“What if we don’t buy it?”

“What if we don’t buy it? Unmaking and Remaking Common Worlds”

Report on the Third Meeting of the Spanish STS Network 19-21 June 2013 (Barcelona)

The 3rd Meeting of the Spanish STS Network (esCTS), under the title of “What if we don’t buy it? Unmaking and Remaking Common Worlds”, took place on 19-21 June 2013 in Barcelona. For the third consecutive year, a varied group of researchers interested in STS (regardless of disciplinary affiliation or academic position) responded to the open call of the Network and gathered for three days of presentations, debates and social interaction – and for the enjoyment of the first days of summer in Barcelona.

The event, free of charge and with the support of EASST, the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and the IN3 (Internet Interdisciplinary Institute), was held in the Media-TIC Building, a strikingly modern building located in the recently developed “techno-industrial district” called 22@Barcelona. This self-defined “information and communication technology hub, designed to incubate, generate, exhibit and invite new ideas and developments”, provides space for universities and research centres, but also for public institutions, private companies and technological start-ups. Therefore, the place offered a sort of “liminal” or hybrid space – between society and the market; between private and public; between governmental institutions and techno-capitalism – which (even with its frictions and contradictions) proved to be a fitting place for an STS meeting.

It was not only the location that spoke of hybridity, but also the mixed nature of the attendance: among the 178 participants in the meeting there were philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, architects and historians, of course, but also hackers and urban theorists; art scholars and social activists; independent researchers and public servants. Though the meeting is initially Spanish in character, it attracted researchers from a number of other countries (Portugal, Brazil, UK, Italy, Belgium… even India). Additionally, some of the panels incorporated presenters from the civil society (members of a citizens’ panel, activist collectives, NGOs…), adding to the feeling of an opening-up of STS ideas and lines of research to a wider set of social actors and concerns.

The mixed audience could participate in 9 panels and 4 symposia (with more than 60 communications in total), as well as 3 special sessions (a post-graduate workshop, a feminist intervention in Wikipedia and a lunch seminar organized by the EU FP7 project ADDPRIV). A very lively general assembly of the Network took place on Thursday where, for instance, the issue of the growing international attendance was raised: there were several proposals on how to improve the participation of non-Spanish speaking scholars in future meetings, and there was a debate on whether to maintain or not the “Spanish” label on the name of the Network.

The heterogeneous character of the meeting, as well as the significant growth in attendance from previous meetings, testifies to the appeal of the philosophy of the esCTS Network and the maturity it has achieved in its 3 years of existence. The Network started as an e-network in 2010, with the main goal of promoting a permanent, yet flexible, network of cooperation and dialogue between STS scholars in Spain and abroad.1 The Network now includes more than 170 members and maintains a permanent digital interaction through several platforms2. There is an immediate self-reflective and experimental spirit animating the Network with regard to the politics of the “scientific association”. Besides being open to everyone interested (both academic “experts” and “non-expert” actors), there is no formal membership nor a stable structure or directive committee. Decisions are taken in meetings and virtual spaces of interaction. The network has tried to celebrate meetings in non-academic venues, in a conscious desire to open up spaces of dialogue between STS and other social actors and institutions and to encourage the experimentation with formats of presentation.

The growth in attendance from previous meetings meant that, for many participants, (myself included), the Barcelona meeting was their first contact with the Network. This was also the first meeting with parallel sessions, as it was the only way to accommodate the number of proposals received. Therefore, this review is to be read only as a personal view on the meeting, with forceful omissions and probable misinterpretations. I would like to single out three issues that, in my opinion, run transversally to most of the presentations and debates I participated in, and that can help in capturing, if not the “state” of the STS field in Spain, at least some of the concerns, questions and lines of thought the esCTS Network seem to share: acknowledging and fostering diversity, beyond academia and the politics of research.

Acknowledging and fostering diversity

As noted above, the variety of topics, perspectives and people was the first issue that grabbed the attention. This speaks of the importance that the Network gives to heterogeneity and openness within STS. In fact, instead of making a disciplinary retreat to reinforce the traditionally weak academic field of STS in Spain, the esCTS Network has opted instead for acknowledging and fostering diversity – thematic diversity, disciplinary diversity, even transnational diversity. Theoretically, this means the resort to an operative logic of collective thought, which allows for partial agreements from where to build stronger common perspectives. Politically, as will be remarked below, it leads to a strong emphasis on collaboration and on the integration of other actors in the exploration of collective alternatives and new “common worlds”.

This acceptance of diversity and multiplicity was also a running thread in the way most of the presentations I saw conceptualized their objects of study. If one had to point out a common point of departure it would be a material-semiotic perspective which recognizes the irreducibility of techno-scientific phenomena and embarks in a collective attempt to take care of that multiplicity by exploring what Annemarie Mol’s has called ontological politics.

