First Croatian STS Section Meeting (October 2013)

First Croatian STS Section Meeting (October 2013)

This contribution aims to describe an event recently organised in Zagreb and supported by the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST), but also to provide the wider network of EASST members with an overview of the Croatian STS research community and some of its future prospects. For me, as the person who came to the idea of organising the “community” in a more formal and connected way, there are three main reasons or influences that have resulted in the establishment of our new section. Namely, those are structural, disciplinary and generational.

The Croatian “science and technology studies” researchers and their engagement with the STS as a field of study are best observed in the context of other (post)socialist countries rather than in the context of bigger and/or more developed scientific communities. By saying that, I mean that having a low share of investment in R&D and, therefore, scarce funding for research projects and scientific and technological infrastructure, is only one side of the coin. Indeed, according to data from UNESCO, the share of investment in R&D in Croatia eroded from 1.07% in the 1990s to only 0.7-0.9% of GDP in the period from 2006 to 2010 (UNESCO, 2010). The effect of reduced investment and other crises that the research system went through in the 1990s is most obvious in the continuous decrease in the number of researchers in Croatia. During the period 1991-2001, the number of researchers in the system dropped by 24.4% (Prpic, 2003: 49) and in the period 2002-2008 it dropped by an additional 21.9% (UNESCO 2010: 189). The most significant problem is the unfavourable age composition of the research community, whereby the system has been shrinking mostly in the cohorts of mid-career researchers (Golub and Suljok, 2005: 135). Those are obvious structural problems related to the actual production of knowledge in the STS community on a daily basis. However, there are important socio-historical characteristics of the STS research in Croatia that still influence its focus today.

Sociology is the most active discipline related to the Croatian STS. It is important to note that during the entire socialist period, sociology in Croatia was marked by a Marxist perspective of social philosophy and critical social history, but also by an almost absolute dominance of the positivist approach and quantitative methodology, because of which an entire range of approaches and methods remained out of scope of Croatian sociology (Koludrovic, 2009). Croatian sociology during the 80s, as well as the 90s, seriously lacked various theories, methodologies and studies based on, for example, methodological individualism, interpretive theory, poststructuralist and post-colonial theories (ibid.). In that, STS sociological approaches were no exception. Rather, the main approach was to observe various aspects of science and technology as sociological issues, in the same way that it has been done for religion, or politics or law, “as an object which derives from society” (Latour, 2000). In addition, the positivist, quantitative approach made STS topics within Croatian sociological community marginal or even invisible not just because of the fact that there were only small groups of sociologists engaging with those (compared to larger communities related to religion, urban and rural sociology, youth or labour), but also because the approach made science and technology just a topic, and a small one at that.

In addition, during the 90s, the nationalist government formed a parallel creation to the only prominent sociological department and to the oldest sociological research institute by distinguishing their newly created ones as “more Croatia-oriented”. Some STS researchers transferred to the new institutions, creating unavoidable and long-lasting tensions. In the situation of marginality within the sociological field and disconnectedness of the STS community, researchers remained oriented towards their small research teams, having tried to make international ties or ties to the government and economy. However, at the beginning of the new century, new sociological departments were formed in other Croatian universities, and constant tensions between the above-mentioned institutions and departments, together with more openness towards western sociological thought, initiated a theoretical and methodological diversification of the discipline (Koludrovic, 2009). Furthermore, new science policies related to the rejuvenation of the academic system have brought into the system closely tied generations of young sociologists that became research and teaching assistants. Today, most of them are postdoctoral researchers or, as of recently, in permanent positions, and they have brought new ways of thinking about the sociological community: those of friendship, close ties, support and solidarity, which is seen throughout the entire network. In addition, new methodological approaches are being studied, and for the first time, a qualitative methodology section has been established consisting almost entirely of a younger generation of sociologists.

There are no undergraduate or graduate degrees related to STS in Croatia, which leaves the scholarly community mostly tied to research projects through which young researchers are socialised in a narrow, sub-disciplinary context. There is also a lack of middle-generation researchers in all fields of study in Croatia, including STS. This has made the gap between researchers even wider and has tied the problem to generational differences between researchers (Brajdic Vukovic, f. 2014). However, as in other sociological fields, younger STS generations have brought different interests and views to STS, often using interpretive, constructivist and network approaches and, all in all, being more oriented towards STS as a theoretical and methodological paradigm, rather than just the topic of study.

