Questioning Marginalisation Within STS

While STS increasingly secures its ground as a disciplined inter-disciplinary field, junior STS scholars need to address how they experience and may reconfigure their positions within the field. Correspondingly, on 16th of October, EASST held its 2012 pre-conference workshop at Copenhagen Business School on the theme What does it mean to do STS at the margin?. This workshop brought to the foreground the tactics and strategies employed by “us” (junior STS scholars) to rework being partially marginalised into practical advantages.

Drawing on the discussion with over 20 participants1 from across Europe, the Middle East, Australia and Northern America as well as supportive responses and critiques by Jose Ossandon, Fred Steward, Manuel Tironi and Helen Verran we want to emphasise three takes to reflexively engage with marginalisa­tion. First, being positioned marginally often has immediate complicating implications on our lived realities, in all aspects of our lives. Difficulties extend from our texts not being published or the publications not being recognised by more dominant groups to restrictions in freedom to move across nation-state borders. Second, given its generative-potential for reconfiguration, being marginal is also a doing that has proven useful to STS in the past and thus we do and should ask ourselves if being marginal is perhaps something we may tactically choose. Third, being reflexive about marginality is a contradictory position; being reflexive is a privilege not everyone who is marginal has. Finally, a caveat: the following reflections should not be read as an attempt to represent the workshop; much rather, it instantiates resonances of authors’ individual-collective engagement with the theme.

Overcoming Individualised Engagement?
by Ingmar Lippert and Juan F. Espinosa Cristia

At the outset of this workshop we, as organisers, assumed that scholars experience marginalisation in many possible ways – such as in relation to discipline, location/geography, gender, race, eco­no­mic status, age or language. Virtually all workshop participants related explicitly to how margin­alised disciplinary positions expressed themselves. Outside well established STS centres, students and scholars relating to or even identifying as following or contributing to STS are em­bedded in discip­linary institutions. Those disciplinary institutions manifest themselves in auditing mechanisms, reporting and other docu­ment­ary requirements, disciplinarily policed seminars as well as every-day office floor conver­sat­ions. Within established disciplined institutions, doing STS is often framed as not fitting in. We may say, as some colleagues in the EASST Council expressed when this work­shop theme first cropped up: STS is positioned at the margin. In comparison with other scientific fields, STS may well be perceived as exotic, strange, a new-kid-on-the-block(?).

However, within STS, centres exist. Pursuing STS research at, say, Harvard, Paris or Lancaster “is” different from doing STS positioned in the economics or architecture department in e.g. Wroclaw or Madrid. Marginal positions are related to immediate difficulties: Who are the peers that one is evaluated by? In which terms is one’s research evaluated? What methods, methodologies, theories, epistemologies and ontologies are accepted in that position? Which publication channels are deemed appropriate? Interestingly, while such difficulties could be sensed between the lines of participants’ talks, rarely have these been problematised. Instead, participants focussed on how they make do with the resources and possibilities they (or their positions allows them to) enact. Wherever they were positioned, participants expressed, junior scholars pursue tactics that draw on available symbolic and institutional resources to boost their positions. Not being positioned in a hub of STS scholars was reworked as a possibility to creatively interpret STS, redo STS with the re­sources reflexively located at that position. Thus, participants conjured up things like strategic dis­ciplinary affiliations; they reported how they reconfigured and designed disciplinarily spaces (e.g. an office or an exhibition hall) while pursuing their STS-like research interests. Tentatively-politically, we propose to think of these practices as individual solutions to the lack of “powers” available at their positions (that is, compared to the performance of resources at centres). At the margin, experiment­ation with doing other material-semiotic resources takes place. This is truly great – for the field we might consider the creative-generative effects at the margins as re­sources that the (inter)discipline STS exploits/employs.

Beyond these considerations, we like to engage with the ethics-politics of such situations in a more nuanced manner. Three points crop up. First, scholars are differentially positioned in doing STS, in struggling to be recognised. Scholars are not merely entities constituted by brilliant minds and more or less universally available computers that they use to author texts. Scholars also need to be acknow­ledged as constituted bodily, geographically, economically. Human bodies seem to “gather” experi­ences over their lifetimes, that is, these are probably constituted in complicated, on-going practices, constantly reproduced and/or transformed. Yet, they cannot easily be delet­ed. Age matters. Sedimented over one’s lifetime, patterns of recognition and sense-making shape scholars. This directly relates to the disciplinarity of STS. As it seems, its scholars need to be dis­ci­plined(?).

For scholarly bodies to perform STS well, many certainties need to be questioned. STS, thus, needs to be recognised as radically related to doing identity. How harshly ought STS to discipline “its” bodies? Which experiences, certainties, can rightfully be expected to be expunged? The older, the harder it may be to enter the field of STS. Of course, we may say, that it is the want-to-be-STS-scholar’s “choice” whether they want to enter the field and, thus, reconstitute themselves as STS bodies. In some respects, this choice, however, may be severely limited. Take passports. Without appropriate passports it may be difficult to perform STS well, to join STS gatherings, the assem­blages that constitute disciplining performances, disciplined scholars. Doing STS is interfered with by collect­ive performances of nation-states, terrorist wars (who is terrorising whom?), racial pro­filing. Who can afford doing STS? Which political economies is doing STS premised upon? Which ethics and politics are disciplining STS (re)producing and co-configuring?

