Category Archives: easst review

The social order of facts vs. truths

Mr. Donald Trump and the notion of post-truth, alternative facts, fake news, etc. have become icons of a social order that has come creeping through Western democracies for a long time. The faces of Pia Kjærsgård (Denmark), Marine Le Pen (France), Frauke Petry (Germany) and Geerd Wilders (the Netherlands) are among the European icons of attempts to establish a new social order based on populist thoughts. They are among others characterized by an opportunistic engagement with scientific knowledge.

Merton (1957) noted long ago that scientists generally tend to feel that politics ignore their findings. It is nothing new that politics’ use of scientific knowledge is selective. Rather than caring about scientists’ feelings it is in the current situation crucial to care about what kind of social order scientific expertise contributes to establishing and maintaining, and to what extend science as an institution matters to democratic societies. Shapin and Shaffer (1985) convincingly reconstructed the early days of natural philosophy, the predecessor of science. Natural philosophy and experimental knowledge production developed out of the 17th century England that was haunted by civil wars. With the function of constructing facts that were free of religious, political and ethnic interests, natural philosophy should constitute the epistemic foundation for a united society; something religious and ethnic truths had not been able to deliver. Through its three constitutive technologies (linguistic, social and material) the facts constructed in natural philosophy and later by science would be unfaithful to all religions and to all ethnic traditions and to their attempt to install their truths in society. Science’s constructed facts would serve all of them just as much as they would be a nuisance to all of them. In this society, people of different religious beliefs and of different ethnic kin could refer to the same scientific facts as a shared common ground. That facts were later revealed to be infused with political, economic, personal and other powers and interests does not change their core function as a common ground.

Why not? Because in contrast to the truths forwarded by religious, ethnic and other social groups facts can be challenged by evidence. For our current discussions the distinction between truths and facts in my re-telling of Shapin and Shaffer’s account is crucial. While truths are mobilized by authoritative institutions, such as churches and monarchs, facts are produced through the mentioned constitutive technologies of science. Facts rely on evidence and can thus be challenged by new facts that are produced in comparable, scientific ways and that also forward evidence. Truth, on the other hand, needs no evidence, and cannot be challenged. Truth is true, full stop. Unless you don’t believe it, then it is just rubbish.

In this sense, it is incorrect to characterize Mr. Trump’s epistemic ethics as post-truth. Trump has no trouble with truths. He has troubles with facts. Populist ideologies rest on convictions that are not open to factual tests. They cannot be challenged by evidence. The utterance that Mr. Trump’s inauguration had a larger audience than that of his predecessor was forwarded as a truth. It was not a fact, since it did not rely on evidence that could potentially be challenged. It was not even an alternative fact. It was a truth. Which does not mean that it was true. That is the point with truths: you cannot test, whether they are true. Only facts can be tested – by empirical evidence.

Because truths cannot be tested empirically and they cannot be discussed, they end conversation and debate. Truths are thus dangerous as means for political power in democratic societies. The replacement of truth by facts is not just a historical matter of post-revolutionary England centuries ago. The still existing power of facts over truths in politics is a central constituent of maintaining the social order of democracy. By mobilizing his utterances as truths Mr. Trump challenges this social order and ends conversation with people, who do not share the mobilized truths. The social order of truth has people divided into separate social groups, each caring for their own truth, each protecting their own truth. In worst case, even fighting for their truth, against others.

The role of science to be the core producer of constructed facts is crucial for the social order of democracy. This social order needs facts that are constructed and that are mobilized as such not only within science, but very much so in politics. Science studies’ emphasis on the constructed nature of scientific facts does not undermine the function of science. On the contrary, it supports it. It contests scientific approaches that like to talk about and treat their facts as truths, and that in doing so challenge the social order that grants science a crucial – if only modest – function in democratic societies. When contemplating upon the Science Wars, Latour (2004) noted that “we need to get closer to facts, not farther away from them”. Indeed, we need to get closer to constructed facts, and father away from truths. This is our means to fight populism, and this is why science studies is most needed.

Post-Truth/Fake-Posts. Or, the Truth in Beta mode

When I was a kid I liked to tell a good lie. My untruths were not malicious or injurious but they were very intentional deceptions. Like every kid, I knew that lying was a bad thing to do but there was a particular thrill in carefully crafting a deliberative fiction that would travel and that would hold. My objective was to have it be believed, and believed by many. The real victory, which was rare, was to have the deception circle back to me, uttered iteratively from second to third to fourth parties until it came home to its origins, returned to the ears of its maker. This was a long time ago and yet, our so-called post-truth era of alternative facts does make it seem as though we are now experimenting with truth in the beta mode: uncertain, crowd-sourced versions of reality.



The lie is often taken as a dirty act, so dishonorable that in polite company it would be understood as an assault to suggest that someone is a liar. When Donald Trump claimed the crowds at his inauguration were “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period” or when he proclaimed that “millions of illegal voters” had cost him the popular vote, journalists and media commentators were quick to check those claims against the facts, but they were loath to accuse him of lies. Trump supporters remained faith-full1 to their man despite no evidence that any bogus votes were cast anywhere in the country, and that there was no sign that his inaugural crowds were anything more than mediocre. Nonetheless, reporters and pundits in the U.S. tended to demure from stating that “he lied.” Instead, the liar had ‘misstated’ the truth or, even more sympathetically, had failed to produce a verifiable fact. A lack of facticity is one dimension of misstatement, but it is the alternative fact2–a deliberately, spuriously concocted alter-truth–that most characterizes what is now being called a post-truth era. It was the alternative fact that caused a run on copies of 1984, Orwell’s3 dystopian saga of a society rhetorically reproduced through ‘newspeak,’ the sine qua non of doublethink.

Where many U.S.-based journalists may shy away from calling a liar a liar, British commentators appear less concerned about that terminological propriety. They use the word4 and then some, and with some distinction. As Laurie Penny elegantly put it in The New Statesman recently, “The liar has a clear idea of what the reality of a situation is, and wants their audience to believe the opposite.” The bullshit artist5, by contrast, “wants to destroy the entire concept of truth, not to deceive but to confuse, confound and control.” So, do we now live among proud liars and accomplished bullshit artists? Undoubtedly both.



Lying and bullshitting are both creative acts. So too, is the news. A science reporter for The New York Times, for instance, must take newly formulated, or found, scientific facts and make them news. She must use her wits to shake the dull chaff from the shiny (newsworthy) grain of fact/s. And in this hewing process the appeal is also fashioned, the linguistic instruments used to make a story a story and to give science its representational shape in words. In this sense, news about, and of, science is always already a simulacra of scientific facts. The news of science is a rendering, coded through language and deposited in epistemic spaces – from hallowed news outlets and jacked-up talk radio screeds to social media silos of our own making. But representation, we know, is never just representation. It is only, as James Clifford (1986) would have it, a “partial truth” that is always and forever caught up in the very invention of what it represents. Alternative facts do not make themselves up, but they do make their way around, seeming to accrete more and more truth along the way. Remember that in Orwell’s work, science, in the conventional sense, had almost ceased to exist. In newspeak there was (or is) no word for science.

Over the last decade or so, about 35% of journalism jobs in the United States have been lost (Boyer 2013). The contemporary news ecology in the U.S. and elsewhere shows signs that journalistic deprofessionalization has increased just as a hyperprofessionalization of hoaxing and fake news has exponentialized. We see fewer journalists working less time and more hoaxers and false news manufacturers working more time and with increasing influence. The bleed between factual news and promotional hijinks appeared as a proleptic foreshadowing to fake news in the Blue Water6 faux terrorist attack that fooled Germany’s most respected newspaper back in 2009. Seven years later, in the late stages of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a fake news maker based in suburban California7, Jestin Coler, set out to “infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right.” Apparently one of the biggest fake news producers in the world, Coler is an unassuming fellow, but one with a talent for shaping stories and sites to suit the eyes and ears of what he calls the “white nationalist alt-right.” A phony FBI murder-suicide8 tied to Hillary Clinton was the ideal vehicle for his creative and monetary aspirations, channeled through an organization that he calls Disinfomedia. Staging reality, as with the Blue Water hoax or with fake murder-suicides may be as simple as creating a handful of websites where content and form mimic the contour of real news while never intending to properly inform. Mediaspheres are permeable–both democratized as well as disinformationalized. But, this is not really new.

