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Having just uploaded the final document of an NSF grant proposal (for this project) I feel like going “back to basics” and revisiting the big picture of my field. Unlike most of my fellow Cyborgology contributors, I don’t hold a degree in sociology and I’ve never been to the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting. My department is an interdisciplinary social science called Science and Technology Studies. Similar departments call themselves Science, Technology, and Society (helpfully, both can be called simply “STS” and that’s what I’m going to use for the rest of this post) but other departments have slightly altered listicle names: MIT’s History, Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Society probably wins for longest department name. (True Story: went to a grad conference there once and they handed out pint glasses that said “We put the HA in STS. Funny kids over there.) What follows is, in some really broad strokes, the contours of this little-known but growing intellectual tradition. I’m going to cover a rough history, and the field’s major projects and subfields that emerged from that history. As the title suggests, I’m going to make a lot of generalizations in service of brevity so… just be prepared for that. My hope is that this is somewhat helpful around this time of year for people who might just be getting into STS departments (congrats!) and for recent undergraduate degree holders who are considering going back to school. One final caveat: like all histories, this one is confined by its author. My friends at the Cornell STS program would write a different history, and the folks that study STS policy at Georgia Tech would write something different as well.

In the Beginning There was Revolution

Lots of intro STS books (there’s really only three of them 1, 2 and 3) say that STS began with Thomas Kuhn although the new editions of these books (if and when they ever come out) will probably revisit the work of Ludwik Fleck. Prior to Kuhn was what Sergio Sismondo describes as the “prehistory of STS” and is largely composed of philosophers and social scientists concerned with the nature of knowledge and the societal implications of handing off authority and power to machines. Names commonly associated with this history include Robert Merton, Michael Polanyi, Lewis Mumford, and more well known thinkers who had a lot to say about science and/or technology like Martin Heidegger, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Pytor Kropotkin.

Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolution, published in 1962 argued that scientific progress wasn’t only driven by the discovery of facts: science is a social process that fluctuates between periods of “normal science” and revolution. During periods of ‘normal science” every scientist subscribes to a particular paradigm and all work seeks to refine and elaborate the basic premises of the paradigm. Revolution occurs when a sizeable contingent of scientist challenge the paradigm itself. The revolution, according to Kuhn, isn’t resolved and normal science reinstated until the adherents to the old paradigm die off or become so marginalized that they are incapable of marshaling resources to continue their research. Even more controversial was the idea that these revolutions didn’t necessarily produce better accounts of the natural world, just different ones. Sometimes the newer paradigms were able to explain more, or they afforded new applications, but most importantly they structured who could do science and lay claim to “how the world works.”

Ludwik Fleck took a slightly different approach, describing something closer to Foucault’s episteme. Fleck taught that various “thought collectives”  existed at any one time and vied for adherents through persuasive demonstrations and publications of experiments and remained coherent through a common vocabulary and method. Unlike Kuhn, which still has an essence of linearity to it (normal science -> revolution -> new normal science – new revolution), Fleck showed that scientific discovery was always working in multiple “directions” with each having relatively equal chances of achieving dominance.

Several turns to Technology, Social Construction, Representation, and the Nonmodern

Fleck was writing in the 20s and 30s up until his eventual incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp (where he was forced to work on and eventually invented a typhus vaccine in a German army hospital through experimentation on prisoners). He survived but his work on epistemology in this later period is not as widely cited. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions was originally published in 1962 and, while the discipline has moved and improved beyond the theory of Kuhnian revolutions, it is still a foundational text in STS.

The STS work of the 70s and 80s laid the groundwork for the established field it is today. Much of what was written in this time was the result of a symbiotic relationship between counterculture and critical thought applied to science and technology. Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology (1977), Evelyn Fox Keller’s Reflections on Gender and Science (1985) and Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life (1979) are indicative of this period of writing. These texts, along with dozens of articles, essays, and books by (in no particular order) Donald MacKenzie, Sal Restivo, David Noble, Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway, Andrew Pickering, Michel Callon, Wiebe Bijker, Thomas Hughes, and Trevor Pinch began to develop a coherent rebuttal to the dominant idea that technologies are apolitical tools and science merely observes and records objective facts.

