If not us, who? If not now, when? – stories & stances on STS and activism

by Sarah Rose Bieszczad, Guus Dix, Jorrit Smit

This piece arose from the convergence of the three authors’ experiences and desires to continue the debate around activism in STS, started at the 2022 EASST plenary.

It was the last day of the first post-covid EASST conference. We, as a community, had all already gotten used to the non-place of the IFEMA conference center disturbingly easy. The closing plenary circled back to the main topic of the meeting: The futures and politics of STS in Europe. As the PhD representative in the EASST council, I (Sarah Rose) focused my portion of the discussion on STS and activism. calling for more engagement and action—the larger debate of the plenary took up this topic. My call arose from an earlier discussion among junior STS scholars about their personal and academic worries in an era of multiple, intersecting crises. We (the authors) were pleasantly surprised by just how many STS scholars in attendance echoed our sentiments, demonstrating that many STSers desired a more active and even a pro-active STS that tackles climate change and other looming crises. Nevertheless, we also felt that the discussion quickly ended up around the nuances of the meanings of activism, STS and their (inter)relation. Although I (Sarah Rose) expressed, in my original call, my frustration about this exact tendency of our field to pick apart the details ad nauseum to the detriment of action, the discussion ended up precisely there. Why does our field seem to sometimes lose sight of the overarching purpose, oftentimes getting lost in the detail of the argument? Still this time this tendency did have one concrete effect: it moved a worried part of the STS community that feels we still are not doing enough to plea for more action.

Whatever your personal stance, the conversation on activism in our community warrants revitalizing. While scientists worldwide join the forefront of the climate movement under the heading of Scientist Rebellion, many STS scholars remain rather silent to the point of becoming invisible. Something odd seems to be occurring as our field is principally concerned with the techno-scientific constitution of our worlds in relations with colonialism, environmentalism, and gender inequality. Might there exist a rift between thought and action in STS? Does our ingrained epistemological constructivism stifle our desire to act upon knowledge that is worrying so much so that it outright terrifies us? Is our community self-image already so ‘activistic’ that we feel we do not have to become activists to change the world for the better?

This piece intends to pick up and further the conversation on STS and activism through a bricolage of historical browsing and possible stances. We attempt a first sketch of historical stances on activism in STS through reflections on such work in the STS handbooks. We hope this piece inspires you to also direct your energy towards keeping the debate alive, share your own doubts, feelings and strategies or – most importantly – engage in activism in a way that suits you.

Browsing for activism in the history of STS

Origin stories of STS: uncritical versus critical roots

Multiple ‘origin stories’ of STS exist. In one such story, the field of STS was undeniably political such that it served the government – but certainly not activist. Echoing the French science policy sage Jean-Jacques Salomon, Ina Spiegel-Rösing (1977: 7-8) located the emerging reflections on science in war and the intense role of science and technology therein. As a consequence, she observed in the first handbook, the study of science, technology and society (SSTS) were typically justified ‘in view of dominant political goals’. This was even more visible in ‘socialist’ than in ‘bourgeois’ science studies (ibid 14). Whereas in  the communist countries in ‘the East’ the relation of science to fundamental ideological problems was a driving force, in capitalist economies of ‘the West’ political questions like ‘what science is for’ and ‘what society we want’ were ‘curiously ignored for too long’ (ibid 26).

This origin story was also part of the opening chapter of the first STS handbook, where David Edge (1995, 6-8) identified the attempt to underpin rational policy decisions as the ‘uncritical’ root of STS, which stood in opposition to a more critical and radical one. The latter consisted of attempts to describe and understand the social nature of scientific knowledge for the reformist aim of democratizing science and technology. This is where activism came into play. When the problem of science policy arose in response to the untenability of ongoing linear growth of the technoscientific apparatus, alongside it the problem of democratization emerged in response to the social movements of the 1960s. Still, for one to see the activist roots of STS one only had to look at the Vietnam protests, feminism, environmentalism and the civil rights movement (10-11). 

Development of STS in the early nineties: activism versus academicism

In published exchanges on STS and activism in the early 1990s we see a second fault line in the debate, this time between ‘activist’ and ‘scholarly’ STS. One PhD student, Franz Foltz, argued that ‘most younger scholars enter the field of STS studies because they see science and technology as problematic in society, and seek intellectual understandings that can assist them in meliorating the problems’ (Waks, 1993: 400). Whether younger scholars could find what they sought after was a matter of some contention. At the time, Juan Ilerbaig and Steven Fuller were engaged in ‘a highly visible exchange of views’ on the relationship between STS scholarship and STS activism. In a session at the Technological Literacy Conference, a large audience engaged in a ‘spirited discussion’ which ‘demonstrated that scholarly and activist STS communities now seek a more productive working relationship’ (Waks, 1993: 399). In searching for such a working relationship, people basically agreed that there were two relatively separate STS communities with divergent understandings of the problem.