Croatian scientific policy has long promoted the (isolated) system of research by publicly funding small disciplinary-bounded research projects and distinctive areas of research (Sporer, 2004). However, these practices are about to be changed in the wake of recent changes in science and higher education policies, which are likely to lead to further cuts and academic austerity and are at the same time under the strong influence of European Union research policies in terms of structure of future research funding. According to these changes, for competitive projects funded through the state budget (but also for EU funded projects) requirements are in favour of larger, and preferably, institutionally and nationally diverse research teams, but also of multidisciplinary approaches. In such an environment, old practices of avoiding collaboration are even more counterproductive. It has become clear that we need both a change of perspective regarding our fields of study and a change of behaviour in terms of patterns of communication, mutual support and collaboration. While we need to adopt a new way of thinking about our areas of studies, by respecting our own discipline, we are in need of finding a common ground with other disciplines. Through such a synergy, it will be easier to find or to make our own space in the competitive scientific “field”.

The mentioned changes in the STS disciplinary approaches – enhanced solidarity and the closer ties within the community of younger sociologists, together with the new research policy framework requirements – have influenced my decision that the time has come for us to try to establish a community of STS researchers, built on the experience and knowledge of older generations and growing through the openness and diverse interests of the younger. Furthermore, besides a core of about 12 to 15 sociologists, this new community should strive, by adopting a more flexible point of view, to bring into the community other disciplines together with their approaches and subjects of study. Furthermore, it was obvious that in the diverse, and in terms of power relations, uneven European research area, the small Croatian community remains very marginal. In order to improve its prospects it seemed logical to propose strong ties to the Slovenian STS community with which we have traditional and often collaborative relationships.

Fortunately, EASST Council members recognised the importance of this and decided to financially support the establishment of the new national southeast European STS association. This support gave me the opportunity to organise a two-day event on October 10-11 2013. It was proposed that the formal framework of the aforementioned group of STS researchers should be formed as an “STS Section” of the Croatian Sociological Association, due to the sociological core of STS researchers. However, the Section should be open to non-sociologists as well (which we have made a formal possibility as of recently). The event held in October was therefore planned as the first STS Section meeting, accompanied by two days of workshops on ethno-methodological qualitative methods in STS research. The specific goal of this workshop was not just to bring STS researchers together to spend two days in mutual exchange and communication, but also to encourage them to use mixed methods and approaches in their research.

Dr. Phillipe Sormani from the University of Vienna held the workshop starting on Thursday (10 October) morning in the premises of the Institute for Social Research. There were 24 participants, most of whom are early career researchers from Croatia, although there were also two guests from Slovenia, Prof. Franc Mali and Dr. Blanka Groboljsek. In the morning session, Dr. Sormani held a series of lectures titled “Ethnomethodology, Conversation/Video Analysis, and Hybrid Studies of Work: An Introduction to a Fragmented Field” and in the afternoon session all participants were invited to lectures on “Re-specifying Lab Ethnography, Challenging STS? A Hybrid Study of Experimental Physics”. Dr. Sormani saved Friday for data sessions and exercise.

There were a number of short breaks and possibilities for participants to network, get to know each other and connect their work. The event was a success, not only due to the acquisition of new skills by participants, but also due to the positive impact of networking among STS researchers from different disciplines. As one of the participants commented, “It made me see my research field and research questions in a completely new light”. Some of the participants recognised that their areas of research are connected in many ways, which is a success that was beyond the scope of the workshop, but was completely in line with the organiser’s intentions. The workshop itself has also inspired our guest lecturer Dr. Sormani to finish his long unfinished research paper, which is also a success, indeed.

In the afternoon of the first day of the event, the first Croatian STS section meeting was held. It was attended mostly by the core of sociologists who have recognised this event as an effort to build their research community. Besides the formal part of the meeting which established the Croatian STS Section, an introductory note on the state of STS research in Slovenia and Croatia was provided by two guests at the meeting, Dr. Franc Mali from Ljubljana and Dr. Katarina Prpic from Zagreb. In the discussion that followed, the participants concluded that both the Slovenian and Croatian STS communities are small, invisible and mostly without any political or public influence. The problem of the STS research community’s weak influence on changes and improvements to science and technology policy was especially emphasised. As proposed by the chair, the members have agreed that our newly established Croatian section should put emphasis on the following objectives:

  • Enhancing collaboration between Croatian and Slovenian STS researchers and building a common STS community
  • Building and strengthening the Croatian STS community by working on enhancing the visibility of each of the Section’s members and by making the Section attractive to STS researchers from disciplines other than sociology
  • Building STS as a field which provides a so-called “science policy interface”, with an aim of enriching decision-making within the domain of science and technology national policies

The proposed future actions to achieve these objectives were identified as the following:

  • Organising a series of round tables on different popular subjects in the field of STS that would promote the Section and attract other researchers that may not otherwise recognise the Section as an association reflecting their interests
  • Organising round tables and proposals related to science and technology policies
  • Organising meetings with Slovenian colleagues and hopefully collaborative activities
  • Establishing a closer tie to EASST and to other international colleagues

In conclusion, we agreed that this is the perfect starting point and because our strength cannot be in numbers, then it should be in a frequent and constructive exchange of ideas, mutual support and collaboration. How successful the Croatian (together with Slovenian) community can be in those, remains to be seen.