Winner’s two books in this period aforementioned Autonomous Technologies and his 1986 book The Whale and the Reactor built off of previous work by Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford and showed that technological artifacts have their own politics. (I summarize that argument here.) Keller’s work began one of STS’s longest-standing projects: revealing how the history of science and technology buries the contributions of women and even defines contributions to science as activities typically performed by men. Latour and Woolgar’s ethnography of the Jonas Salk laboratory was the first study to use the tools of anthropology on a thoroughly modern field site. This launched a long-standing tradition of seeing scientific objects and theoretical models as cultural artifacts as well.

By the end of the 80s and into the first half of the 90s several major projects had solidified into recognizable schools of thought and theories: The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) and Social Construction of Technology (SCoT) continued where Fleck left off and produced dense and elaborate accounts of technological invention and scientific discovery. Everything from the design of 13th century Portuguese ships of war (Law, 1987) to Bakelite plastic and fluorescent lighting (Bijker 1997) was gone over with a fine tooth comb. These authors were after two very big ideas. The first was that all science and technology was socially constructed, meaning that everything “could have been otherwise” but wasn’t due to historical, social, and cultural factors. Second, these authors wanted to know what made a technology “stabilize” into the general form we come to recognize. This usually involved investigating the working definitions of technoscientific concepts like accuracy and precision. How accurate is accurate enough? Does accuracy work the same way in nuclear missile design and furniture construction? The answers were always extremely qualified and usually involved the phrase, “it’s more complicated than that.”

Latour and Woolgar’s ethnography of a laboratory began a tradition of studying the scientific process and how it came to develop representations of our world. Scientific instruments, Latour and Woolgar argued, inscribed invisible forces onto tangible and exchangeable documents and it was this process of inscription that was the over-looked but crucial process (along with high social standing) that made it possible to form arguments about the world. A sizeable portion of STS literature is devoted to articulating just how technoscientific objects mediate and represent the world around us. Obviously there’s a lot of overlap here with the work founded by Winner, who reminds us that this representation can have political consequences and/or motivations.

Bruno Latour, probably one of the most cited STS scholars, produced several foundational texts about representation, social constructivism, and the politics of technology but his most popular work sought to dismantle the nature/society dualism all-together. His book We Have Never Been Modern (1993) argued that modernity, more than anything else, relied on a conceptual separation between knowledge pertaining to nature and society. That is, the way we construct causality and ontology was unnecessarily bifurcated by a deeply and widely held belief that the laws governing society and nature were completely different. The titular argument of the book was a massive critique of the post-modern project as well, since the collapsing of boundaries was predicated on those boundaries beginning in the first place.

Only recently [PDF] has Latour tried to articulate what we have been this whole time, if not modern. In the mean time, he described the nonmodern as an infinitely complex network of human and nonhuman actors (or actants) that could be studied through his well-known Actor-Network theory developed with fellow ANT adherents Michel Callon and John Law. There are lots of good critiques of ANT, most of which point out that even if the fundamental ontology between society and nature is arbitrary, the way ANT repositions actors’ relationships to one-another erases or obscures inequalities of power among humans.

Cyborgs, The Public, and Making Things

Of course, another major project of 90s STS was Donna Haraway’s work and what is probably her best-known Cyborg Manifesto which was actually first written almost 10 years before the version everyone cites in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1990). The manifesto cites the later 20th century’s breakdown of barriers between humans, animals, machines, physical and nonphysical phenomena as a reason to de-center identity in favor of affinity. It was specifically a call for socialist feminists to reassess their identity-centered politics and recognize the power of affinities. The thesis is, and this is where this history definitely becomes my telling, does essentially the same work that Latour does. It is, at least for me, what We Have Never Been Modern should have been, at least in terms of its applicability to race, class and gender politics. (More on Latour’s approach to power here.)