Beyond academia

A central issue present in several of the sessions I attended was the questioning of the lay/expert divide, or more precisely, the boundaries of academic practice. The problem of participatory politics in techno-scientific research – and in STS particularly– was insistently tackled, both through the discussion of on-going practices of “co-research” in the Spanish state (consensus conferences, citizen panels, collective research groups and other para-academic experiences) and through methodological and theoretical interventions on the potentialities and pitfalls of these experiments. Of particular interest were the sessions where non-academic participants presented their experiences and channelled the debate about the relationship of STS to the wider social context, and especially to citizens groups. Several participants in a recent consensus conference carried out in Barcelona around the theme of social digitalization and the elderly came to discuss their experience, and the closing panel on the meeting included presentations from the Foro de Vida Independiente (Forum on Independent Living), a community of activists with what has come to be labelled in Spain as functional diversity (to escape from the term disability), and the Metropolitan Observatory of Barcelona, an activist research group. But there were also other examples of “mixed” or “hybrid” research collectives throughout several sessions.

In fact, the overarching theme for this edition explicitly addressed the novel practices of definition/intervention in the public sphere that go beyond the academy, referring to the “new activist and citizen responses creating new experimental objects, new methodologies and proposals of collective designs […] seeking to revitalize the common world”, as the call for papers put it. The call had a great response since political issues and new practices of activism (from feminist politics to trans-gender activism, from urban interventions to critical disability) had a great protagonism through the meeting. Several presentations dealt with, or included references to, the Spanish 15-M movement which has channelled since 2011 a great deal of the political discontent in Spain. The two panels devoted to the biosciences and technologies also acquired an overtly political angle, as the politics of patient associations and health activism featured prominently in diverse presentations.

In this respect, the Barcelona meeting corroborated a trend already made apparent in previous editions: a significant part of the Spanish STS community – traditionally rooted in a purely academic ground – is developing new forms of entanglement with citizen networks and political activism, without abandoning theoretical exploration. This entanglement is not without its difficulties, something that debates following most of the presentations proved: Still is to be seen how the twofold impact of STS on activism and of activism on STS will transform our modes of knowledge production and practicing research. Tracing the on-going course of this problematic will be one of the main interests of future activities and meetings of the Network, especially given the actual dismantlement of the University and Research infrastructure in the country.

The politics of research

The keynote speech, delivered by David Pontille (Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation, ENSMP) and Didier Torny (RITME, INRA), and discussed by Oriol Saurí (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) and Lluís Rovira (i-CERCA, Government of Catalonia), could be interpreted as a somewhat counterpoint by turning attention to the “internal” dynamics at stake in academic publishing. But the problematization of the politics of research is obviously the other side of the coin of the increasing political edge of the STS community and has been one of the driving forces in the constitution of the esCTS Network as such, and not as a “traditional” scientific association.

Through the meeting it was also obvious that the far-reaching transformations in universities and academic life are having a profound impact on STS. In fact, it could be argued that, at least in part, the renewed interest in politics among Spanish STS scholars derives in part from concerns about the current state of public universities and research institutes in Spain, harshly affected by cutbacks in public spending that are seriously threatening public-funded research. Opening up to other social worlds is no longer only a political or epistemic option, but instead a course of action many of us are being forced to take.

In this context, several questions were urgently repeated time and again. With whom should we collaborate? Which sort of alliances should we promote and which role is STS to take in them? What effects, what transformations, should the application of an STS “sensibility” bring to public issues? And what changes in academic practice will follow from these novel assemblages? Of course, frictions and doubts accompany this collective exploration. For instance, a presentation of the EU FP7 ADDPRIV Project, in which STS scholars work within a consortium of consulting firms and transport companies to develop an “ethical surveillance” system, prompted a heated discussion and raised interesting questions: in a moment where STS perspectives and methodologies are demanded from the market, how are we to engage with users, with public institutions, with companies and corporations? What “common worlds” – and strategies for producing them – should we engage with? What are the consequences for our established practices of research? These questions are not fully answered yet and will keep surfacing, so we can expect further debates among members of the Network.

To end

How to include diversity? How to act politically? How to rethink academic practice? Three questions that permeated the Barcelona meeting and that will surely continue to inspire future activities of the esCTS Network. The meeting ended by inviting the participants, as well as other Spanish scholars and the wider STS international community, to the next meeting of the Network, to be held during the first days of June 2014 at the University of Salamanca.

Note: Special thanks to Rebeca Ibáñez, Daniel López and Vincenzo Pavone for comments and suggestions

1 There are previous reports on the network, its philosophy and its previous meetings available in Vincenzo Pavone and Adolfo Estalella “«Making Visible the Invisible» STS Field in Spain”, EASST Review Vol 30(3), September 2011; and Adolfo Estalella, Rebeca Ibañez and Vincenzo Pavone, “Prototyping an Academic Network. Three years of the Spanish Network for Science and Technology Studies”, EASST Review Vol 32(1), March 2013, this last article providing a more personal view on the network as an experiment in “prototyping” a new modality of academic association.