+STS-Meeting: Spatial STS

Post,Reflections,Series November 14, 2014 6:30 pm

Cambridge (MA), October 22nd, 2014. What is the place of space in Science & Technology Studies (STS)? This was the key question that the cross-STS Working Group discussed in its October 2014 meeting, suggesting that space emerges as an increasingly important and explicitly analyzed category.

Robin Scheffler, who is currently a visiting scholar at the Cantabrigian American Academy of Arts and Sciences and will join MIT’s Program in STS next year, led the discussion. Building on a pre-circulated reading (Finnegan 2008), he provided a sketch of the place of space in seminal STS works from the past 30 years to start off the debate.

Place in STS Analyses
STS scholars in the 1980s like Shapin and Schaffer (1985) or Latour and Woolgar (1986) studied the laboratory as an exemplary site of good science. They described how early modern natural philosophers and 1970s scientists, respectively, succeeded in producing natural knowledge that was apparently not bound to its setting of origin. Its objectivity erased its place and (social) situation of origin. It did not matter that it was made in a specific place by people with a specific point of view, rather it appeared to be made from the view from nowhere: nature herself spoke truth, and this knowledge could travel seamlessly to other places. A number of STS scholars set then out to analyze not only how scientific knowledge is the product of a specific institution but also how practices move. Explicating Michael Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowledge, Harry Collins studied how the replication of scientific experiments requires personal contact to learn the craft of running the experiment successfully, making science move and replicating the finding (Collins 1992).

But making science does not only require close contact, but scientific knowledge emerges also out of distance: Bruno Latour introduced the concept of immutable mobiles to describe how science gains its power by collecting inscriptions and other things and moving them to a distant center where they are assembled, compared, or contrasted to produce knowledge (Latour 1986). Furthermore, Mario Biagioli explained that the Royal Society gained its reputation by keeping visitors away from its modest facilities, communicating only through letters, and thereby leveraging the information asymmetry (Biagioli 2006). Other STS scholars looked at museums or botanical gardens as sites of knowledge-making or turned to the field sciences such as natural history and geology that require scientists to move through landscapes. More recently, environmental historians like William Cronon, students of commodities like Sydney Mintz, and multisited ethnography have inspired STS scholars to study the impact of contact in long-distance trade, colonial encounters, etc. have for the production of scientific knowledge (see, e.g., Cook 2007).

How to analyze space?
This +STS meeting was also joined by students from MIT’s History, Theory, and Criticism (HTC) and Urban Planning who brought in their disciplinary perspectives and questions, leading to interesting exchanges with STS- and anthropologically-trained participants from HASTS as we discussed the ways in which space features in our analyses and in the life worlds of the actors whom we study.

How do virtual spaces such as computer simulations or GIS changed our conceptions of space? What are the relations of laboratory, field sites, and virtual simulation? How are virtual spaces made by communities of practices in a particular space? Which politics are involved in representing a landscape as French in a painting and presenting it at a specific site in France? Space, it became quickly clear, is never just physical, imagined, or representational but always already a hybrid made by actors, imposed on and challenged by other.. It is made, remade, and defined by the actors’ perspectives, but also by us as analysts.

Heather Paxson (MIT Anthropology) reported from her own research project on artisinal cheese-making (she has also published the amazing book The Life of Cheese based on that ethnographic work), linking it to our discussion on space-making. The artisinal cheesemakers, whom Heather interviewed and observed, worked hard to produce a cheese that is characteristic to its locality, its place of its making – almost like the French terroir. Chris Walley (MIT Anthropology) reminded us of past anthropologists who viewed the spatially distant “primitive tribes” they studied as window onto the past of their own Western “civilization.” Space then becomes hardly separable from time, raising the question how the different spatialities and temporalities constitute each other? Space, the +STS discussion showed, continues to be productive category for cross-disciplinary debates, analyses of various spaces and their connections.

This post is hardly complete, so please feel free to add your impressions from the meeting — or share your general thoughts on space and STS — in the comment section!



Biagioli, Mario. 2006. Galileo’s Instruments of Credit: Telescopes, Images, Secrecy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Collins, H. M. 1992. Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cook, Harold John. 2007. Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.
Finnegan, Diarmid A. 2008. “The Spatial Turn: Geographical Approaches in the History of Science.” Journal of the History of Biology 41 (2): 369–88. doi:10.1007/s10739-007-9136-6.
Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. 1986. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Latour, Bruno. 1986. “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together.” Knowledge and Society 6: 1–40.
Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. 1985. Leviathan and the Air-Pump : Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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