Naomi Oreskes9 and Eric Conway (2010) have written that the propagation of untruths, or the production of ‘doubt,’ has long been a corporate strategy to ensure increased profit and the continued manufacture of dangerous products, from cigarettes to carbon emissions. Perforating the veracity of scientific fact is a product in itself, they argue. It is something that can be marketed in a double sense: as a narrative in which doubt thrives, and again, as a material product (for example, tobacco) that, through the creation and dissemination of the deceptive narrative, will also be sold. In their book, Oreskes and Conway set out to unravel how a tiny handful of scientists were able to produce decades of uncertainty around the harms of chlorofluorocarbons, tobacco and carbon emissions. But their story does not end with the construction of scientific skepticism. It resolves instead with the distribution of those lies through media outlets whose journalists have been trained—rightly or wrongly—to “tell both sides of the story.” (As though there were ever only two sides). In this way, a mountain of fact may be made to appear next to an eroded pebble of disagreement. Even in the attempt to provide objective balance, as the ethics of journalism demand, truly genuine truthly equilibrium has, as Noam Chomsky has shown for decades, never been fully achieved.

One of the distinguishing features of post-truth and post-factual times is the abrogation of professionalized news production to the agglomeration of social media newspeak. An argument can be made that as we buzz about in our hives of social media, we are each enrolled in the manufacture of news: the design and dissemination of news, facts, or factishes, truths or its partialities. Have we all become citizen journalists as we tap out our reposts and retweets? It is possible that we have collectively neglected professional news journalism to the point where expert media cannot insulate us from trolling liars. Worries about actual and potential public gullibility has meant that companies like Facebook are now posting primers on how to spot fake news. (Beware of headlines with too many exclamation points they say!!!!!!). But if a general dupability has overtaken our mediated lives, one wonders when it was, if ever, that anyone really believed that all of the posts on Facebook or the tweets rolling off of our screens represented the truth with a capital T.




The term post-truth was beatified in 2016 as the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year10. Post-truth is a condition, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Post-truthiness depends on a referent to objectivity, but most importantly it requires an emotive appeal, an ability to mold feelings, beliefs and to re-curve public consciousness in ways that serve its makers. Conversely, truth requires its paradoxical inverse. Truth needs the lie. Reality demands irreality and fact can only exists against falsehood. But post-truth is a game of complicities, a willingness to believe in the thing being claimed. This is both an epistemological and ontological proposition. Post-truth requires multiple epistemologies of the world and perspectival difference. Post-truth also demands, as Marilyn Strathern (2004) and Annemarie Mol (2003) might point out, multiple ontological forms of the ‘facts’ inhabiting worlds (in the plural). Distinct epistemes view facts in distinct ways. Multiple worlds produce multiple ontologies of facts. Post-truth may be most instructive in the ways that it surfaces that combination of truth creation.

Post-truth is also an affective condition where sentiment and faith converge upon the putative objectivity of fact. Science studies have demonstrated again and again how facts are not without their affective dimension in both their construction and diffusion; post-truthiness makes that abundantly clear. In post-truth worlds, the agent of deception is part of a dynamic oscillation between The Real (or facts as they are concluded as such in the present) and The Unreal. The liar knows the truth. And in this way she is also part of truthmaking, as well as its undoing. This is where Clifford’s partial truths meet with Strathern’s “partial connections.” Truth is constituted, re-constituted and enacted in relation to various other realities, facts and verifiable events. This is a project of moving one enactment through the next.



Perhaps post-truth is not novel, but in “fact” the constitutive ground of western social theory. The Enlightenment project was, as we well know, a program that sought out reason against faith, lauding the rational rather than the theological. Scientific methods and the empirical gaze were developed to surface the workings of physical phenomena and in so doing, unravel the metaphysical truths that had obtained over the centuries. If truth had been attributed to god/s, it now ebbed toward the intellectual pursuits of men, moving from the unseen acts of deities to the replicable experiments of science. New kinds of truth were emerging.

The idea that there could be another truth, that there was more than one truth, enabled the rationality project. In the early days of 19th century social theory, for example, were all kinds of truths variously deduced and exchanged. Emile Durkheim had his formulations of total social facts and saw society webbed through its collective unconscious. Gabriel Tarde saw another truth of nodal individuals (and their interests) compelled, nonetheless, to enroll in some form of the social contract. Alternative truths can be multiplied infinitely across academic spheres of debate. Science studies and feminist epistemologies–such as standpoint theory (Hartsock 1987) and situated knowledge (Haraway 1991)–have been both the great inheritors, as well as key drivers, of truth’s disassembling. And, as Bruno Latour duly acknowledged in his essay11 comparing matters of fact to matters of concern, “factishness” has an insidious doppelganger in, for instance, climate change denial rhetoric. When was the moment that deconstruction became destruction or that undermining scientific certainty became an act of “adding even more smoke to the smoke (2004: 228)?” Have the last several decades of intellectual life been nakedly impartial in their razing of truth?

Our post-truth age may simply affirm that epistemic continuity never really existed or it may magnify how assemblages of disassembled truths have come to figure Real World imaginaries. What may sting most is the recognition that facts are so perilously frail, interpreted and emotive. But this is also a time to pause on the hyphen in the midst of post-truth, to balance for a moment on this gesture toward a time after the fact, where truth is found in the beta mode.








6 considered/2016/11/23/50 3146770/npr-finds-the-head-of-a-covert-fake-news-operation-in-the-suburbs





(De)mobilizing the (STS) facts

The April issue features a new section, “STS Live”. The idea is to shift slightly the perspective on what a publication in a scholarly review might be. Not only a report, something accomplished, done, and fixed, but also something ongoing, vibrant, interactive, and living. “STS Live” will focus on issues that are to some extent urgent, relevant to the community, and not resolved. Writing on such matters is business as usual for journalists, but quite a challenge for scholars. Our new section is a small vehicle for engaging analytically with what is happening #rightnow and for producing a type of “cloud atlas” (David Mitchell) for STS. An attempt at mapping something that is changing live, on the air, right before your eyes, puts to the fore not just some statements (let alone established facts) and the differences between them, but also the very lines of STS reasoning, the analytical tools of mapping that also envision how STS could/might/should be practiced in the near or distant future. “STS Live” is about STS thinking in the making.

It is indicative that the first topic of “STS Live” is “Alternative Facts”. Discussion of these matters reaches to core issues of the field. I have a strong feeling that we are getting back to the questions of scientific fact-building and the facticity of STS’s own constructions. One way to approach these questions from a different angle is to think about how (STS) facts (de)mobilize and are (de)mobilized.

In the 1970s and 1980s, STS was striving not just to deconstruct the universality of scientific truth-claims, but to show how entities are mobilized to become or to compound facts and what costs should be paid for the facts to travel “further” and “faster”. STS scholars, contrary to their own findings, were loath to do what scientists themselves do: not eager to get rid of the context of its own facts and even less so to black-box them. We are always trying to keep an eye on the alternatives, the others, the silenced, the underdogs. This makes STS descriptions at odds with STS’s own practice if it is supposed to be a science. And this discrepancy also brings on the whole discussion of whether STS is practicing what it preaches that is recurring in current debates on alternative facts (Woolgar, 1988, Fuller, this issue).

