“Making Visible the Invisible” STS Field in Spain

“Making Visible the Invisible” STS Field in Spain

Report of the First Meeting of the STS Network in Spain, 25-27 May (Madrid)

During the last few days of May, the newly formed STS network in Spain (Red de Estudios Sociales de la Ciencia y la Tecnología, eSCTS) celebrated its first meeting in Madrid, in the premises of the Cultural Association Medialab Prado. The STS network is an informal, horizontal network of around ninety STS researchers from all over Spain, which includes university professors as well as PhD students who are currently working on a variety of social issues of science and technology.

The network was formed in November 2010, after a series of meetings among Spanish STS researchers that took place within different STS events, like the SDN meeting in London in June 2010, the 4S conference in Tokyo in August 2010 and the EASST conference in Trento in September 2010. The main goal was to promote a permanent, yet flexible, system of connection and cooperation, which could encourage a more effective exchange of ideas, collaboration in research projects and co-authorship of academic work, and also constitute a platform to reflect upon the state of the art of STS in Spain, academically, institutionally and also thematically speaking.

STS studies in Spain are very fragmented, and this area of studies is neither considered a discipline nor a well established research area, for it often overlaps with history of science, anthropology and philosophy of science, which have a much longer tradition of institutional consolidation in the Spanish academic context. Moreover, STS, somewhat following the traditional organization of research groups in Spain, is dispersed in several medium to small research groups scattered across the country with little interaction with each other. Finally, with very few exceptions like the Master in Science, Technology and Society organized by the University of Salamanca and Oviedo University and the Master of History of Science organized by the UAB, there is also little specific training in STS provided by academic institutions in Spain. As a result, there are quite few Spanish STS participants at international conferences such as 4S and EASST compared to other countries of similar size and traditions, although STS studies do in fact exist and they are even growing in Spain.

Indeed, the STS network was an attempt to address these problems and to initially provide a new online space to help STS researchers to overcome these institutional and cultural shortcomings through the meeting opportunities offered by the Internet. On the one hand, the creation of the STS network had an academic purpose because it was expected to facilitate the exchange of data, ideas, articles and proposals to promote studies of science, technology in Spain. On the other hand, the network also serves the consolidation of STS in Spain because a well-organized network can be an important reference for all STS researchers who want to work on science and technology in Spain and seek cooperation in creating partnerships and collaborations.

As membership grew and ideas began to flow into the e-network and in the blog (redescts.wordpress.com/), the network also opted for a traditional face-to-face event, and the first STS meeting held in Madrid was the outcome of this effort. The meeting was entitled “Making visible the invisible” and it was inspired by the same spirit sustaining the network, aiming at bringing to light the variety of STS studies and research efforts currently on-going in Spain, mapping institutions, ideas, projects and already existing networks, in order to facilitate formal and informal interactions, and the creation of platforms for debate and elaboration of new projects. The meeting was also organized with the idea of giving an opportunity to all participants to have a chance of discussing and envisioning the future of the network, and to elaborate a road map for the next two or three years. More than fifty researchers from all over Spain gathered in the center Medialab-Prado in Madrid to discuss their research, which was an excellent start both concerning the number of participants, which is very good for a first encounter, and also for the variety of topics, from lines of research, institutions, and junior and senior researchers involved.

This first meeting aimed, first and foremost, at making visible current issues and challenges, especially in relation to existing trends of STS studies in Europe and worldwide. Secondly, it also exposed, in a shared and horizontal space, a large part of the institutions, opportunities, groups and agencies dedicated to STS, giving them space and time to meet, recognize, interact, discuss, look beyond and think about the future of STS in Spain. Finally, the meeting also had an epistemological goal: to bring to the fore what STS studies make visible, but also what they hide, the invisible, what they obscure and marginalize.

In the space generously offered by MedialabPrado, during three days, young researchers as well as senior scholars already established in the field had the opportunity to openly discuss their common interests and their research questions, results and prospects in various formats. Along with traditional plenary sessions, a keynote from Brian Wynne, and panel sessions, the meeting experimented with two formats that are not so common in these encounters: a workshop for doctoral students and a space for presentation of research lines.

The meeting took off with a round table in which some senior and junior Spanish STS scholars dealt with the issues of STS, visibility and invisibility, bringing in different perspectives from not only sociology of science but also history of science, anthropology and philosophy of science. Three main themes emerged, which are likely to become main issues in epistemic debates in and around the STS research field. The first refers to the eSCTS disciplinary tensions, which were discussed at length in the opening session of the meeting. Miquel Domenech (Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, UAB) expressed these tensions as a clash with his own master discipline, psychology, describing STS studies in psychology “as an octopus in a garage.” Yet, he argued, STS represents a unique opportunity to rethink key aspects of psychology. The historian Agustí Nieto, from the UAB too, pointed out the potential of a stronger collaboration between science historians and scholars from STS. In fact, this possibility was embodied in one of the discussants, the historian Antonio Lafuente (CCHS – CSIC), a historian who travels through the history of science with the interpretative gaze that STS studies provide. The discussion concluded that a dialogue and collaboration between history of science and STS seems possible, but not without difficulties.