Second, then, at the workshop we heard voices inviting us to pause and reflect upon possibilities to do the margin differentially and its constitutive centre. If margins and centres are done, how can they be done in other ways – queering the field structure? Good reasons exist to not offer any mas­ter-plan for “the alternative”, “perfect” STS. Pursuing recon- or, potentially, pre-figurative practices to en­act STS as less rigid, unruly, i.e. non-disciplining, might mean inviting deviant bodies to relate to performances of STS. Inclusion of those ideas and STS scholars that are in the margins requires collectively enacting STS as a place in which difference is neither denied nor substantialised. Difference is an effect of our practices – and, therefore, doing STS is co-responsible for bringing differences into reality or for doing differences differently.

For organising STS, attempting to keep STS open is a serious, contradictory practice. This raises a third concern: how is assembling STS collectively possible that to a lesser degree privileges existing disci­plin­ary devices and centres? This would invite considering the inclusionary and exclusionary pol­itics, the differentiating and policing powers inscribed into the configurations of STS con­fer­ences, work­shops, journals and websites. But also, in a very STS movement, what we could do it is to redefine what we understand by ethics-politics. Maybe what we need is a kind of politics that arises from the emergence of the underestimated, those that have no spaces and whose capabilities stay invisible within the normalising institutions where STS coexists. Reflecting upon marginalisation within STS, thus, eventually may guide our attention to the very practices by which we do STS, enact the discipline and by that punish potential particularly posi­tioned members. The ethical-political responsibility when doing STS ought to include figuring STS into practices of engagement allowing for radically reconceiving, reflexively, the doing of STS.

The politics of choosing to be marginal and being reflexive about it
by Samuel Tettner

As an attendee of the doctoral workshop beautifully organised by Ingmar Lippert and Juan F. Espinosa Cristia, I made the conscious choice to be a part of and participate in this reflexive discussion. There are two contradictory themes going on in doing so, which I explore in what follows. The first is about choice and marginality; I tend to think about marginality partly as a systemic or institutionalized lack or deprivation of choices, so the fact that I chose to attend a workshop about marginality I think is productively paradoxical. Then there is the fact that being reflexive about anything is a privilege many do not get. In that sense, being reflexive about marginality has an interesting contradiction that I explore, to conclude on a note about the politics of reflexivity and choice.

At the workshop, we mostly discussed ways of being marginalised against our will. Indeed, age, gender, location/geography, race, lan­guage and economic status are contexts or conditions that affect and effect us in powerful and sometimes overwhelming ways; we must contend with them, negotiate with their representations, overcome them in some cases, challenge them in others, give utility to them to gain an edge per­haps, understand them above all, but in a conventional sense we do not choose them. Earlier Ingmar and Juan mentioned that the choice to join STS, to do STS, can be severely limited by considerations such as political economies, differences in ethics and politics and others. But it’s almost as if being marginal is a choice no one in their right mind would consciously make; there is a tendency to assume that given the choice, the clear right option to make is to belong, to join in. What of mar­ginality by choice, then? This year’s conference theme was marginality by design. Let us think about how those marginalised sometimes choose to be so, and some marginality is not a condition imposed pre-potently from the outside or forced. Marginality: an emotional eco-system of uncertainty, anxiety, disconcert­ment and inadequacy, yes, but also assemblage of conditions of possibilities, creative forces, unreal­ised becomings.

There are enough reasons to choose to be at the margins, lest we forget feminist and postcolonial ar­guments about positionality, about the potentials for novelty and transformation stored outside of the mainstream. STS as a field has played on this marginal position marvellously. To scientists we said that science was as much about making compromises as making knowledge. We inverted technology’s slogan and said that it is true as an effect of the fact that it works, not that it works because it is true. These earlier developments were bold, they were controversial. Like the 1990’s science wars in the U.S showed, they were powerful, and they were partly so because STS maintained an interesting marginal position. Perhaps the times were right for insider/ outsider knowledge to be made about technoscience; before STS was an established field many of the early theorists like Weibe Bijker were themselves scientists/engineers. Maybe a good way to see it is similar to author DJ of the anthropology blog Savage Minds2, who comments on his being a white man who speaks Mandarin fluently as a result of having spent many years in Taiwan, and how this affects his ability to say things ethnic Chinese could not for being considered traitors, but neither could a uniformed American for fear of sounding misinformed or even imperialistic. DJ wonders if the power of ethnographic work is to create “liminal critics, informed insider-outsiders who have license to say what insiders might know but cannot articulate.” This is perhaps one of the benefits of material-semiotic experimentation that Ingmar and Juan already mention can happen at the margins.