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Mol’s (1999) notion of “ontological politics” showed that erasure of alternative versions of reality is not always the case (at least in some places outside the laboratory, such as the clinic) and not even the sought ideal. Alternatives are not just separate options but are partially connected, entangled with each other, and co-ordinated in a situated fashion, as David Pontille and Torny show for scientific publications (this issue). This strand of research strengthened the tendency of STS to be more situated, slow, cautious, and modest, to the point of “fighting” their own success (Law, 1999, Latour, 1999).

But beyond this, the post-truth condition raises major epistemo-political dilemmas for STS scholars.

First, they could become empirically informed “new positivists”, who unlike “old positivists” reflexively learned their science from their partners/objects of study, and who will mobilize (i.e. decontextualize and black-box) their own facts to gain scientific and possibly political power and authority to STS. This would imply that STS becomes yet another powerful, albeit reflexive actor among the others.

Second, STS scholars could also take a somewhat critical stance (not implying judgment) towards the modern sciences (both natural and social) and their ideal of mobilizing the facts. In this case, STS would continue un-black-boxing, producing uncertainty instead of certainty, exchanging matters of fact for matters of concern and care. STS could consider the pace of modern science and technology not as the ideal to follow creatively, but as a problem. It could proscribe itself to follow a red-carpet avenue of sciences (see cover image). But, as Verran (this issue) observes, this strategic achievement could be criticized as a return of the (repressed) detached observer. However, this stance could imply some engagement in the form of “Enlightenment without the critique” (Latour, 1987). STS could not only learn from sciences but teach them how to slow down, how to be concerned, cautious, careful.

A third option is of course a combination of the two alternatives just described and to intervene with one of them according to a particular situation. It seems that some STS researchers proclaim this alternative as the most appropriate tactic (Verran, this issue), but I’m not sure whether anyone is pursuing it seriously.

At such crossroads, STS could and should ask itself whether in the post-truth condition it considers itself a science, or something else. Maybe diplomacy?

EASST Student Member on the EASST Council – one vacancy

An opportunity for you to play a role in the future of EASST

We are seeking self-nominations for the following vacancy on EASST Council (following an unsuccessful earlier call). The position is for 4 years (but some previous student members have stepped down after 2 years if they are no longer a student). There will be an online election where all current EASST members will be able to vote.

To learn more about the recent work of the Council and the opportunities and challenges ahead please read our out-going President’s article in the latest EASST Review at A list of current council members can be found at and the formal roles of the president and council are described in the EASST constitution You are welcome to contact the President or one of the existing Council members (emails on the website) for more information. Candidates need to be a current student member of EASST.

If you are interested in this position, please nominate yourself by sending an email to providing a short statement (no more than 250 words) introducing yourself and saying why you are interested in standing for the Council and what skills and experiences you would bring to the role.  This statement will be made available to those voting.

Nominations must be received by Friday 13th January 2017.

The election will open soon after nominations close and all members will be sent an email with details of how to vote.


A note from Márton Fabók

Dear fellow PhD students,

As the outgoing EASST student representative, I would like to encourage you to nominate yourself to become the student member of EASST Council.

The student representative is a full Council member. The EASST Council takes decisions collegially, and often subdivides tasks among members (see this and other issues of the EASST Review for our latest activities!), so it is more than just raising a voice for fellow postgrad students and early career researchers. There are generally two Council meetings a year; one is often adjoining the EASST conference. Council membership is voluntary work for the community, but travels to meetings and accommodation are fully reimbursed.

Personally, being a student rep was one of the best things during my PhD. It provided a unique perspective to understand how our STS community and generally academia across different national settings work. Coming from a non-STS department, this was a great way for me to be involved in the discipline. The nice and collegial atmosphere of the Council provides a very supportive environment, so it’s really up to you how do you contribute to STS in Europe. For example, I have learnt a lot from the activities I was involved in, such as organising the postgraduate workshop before the biannual conference or revamping the EASST Fund. All in all, I fully recommend you to think about what you would do as a council member and to take a brave step to nominate yourself to the student rep position.

Please email me if you have any questions or have something to share at

Márton Fabók

History, ontology, science studies How to study open science and scientific data

An event as the EASST/4S annual meeting can be a key object to study the ever- forming discipline of science studies. I will try to use my scattered experiences of two different tracks to draw a few draft conclusions about some methodological features of our discipline, and propose some more critical research questions that could shape science studies.

In the track Open Science we heard presentations, among them many case studies on how and which actors should be and are included in science (for example local communities affected by macro-level political decisions about the environment, the general public concerning GMO, Wikipedia-contributors, lay biologists, urban communities, etc.). There were lively discussions about who thinks what is important about open science. We also heard recommendations how to achieve the goal of “open science”. A considerable part of the scholars working on open science (and some of them presenting in Barcelona) are also working in policy-related committees or other organizations to foster open science.

Often, open science is contrasted with the issue of whom the data belongs to. Making such a contrast — we have to be aware — constructs a space where property issues are opposed to a concept of an open science where openness is a normatively positive entity (which should be achieved, with the help of scholars/experts in committees). If we understand science in this manner and in this context of contrast, then propriety issues will tend to attain a negative connotation. However, in my incomplete perception of this track and its presenters, not very often were such ontological questions about the category “open science” asked: it was not in the main focus to address why and with the help of which people or groups this category emerged and was shaped during history; under what political, cultural, scientific contexts it operates; what functions it has or had in shaping society, business, culture or science. Rather, most of the time, the discussions covered the different semantics of open science (of course, not always — for a detailed and thorough analysis of the track see Mayer and Aibar’s review in this issue, analysing the different semantics of openness in the presentations as well), about the different perceptions (for example of stakeholders, policy-makers) on what open science is, or about how open science is performed (on Wikipedia, in journals, in participatory science projects, etc.). We also heard many presentations on the question of how to implement open science; this latter question can be characterized as presupposing a normative understanding of open science.

The notion of openness that was so frequently used has not really been critically analysed in the majority of the contributions — apart from few, but notable exceptions. It seems for sure that “openness” is positively connoted. Such a connotation has been part of Western scientific tradition since modernity (see for example Merton’s scientific norm of communism, Merton 1942). In his paper on magic and science, talking about historiography, Láng (2015:127) rightly points out that “(r)esearchers simply accepted the view that openness is a positive value that supports academic research, and that secrecy, which is more characteristic of the history of technology, was fortunately abandoned by modern science.” But Láng (2015: 125) also observes that “many scholars have shown how secrecy in science became not only a tool of protecting knowledge from intellectual competitors, but also a dynamic social practice, a force that creates and organizes groups, and influences the mechanisms of exclusion-inclusion”. The analysis of these and similar questions in relation to the many practices around the definition and practice of so-called “open science” might produce valuable knowledge for science studies.

In a way Western democracy seems to be the normative backdrop of the dialogue on open science; but let us play a little bit: What could be the antonym of open science? It could be many things: closed science, science for the few, science for the privileged ones, etc. All of the antonyms shed light on one or another aspect of open science that could be studied by science studies scholars, ever more so if we wanted to accept the normatively positive notion of open science, as it is widely accepted nowadays. Some questions for future empirical analyses of scientific practices could include: What are the normative, scientific or political stakes for different disciplines in performing the movement of open science? Which groups are leading the discussion in this field? Why and how do disciplines, scholars, policy-makers focus on activities regarded as fostering open science? What are the performances in this field? What is regarded as closed science? How does this narrative of bad closed and good open science shape scientific activities? How did this opposition come into being in the first place? These possible questions would shed light on open science from a meta-level: they would show us the processes how the concept of open science is shaped culturally, socially or scientifically, and those cultural, scientific or social entities and their networks that emerge from these processes. Such an approach would not focus on – as did many of the excellent presentation we heard in the track — how a pre-defined “open science” is made, manufactured, constructed, performed or used. It would rather study how the thing we now call “open science” came into place, what its ontological status is, what its changing roles and relationships are in the cultural, political, scientific landscapes of other entities. Steven Shapin (2008: 222-223), in a similar approach, describes for example how what we now define as openness was a normality in the 1970s among biologists in the academia, most of them living scarcely off their salaries; but when the industry became aware of the profitable nature of genetics, scientists were tempted to change their workplace and work in less open circumstances. The opposition in the narratives about dirty secretive industry as opposed to pure and virtuous open science emerged because of these developments: “Since there was no money, a sense of sainthood was required in the situation”, said a student about research in academia (Philip J. Hilts: Scientific Temperaments: Three Lives in Contemporary Science, quoted by Shapin 2008: 223).