In fact, Lafuente addressed a second theme: The recurring confrontations and tensions within the field of STS in Spain, which partially explain the absence of a common space for dialogue and the lack of consolidation of earlier initiatives. The STS meeting in Madrid was, in fact, not the first of its kind: just five years earlier, in 2006, a similar meeting was held in Barcelona, which also hosted a large number of researchers in Spain. The initiative, however, was not followed up by any other event of this kind, although the Madrid meeting may have harvested some of the fruits of that earlier encounter.

If the disciplinary matters generally refer to what happens inside STS and among STS and related disciplines, Marta Gonzalez (the Institute of Philosophy, CCHS-CSIC) addressed a third main theme, which refers to the crucial issue of relating STS studies to their social context, which she defined as “the dilemma of political commitment.” In other words, Marta pointed at the dilemma faced by STS after the rise and consolidation of social constructivism, especially in relation to the feminist studies of science and technology. Looking at a similar issue but from a different angle, Ana Delgado (University of Bergen, Norway) remarked the importance of political science and political theory within STS, which only recently seems to have been widely recognized, receiving a strong impulse.

The second day was opened by a keynote delivered by Brian Wynne, who focused on the different roles that STS studies have in the production of political orders. Wynne described in his presentation the subtle process of translation between the scientific and legislative domains and the progressive oversights that are thereby produced, which is of extraordinary relevance all along the bureaucratic trajectory that is followed by legislative proposals in the European Union.

The meeting was an opportunity to acknowledge that STS Studies recently have been moving well beyond the borders of science and technology, addressing the social domain in its entirety. Miquel Domenech, for instance, showed how the analyses carried out by STS quickly overflow the boundaries of science and technology (or extend indefinitely), suggesting that “the problem of knowledge is always a problem of social order.” Interest in science and technology is perhaps the first step in extending agency to others and pluralizing ontologies, as hinted at by Marta Gonzalez. Even more forcefully, Antonio Lafuente made it clear that we have reached a point in which STS scholars have moved their investigative gaze well beyond what happens in laboratories, focusing, as he does, on the situation and transformation of the commons. STS studies, therefore, have overflowed the laboratory and are now interested in topics and social dynamics that are only indirectly connected with technological or scientific issues. The presentations offered through the meeting indeed covered a broad spectrum of themes and issue, ranging from the ontology of oncology to Alzheimer’s and memory as an object of study, from the social role and impact of pleasure to the key role of invention in the field of architecture, and the thrill of communication 2.0. Yet, more traditional (and by no means less important) issues and topics were also present, ranging from free software or scientific collaboration to nanotechnology.

The meeting was also an opportunity to address the problematic issue of teaching STS in Spain in order to explore the existing and, perhaps, future possibilities in the context of higher education and academic studies. That few academic institutions and programs currently offer STS studies or STS courses in their curriculum is one of the reasons preventing STS from further expansion and consolidation in the country. Yet, this shall not give the wrong impression that the aim of the meeting solely was to get “more STS.” Rather, and perhaps most importantly, the aim was to foster educational innovation, to discuss how to establish dialogue among multiple knowledge areas and disciplines and how to explore the fundamental issue of the increasingly porous border between laymen and experts. Education in general is a domain that STS studies in Spain should actually address more, and more in depth, in the years to come.

As a result of the meeting, participants agreed on the importance of ensuring continuity to the actions of the network and on the need to strengthen the structure of the network. Recognizing the importance of creating a common epistemic ground, several participants argued that the Spanish STS network might act as a catalyst to establish this dialogue. The network is in its infancy, but future initiatives, now in the making, give hope that it may consolidate over the next few years. Among these future actions, it is important to mention the organization of a second annual meeting in 2012 in Gijón. At the end of the meeting, it was also decided to strengthen the Network mainly through two initiatives: thematic groups and STS correspondents. Nine working groups have been established, which aim at giving an opportunity to scholars working on similar issues to have an institutional yet open common space to foster future collaboration. Current working groups address biomedicine and health; strategies for integration of history and contemporary studies of science and technology; environment; digital cultures; public participation and collective action; scientific culture; bodies, eating habits and practices of socialization; care and technology; and, subjectivity and affect – but more thematic groups on different areas may start and operate in the future. On the other hand, the network of STS correspondents throughout Spain aims at identifying and sharing areas of interest for the Network, and serves as the STS points of reference in the geographical areas in which correspondents operate. In both cases, the specific articulation of these strategies remain open and up to further development by the respective participants.

Emerged initially as a mailing list, the network remains open to contributions, ideas and initiatives from all its members and those wishing to join, because there is still much to do. So far, there has emerged a widespread desire to experiment: experimenting, for instance, with the types of form, structure and organization that a community of scholars like this can take in order to serve equally the interests of those who belong to it and its social context. There also emerged the desire to experiment with the ways in which we share knowledge, we gather, learn, teach, communicate our findings and results, and why not, our doubts and weaknesses. The next destination of the Spanish STS Network, therefore, is the second annual meeting to be held in 2012 in Asturias, which will be a wide-open opportunity for further experimenting with both issues.

We hope, in short, the Madrid meeting to be a first step in developing an important initiative, based on digital communication and face-to-face encounters and on openness and horizontality, which provides ideas, proposals and visions, but also shares questions, concerns, and training. We also hope that it might be a first step of a process of innovation and consolidation that gives the Spanish community of STS scholars a new space, and new tools to foster the studies of science, technology and society within Spain and to further a closer connection between STS studies in Spain and the wider STS community in Europe and across the Atlantic.