Within the ‘scholarly’ STS culture, people ‘concentrated on the problematic nature of scientific and technical knowledge itself, concluding that these are human discourses, which like all others are shaped by cultural values, group negotiations, and consensus processes, and very “evitable” choices’ (Waks, 1993: 401) Coinciding with this scholarly definition of the problem were particular aims, namely to understand ‘the growth of knowledge, “deconstructing” science and technology and their privileged status as knowledge in both the university and among consumers of knowledge (e.g., government agencies)’ (ibid). Within the ‘activist’ culture, on the contrary, people primarily focused on ‘the social, cultural, and political effects of science and technology – such things as environmental degradation, erosion of cultural diversity and vernacular (everyday) knowledge’ (ibid). The root problem was the ‘social maximization of science and technology’ where ‘science drives out other forms of thinking, and technology drives out other ways of living’. That problem definition led the activists to pursue ‘meliorist aims’ such as ‘cleaning up the environment, decentralizing power, restoring cultural diversity’ (ibid). 

STS coming of age in the 21st century: blurring and commemorating activism

The word ‘activism’ is largely absent in the first two handbooks but very visible in the third handbook published in 2008. Still, the way in which activism was discussed became a bit blurrier as well. To start with, the editors acknowledged that STS is no longer defined in a ‘narrowly academic’ way but rather lists activists as a group we engage with among other groups (scientists, doctors, politicians, users) and no longer as an important strand or root of STS itself (Hackett et al, 2008, 1). The editors, in addition, shift from different practices of STS work towards the academic and political valuations of such practices. They note that many people put effort in striking a balance between achieving ‘academic respectability and institutionalization’ and achieving ‘change in the service of justice, equity and freedom’ (Ibid). Where overemphasis on the first might lead to ‘irrelevance’, the latter risks ‘loss of prestige and resources’. Finally, the distinction between the two is problematized. Sergio Sismondo (2008), for one, rejects the distinction between the theoretical or academic ‘high church STS’ and the activist and engaged ‘low church STS’ that Steve Fuller made before. The sharp distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’, Sismondo argues, leads us to overlook the ‘constructivist’ bridges that exist in between them. 

Once the relations between activist and academic STS become blurrier and hybrid in the present, it is but a small step to start commemorating clear-cut activism as something that was once there. In a special issue of Science as Culture – “From Radical Science to STS”– this seems to be the case. In the introduction, Karin Patzke and the late Peter J. Taylor (2021) start from stories of many core contributors to the field of STS with roots in ‘counter-cultural or radical activities from the late 1960s, ’70s and ’80s’. These activist roots in ‘radical science’ led to the scholarly field of ‘STS’ where activist concerns were transformed into academic interests. The fourth handbook is a case in point; not only did it show some skillful meta-reflexivity by introducing itself through recapitulations of previous handbooks, the chapter on STS and social movements demonstrated the academization of activist spirits: at first, the activist origins of STS are identified, but then STS’s contribution is presented proudly in terms of the further theorization of social movements. And for the future, Breyman et al. (2017) allocate responsibility for the (re)orientation of STS not to the scholarly community but to new social movements, once again.

Taking a stance

Where does browsing the history of STS leave us? Two preliminary observations. First, the turn to ‘hybridity’ is a classical STS reflex whenever a sharp line is drawn between two things. This can be a welcome corrective in some instances, nevertheless there is still a catch: it takes the bite out of the debate. The blurring we discern seems to turn the idea of what counts as activism in STS into a more academic one, instead of activist (Martin, 1993). The incorporation of the activist impetus into the field has been subsumed under more traditional academic structures of recognition that safeguards the theoretical identity of ‘real’ STS.

In a commemorative mode, second, we run the risk of presenting activism as something that was inevitably lost as STS became institutionalized. This mode leaves out (young) people wanting who seek to achieve change right here, right now. But historical storytelling does not have to be that way; it can perform intergenerational work when we share and transmit energy and strategy between generations. We would like to use the occasion to reflect on a future past. How do we want the topic of activism to end up in the fifth and sixth handbooks of STS? We tease out four stances for future debate and action here that are not mutually exclusive.