I will now propose some possible similar research questions based on another field in science studies, dealing with scientific data. Again, I will focus on what could be an ontological analysis about the emergence and ever-changing status of the different things we in STS call “data”.

In the track “Lives and Deaths of Data” the focus of many of the talks was on the different ways of the “interpretation” of data, the different stops of their “journey”, the “changes” in the translations of data.1 The topics were, among others: sensitive health “data” and their context, discussions around and interpretations of astronomical “data”, “data” sharing practices and inequalities, the commodification of “data”, configurations of public and non-public “data”, etc. Among the many possible definitions of data there was one feature that came up quite often: that data is something that can be circulated (implying as well that it can be used several times).

The secondary use of scientific data, that seems to be one defining feature of data in this view, has been a contested issue for decades. The relationship of what is usually called metadata and data or the relationship of data and context are not self-evident. Even these distinctions are under scientific scrutiny (Mauthner-Gárdos 2015). Postmodern theories have questioned the assumption that data are neutral or objective representations of the world. Performative scholars (Barad 2007) have challenged representationalist approaches (many of them postmodernist or constructivist ones); such approaches, these scholars say, still stick to the view that scientific data somehow represent natural or social worlds (even if these approaches do not necessarily narrate around terms like objectivity or subjectivity). It would be interesting to analyse — in a performative approach — how the notion that data can be circulated itself presupposes a specific notion of data and thus a specific way how data can be analysed; a question that has not quite been in the focus of the presentations in this track. If we understand data as something that can be circulated (and many presenters in this track shared this view), then one of the foci of such science studies analyses about data will be the ways data circulate or data are transmitted, and how different people “interpret” the “same” data. Scientific data will be a well-defined entity without borders that are contested, without ends that may fray. Science on data will be then somewhat less on what cultural, scientific, social, etc. traditions and surroundings influence what counts as data in the first place2, on what in our world does not qualify as scientific data, let alone on the ways how we as science studies scholars choose our objects of study; short: on the ontological status of data in sciences (in relation for example to other types of data, or other similar entities in sciences that end up not being called data) and, importantly: on data as the object of scientific enquiry in STS. In this track, the main focus – of course with exceptions, mostly ethnographic, close-up analyses of processes that result in the production of entities then called data – was less on these latter aspects.

It might be fruitful, if we want to reflect on our own methods as scientists, to look at our ways how we define data, or open science (or anything else as a matter of fact) and at the causes of selection of things that seem worthy of analysing. Also, I propose to analyse to greater extent the ontology of data or open science: what is regarded as data or open/closed science, which scientific, methodological or other traditions influence how these notions came into being in a specific scientific discipline at a specific time in history, at a specific place on Earth.

So: the questions that might be valuable to elaborate and that were – in my view – a bit underrepresented in the tracks under review: What is regarded/defined as data or open science and what not? What are the disciplinary, methodological, political etc. factors that play a role in the processes of and the practices resulting in a specific definition? What are the factors that lead to the concept of open (and closed) science and that of scientific data? How is the relationship of the things that then are called “world” and “data” in different methods, sciences and societies? Through which terms, methods and concepts is this distinction conceptualized, made through different practices, and then used in scientific narratives and texts or in the politics and policies of science? It seems to me that science studies might greatly benefit from including approaches and research questions about the ontology and historicity of the objects we choose to study and thus, in and through our actions and choices as researchers, bring into being as scientific objects.


1 I quote here the introductory speech of this track by Sabina Leonelli.

2 One of the notable exceptions in this track was Haider’s and Kjellberg’s analysis about the relationship of the structure of a big scale experimental facility and the type of data it produces. They stressed that the meaning of data starts before researchers begin their work.

Open Science in Practice STS

Approaches to open cultures in research

Open Science (OS) is currently regarded as the next ‘big thing’ in European science policy and elsewhere (Mayer 2015; Levin et al. 2016). It is broadly defined as science that is transparent, accountable, and shareable, involving the participation of (all) relevant stakeholders in the scientific process. Policy visions do not only highlight the transformative powers of OS in regard to research culture, they are also setting high expectations in regard to creation of economic growth, new jobs and innovation opportunities. In practice, tensions are emerging in how OS is enacted and governed by scientific communities, science policy organisations, funding bodies, the publishing industry, and science-related institutions, with diverse uptakes of commons, knowledge sharing, democratisation of technology, participatory design, hacking etc.

This conference track invited participants to explore OS from an STS perspective and to discuss what STS can bring into the broader discussion of OS, e.g. by studying institutionalizations of OS, appropriations of OS within prevailing traditional epistemic culture, or how OS is co-shaped by negotiation processes promoted by different stakeholders. Presentations covered socio-technical dimensions of openness in sciences – including the social sciences and humanities. There was less discussion of the “sticks and carrots” (Leonelli et al. 2015) or the perceived benefits to researchers, research organisations and funding agents of utilising open scientific methods, the “disincentives and barriers, and the degree to which there is evidence to support these perceptions” (Whyte & Pryor 2011) – though one of the papers remarked how pressures on scientists to collaborate with industry and commercialize their work, within the framework of open innovation, can work against policy expectations to share research data and results [Sánchez-Jiménez/Aibar]. The aim of the conference track was therefore not to gain consensus over how to define open science in research practice, nor to reach a conclusion on how STS should approach these matters. On the contrary it was an attempt to grasp the multitude of enactments of openness and approaches to study it without being normative about its valuation1.


Grasping openness

Most of the discussions in the four sessions revolved around diverse (and unusual non-idealized) forms of co-production of knowledge in various open configurations – involvement of local communities [Albagli et al.], local expertise [Dosemagen] and interdisciplinary collaboration [Oberhauser], hackathons, open consultation processes [Noel, Gruson-Daniel], the open and collaborative editing of scientific articles in Wikipedia [Aibar/Lerga], replication of scientific results, open institutional policies, open access publishing and its abuse by predatory publishers [Wyatt] and so forth. Eighteen speakers told very diverging stories about challenges and limits of collaborations in open settings, some highlighting the need for both normative and legal frameworks in order to safeguard open practices. [Spök et al] particularly pointed to the need of closed spaces for debate in controversy and risk research.

A number of speakers – involved in ongoing open science or citizen science initiatives – focused on collaboration between academia and different kinds of local communities in several countries [Fressoli/Arza]. The relevance and role of lay-expertise and the design of hybrid and innovative institutional settings were highlighted as key points in such experiences. The focus was implicitly moved, from open science as a more effective way of producing science, to open science as a new way to engage citizens (mainly as specific community members) and other stakeholders as active agents in the development of more socially robust research. While open science is commonly associated with access to peer-reviewed knowledge, the emphasis in our conference track was shifted towards peer production.

