Every society needs a cosmology to explain itself to itself. Where do we come from? What are we all about? Where are we going? Without such a foundational narrative, socioecological cohesion cannot be achieved, purpose cannot be agreed upon, decisions cannot be made.
“Doing STS in and through Germany” – or stsing for short – is not really a people in an anthropological sense, nor is it a society in a sociological or institutional sense. More an emergent community of practice, perhaps. Yet, communities of practice also need a cosmology. So, here is one version of a founding myth: It is the 4th of October 2017, early afternoon. Picture a grey overcast coldish day in Berlin. Typical autumn weather. In a small bustling café on Friedrichstraße, three still young(ish) scholars from three different German universities huddle in a quiet corner around a small table drinking cappuccinos and an Americano. I’d like to think the scene and the mood were conspirative, but, realistically, no-one in the café that day could have cared less about what the three were concocting in their corner. The three are seriously overworked and mainly glad to share a coffee with long-time friends before heading back to work. All three of them consider themselves scholars in/of/with science and technology studies and over the years have had their conversations about the state of this weird inter-discipline worldwide and in the German academic landscape that is still so strongly shaped by disciplines – for better or worse.
That autumn afternoon, the conversation once more turns to STS in Germany. The three agree that a lot has been happening lately: new posts, new centres and new people; mainly in places where you wouldn’t expect it, rarely connected to the established landscape of philosophy, sociology and history of science. Interesting. What seems to be missing, though, is a sense of shared ownership of STS, is an institutional base, and are possibilities to get together as STSers, and to systematically contribute our expertise to society, and learn from societal actors. It’s not too bad in Berlin, because there is always already lots of everything in Berlin so you find your people, have coffee and engage in exciting discussions. Yet in many other cities and at many other universities, many STS-minded scholars – especially early career scholars – are sitting in disciplined departments and struggle to find interlocutors for those matters of concern that exceed the established thought styles that surround them.
Is this not the right time, the three surmise trying to ignore the hissing of the coffee machine, to set up some sort of society for STS scholars in Germany? The idea sits on the table like a joke or at least matter out of place. Yet, the ideas flourish: A platform for societal actors meeting up with STS scholars, discuss current issues, learn from each other and share their expertise, create connections across disciplines and across the boundaries of academia. Make STS a visible actor in German academia society. They have emptied their coffee. How would that work? No tenure, no future, no idea where to even start. Then there is the intellectual issue: Is the spirit of STS not diametrically opposed to the idea of a ‘society’ – board meetings, rules of procedure, membership fees…? And then there is the institutional issue: Germany already has a Society for the Study of Science and Technology, the GWTF, with its small but beautiful annual meetings of largely sociologists of science and technology.
In all its absurdity, the idea still seems right. Maybe ‘society’ is not the right framing. Maybe it needs something more rhizomatic, something more platform-like. Not in the start-up economy, exploitative sense, but in the sense of providing a platform to early career scholars to network, to develop collective formats of learning, to generate new ideas. Also: Representation is an issue. STS is institutionally weak and underrepresented in the core funding agencies. For a moment, there is a sense of something exciting coming together. Diffuse yet and too big to grasp. But time is up and the three need to return to work. Two things are agreed: It is worth a try. They need help.
A few months later, help has arrived: Tanja Bogusz, Endre Dányi, Jörg Niewöhner, Martin Reinhart, Martina Schlünder, Estrid Sørensen and Tahani Nadim gather in Berlin to prepare a lunchtime meeting at the EASST conference in Lancaster in 2018 of what has now received the working title: STS Germany. The purpose is clear: Get a sense of numbers and interest for STS in Germany. Bring the existing organisational forms together. Listen. Network. Plan. A rough sketch for the meeting is quickly drawn up, Estrid is elected frontwoman for the day, post-its and white boards are organised. Ready to go.
What if we have STS Germany and no-one shows up? Preparing the room that day in amazingly sunny and warm Lancaster on the university campus, there is doubt in the air. So much STS, so many brilliant sessions: Who were we to think that STS needs another grouping in Europe? Then its lunchtime and they come: More than 110 people cram into the room listening to Estrid’s kick off, to representatives from GWTF, the Science & Democracy Network run in Germany by MCTS in Munich, and INSIST – the young scholars network organised out of Bielefeld. Who would have thought? The group is heterogeneous, dominated by early career scholars, and it is enthusiastic. All sorts of things are suggested but agreement is reached on the following:
- None of the existing networks represent a significant majority of the people who attend the meeting.
- The majority of people who speak articulate the need for exchange, cooperation and support within this emerging community.
- The relationship of a potential new body with existing networks needs to be clarified. In any case, anything new needs to respect and work together with existing forms.
- Most people favour a decentralised, rhizomatic structure (network) strongly building on and caring for early career scholars from MA/Sc students to senior research associates.
- The network ought to support knowledge, mentoring and exchange on the inside, function as a port of call for people abroad, over time represent STS in Germany to the outside world, and improve STS’s standing with funders.
- The network should facilitate online collaborative support, for instance through an online platform/database (projects, people, degrees, syllabi …), foster possibilities to link and exchange, organise meetings and prepare joint grant applications.
- Modes of co(l)laboration among academic STS scholars and experts developing, governing, administrating and using science and technology should be developed.
- An annual meeting and smaller workshops (e.g. around methods) seemed desirable. Perhaps a new journal?
What a frenzy. The meeting is over quickly and the crowd disperses into further sessions. What remains is a newsletter to sign up for and a strong sense of enthusiasm and possibility. Not much to go on, but it is enough for people to start meeting in the following weeks and months in groups to specify tasks in organisation, communication, infrastructure and administration. A follow-up meeting in Kassel begins to emerge with a much more specific agenda focused on how this can actually be done: when, by whom and in what way so as to respect the interests of everyone involved. The momentum carries.
There is a foundational myth for you. As if STS could ever handle a singular cosmology.