EASST, North and South

EASST, North and South


An important theme of EASST Review in recent last years is the potential of STS research and teaching in other countries than the usual suspects. While the membership is still dominated by the northern countries, in particular the UK, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, there is increasing attention to other locations of STS research. Last year developments in Spain were discussed and in this issue we report on STS in South America, focusing on the series of ESOCITE conferences. The EASST council feels it is important that the association addresses the idea of being a European endeavour. This is reflected in the new series of EASST Awards which stress the European contribution to STS (also in this issue). They are inspired by the idea that there is something particularly ‘European’ about EASST research. We also hope to have an ‘eastern’ location for the EASST 2014 conference. We have contacted various candidates for such hosting. Apart from the symbolic message this will also enhance the viability of EASST in the east.

The current political debate, however, does not highlight ‘west’ and ‘east’ but ‘north’ and ‘south’. In the news, the differences between the north and the south of Europe are stressed again, after two decades of highlighting the unity. Depending on where the news is produced, it is now common to read about the disciplined north and the troublesome south, or about the arrogant north and the suffering south.

The scientific communities, fortunately, seem to be less prone to such polarization. Academics in general are part of a global network. Yet, there may be different academic styles of ‘north’ and ‘south’ and this also seems to be worthwhile to explore. Such differences, for instance, have been discussed in the workshop on practices of environmental management. The workshop report in this issue took place at Bielefeld University and was about the question “How do you manage? Unravelling the situated practice of environmental management”

The difference between different styles may go deeper, though. It may be that in the very theories of STS, for instance, particular perspectives and approaches reflect a ‘northern’ or a ‘southern’ bias. To elaborate one example: the research theme of coordination and conflict in science and technology. Countries like the Netherlands and Denmark are well-known for their consensus seeking strategies. At STS conferences numerous papers report about modes of stakeholder participation, strategies to involve users or about focus groups with envisioned consumers. Here, consensus is taken as the predominant mode of coordination and conflicts appear as items to be negotiated. This analytic approach resonates with the political culture of ‘northern’ countries in which different political groups have the power to block decision making and in which political parties depend on others to realize their agenda. This political culture deviates strongly from, say, Malaysia, where huge infrastructural investments are made without numerous rounds of consultation. In such top-down approaches protesters have a difficult time in raising their concerns. This, of course, will speed up developments and some Dutch engineers are tempted to envy such rapidity. Some even accuse the consensus seeking modes of coordination of being too time-consuming, and take the upsetting lack of democracy for granted. It takes much more time to develop complex infrastructures in the Netherlands, where many rounds of consultation are required to start projects.

One may argue that this particular consensual mode of coordination, which is characteristic of northern countries, has left its trace in influential STS theories. In the still popular SCOT approach, for instance, it is assumed that technological artefacts and systems are constructed through the confrontation of interpretations of various different social groups. The idea is that such public experimentation and contestation continues until a form of stability is reached. The basic assumption, thus, is that social groups are empowered to voice their opinion. It is also assumed that opinions circulate more or less freely in the press and through other societal arrangements. Such assumptions do not hold, at least not to the same degree, in countries like Malaysia, and here other perspectives are needed to explain outcomes. While the rest of Europe, of course, does not resemble Malaysia either, they differ from the typical ‘northern’ solutions. Thus, a comparison of political styles and concomitant assumptions will enrich STS approaches.

The picture of rusty cables and industrial machinery on the front page points to the intricate forms of coordination that can be found everywhere. In general, STS is keen on investigating heterogeneous interconnections. And whether they are rusty in the case of Europe, is an unresolved question.