A tale of one two conferences

Editorial by Ann Rudinow Saetnan

A tale of one two conferences

I had vaguely planned to make my last editorial a tale of two conferences, comparing the experiences of 4S/ESOCITE in Buenos Aires and EASST in Torun. But there’s information that needs to be out before the Torun conference, so this will be a tale of only the one. Probably just as well. I’ll be quite busy coordinating a track at Torun, not browsing sessions as I did in Buenos Aires, so any comparison would be unfair anyway. In fact, just one person’s impressions from browsing sessions at one conference is pretty unfair already, but take it for what it is: One person’s musings, open for your own critiques. So here they come, under three sub-headings: location, activism, buzzwords.

LOCATION: Buenos Aires was certainly an interesting city, even an ethically challenging one. Here we were in a luxury hotel, with the English language newspaper hung on our doorknobs every morning telling of the impending doom of US-based vulture funds sweeping down to gobble up the country’s finances. Or we read of the immediate disaster of families evicted at no notice from shantytown homes and left without shelter or belongings in a sudden thunder-, rain- and hailstorm, blocked by police from the bulldozed shantytown while former neighbours from the other side of the town plundered what could be rescued from the rubble. We, meanwhile, were enjoying the visual charm of brightly painted neighbourhoods, the low-cost artefacts at street markets, the views of urban wildlife in the city’s parks and ecological preserves (one I visited also apparently occupied by squatters living in shacks among unofficial parcel gardens), the gourmet meals at the hotel’s restaurants or the amazingly cheap ones at nearby cafés, the cultural extravaganzas of tango shows … and, of course, the conference’s morally uplifting and intellectually stimulating discussions about STS as socially responsible praxis. The contrasts gave ample room for reflection.

ACTIVISM, which was the theme of the conference’s opening-day plenary, was another stimulation to self-reflection. In a tri-lingual, multi-screened marathon relay roundtable, 24 presenters had three minutes each to speak about how they combined STS research and/or STS theory with social activism. Amazingly … it worked. That is: The logistics of speakers taking the podium and pre-taking the podium for the next quick changeover functioned smoothly. The speakers all kept to their three-minute limits and filled those meaningfully. The triple screens shifted with reasonable timing, keeping up with the presentations. And, for the most part, it was possible from wherever you were seated or standing to view a screen in a language you could understand. However, it did sometimes take a few seconds to identify which screen was in ones preferred language, the centre screen always being the current speaker’s own slides and the translations to the two remaining languages appearing on either of the two side screens respectively. Also, the speakers’ slides were often somewhat cryptic and unhelpful if one was unable to keep up with the whirlwind pace of the presentations … or simply unable to hear. And finally, the accumulating burden of guilt over one’s own failure to be activist in each and all of the myriad ways presented became, over the course of an hour and a half, a bit overwhelming. (I speak for myself here. Others may have been put off entirely, totally inspired, or found themselves critically considering a handful of the many STS activism possibilities presented.)

BUZZWORDS may be a poor choice of sub-headings. It sounds so dismissive. But listening to the buzz, listening for what theoretical concepts are being used with increasing frequency, does tell one something about on-going changes in a field. For instance, I have a colleague whose most-cited paper so far is about the proliferation of the term “risk” in medical research. The increasing frequency of that term signalled a shift in the understanding of disease and what (or even more: when!) to do about it.

At the last two-three years’ 4S and EASST conferences, it was noticeable how many papers there were about “mess”. This year at 4S/ESOCITE the term “entanglement” seemed to me to be buzzing, with at least one presenter giving a sort of apologetic nod back to “mess” that it wasn’t being forgotten. So what might “mess” and “entanglement” and the possible shift of emphasis from the one to the other signify?

Although paper presentations don’t always include full references, I think we can safely guess that these two terms are not being used as spontaneously, simultaneously discovered (as it were) metaphors. Rather, they signify the impact of influential works, much as the proliferation of the term “network” signified the academic successes of Science in Action (Latour, 1987) and the bright yellow “school bus book” (The Social Construction of Technological Systems, Bijker, Hughes & Pinch (eds.), also 1987). I started up in STS that year, at an STS centre, so back then I heard the buzz just as it started buzzing. Now that I’ve become a somewhat marginalized STS’er within a traditional disciplinary department, I mostly pick up on the STS buzz only when it’s really humming quite loudly at a conference. Writing about “mess” and “entanglement” from that perspective, and condensing them down to the format of an editorial, I risk appearing rather stupid to those who’ve been using the terms for some time. But hopefully my comments may be useful for those like me who are marginalized STS’ers in disciplinary departments. And [shrug], if I appear stupid, or even senile … what could be more appropriate for my last editorial before retiring from the editorship? So, with all due humility here goes:

