Cross-STS Launched—- Probing the Genealogies

Review,Series October 2, 2014 9:36 am

The new working group at HASTS, Cross-STS, had a great start last week, 9/24/2014, with over twenty people from varied disciplinary backgrounds like Anthropology, Architecture, Medicine, STS and Public Policy joining us. “STS” was dissected and reconfigured on several planes in this first meeting. Under the broad umbrella theme of “crossing” disciplinary, regional, transnational boundaries to discuss the emergent forms of STS, the meeting focused on the most recent 4S (Society of Social Studies of Science) conference held at Buenos Aires in August 2014, as well as, STS syllabi from schools across three different continents: Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences), Paris; Delhi School of Economics, India; and Cornell University, USA.

After a brief round of introduction, the conversation began with Heather Paxson and Stefan Helmreich (both in MIT Anthropology) mapping out the different genealogies of STS in the past two decades, at the same time, pointing out the situatedness of narrating each of those genealogies. The kinds of questions that the discipline has asked itself in the past two decades, the specific relations of those questions with the historical and spatial contexts from which they emerged, the issues that are at stake and how have they transformed over decades— these were some of the themes on which the conversation began. In Britain, for instance, the debates starting from the ‘80s have been around science and public, whereas in the US, it has been about expertise and knowledge production.

Stefan emphasized the problem of mapping out the genealogies because there are several narratives of each version and they are often contested. One of the genealogies could be linking Science and Technology Studies, Sociology of Scientific Knowledge and Sociology of Science— all of which emerged in the ‘80s, mainly in Europe and the US— to their roots in Philosophy of Science. History of Science later joined the same conversation. The main impetus of these disciplines or fields was to understand science by engaging in ethnographic practices. Based on shared methodology and sometimes similar questions, disciplines like Anthropology, Media Studies, Cultural Studies soon joined this lively interdisciplinary conversation that was evolving around “Science” in the ‘80s. This emphasis on ethnographic method that STS followed, either bound disciplines or created rifts between them. History of Science is a classic case of a discipline that maintained a considerable distance from STS, based on methods as well as the kinds of questions that each discipline asked —the science “on” society versus science “of society”, as Heather pointed out. The initial meetings of 4S were often around the methodology of doing STS, which was very inter-disciplinary from the very beginning.

The main thrust of STS through the decades have been to establish a mode of critiquing scientific practices, and has often moved simultaneously or in conjunction with feminist, racial and political critiques of scientific practices. And, in most universities in the UK, these critiques were often Marxist in their orientation. For instance, the journal “Science and Culture”, used to be called the “Radical Science Journal” was a political, Marxist critique of science.

On this note of Marxist critiques of science, the discussion then moved on towards the different syllabi and how the EHSS is more political than the others. The decision of constructing a syllabus always necessarily entails navigating through a number of political interventions and decisions and they reflect the politics of the institution itself as well. For instance, at MIT, the STS Program developed as a critique of cold war science in America and the way it was carried out, and people like Leo Marx were hired to establish the program, which was initially conceived as a kind of college, but was later scaled down to a program. The politics of knowledge merges with the policies of the state, and commercializing the universities. For instance, questions of commerce and market dominate the French syllabus whereas in the Cornell one, the market is not one of the major elements in structuring the syllabus, which itself is reflective of larger politics. Again, there is also a strand in STS that purposefully tries to break out of the Marxist political economic framework. For example, Bruno Latour does it in Science in Action, where he argues that class, other social categories and scientific technical practices are produced in the process of doing science rather than being a deterministic factor. A question to think about then is, how far or deep does one consider the historical, political interventions and contexts of the university, society or the state in delimiting the scope of STS in a particular moment?

Another issue that some of the participants mentioned is that in their home institutions in Netherlands and Germany, STS is not a discipline at all, although there is a lot of research around science and technology that is coming from Philosophy of Science, Sociology of Science, and the disciplines are often quite self-referential. More often than not, there is a strong effort to distinguish a discipline from STS and underscore the difference of the nature of research. Research done on institutional analysis or systems analysis in Germany strongly resist the overarching, global discourse on STS, which is materially and symbolically synonymous with North America. In the UK, government funding led to centers for the inquiries into specific biomedical regimes (BIOS at LSE or Genomics Network at Exeter). The questions that surfaced out of this part of the discussion and that demand ongoing engagement are— How do we explain the variety of issues, questions and practices that are brought under the umbrella term STS? How then do we define the discipline? And, again, to what extent do we consider national and disciplinary traditions in understanding or describing a discipline historically? Do they necessarily have to be linked? The recent edited work by an alumnus of HASTS, Eden Medina, “Beyond Imported Magic”, that was launched at the 4S, answers some of these questions about the tools that STS needs in different regional and political contexts.

Along with this descriptive project, goes the prescriptive one, of how do we, as STS scholars, want the discipline to be shaped, defined and described in future? Does STS itself metamorphose with the changing nature of science from cold war science to climate change science, for example? How is STS emerging differently in different cultural, regional contexts? What are the tools for such area specific analysis of STS? These are questions that have plagued several disciplines and that always demand reshaping and reconfiguration. For some answers, and more questions, stay tuned to your emails for our next meeting to be held on 22nd October that will be led by Robin Scheffler. Hope to see a lot more of you at the next meeting!

By Ashawari Chaudhuri and Lucas Mueller, IIIrd year, HASTS Program

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