This line of inquiry understands open science as a social learning venture where the process itself is even more important than the specific scientific outcomes or products than can arise out of it. Consistently with this move from open science as product-oriented to open science as process-oriented, institutional experimentation and the involvement of local communities are considered much more important than technologically deterministic approaches to open science that place great emphasis in the use of new tools. Furthermore, some of the conclusions in our track highlighted the necessary soft-skills and adequate estimation of capacity of such participatory approaches, which are traditionally also a domain of STS.


Sharing data

Data and data sharing practices got also quite a lot of attention in the analyses presented. In times when new technology meets old forms of governance, contradictions emerge, illustrating the complex orientations of data generators, researchers and others to open science. Here, criticism was raised by some speakers about the neutral character associated to data in standard open science approaches and in usual calls for data sharing. They problematized data sharing by exposing how data encompasses compromises, ethical standards, different epistemic cultures and values, even different levels of privacy or security, which may entail severe problems in their re-use and replication [Harp-Rushing et al., Velden, …]. Such issues, which built upon traditional STS claims against the value-free or non-situated character of scientific knowledge, should be taken into account in the analysis of barriers to open science and the design of public policies to foster data sharing. Mainstream open data discourse (see the current implementation of data management plans) was criticised for its narrow concept of data (as text or numbers in structured form) and counter-illustrated with other forms of data or data generation, such as organic materials in biobanks [Murtagh et al.] or biohacking citizen labs [Bogdanov], but also urban social data [Perelló], and multimedia data from ethnographic or experimental settings. Besides raising awareness for the intractability of certain materialities or spatialities towards technocratic ideals of openness, the speakers were calling for more ambitions to open up the whole range of media through which “scientific knowledge is processed, validated and circulated” [Pedersen et al.]. However, when it comes to making data resulting from such studies openly available some of the speakers also experienced limits and challenges: unclear copyright issues or vague institutional data policies, for instance, are still hindering data sharing. But what about our own data politics as STS researchers? How could we share our data in its broadest sense, not only among ourselves, but with the communities we work with? We see that issue is prominently addressed in citizen science projects that treat citizens not as research partners, but as data aggregators.

Altogether the open research data theme provides a fruitful ground for many STS concerns. Besides the already mentioned issues, we should deal with the various expectations and imaginaries that science policy and research administration currently develop in regard to open data governance. From the quest of evidence based decision making to the realms of messy research data, following different data pathways could offer rich and exciting STS topics related to scientific ethos, interdisciplinary collaboration, citizen science, infrastructure studies and so forth.


Scientific ethos, predatory practices and metrics

Coming to questions of scientific ethos and trust, even if debated only briefly during the track, the phenomenon of predatory open access publishing triggered a discussion on metrics and scientific credit systems. In the predatory business model authors are charged publication fees for publishing an open access article without proper peer review or any other editorial services. In the last years this exploitative practice has not only created confusion about the quality of open access publishing in general, it has also made, once again, visible the problems of researchers from developing countries in need to play the game of scientific recognition and reward. Not to mention the emergent evidence – for instance while analysing EU policy documents [Mayer] – that open science can also be instrumental for worsening present trends towards the commodification of science, within the neoliberal agenda (Mirowsky 2014).

All in all, the fear of losing competitive advantages by opening up access to scientific knowledge production is not only present in innovation contexts, but much more so when it comes to planning one’s career [Attenbourogh]. Giving up control over use and reuse in times of vague institutional data policies and without an established reward/incentive system for opening up data would need more critical engagement with ethical dimensions of scientific practice such as trust and responsibility. Again a domain where STS would be best suited for involvement.

Open research practices shaped by digital technology offer a whole new spectrum of metrics to measure and assess scientific quality and productivity. But what does it mean to count social impact with downloads, clicks or retweets? Such alternative metrics would probably just plug along what we already have, but at least they put existing metrics for impact factors and rankings into perspective (Leiden Manifesto 2015). No doubt, they will also co-shape and preformat research agendas and increase impact driven research (which is not necessarily always a bad thing!). However, policy makers increasingly ask for impact measures to legitimate public expenditure. Alongside counting patents as indicators of innovation scientometricians work on new indicators to assess all kinds of open science including the cooperation of societal stakeholders in research.


A reflexive take on Open Science by STS

With open science currently being mainstreamed into western research funding frameworks, STS could help to demonstrate the situative appropriateness of top-down open science policies and engage with bottom-up activities as some of the track’s presenters have shown. Open should neither be defined in strict opposition to closed nor should it be a universalistic principle applicable to all research practices everywhere. STS would furthermore be able to study how such policies impact traditional communication and collaboration procedures, existing reward structures, timescales and hierarchies, as well as reflexively interrogating our own practices as researchers and our specific position with respect to other sciences. If STS were committed not only to study data practices in their diversity, but also in different scientific disciplines and regional contexts, we could critically accompany and help to realize the core principles of the open science movement: being as transparent, accountable, and shareable as possible, and involving stakeholder expertise on an equal footing in the research process.

Last but not least, in the context of open science, STS could once again reflect its own configurations of access to knowledge production and expertise. Maybe we need to step out of a disciplinary ivory tower constructed over the last years (with a whole lot of exceptions, of course!). We should take the opportunity to learn – also on a methodological level – from citizen scientists, hackathons and grassroots movements and rethink how open we want our epistemic cultures to be.


1 See also Judit Gárdos in this issue, who criticizes the inherent normative and largely undisputed dimensions of the term open science and in particular its taken for granted connotation of Western scientific tradition.

[Names] refer to presentations at the conference track and a more detailed description of each presentation can be found here: /open-science-in-practice-4s-easst.html

Reflections on science-society relationship Improving scientific communication and practice

Science has a great potential to improve the world. However, to utilise this potential the relationship between science and society needs to be positive and strong. A part of my professional ambition is therefore to improve this relationship, and I am worrying if I see these two entities drifting further apart. For instance, I see how knowledge creation is being liberated from the traditional source of the academic institution and news media, and at the same time being appropriated by individuals with special interests. So while there are groups successful in doing independent research, e.g. Ginkgo Bioworks (Turan, 2016), there are also in rising numbers those who claim to be a source of information, but offer mostly misrepresentations and lies, e.g. Breitbart (Toosi, 2016). From an STS perspective, information liberation is broadly perceived as a positive trend, but for me, there is also a real need to mitigate the negative externalities that come with it; namely the emphasis on shock, volume and repetition over factuality. This raises the question of how science, the ultimate source of facts, can strengthen its legitimacy as a knowledge source in the current social context described by many as the ‘post-truth era’. My experience at the conference helped me to rethink the relationship between science and society, and based on sessions I attended, I have formulated three questions to consider for the improvement of the relationship: ‘Could we use museums as a platform for more direct engagement with science?’; ‘Could we improve science communication practices by a careful inclusion of lay knowledge?’; ‘How can open data practices contribute to the transparency of science?’


Communicating Science

Objects of scientific interest are complex. They do not yield well to simplifications, and significant effort is required to understand even the best scientific explanations. This means that not all platforms which garner wide audiences are suited for discussing objects of scientific study. However, the fourth session of the Science Communication track showed how museums can provide such a platform, and how lay knowledge can be integrated to improve science communication.

Imagine museums as agoras of the present. On top of exhibiting objects, we could use them as places of public consultation, says Dr Belen Laspra (2016) who contemplates the challenges of promoting sceptical attitudes toward science. In our science community, we are naturally sceptical of all research, while understanding that this does not equal to distrust of scientific method. However, conflation of the two might lead to dislike of science in general. Therefore, I wonder if including people in the scientific process could correct this conflation? And if museums could be places to do that? Take for an example biodiversity, a topic of choice of Prof Alan Richardson (2016). His presentation on the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia nicely described the struggles of communicating complicated objects. When an object is so inherently systematic and contextual, how to best explain it? And going a step further, how to best enable people to engage with the process of knowledge creation in which these objects are embedded? Perhaps, museums could fulfil this exact role. And as Laspra argues, build capacity to think. I very much liked this idea, as I would certainly love to see more ‘STS citizens’ – distrustful engagers, loyal sceptics – people who Dr Laspra calls ‘much (risk) – much (benefit).’ By bringing the intricacies of science closer to people, we could facilitate the rise of the sceptical citizen who is engaged with science and its process, and improve trust in science as a source of knowledge.

