Chayote: the love child of a granny smith and a quince,” Mina Holland, who writes about food, lifestyle, and culture, informs the readers that the chayote squash is a Latin American gourd that, “during the Columbian exchange, spread across the Caribbean into the present-day American south, the Philippines and throughout Asia.” After providing a sense of historical origins, including a list of its other names, she offers provisional knowledge that it is “said to be a superfood for its nutritious properties -- which include regulating cholesterol, improving circulation, and reducing blood sugar -- the chayote has been identified by Pinterest as a 2019 food trend after a 76% surge in searches on the web platform in 2018.”[1]

In one short essay on chayote, there were all of the citational ingredients present in modern-day writing on food: nutritional science, geography, food trends, statistics, social media, and personal anecdotes. A brief mention of the chayote’s taxonomy -- is it a fruit or is it a vegetable? Does it belong in the refrigerator or can it sit at room temperature with a bowl of bananas? -- is added. And like many “how-to” food essays, the writer must experiment with recipes, showing us curious readers how textures, flavors, and tastes change in multiple uses. The kitchen becomes the lab. And like any experimenter, Holland references others who have cooked chayote.

This kind of template is reproduced over and over again. But I don’t want to use it.


Thinking about other possibilities of writing about objects like chayote reminded me of a concise tweet I saw during another day of mindless scrolling. On November 10, 2020, Jake Wolff tweeted:

“Creative nonfiction writers be like:
I first ate a hotdog when I was six years old. I remember the taste, the scent, the summer.


Hot dogs were invented in 1993 by Steven HotDog. According to Scientific American, the hotdog is”

Of course the tweet was hilarious. And an astute analysis regarding current food writing trends. Science (nutritional, biological, evolutionary) has somehow become a universalizing trope, one in which writers, readers, and the general public in need of expert validation have taken for granted. Why have we come to rely on science as a citational force or valorize it in stories? After all, science is another form of descriptive language.

Other questions I have: Does science offer a different way of imagining and reimagining our social lives or our relationships with food? Is science an inclusive reference, representing the full range of human experiences? Or, if we care about the grammatical role of science, what does science modify? Does it really explain our lived experiences? How is science personified?

Whose science is perhaps the most important question.


I ask myself these questions all of the time. My curiosity led me to co-create a lecture series on the role of literary imagination in science, technology, and society[2]. Our inaugural guest was rhetorician of science Leah Ceccarelli[3], who introduced the concept of “science citizen”. The familiar and alluring idea of “citizen science”[4], which promises accessible and participatory uptake in a specialized expert realm, placed too much onus on the “citizen” to become literate in science, Ceccarelli surmised. “Science citizen”, which she offered as complementary to its counterpart, makes the scientist accountable. That is, scientists must better communicate their language and views of the world to the public. But the category “citizen” isn’t without problems. Noting the U.S.-specific discourse on who counts and doesn’t count as a citizen in controversies about immigration, Ceccarelli said that “science citizen” could imply that borders and boundaries are enforced.

This idea is in direct contrast to the abstraction of an autonomous science as a mythical global force where it freely travels. After all, science precedes the scientist. The noun (science) becomes an actor, the actor (the scientist) becomes passive. Discovery and its magic are underscored, obscuring colonialism or what the anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan calls genocide or political vivisection[5].

In his 1997 collection of essays, A Carnival for Science, Visvanathan reflects on colonial violence enacted by the developments of Western science in India. The metaphor of a chaotic but pluralist “carnival” is a response directed at the connection of “nation” as a word, its bureaucratization into “nation-state”, and the inherent politicization and supposed linearity of science.[6] “What had been a vision, a living language, froze into a dead grammar,”[7] Visvanathan writes, further elaborating that a nation-state should have been a site for multiple identities, but has become another binary with boundaries and nationalist surveillance. Science becomes a state power wielded by the Indian government, making it the grammar of power and enforcing a singular scientific eye or gaze. “Underlying the notion of the modern state and the nation of science is a monolithic worldview. The nation-state cannot permit ethnicities which serve as competing sites for power, and modern science cannot tolerate the legitimacy of folk or ethnic knowledges,” Visvanathan writes.[8] His critique of evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson illustrates this claim. Wilson had a deep love for forests and read them as a visual field through the certainty of maps, surveys, census, hands-lens, and the microscope, creating a biography not of the forest, indigenous peoples, and their systems of knowledge but through the long story of evolution[9].

Ecology, Visvanathan reminds us, is dialogic, and Western science must converse with traditional knowledge. This means that we ought not translate traditional knowledge into conceptual scientific language. This principle, however, is seldom followed even when there are attempts to offer alternative stories. But science is not an alternative in my understanding of imagining otherwise. When science plays a role in the origin stories of food, the particular and contextual are flattened to offer a rather uncomplicated tale of science under the guise of diverse foodways, practices, and knowledges. Referring to the colonized subjects’ knowledge as science or scientist simply validates, Visvanathan again emphasizes, the state as power which allows it to revise the conditions of the production and reproduction of scientific discourse.


The language of science is often reproduced in essays that we’ve deemed as interdisciplinary, in which multiple types of genres and styles are blended. Often lauded as a canonical essay in food studies, David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster”' is interpreted as one that provokes our values regarding ethical consumption. More important are the lessons of uncertainty that unravel in his writing. While attending the Maine Lobster Festival for an assignment, Wallace grapples with the realization that lobsters are alive up to the second before they are boiled.

