Lee Claiborne Nelson

Adjunct, Science and Technology Studies

Lee Claiborne Nelson practices field or embedded philosophy by integrating his training in the history of science and technology, philosophy, and science and technology studies (STS) with empirical research. His research focuses on the politics of death certification and the epistemic practices of forensic human decomposition research. In particular, he has focused on how death certifiers resolve (or don’t) tensions that exist between the death certificate category ‘Natural Death’ and cultural conceptualizations of what counts as a natural death, and how individual deaths resulting from environmental injustices are concealed by being labeled 'Natural.’ Through historiographic analyses of social and epistemic engagements with human decomposition and the nonhuman production of decomposition in the West, and through conducting surveys of human decomposition’s intellectual history, his research analyzed inflection points where social, cultural, and/or epistemic practices and thought-styles changed in response to alternative or new conceptualizations of bodily decomposition through field-based participatory research and interviews with forensic entomologists.

His dissertation “Bodies from Below: Decomposition, Death Certificates, and the Politics of 'Natural' Death” focused on the connections between the historiographic avoidance of human decomposition in epistemic, social, and, therefore, philosophical life and the recent emergence of human decomposition research by forensic entomologists. One optical device for examining the conversion of the decomposing body from a problem to be chemically, environmentally, or spatially managed to one of epistemic value for crimino-legal death investigations is the contemporary death certificate. His research revealed a tension between entomological research concerns and crimino-legal application, a tension that resulted in an imposed limitation on the scope of entomological decomposition research due to deference to the criminal justice system and the structural requirements of death certification. The death certificates’ perfunctory Manner of Death category ‘Natural,’ a category that essentially functions as a catch-all for non-Homicide, -Suicide, or -Accidental deaths, frames what is considered relevant in forensics research. In this way, the ‘Natural’ Manner of Death category simultaneously conceals individual injurious deaths due to environmental hazards and injustices and practically bars forensic entomological and forensic toxicological research from attending to the toxicants and their entomological affects on human decomposition.

In addition, Lee’s scholarship has included historical analyses of the relationship between Pierre Bourdieu and Bruno Latour as well as discursive analyses of Bruno Latour’s rhetoric. He draws heavily upon Feminist New Materialist literature and French Philosophy and History of Science.


Ph.D Science and Technology Studies, RPI, Troy NY
MA Science and Technology Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
MA Philosophy, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
BA Philosophy/BA History of Science and Technology, Dalhousie University/University of King’s College, Halifax, Canada

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