In addition, and given the dominant deficit model of communication, more and better appreciation of lay knowledge could improve society’s relationship with science. However, Mr John Lunsford argued in his presentation (2016) that inappropriate usage of lay knowledge might be just as bad as the deficit model. One of the problems, he says, is that our communication practices are developed for high-income countries. For example, concepts such as technology, capital and democracy are usually implied, which would be the wrong approach for low to middle income countries. The lack of appreciation of cultural differences when communicating about science might lead to serious tensions between science and society. For instance, it could mean that people are asked to choose between science and their cultural practice, or that adoption of western practices becomes a tool for imperialism. According to Mr Lunsford, however, lay knowledge is a ‘flexible tool,’ and in his research it allowed to adapt communication to local practices. In my work looking at the communication practices aimed at pro-homeopathy groups, I saw a fierce disapproval of any lay knowledge as one of the main reasons for rejection of ‘scientifically correct advices’ in favour of homeopathic advices, which were but presented by people who first listened to and engaged with one’s lived experiences. In conclusion, including lay knowledge in our communications practices might be of a great benefit, or even a necessity in reaching certain parts of society, but its application must be carefully considered first, lest we deform it into yet another form of deficit model.


Fig. 1: Sphere of Science Communication (Lewenstein, 2011)


Despite talking about these issues in isolation, neither museums nor lay knowledge exist in a vacuum. Figure 1 captures this, and other relations, very nicely in a complex ‘sphere of science communication.’ While individual elements do have influence by themselves, their value is best realised in the connections they make with other elements of the sphere (system). In addition, we might also see that science-society relationship is not a simple issue, but rather a part of a system, and that it materialises across multiple relations, such as museums-public discourse, journals-news media, or lab/field work-general books. This visualisation enables me to do three things. First, validate issues that I brought up as relevant to the science-society relationship. Second, contextualise the issues to identify mutual dependencies. Third, given dependencies and relevancy, approach these issues with appropriate appreciation of complexity and with the appropriate resources. Ultimately, this allows us to create a framework for improving the science-society relationship, given the focus on museums and lay knowledge.


Improving science

Good communication of science and good science research are two sides of the same coin. One without the other will always achieve only mediocre results, if any at all. As such, my passion for science communication dictates me to be interested in issues around scientific method as well. One of the current hot topics is replicability of research and open data. Could being more open improve how science is done? The track on Open Data posed this very question, and its third session laid out the idea that open data might not help with the ‘reproducibility crisis’.

The limits of data sharing were portrayed by Dr Theresa Velden (2016) who categorised replication practices into four categories: local replication by originator; external verification by independent group; test of robustness by conceptual application; and generalization by extending the domain of validity. She argues that it are the last two categories that are the most important, but which also do not require data sharing. So while open data might improve verifiability of the research in itself, it should not be the focus of replication practices. At the same time, Dr Velden points out that data sharing is not just a technical issue, as it is very much a relational practice. This is important since it clarifies that even with sufficient resources, we will not likely achieve a higher standard of open data. The same sentiment was reiterated by a presentation on ‘Epistemic and Non-Epistemic values driving data-sharing’ (Murtagh et al., 2016). Tensions such as competition vs collaboration and open science vs secrecy and scientific competition force researchers into certain types of behaviour. It neither helps that we are all constantly being reminded of the ‘publish or perish’ mantra. Open data might therefore not be the simple solution to the ‘reproducibility crisis’ some believe it to be, as it does not serve the more important aspects of reproducibility, and it is interwoven with deeply rooted practices of the science profession that stimulate secrecy. Does this mean we should give up on open data and data sharing? Definitely not, but from the perspective of science-society relationship, open data should probably not be the centre of our attention.


The take away from Barcelona

Between sangria at the opening ceremony and great discussions at the beach bar with a beer in hand, I had an amazing time engaging with interesting research. I could not ask for more, and my first conference gave me enough courage, and some constructive criticism too, to enable me to advance my research further.

So what’s next for me? In connection to my passion, my frame of reference at the conference was the relationship between science and society. What I experienced was a mix of exploration of the current trends and identifications of problems of contemporary approaches. Daring, but sound, thoughts were the currency, and the environment facilitated open-mindedness rather than harsh criticism. What I picked up were ideas about science communication and scientific method. Four days of conference left me with these three questions:

  • Could we use museums as a platform for more direct engagement with science & rise of the ‘STS citizen’?
  • Could we improve science communication practices by a careful inclusion of a lay knowledge?
  • How to approach ‘reproducibility crisis’ if open data practices are not a question of a technical implementation and at best only part of the solution?

Will they turn out to be good research questions? I do not know, but I am confident enough to place them at the forefront of my next academic endeavours. And in case you have similar interests, I would encourage you to consider these questions as well.

Doing and Talking Research Excellence: By Other Means?

As I was looking over my notes from the 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona to write this essay for the EASST Review, a post on the Facebook page of Nature caught my eye. With the title “Young, Talented and Fed-Up: Scientists Tell Their Stories,” the article focuses on the experiences of three young scientists, suggesting that young researchers today face unprecedented pressure to publish, gain funding and secure permanent positions (Powell 2016). Intrigued, I perused further and realized that the article that had first grabbed my attention was part of a special issue of Nature on young scientists – and the implications their working realities have on scientific production. That the two concerns are deeply interrelated is quite unceremoniously stated in the first line of the editorial of the special issue: “Academia is more difficult than ever for young scientists. That’s bad for them, and bad for science” (Nature 2016). Importantly, one of the reasons for this “badness” is the increasing understanding that the focus on the quantity over quality of scientific output may be detrimental to science as an enterprise that is supposed to tackle the world’s big questions.

The narratives of the special issue of Nature could not have been more timely. In many ways, they give voice and legitimacy to the socio-economic uncertainties that many early career researchers around the world experience and try to navigate. It is also the topic that I have explored in my own dissertation work on young international scientists in contemporary Japan; focusing on the experience of the configuration of science, mobility and labor, I have suggested that, in the context of Japan, transnationally mobile researchers rely on cultural explanations in their attempts to make sense of the uncertainties embedded in global scientific labor regimes. The concerns of the Nature special issue also speak directly to the questions raised throughout the 4S/EASST conference track “Governing Excellent Science” and, importantly, some of the themes permeating the postgraduate workshop as well.

That unpacking the quite elusive concept of research excellence is a topic of great interest for STS scholars is reflected in the fact that the “Governing Excellent Science” track brought together many researchers: four panels with four or five presentations in each of them. The conveners of the track successfully pinpointed and rendered visible an ongoing moment of transformations in research policies around the world – that of the policy makers’ increasing reliance on quantifiable indicators to evaluate research processes and scientific thought (Sørensen, Bloch & Young 2015). In addition, the presentations of the track participants highlighted how reliance on bibliometrics and other quantifiable measurements of scientific productivity and quality have been more and more incorporated in the evaluation structures of research institutions themselves, despite the unease with and critiques of this shift.

The track addressed four major themes within the governance of excellence: funding for excellence, the excellence rhetoric, the management and evaluation of excellence, and the comparative aspects of research excellence. The presenters added flesh and inspiring nuance to these themes and inspired enlightening discussions: they examined a multiplicity of ways in which research processes and scientific outcomes are shaped by access to funding and mechanisms of evaluation; they highlighted the strategies scientists and administrators employ to navigate the excellence system; and they offered glimpses into the ways scientists “talk back” to the rhetoric of excellence.