Wallace is most puzzled by this statement, from a trivia quiz printed on the lobster festival’s program (and sponsored by the Maine Lobster Promotion Council): “The nervous system of a lobster is very simple, and is in fact most similar to the nervous system of the grasshopper. It is decentralized with no brain. There is no cerebral cortex, which in humans is the area of the brain that gives the experience of pain.”[10] He goes on to analyze the seemingly factual statement, one that echoes Visvanathan’s remarks on the state-science-violence complex, which becomes the catalyst of Wallace’s preoccupation.

Much like a pedantic philosopher, Wallace flounders between using scientific language, especially neurology and anatomy, and an ethical tone. When invoked, science is taken for granted, nameless and as assumed facts extracted from his research. Few of his footnotes actually reveal references, but draws our attention to his constant self-questioning as he tries to unpack his research[11]. Wallace’s tone openly expresses confusion, which stems from ethical uncertainty and individual discomfort rather than scientific uncertainty. And this is despite looming questions of how and which science is reproduced in an essay like Wallace’s.

But uncertainty should not be discredited, especially when citations of science are involved. And one need not dismiss a lay person, which Wallace calls himself in the essay, trying to make sense of such statements. Ceccarelli’s critique on the “citizen” needing to educate themselves with science is especially pertinent here. For far too long have misunderstandings of science been the conclusion rather than a starting point to address institutional and hierarchical ways of communicating.

Science should not and must not monopolize our citations, prioritizing another dead grammar or a state-endorsed language of power. It is no longer imaginative to rely on science as a metaphor in the kitchen, the vastness of the landscape as ripe for discovery, or liken curiosity to scientific experimentation.

If science can be reimagined, away from the lab and white coats, then we might consider the liberatory project academic and writer Katherine McKittrick shares in Dear Science and Other Stories. Like Visvanathan, she argues that we’ve not yet moved away from “the dominance of the colonial and patriarchal Western knowledge systems and scientific racism”[12]. At the outset, McKittrick states that her project is not one that describes science, but one that shares stories of how Black life is known and recognized through asymmetrically connected knowledge systems and move away from the “long-standing prominence of scientific ‘facts’ developed between the 18th and 19th centuries”[13]. Instead, she wants “to sustain wonder”[14], the final sentence in the collection. Wonder, then, can replace the language of discovery. But this will require us to thoughtfully reflect on what we want from science that is not dominion or captivity in our languages and knowledges.


I’ve abandoned that initial essay. And I’ve stopped asking my mother about chayote, though she was both eager to share but dismissive at the same time. She enjoyed talking about her techniques and memories, but balked at my constant follow-up questions for precision. When I interrupted her to clarify a detail while I translated her ideas in shorthand English, she lost interest quickly. “Why is that important?” she muttered begrudgingly, after I stopped an aside that detailed her creation of a small, wired trellis for her bitter cucumbers.

I’m not writing for my mother. I am writing about my mother because there are lessons to share. These are very distinct statements. But there must be other ways of sharing my mother’s stories without relying on the scientific gaze. I refuse to lose her stories to dead grammars.

About the writer
Anna Nguyen is a PhD student and instructor in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany. Her research focuses on the rhetoric, composition and literary studies of science, literature on food, citations, and social theory. She is especially interested in theoretical creative non-fiction, where social theory and first-person narrative blend without enforcing academic conventions. She hosts a podcast, Critical Literary Consumption.

[1] The article can be found https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/jan/31/chayote-squash-the-love-child-of-a-granny-smith-and-a-quince .

[2] My partner, a fellow academic and fellow scholar in science and technology studies (STS), and I wanted to think about alternatives to the ways in which we write, analyze, and imagine science. In STS, we rarely see how literary studies intersect in the field. We called the lecture-series “Literary Imagination in Science, Technology, and Society”, hoping to bring in authors into a space where academics continue to dominate. For more information: https://www.cells.uni-hannover.de/en/speakerseries/

[3] See also Ceccarelli, Shaping Science With Rhetoric: The Cases of Dobzhansky, Schrödinger, and Wilson(University of Chicago, 2001) and On the Frontier Science: An American Rhetoric of Exploration and Exploitation (Michigan State University, 2013).

[4] The concept “citizen science” has replaced science and citizens, as discussed in Melissa Leach, Ian Scoones, and Brian Wynne, Science and Citizens: Globalization and the Engagement of Science (London: Zed Books, 2005). Perhaps complementary to Ceccarelli’s point, they used the term to encourage “citizens to participate in science. This is different from colloquial use nowadays, which is the tendency to label one’s expertise as a form of science.

[5] Shiv Visvanathan, A Carnival for Science: Essays on Science, Technology and Development (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), 25.

[6] pg. 3.

[7] pg. 3.

[8] pg. 39.

[9] pg. 53.

[10] David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” (Gourmet, August 2004), 62.

[11] How funny it is that I’m citing an idea about a footnote from Katherine McKittrick’s story on footnotes. McKittrick steers our attention to footnotes and citational practices in an essay titled “Footnotes (Books and Papers Scattered About the Floor)”. Much of her footnotes are quite long, and add more analysis using references from black studies, which, she writes, “uncovers a lesson that cannot be obtained within the main text”. See Dear Science and Other Stories (Duke University Press, 2021), 19.

[12] pg. 131.

[13] ibid.

[14] pg. 187. In our lecture-series, Tita Chico also based her presentation on this very line. Titled “I Want to Sustain Wonder: On Science and Literature”, she proposes wonder as an affective epistemology that enables the reimagination of how the individual understands and knows the natural world. McKittrick also mentions wonder in Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 91-94.


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