The Nordic STS conference took place in Tampere, Finland between the 12thand the 14th of June 2019. Judging from numbers, STS continues its steady growth in the Nordic countries. With 222 registered participants, 176 presentations, and 27 sessions (including the special panel we report here), the fourth iteration of this bi-annual STS encounter was the biggest to date. The event has become a stable meeting point for scholars based in the region. Even more remarkable, 57 of this year’s 222 participants came from a total of 21 non-Nordic countries, with seven of those countries being non-European.
As the conference – organized by the Tampere University and the Finnish Society for Science and Technology Studies – drew close, we started to reflect on the performative power of such an event in terms of the institutionalization of STS. From our own little corner in the University of Helsinki, we were aware that the level of such institutionalization differs across the participating countries, and even more in each of the universities and institutes that host each participant. While some participants are in established STS departments (or at least very STS-oriented departments), some find more challenges to achieve continuity, access resources, and give visibility to STS scholarship in their institutions. These concerns connect clearly with similar discussions such as those reported earlier this year in EASST Review (Mewes, 2019). In this context, we wanted to take the chance offered by the event to know more about differing experiences across the Nordic Countries.
The session The Local institutionalization of STS – Challenges, advantages and possibilities was organised by the research collective STS Helsinki. There were four panellists participating: Mianna Meskus, (New Social Research programme, Tampere University); Oili-Helena Ylijoki, (TaSTI, Tampere University); Karoliina Snell, (HCAS, University of Helsinki); and Andreas Birkbak, (TANT-Lab Copenhagen, Aalborg University). The speakers started by presenting the role, manner and impact of institutionalization (or lack of it) in their own academic environments, after which the discussion was open to the audience. In the following, we summarize and reflect on the main points from the overall discussion, and conclude with some practical considerations.
Variability in STS environments
During the discussion it became clear that institutionalization looks very different in different settings, and not only regarding the level of institutionalization but also regarding the ways in which it has been achieved.
Tampere University’s TaSTI (Tampere Centre for Knowledge, Science, Technology and Innovation Studies) was created in the 90s as a science studies unit. Over the years, the unit moved from being based in a research institute to becoming part of the Faculty of Social Sciences, while also surviving a merger with innovation studies in the early 2000s (which gave it its current acronym) and an attempted merger with higher education studies. In 2011 TaSTI started to shift towards a clear interest in politics, epistemology and technologies of everyday life, thus bringing STS to its core. Although TaSTI’s institutional recognition has helped it to accrue funds, the unit still exists in the margins of the university and depends on external funding. TaSTI is now looking to develop its teaching curriculum – which has not historically been a priority at the research centre – in cooperation with different faculties at Tampere university.
The history of STS in Helsinki starts in a similar way through HIST, an institute combining science, technology, innovation and economics in Helsinki. HIST was establish from top to bottom, in a collaborative endeavour between the Finnish government and different Universities in the Helsinki metropolitan area. Interests quickly centred on distributing the received funding instead of establishing common research interests and teaching. HIST slowly faded away together with the institutional status of STS in Helsinki. In contrast, current efforts to develop STS were started and driven by junior scholars in collaboration with senior researchers, who share a will to collectively develop STS scholarship through research, public seminars, communication and teaching. The activity has crystallized in the STS Helsinki collective. However, the lack of allocated budget limits the development of the group.
The TANT-Lab in the Aalborg University, Denmark is an example of institutionalization not taking place through the creation of units but rather as a result of teaching. While STS has not had a unit by itself, it has been through the formula ‘STS+discipline’ that the approach has found continuity. Combining STS with technoanthropology, IT, medical anthropology, or administration studies has generated spaces for STS to spread. It was the combination of these different synergies between STS and other disciplines that led to the formation of DASTS (Danish Association for Science and Technology Studies) in 2006. An important part of DASTS has been its free membership, which has led to large and very lively community despite the lack of financial means.
Finally, the contrast was offered by researchers from Lund University, Sweden, where STS is virtually absent in institutional terms, with only a handful of people working from an STS perspective. In such a context, attending international events becomes one of the few chances to interact and discuss with other STS scholars.
STS: An institutional space or an approach?
The level or type of formal organization has an effect on the vitality of STS. The growth of the Nordic STS community is an indication that the informal ways of creating research communities that the panellists discussed are an efficient way to create possibilities and identity in the field, without formal recognition in the guise of academic positions and study programs.