At the same time, however, the “Governing Excellent Science” track presentations seemed to every time underscore an argument Chandra Mukerji already made more than twenty-five years ago when addressing the relationship between scientists and the bodies governing science: “[t]he successful use of science by the state gives science a potential value so great that it cannot be ignored. But scientists are rarely given much power” (1989: 85; emphasis in original). While in many cases supra-national organizations such as the European Union have subsumed the role of the state and non-state actors such as private corporations have come to be increasingly influential, the point still stands: research policies shape scientific outcomes in particular ways, and scientific practitioners seem to have no other option than to comply or quit. The special issue of Nature which I brought up in the beginning of my reflection highlights the fact that this unilateral shaping is deemed problematic not only by early career researchers but also by scientific practitioners in positions of relative power, and that the number of discussions on the topic should increase. It also suggests that both scientists and social scientists researching scientific work aim to address similar questions (for instance, the uses of bibliometrics in assessing research excellence).

It is for this reason that I suggest that STS examinations of research excellence would benefit from two simultaneous approaches: first, explicit acknowledgment that STS researchers are also affected by research excellence policies; and, second, a shift in the focus towards multi-faceted critiques of the excellence rhetoric with the goal of imagining its alternatives.

To address the first point, it was intriguing to note that, even though the presenters of the “Governing Excellent Science” track were at moments gently reminded of their own participation in the “excellence system” (van Kammen 2016), there was a dissonance between, on the one hand, efforts to unpack excellence and, on the other, lack of acknowledgment of the ways STS scholarship may also be shaped by changes in research policies. The fact that STS researchers are also affected by the narrowing definitions of quality scholarship and productivity, however, came to the fore during the postgraduate workshop. Focused on the theme of “doing (post)graduate STS by other means,” the workshop served as a venue for sharing ideas on how to be successful STS scholars in the changing research landscape. It offered its participants an opportunity to meet STS practitioners engaged in research, publishing and other types of careers that were at least partially outside the conventional path. As such, the workshop was a reminder that STS scholars – and in particular early career researchers, of which I am one too – are deeply implicated in research excellence policies and structures and have to invest diversified efforts in order to retain their employability in the job market. As one of the participants mentioned in a passing comment during the workshop, “It sounds like doing STS by other means just means doing more.”

To address my second point, I find it important that we offer multi-faceted critiques and imagine alternative futures. At a time when we – both as scholars of scientific production and as research workers ourselves – are provided with increasingly narrow definitions, operatializations, and indicators of research excellence, it is more crucial than ever to account for the interconnectedness of epistemic and social uncertainties (Sigl 2015). Reflecting my training in cultural anthropology, I suggest that this approach would imply turning an analytical eye to the examination of practices and affects, movements and desires, strategies and uncertainties of those who are enlisted to produce research excellence in different parts of the world and contexts of scientific production. Equally importantly, it calls for an exploration of practices of those who fail or refuse to meet the demanding conditions required by the rhetoric and structures of research excellence, as well as those who are actively involved in the search of alternatives. This approach would involve, as anthropologist Dominic Boyer has suggested, approaching scientists “not solely as rational(ist) creatures of expertise, but rather as desiring, relating, doubting, anxious, contentious, affective – in other words, as human subjects” (2008: 38).

Towards a Just Society: STS in the International Panel on Social Progress

The International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP) is a novel attempt at understanding how far we have come and in which direction we should be heading in our quest for a just society. As different articulations of progress pit themselves against one another, each vying for influence on the global agenda, our society is under a great deal of pressure to be reflexive about how we know what we know. Conclusions have been drawn in different fields and on many issues. However, there is a need to come together to discuss how these understandings of our world have a bearing on our collective futures and on issues of justice, responsibility and solidarity – a task requiring inter-disciplinarity. When we consider the myriad interconnected and sometimes subtle ways in which society is affected by change, it is difficult to determine what exactly has had an impact and in what ways those impacts have in turn affected people’s lives in a cumulative way. What progress means is neither apparent nor neutral as it requires an interpretation of such complexities. We also need to determine, as a society, the kinds of power and influence our current systems of accountability allow, which elements of our day-to-day lives we are willing to accept or should deem unacceptable and the ways that we organize ourselves so that governance tends to those shared values in a , bearing in mind that not everyone is able to influence the systems that shape their daily lives. Recent social, economic and political shocks to the global system have made social progress a particularly salient issue. It is time to take stock, to understand more deeply and openly the kind of world we have created and the potential impacts of the ways we have gone about developing and envisioning progress. This need for a reflexive and interdisciplinary vision of progress sets the tone of the work going into the IPSP.

At the 4S/EASST Conference in Barcelona, we had the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which Science, Technology and Society (STS) can contribute to this incredibly complex and pivotal understanding of social progress. We were given an overview of some of the reflections of STS scholars who are contributing to the development of the twenty-two chapters of the Report. The deeper the discussion became, the more striking the relevance of STS across the different issues appeared to be. The pathways that STS’ critical questioning enables, have found meaning in this vast chasm brought about by uncertainty in social progress, the debatable problem constructions and disconnected visions of the future. STS is concerned with process, how knowledge is made, for whom and by whom and its articulations become meaningful when it provides a perspective that closely reflects on the reality faced by knowledge producers themselves. The close involvement in the chapter-writing process has provided STS scholars with a remarkable opportunity to point out the value of STS as knowledge is being made. Moreover, the conversations and joint reflections on social progress can be enriched by the articulations that STS provides. These articulations include reflections on the role and influence of experts and expertise in framing and authority, reflections on power, ordering and governance and the social-construction of science and technology.

STS perspectives on the policy process challenge policy-makers’ preferences for a linear model of progress, wherein the expectations of policy-makers are met with positivistic ideas of science and technology and their goals systematically envisioned as incremental solutions to pre-defined policy questions. STS requires a different way of envisioning the science-policy relationship, as one that is far more intertwined with science, policy and society, contributing instead to the co-production of knowledge and social order (Jasanoff 2004). Change, as STS sees it, is something that should be negotiated with society if controversies are to be avoided. By stressing the social construction of science and technology, STS emphasizes the ways in which knowledge is made and how it is socially contingent, rather than objective or easily transplanted to policy contexts. STS roots its analysis of policy-making in the realities of knowledge production, considering how social contexts contribute towards the settling of facts, the different interpretations of evidence and truth, and the limits of change. The value of an STS perspective in the IPSP is thus brought to the fore as experts attempt to develop knowledge that is both a true reflection of what has been and of what should be done. If the STS perspective is indeed influential, the likelihood is that the expert advice in the reports alludes to more and different policy pathways than would be traditionally expected by policymakers.


Fig. 1: IPSP Authors Region of Origin
Courtesy of International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP):


The contemporary context is one in which experts as well as scientific knowledge play a central role in politics yet they no longer hold the unquestioned authority and public trust they once did (Maasen and Weingart 2005). If we are to restore trust in governance and in the institutions that we entrust to maintain order in our lives, they should be made to reflect the diverse needs of communities around the world and protect the common values that bind us in our quest for a just future and reflect the kind of social progress that is sensitive to context and difference. As a collective group of academics, the IPSP is discussing the implications of global articulations of progress and how these ideas shape and influence the way we see and think of social groups and the kinds of things that influence them. Care needs to be taken to avoid the reification of difference, while the case is being made for equality and solidarity. STS is sensitive towards the effects of collectives, the assemblages that develop and the hidden power to shape interests and agendas through technologies of governance e.g. indicators, technical guides, organizations, practices, codes and rankings (Davis, Kingsbury, and Merry 2012). At the same time, a balance needs to be struck between governing institutions and local communities in shaping claims of justice, solidarity, responsibility, leadership and inequality. This implicates accountability practices, which need to question and align such processes as the courts, arbitration and peer-review. Global articulations attempt to apply norms to different countries and appeal to framings such as human rights as a means of harmonizing those efforts. Facts and technologies appear to be global but can fail to mean the same thing in different places. If a global vision of social progress is to be reached, the understandings should pay attention to the power of framings and their implications on local experiences. It is the hope of the STS scholars involved in the IPSP that these reflections shape the articulations of issues in the chapters.

