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The Changing Faces of STS

by Gábor István Bíró

Science and Technology Studies, also known as STS, has become a mature interdisciplinary field. The arch of such maturing is perhaps best grasped by analyzing how visions about the past, present and future of the field have changed in the minds of scholars engaged in producing successive editions of The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies over the past forty years. In this sense, these Handbooks are historiographical attempts of making and undoing various ages and imagined disciplinary realms. They are not simply summaries of what was the case or what should be. They are, quite literally, bodies of paper and ink, and they are always already involved in both the pasts they produce, the presents they show and the futures they help to bring forward or impede. The nature of such involvement relentlessly mirrors the authors’ expectations, affections and convictions, and tranforms them into disciplinary traits.

Derek de Solla Price, one of the early contributors to scientometrics (photo: public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons)

Derek de Solla Price, one of the early contributors to scientometrics (photo: public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons)

The first edition of the Handbook, by Spiegel-Rösing and de Solla Price in 1977, emphasized geographical (East and West) and sociopolitical (socialist and bourgeois) regionalizations that existed long before the field’s infancy. The nascent field was divided into two parts based on cognitive differences, social studies of science versus science-policy studies. Five tendencies – desimplifying, humanistic, normative, reflexive and relativistic – and four deficiencies (fragmentation, the bigness and hardness bias, the lack of comparative research, and ‘rhetoric pathos’) were identified, which strongly influenced the field in the following decades of disciplinary juxtaposition. Some contributors sought to adapt to these characteristics in order to become well-known STS scholars, while others wanted to forge their fame and fortune by challenging them and turning this to their advantage. Only the ‘best and brightests’ managed to do both successfully.

The second edition (1995) intended to map the work done in the field and claimed to find three trends: one studying science as a social system from a rather institutional approach, one studying how and what is social in science and scientific knowledge, and one cultivating a kind of value-laden sensitivity and consciousness in and about science, which was inextricably woven together with the civil rights movements. Authors have claimed to find signs of both the “standoffishness” and the reconciliation of these thrusts. The future of the field was seen as depending on the results of the bridge-building attempts trying to connect the “High and Low Churches” (Fuller, 1992), and the “technocratic” and “critical” fractions – that is, bridging the gulf between those with mainly academic concerns and those with policy aims.

The third edition (2008) embraced the idea that the field is “clearly maturing”. More attention was given to practices, places and things. The field was no longer considered to be a narrowly academic endeavour as the engagements of STS practitioners were not seen as limited to academia, but as also taking place in various arenas of activism and policy. The gap between the High and Low Churches was not eliminated but faded, due to the increased level of engagements with diverse publics and decision-makers.

The current, fourth edition (2017), defined science and technology studies as a field exploring the “transformative power of science and technology to arrange and rearrange contemporary societies” (p. 1.). The trend that emphasizes the micro-social analyses of science and technology focusing on the minutiae of scientific beliefs and practices became even more influential. Scientists became subjects with bodies, following practices in places, and having interests and affective qualities such as fears and hopes. Scientific knowledge and technological artifacts were increasingly seen as co-constructed by (Taylor, 1995), or co-produced with (Jasanoff, 2004), the social order. Long-established dichotomies such as descriptive vs. normative, material vs. mental, agency vs. structure have lost their charm as new key concepts such as imaginaries or entanglements made us rethink our inquiries into science, technology and society.

The thirty-six chapters of the recent volume are divided into five sections. The first section (‘Doing, Exploring, and Reflecting on Methods’) analyses the methods and participatory practices of STS. The various accounts cover how and why we should think differently about engagements, documents and design, and various epistemologies are being explored in new arenas of research practices (digital, video, art).

The second section (‘Making Knowledge, People, and Societies’) focuses on how scientists, states and other societal actors know and how the process of manufacturing knowledge affects and is being affected by social institutions and relations. Entanglements of science, democracy and power are discussed in chapters addressing questions such as: Who has the power and on what basis to make legitimate knowledge claims? How is imagining the future being constrained by power? How does such imagining affect future power fields?

The third section (‘Sociotechnological [Re-]configurations’) discusses how social configurations shape and get shaped by technologies. Processes of remaking, reconfiguring and reassembling the symbiotic relationship of humanity and material artifacts are addressed in detail. Sociotechnical (re)configurations of users, infrastructures, and even spaces are thoroughly analyzed, showing the dynamics and the intertwinings between sociotechnical arrangements and societies.

The fourth section (‘Organizing and Governing Science’) explores the governance and the organization of science by taking a look at its structures, institutions and inscribed values. The focus is on the practices of organizing, monitoring, regulating and communicating science. Disparities of race, gender, and discipline are being analysed by unpacking value systems in certain scientific contexts. Reward systems, rules, credit pressures and rivalries are being analysed with a specific view to how the related practices changed after World War II.

The fifth section (‘Engaging with Societal Challenges’) relates science and technology to the six grand challenges of our time, seeing them as both causes of, and imagined solutions to, the problems of aging, agriculture, climate change, disasters, environmental justice and security. The aim of this section is to map, summarize and reflect upon the STS scholarship concerning these six challenges, and to present how and why STS scholars could and should be drawn into the related public debates.

How has such (re)visioning on the future of the field changed in the most recent edition of the Handbook? STS scholars are now seen working to ease the known deficiencies of their field. Fragmentation decreased as rich micro-analyses of local practices became embedded in large-scale studies of power structures and socio-political realms. Big and hard things are still present and rule the scene, but there is a growing interest both in social sciences (e.g., economics, sociology, history) and in analysing natural sciences with ‘softer’ tools and perspectives focusing more on the local niche than on how new findings change a disciplinary milieu. The ‘rhetoric pathos’ is, in a sense, balanced by an increased attention to visuals and visualization in scientific and technological contexts.[1] [1] Comparative research is also on the rise as special issues of important STS journals draw together a diverse array of scholars to analyse specific topics from different perspectives.

Most of these changes can be traced in this book. To their credit, the editors did not want to force their visions of the field on the authors. They describe their approach in crafting this volume reflexive landscaping by which they mean that they intend to remain highly attentive, flexible and responsive to the authors and the reviewers in the process. In other words, the editors were conscious about their own role in (re)making the landscape of this book and the field and restrained themselves to balance the imaginative powers of all interested parties in order to be able to provide an account which is more a snapshot of a multi-faceted ‘living’ interdisciplinary entity than a thoroughly pre-visioned and planned state-of-the-art narrative.That is why this excellent and well-written book is highly recommended to anyone interested in the pasts, presents or futures of what, today, we call science and technology studies.

 

Felt, U. – Fouché, R. – Miller, C. A. – Smith-Doerr, L.:
The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, Fourth edition
Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2017.
ISBN: 9780262035682
1208 pages, Hardcover, US$75.00

Dr. Gábor István Bíró, PhD, is an adjunct professor at Budapest University of Technology and Economics.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Dr. Phil Mullins for reading the first version of this review and offering his suggestions.

NOTES

[1] [2] See e.g., Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited (2014) by Catelijne Coopmans, Janet Vertesi, Michael E. Lynch and Steve Woolgar.

(c) 2018, The Berlin Review of Books