Similarly, I wonder about the current inside/outside relation of STS to other fields.  Ingmar and Juan mentioned that in comparison to other scientific fields, STS can be considered exotic, strange, or the-new-kid-on-the-block. Is this still the case?  The kid is over thirty years old in some sense. Consider that this year’s was the biggest conference ever. With tens of graduate and undergraduate programs, academic organizations sprouting in Latin America, Asia and Africa, specialised journals and so on, STS is looking more and more like a regular academic discipline. Which is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with that, but it does make us consider the question of marginality by choice. What are we losing by becoming “just another discipline”? And, of course, what are we gaining? Should we choose to keep in check our growth to remain “at the margins”? And too, the margins of what? What part of STS’s success do we attribute to this achieved non-definition as a field and to its blurred borders? And should we even exercise that choice? Just some questions to think about.

Having a choice to be marginal introduces the element of thinking about marginality, of being reflexive about it. Reflexivity has been a part of STS for a long time. From the strong programme’s assertion that whatever postulates sociologists of science develop for science must be applicable to sociology as well, to Actor-Network Theory’s adage of being reflexive about not imposing our own categories of knowledge and labels into whatever it is we are studying. Marginality as reflexivity is simply to say that being marginal is something that we have the power to control through our own doings. Being reflexive about the ways we are marginal is itself an enaction of marginality. Except it is deliberate, careful, planned, and therefore we can harness some of the energies of being marginal that we have mentioned earlier. And this is why I was so happy about attending the pre-conference workshop. A workshop about marginality is an enaction of our own marginalities. The many opportunities for lengthy conversations, personal connections and, at least for me, reflexivity that this workshop offered translated into a special opportunity to be marginal, but be so with a group of people who are or were in similar situations, be marginal but be so within a self-established framework, be marginal but be so with trust and solidarity. That to me has proven to be helpful.

But the thing about reflexivity is that not everyone gets to engage in it. Choice begets reflexivity and reflexivity begets choice, in this case the choice and opportunity to be reflexive, which is itself a huge privilege. Being reflexive about mar­ginality also means realizing that not all marginalities are the same. Think about those who are so mar­ginalised as to not be able to even reflect on it, for whatever reasons. If there are multiple ways of enacting marginality, an academic workshop is an interesting choice because it has an internal con­tradiction. Having the time and space and the means necessary to be reflexive about marginality is itself an enactment of privilege, at least the privilege of articulation, coherence, emotional maturity, contemplative distance among others. This is the contradiction: Being reflexive about marginality simultaneously enacts both the marginality we seek to be reflexive about and the privilege of being reflexive about it!

This makes us think about the politics of being reflexive. Within my limited understanding of academic work­shops, I view them as quite politically inert, enacting (on purpose or not) a distancing from the so­cio-political. Locked away, in a university room, maybe not the first setting one thinks for enactions of marginality. Considering STS’s relatively high connections with social movements and general political activism within the academia, perhaps a better vehicle to spark discussions around margin­ality would have been an act of poetic terrorism, a flash-mob, some kind of artistic, cultural or intel­lectual intervention. Not that there is anything wrong with a discussion-type workshop, it’s just that I fear some of the conditions of possibilities of marginality may be rendered mute if bottle­necked through a traditional mode of engagement. Just because we are academics does not mean we have to be donnish.

Being conscious that our reflexivity about marginality undermines our claim to marginality reminds us that marginality, like other categories, is relative. Despite efforts to pluralise the field of STS, it remains relatively monochromatic along most of the dimensions we sought to explore at the workshop (age, gender, location/geography, economic status, race, and language). To put it in the blunt language that my self-claimed marginal positions in the form of being a Venezuelan-American/Romanian al­lows me to get away with: the EASST / 4S conference was for the most part, American and European privileged academics, meeting for a stimulating chat in gorgeous-fall-weather Copenha­gen, in a business school of all places – how marginal is that?

Juan F. Espinosa Cristia (University of Leicester, Organiser of the Workshop)
Ingmar Lippert (National University of Singapore, University of Augsburg, Student Representative of EASST (2010-2012), Organiser of the Workshop)
Samuel Tettner (Co-student Representative of 4S (6S))

The discussions with our fellow junior scholars have been very valuable to us. We have been very glad that Jose Ossandon, Fred Steward, Manuel Tironi and Helen Verran were able to join us in our discussions. For the workshop to be possible we are very grateful to Copenhagen Business School. We wish to thank Fred Steward as well for commenting on this text.

1Participants have been: Lucy Bartlett, Baki Cakici, Annika Capelán, Stephen Derrick, Laurent Dissard, Maria Eidenskog, Brittney Fosbrook, Friederike Gesing, Adi Inbar, Tullia Jack, Vanessa Lamb, Alison Marlin, Andras Novoszath, Melanie Stilz, Heta Tarkkala, Sara Tocchetti, Ulla Tschida, Pia Vuolanto, Faye Wade.

2 Advocacy as informed outsider.Dj. Published on October 29th, 2012. Accessed on November 21, 2012.  savagem­


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