The first stance: STS on activism

The first stance is closest to the academic definition of the field: using STS concepts, theories, and methods to study the place of activism in the science system. Many examples date back to the 1990s, like Rabino’s (1991) study of the ‘impact of activist pressures on recombinant DNA research’, the study of animal rights activists by Jamison and Lunch (1992) or Epstein’s (1995, 408) study of the mechanisms and tactics by which ‘U.S. AIDS treatment activists have constituted themselves as credible participants in the process of [biomedical] knowledge construction’. All in all, STS scholars on activism do not have to leave the safe observer’s stance. They join the long queue of requests that present-day social movements like Extinction Rebellion get to participate in interviews, focus groups or surveys. What if all that productive academic labor would be geared towards a different, more actionable goal?

The second stance: STS for activism

STS for activism still stays relatively close to an academic mindset but with the explicit purpose to support activism. The University of Massachusetts Press, for instance, has a series on Activist Studies of Science and Technology, which ‘will publish accessible, engaging books on science and technology in support of movements for justice and sustainability around the world’. Other studies are valuable to activists because they offer insight into academic-corporate ties, e.g. in biotechnology (Krimsky, Ennis and Weissman, 1991) or medical sciences (Sismondo, 2009). This can aid activists in providing argumentative support for their cause or even in selecting specific targets. 

One step further, STS scholars could speed up this process by reaching out to social movements to collect questions and problems relevant for them, and help with data collection and curation. Martin’s (1996) work with Australian civil disobedience groups and questions around the effectiveness of non-violent protest is an older example while End Fossil Occupy’s recent call to cut ties with the fossil industry a more recent one. This has already led some Dutch universities to pose restrictions on future partnerships (Cohen, 2023). In the process of protesting, however, it proved difficult to answer basic questions about the relations between specific universities and the fossil industry. Apparently, no (STS) researcher has bothered to dive into it. It is telling that two academics left academia to address this question and map fossil ties in the Netherlands (https://mappingfossilties.org/). Beyond this basic level of transparency, the question how these ties matter to knowledge production is a vintage STS one. This has moved one of us (Jorrit), to reorient a project on responsible innovation in chemistry to questions and data about the ties between industry and university that are also relevant for activists and journalists. Although much research funding in STS has been tied to successive hypes – from GMO and Nanotechnology to AI – basic questions about dominant areas like petrochemistry remain understudied, so that in a way we produce more ignorance than knowledge (Pinto, 2017).

The third stance: STS as activism

The third stance could be called ‘STS as activism’ or ‘activist STS’. It is not uncommon for theoretically inclined scholars to claim that description is intervention, and thus that STS research is inherently political (Munk and Abrahamsson, 2012). Others have taken up this idea by explicitly aiming to intervene in the practices and communities that they study (Zuiderent-Jerak and Jensen, 2007). Accepting an interventionist stance, however, is not necessarily the same as accepting an activist stance as some explicitly argue against using interventions in a strategic way to change the practices in question (Zuiderent-Jerak, 2016). Beyond research, the field has interventionist roots in pedagogical practices too. Here, the main idea is that STS teaching should be less (or at least not exclusively) concerned with the reproduction of the field by training a new generation of scholars than with the training of professionals and practitioners – engineers, life scientists and doctors – that can benefit from our expertise. Such interventionist pedagogies are still very much part of our self-image and conversation (https://stsinfrastructures.org/content/sts-critical-pedagogy). Although we could argue that, even in a field as reflexive as STS with such radical pedagogical roots, research output might have gained a higher value than transformative ‘activist’ teaching.

The fourth stance: STS and activism

From an activist’s standpoint you might also ask: why bother about the ‘special’ relationship between STS and activism? Scientist Rebellion, for instance, consists of marine scientists, environmental microbiologists, philosophers, economists, glaciologists and many others. As far as we are aware, there are no debates on the relationship of these fields to activism. Why would STS be so unique that it merits a separate discussion? And isn’t it a typical reflex of the professional-managerial class anyway to think that knowledge is going to make much of a difference here (Huber, 2022)? If you need a reason to engage in activism, don’t look at the field but at the dire situation we find ourselves in today. When I (Guus) joined Extinction Rebellion three years ago, I was looking for other privileged academics like myself to join mass civil disobedience actions and support the movement from within. Peaceful bodily resistance seemed – and seems – a more adequate strategy to me than intellectual debate to enforce the radical social and technological change that is needed now to stay below 1.5 degrees of global warming.