The IPSP is modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the way that it enrolls experts in the writing of the report. Early in its establishment, the IPCC was criticized for its imbalanced geographical representativeness (Agrawala 1998), and took steps to remedy this problem. The IPSP needs to remedy its representation of authors if its work is to be seen as a credible and legitimate global endeavor. Figure 1 shows the low participation of African and Latin American authors in the IPSP.

The IPSP has the potential to provide a different kind of assessment that is both reflexive and interdisciplinary. STS has an opportunity to demonstrate the many ways in which its articulations are useful and can enrich the dialogue in a powerful way. This is a step in the right direction, however, knowing that there are social conditions that determine the acceptability of expert knowledge, it is important that STS influences the reflections further so that the global community recognizes the products of this endeavor as credible and legitimate.

Examining planning ‘by other means’: reflections on STS and planning from 4S/EASST

The Barcelona 2016 conference was my first experience of either EASST or 4S, and a welcome opportunity to get a sense of the breadth of STS research in different areas as well as themes that unify them. Against the background of a rich buzz of topics, presenters and tracks, which made planning each day an exciting but challenging task in itself, I also presented and participated in one full track, STS and Planning (T004).

The track, as introduced by the convenors, was an opportunity to consider how planning can be explored by STS prisms of inquiry, for example considering the role of artefacts, different forms of knowledge, and centres of calculation. Hybrid approaches were strongly represented, particularly with planning being conceived of as a discipline that actively draws together and works with the material and the social in producing space. The aim, in the track’s description and as seen in the presentations, was not just to critique and open up ‘black boxes’, but to consider how planning could be ‘reassembled’ in a more diverse and reflexive manner.

While not representative of all the papers presented, a major theme that crystallized in my reading of the track was the unpacking of how different types of knowledge are defined and understood when analysing planning processes. In particular, it appeared that certain types of knowledge, associated with certain actors, had a different influence on decision-making to what might have been expected. This played out on themes where STS has much to contribute, such as the role of calculation and calculative devices (e.g. Porter, 1996; Callon & Law, 2005) and interactions of expertise and lay knowledge (Epstein, 1995).

In the session on standards, for example, Alan Lewis described use of the ‘daylight factor’ by architects, a mathematical calculation of daylight that was adopted to signify a design approach based on verifiable principles. Despite requirements to use the calculation, he showed that architects didn’t routinely do so. Instead, the calculation itself was separate to the meaning it represented, as it created an impression of mathematically verifiable principles in design while the individual knowledge of architects still determined outcomes. In my presentation on the adoption of environmental assessment methods for buildings by local authorities, I aimed to make a similar point on the disconnection between the calculation provided by standards and how they are used in and influence actual decision-making. This emphasised that the environmental assessment tool was adopted not just for the knowledge it generated, but for what it represented to decision-makers as a standardised tool. In this sense, when decision-making processes themselves were the focus of study, rationalist decision-making fuelled by calculative devices could be shown as a veneer, behind which decisions relied on other forms of knowledge.

Other presentations spoke more explicitly about the involvement of different types of knowledge in the planning process. Looking at ecological controversies in Hong Kong, Anders Blok used the term ‘planning ecologies’ to consider how different publics interact and shift to challenge official planning practices, such as environmental groups suggesting new possibilities for river and floodwater management whilst up against a strong culture of engineering-based knowledge. Yvonne Rydin’s paper on planning hearings for an offshore wind farm in the UK showed how quite different types of modelled and personal knowledge on landscape and ecological values coexist in the decision-making process, opening up room for deliberation about the voices given to nature in planning. Isaac Marrero-Guillamon discussed the politics of participation in planning processes in a post-Olympic Games site in London, and charted how a particular group emerged as a respected site of communal expertise within that process, developing new categories of knowledge and influence within a particular representation of ‘the community’.

Yet other presentations provided a more materially driven sense of knowing about urban space. Helena Leino discussed the results of research focusing on experiences of the visually impaired in urban spaces in Finland, and their interaction with other people and material elements. Pedro Ferreira discussed the process of ‘spot-making’ by skateboarders, with special attention to the distributed agency of different surface materials, humans and their environments in this particular form of city building. These specific experiences of space are likely often overlooked by planners but still influence the experience of broader publics.


Fig. 1: Energy performance standards in real estate listings in France. Looking at the meaning created by standards can open up space for understanding the different types of knowledge at play.
Courtesy of the author.


While a rough brushstroke over the sources of different types of knowledge in planning, this led me to think that discussing planning ‘by other means’ (the conference theme) may contribute to rejecting a priori explanatory trajectories of how knowledge influences planning. It suggests that the knowledge brought by different groups (professionals, experts, communities) may influence planning processes in unexpected ways that are not usually associated with these labels.

Moving away from the modernist idea of a single knowledge reflecting truth, planning theory has grappled with the presence of multiple ‘knowledges’ and ways of knowing that need to be mediated by planners. This brings with it challenges such as how to consider scientific expertise alongside localised knowledge (Rydin 2007) and how to define what it is for planners to ‘know’ and expand their knowledge base, when acknowledging that knowledge is represented by different types of cognitive, moral and skills-based learning (Davoudi 2015).

The presentations in the track provided examples where otherwise accepted categories of knowledge, or typologies of knowledge, could be questioned, and even unravelled. As a result they challenged obvious explanatory dichotomies such as expert/lay, scientific/subjective etc. Rather than taking these categories of knowledge for granted, the ‘knowledges’ found in the papers were not easily categorised but instead mediated and established by other elements. Whether a scientific model (in the form of standards), community stakeholders (participatory planning), or expert judgement (planning hearings), in each case, these apparent types of knowledge were mobilised into these categories by artefacts, professional cultures and negotiations.

In some cases, examining the way in which the knowledge was built up and used seemed to weaken the knowledge claim, unpacking scientific rationalities behind standards for example. In others, it suggested empowerment, showing how spaces for lay knowledge, communities, judgement and multiple voices are made within institutional arrangements, and how these can influence the very core of planning decisions, despite appearances to the contrary. An STS-led reading, which invites questions about how taken-for-granted knowledge is established, could invite more analysis on the types of knowledge discussed in planning, and how they are established and categorised in relation to particular groups.

Another striking aspect of the track as a whole was its diversity, and what this signalled about what it is to discuss ‘planning’. There were sessions on planning and urban design standards; practices and operations; planning and ecological issues; and politics and participation. Some ethnographic presentations, such as by Pim Peters and Julio Paulos, brought the listeners up close to the daily practices of planners, and the meetings, discussions, interactions and practices that translate into their broader work. Marko Marskamp suggested a study of planning that decentres the planner from the process and focuses on planning tools such as codes as the object of research. Other presentations, such as by Anders Buch (with Anne Katrine Harders) and by Malve Jacobsen, emphasised that the implementation of plans is contingent on social practices, material infrastructures, discourses and ideas. Both of these highlighted the hybrid arrangements that fill the space between plans and their material implementation. As noted, there were also more material accounts of the interactions between particular users and the city and their voice within the planning process and city-making.

I was left wondering what ‘planning’ represented to the different speakers, and whether there is a gap between examining the practice of planning, and examining how planning emerges, ‘in practice’, or whether they are one and the same. In the context of thinking about what planning is and what it is represented by (e.g Alexander 2016), this sparked my interest to consider what STS in planning can bring to this question.