Another boundary STS interrogates is that of lay and expert knowledge. Going as far back as the 70s, in some Scandinavian work (See Bødker’s work cited below) STS scholars have sought to understand what “counts” as legitimate science and what is considered either quackery or too amateur to be reproducible or generalizable. Much of this work relies on case studies of scientific controversy surrounding environmental disasters and faulty technologies. Popular topics in this area include: publics’ understanding of scientific facts and processes, legitimacy to make scientific claims or show scientific proof, the diagnostic process (e.g. why something works or doesn’t work and how “working” is defined in the first place), and the boundary formation of disciplines.

Its also worth point out here that there’s a smaller but parallel track of STS (that I really like) that dates back to SCoT and SSK that focuses more on the microsociology of performing science instead of focusing on the representational aspects of science. In other words, authors like Andrew Pickering look at what decisions scientists and engineers make in the moment so as to better understand how science works as a practice, not a profession or a collection of facts.

This sort of work is getting particularly useful now that STS scholars have also taken it upon themselves to collaborate with scientist and engineers themselves and engage in the making process. The last decade or so has seen a massive increase in methods and frameworks that help engineers and scientists develop a kind of “sociological imagination” while at the same time give social scientists a much richer picture of how humans think with and through material objects.

The future of STS, if current publications are any indication of future progress, will be in making as well as writing. Critical Making (Matt Ratto), Reflective Design (Phoebe Sengers), Adversarial Design (Carl DiSalvo), Feminist Technologies (Linda Layne), Critical Technical Practice (Phil Agre), Appropriate Design (Dean Nieusma), and the work of Public Lab (Sarah Wylie) are interventions meant to democratize science and engineering or in some other way imbue these practices with the kinds of concerns and problems that have been the subject of the social sciences for over a century.

David is on Twitter & Tumblr.

Further Reading / References

  • Agre, Philip. 1997. Computation and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bauchspies, Wenda K, Jennifer Croissant, and Sal Restivo. 2005. Science, Technology, and Society: A Sociological Approach. 1st ed. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Bijker, Wiebe E., Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch. 1989. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Bijker, Wiebe. 1997. Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs : Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. 1st MIT Pr. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Bødker, S, P Ehn, J Kammersgaard, M Kyng, and Y Sundblad. 1987. “An Utopian Experience.” In In Computers and Democracy – a Scandinavian Challange, edited by Gro Bjerknes, Pelle Ehn, and Morten Kyng. Avebury Gower Publishing Company Ltd, Aldershot.
  • DiSalvo, Carl. 2012. Adversarial Design. Design Thinking, Design Theory. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
  • Haraway, Donna J. 1990. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. 1st ed. Routledge.
  • Hess, David J. 1997. Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction. NYU Press.
  • Latour, Bruno. 1991. “Technology Is Society Made Durable.” In A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology, and Domination, edited by John Law. London; New York: Routledge.
  • Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Latour, Bruno. 2010. “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto.’” New Literary History 41 (3): 471–90. doi:10.1353/nlh.2010.0022.
  • Layne, Linda, Sharra Vostral, and Kate Boyer, eds. 2010. Feminist Technology. 1st Edition. University of Illinois Press.
  • Nieusma, Dean. 2004. “Alternative Design Scholarship: Working Toward Appropriate Design.” Design Issues 20 (3): 13–24. doi:10.1162/0747936041423280.
  • Pickering, Andrew, ed. 1992. Science as Practice and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Pickering, Andrew. 1995. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Ratto, Matt. 2011. “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life.” The Information Society 27 (4): 252–60.
  • Sady, Wojciech. 2012. “Ludwik Fleck.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2012.
  • Sengers, Phoebe, Kirsten Boehner, Shay David, and Joseph “Jofish” Kaye. 2005. “Reflective Design.” In Proceedings of the 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: Between Sense and Sensibility, 49–58. CC ’05. New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/1094562.1094569.
  • Sismondo, Sergio. 2010. An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies. 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Wynne, Bryan. 1996. “Misunderstood Misunderstandings: Social Identities and Public Uptake of Science.” In Misunderstanding Science The Public Reconstruction of Science and Technology, edited by Alan Irwin and Brian Wynne, 1:19–46. 3. Cambridge University Press.