Moving forward

If not us, who? If not now, when? We feel that there is little time to lose in addressing the existential crisis of climate change and its intricate connections to injustices bound up with colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy. And we feel that there are multiple stances for the (European) STS community to take in engaging in activism or in helping others do so. Of course, there are more stances imaginable. In their handbook entry on STS and social movements, Breyman et al. (2017) even identify the infamous Luddites as a historical precursor to the techno-critical attitude that we now self-identify with. From there it’s a small step to Andreas Malm’s arguments in How to blow up a pipeline (2021). Are Malm’s ‘infrastructural interventions’ an imaginable next step for a rekindled activist STS? For now, we hope to have stirred thought and feelings in individual readers as well as that debates in local communities may follow.

We want to invite you to contribute to the next issue of the EASST Review – with your (alternative) views on, but above all experiences with, tactics (or logistics!) for and forms of activist engagement as STS scholar or collective. Please contact the authors or review@easst.nomadit.net


1 https://www.umasspress.com/activist-studies-of-science-and-technology/  

 Authors in alphabetical order.




Breyman, S., Campbell, N., Eubanks, V., and  Kinchy, A. (2017). STS and Social Movements: Pasts and Futures. in U. Felt, R. Fouché, C.A. Miller, & L. Smith-Doerr (Eds.), The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, (4th ed., pp. 289-318). The MIT Press.

Cohen, I. (2023). A Dutch University Just Set a Powerful Precedent for Climate Research. The Nation (May 10).

Edge, D. (1995). Reinventing the Wheel, in S. Jasanoff, G.E. Markle, J.C. Petersen & T. Pinch (Eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, (pp. 3-24). SAGE Publications. 

Epstein, S. (1995). The Construction of Lay Expertise: AIDS Activism and the Forging of Credibility in the Reform of Clinical Trials. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 20(4): pp. 408-437.

Hackett, E.J., Amsterdamska, O., Lynch, M. and Wajcman, J. (2008). Introduction, in Hackett, E.J., Amsterdamska, O., Lynch, M. and Wajcman, J. (Eds.) The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (Third edition, pp.1-8). MIT Press.

Huber, M.T. (2022). Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet. Verso Books.

Jamison, W.V. and Lunch, W.M. (1992). Rights of Animals, Perceptions of Science, and Political Activism: Profile of American Animal Rights Activists. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 17(4): pp. 438-458.

Krimsky, S., Ennis, J. G. and Weissman, R. (1991). Academic-Corporate Ties in Biotechnology: A Quantitative Study. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 16(3): pp. 275-287. 

Malm, A. (2021). How to blow up a pipeline. Verso Books.

Martin, B. (1993). The Critique of Science Becomes Academic. Science, Technology, & Human Values 18(2): pp. 247-259

Martin, B. (1996). Research questions on non-violence. Nonviolence Today, 49:pp. 8-11.

Munk, A. K., and Abrahamsson, S. (2012). Empiricist Interventions: Strategy and Tactics on the Ontopolitical Battlefield. Science & Technology Studies 25 (1): pp.52–70. 

Pinto, M. F.. (2017). To Know or Better Not To: Agnotology and the Social Construction of Ignorance in Commercially Driven Research. Science and Technology Studies 30 (2): pp. 53–72.

Rabino, I. (1991). The Impact of Activist Pressures on Recombinant DNA Research. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 16(1): pp. 70-87

Sismondo, S. (2008). “Science and Technology Studies and an Engaged Program, in Hackett, E.J., Amsterdamska, O., Lynch, M. and Wajcman, J. (Eds.) In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (Thirds edition, pp. 13–31). MIT Press.

Sismondo, S. (2009). Ghosts in the Machine: Publication Planning in the Medical Sciences. Social Studies of Science 39 (2): pp. 171–98. 

Spiegel-Rösing, I. (1977.) The Study of Science, Technology, and Society (SSTS): Recent Trends and Future Challenges, in I. Spiegel-Rösing & D. de Solla Price (Eds.) Science, technology, and society: a cross-disciplinary perspective. SAGE publications.

Taylor, P. J., and Patzke, K. (2021). From Radical Science to STS. Science as Culture 30 (1): pp. 1–10. 

Waks, L.J. (1993). STS as an academic field and a social movement. Technology in Society, 15: 399-408.

Zuiderent-Jerak, T. (2016). If Intervention Is Method, What Are We Learning? Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 2 (2016), 73-82.    

Zuiderent-Jerak, T., and Bruun Jensen, C. (2007). “Editorial Introduction: Unpacking ‘Intervention’ in Science and Technology Studies.” Science as Culture 16 (3): pp. 227–35. 

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