In the long run, however, issues of job security might appear. If all salaried top positions are non-STS, then it is hard to get good talent to take up STS as anything but an ’approach’. As a mere approach, STS can be understood as an epiphytic entity, dependent on academic currents and good will. While this may be sufficient to a few individual careers, it does relegate STS into fringes of academia and does not provide an inspirational leadership and career narrative for junior scholars to follow. There is also an involved risk for young scholars; for promotions, disciplinary merits often count more than interdisciplinary merits. Universities work with traditional disciplinary institutional boundaries, and genuinely interdisciplinary units seem to be an exception, and as such always subject to scrutiny.
As has been discussed, informal networks or collectives, such as STS Helsinki or the Danish example that centres on teaching, can be highly successful initiatives for mobilizing and recruiting new scholars to STS. Such quasi-rhizomatic networking and creative buzz is necessary for (and also a sign of) a vibrant field. The question to think about is whether this is enough for continued success of STS in Nordic countries and beyond, or should STS strive to create institutionally stable spaces beyond doctoral programmes and specialised research institutes?
Strategies for the future of STS
Professor Sheila Jasanoff (also a keynote at the Nordic STS conference) conveniently prequelled our panel with her talk in Helsinki on Tuesday 11th of June. Prof Jasanoff discussed the early days of STS and how the field was established, and highlighted the publication of the Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (Jasanoff et al., 1994) and the popularization of the 4S meetings around the year 2000 as keystones of the process. Jasanoff advocated building bridges and partnerships to expand the influence and reputation of STS as a relevant field in itself. This call was echoed in the panel discussions. Reaching out (both as individual researchers and as STS communities) was explicated as a clear way forward for STS, especially as traditional institutionalization paths do not seem to sit comfortably with the epiphytic character of STS that we mentioned above.
One discussed area of interest in terms of attaining societal relevance was policy spaces. One of the discussants stated that if STS does not advice on scientific knowledge and its uses in society, someone else surely will. There was a suggestion that national STS associations or subject specific STS societies could take the lead on this for example in the form of inviting politicians to discussions on topical subjects. This would at best create a positive loop between politicians and STS scholars, with the attribution of ‘science experts’ rooting into the STS community.
Second, teaching is a key tool for STS to get a foothold in the disciplinary environments of universities. Especially if developed by junior scholars, teaching elevates scholarship and generates work experience that is crucial to accessing better salaried positions. At the same time, teaching and curriculums help to promote STS among undergraduate students, whose successful recruitment into the field is pivotal to both continuity and intellectual vitality of STS communities. Although developing new teaching in existing departments is not easy, there are opportunities to develop STS teaching during programme creation or renovation processes. Furthermore, senior scholars should be pushing for more cross-university teaching programs that can properly represent the interdisciplinary character of STS.
Finally, not only reaching out is key for STS to achieve continuity, but also reaching inside the STS community itself. From a more micro perspective, activities such as reading groups, writing retreats, or STS walks were mentioned as ways to develop STS communities, especially in the absence of institutional infrastructures and funding. These activities help to identify shared interests and a common theoretical framework that bestows STS identity to the group or community. From a more macro perspective, it is important for STS units, departments or communities to be in touch with each other. One of the panel discussants suggested more regular interaction between national STS organizations in the Nordic Countries that goes beyond the organization of a biannual conference. This would help to strengthen STS networks across the region while giving visibility to Nordic STS scholarship among international associations such as EASST and 4S.
Our discussion reveals a heterogeneous understanding of what the institutionalization of STS entails. While some talk about outward validation, job security, and access to funding, some make references to the social and intellectual aspects of STS, with a clear interest in the development and growth of the discipline. In our understanding, these different dimensions point towards the objectives of viability and continuity. While there are multiple strategies to achieve these objectives, we infer from the discussions that all of them rely on constant efforts to develop the STS community and the enactment of practical actions for and from STS. With this in mind, we think that it is crucial for STS to continue to develop in rhizomatic ways in addition to seeking recognition inside traditional disciplinary academic environments, ensuring the resources that such a status guarantees.
Mewes, JS (2019) Report: ‘Stsing’ – Towards inclusive forms of STS-in-Germany. In: EASST Review, Volume 38(2). Available at: https://easst.net/article/report-stsing-towards-inclusive-forms-of-sts-in-germany/ (accessed 29.7.2019)
Jasanoff S, Markle GE, Petersen JC and Pinch T (1994) Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.