“Mess” was coined as a metaphor by John Law, I think first in his article “Making a Mess with Method” (Law 2003), but likely reaching buzz levels via the book After Method: Mess in Social Science Research (Law 2004). Summarized to the point of over-simplification (and thus of inescapable irony), Law’s is a counter-argument to Occam’s razor, the 14th century cutting edge on what should constitute the best explanation of any phenomenon: Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate. Or, as Newton restated the point: “admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances”. The simplest single answer that accounts for the data is the best. Not so, says Law. The world is infinitely variable and interpretable, i.e. messy. To pretend otherwise is to suppress legitimate truths. So we should find ways to de-Other, de-silence those many alternatives, even acknowledging those we find impossible to express.

“Entanglement” might, at first glance, seem another term that acknowledges multiple causes and interpretations, complexity, mess … Certainly it has similar associations in everyday language, but it has a different genealogy as a science term. When questioned (and I did ask some), presenters using the term in Buenos Aires referred back to Karen Barad (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway.

Barad, a physicist by training, is building from how the term is used in quantum mechanics, where it refers to how quantum particles can be somehow related so that measuring one particle’s state not only determines that one particle’s quantum state (remember Schrödinger’s cat?), but also the potential quantum states of the related (mutually entangled) particle, even across a great distance. Note! I don’t pretend to understand this. I’m just summarizing what I found when I googled the term across multiple physics sites. But, if we accept this as a real phenomenon, one that exists outside of and/or in relation to ourselves (depending on what we mean by “real”), then this has implications for our conception of matter, of individual, of Nature with and/or versus Culture … one implication being that nothing is separate, all is constituted through relationships.

Now, that’s a fascinating and promising idea, whether or not one fathoms the physics side of it. But, that’s not always how I felt the term entanglement was being used. Just to illustrate, I found this example in a post by the web persona larvalsubjects (http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2010/05/02/entanglements-diffraction-patterns/):

One of the key terms I used throughout my paper was that of “entanglement”. I’ve lifted the term from Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, though, given my disagreements with certain aspects of her epistemo-ontology, I suspect that I use it in a rather different way. At any rate, my proposal is that one thing flat ontology should allow us to think is entanglements of objects without one type of object, such as language, overdetermining the other objects. In this connection, the marvelous, loquacious, and brilliant Barbara Stafford, who gave closing remarks for the symposium, was kind enough to remind us that “entanglement” refers not only to folded and arranged drapes such as one might find in a nomads tent, but also threads that are entangled with one another while retaining their identity. Needless to say, I rather liked these associations.

In other words, some are expanding the term to include associations they themselves are attracted to (entangled with?) from everyday language usages. In another example, from the Buenos Aires conference, one presenter (if I understood correctly) saw entanglement and mess as layered over one another, with entanglement being in focus in that particular presentation, and mess back-grounded. All this renaming and sub-specification of complexity may be a good thing. It may be an unavoidable thing. It may be a phenomenon resonant with both mess and entanglement as the two were respectively first proposed. Or it may be turning them into bubbles that will eventually become over-filled, thin-surfaced, and then burst. It may open for importing a cargo of associations that sour the term (tangles as in Alzheimer’s, for instance?). It may, as in the game of Telegraph (I think also called Chinese Whispers?) morph into whole new metaphors (Entangoment, anybody?). Worst case, seen from my perspective as a teacher, it may become yet another fancy way of naming and excusing one’s own sloppiness – although I didn’t yet get that impression from the presentations where I encountered the terms this year, so I’ll stop there before I get myself into worse trouble.

That’s it from me, friends: My last Review editorial, possibly also my last event review in the Review. I hope those who missed out on 4S/ESOCITE found this useful. I assume those who were there had different experiences and perspectives from mine and hope they will share them. I look forward to what the EASST meeting will bring and how the field as a whole will continue to evolve. See you in Torun?


Bijker, W.E., Hughes, T.P. & Pinch, T. (eds.) (1987) The Social Construction of Technological Systems, MIT Press.

Latour, B. (1987) Science in Action, Harvard University Press.

Law, J. (2003) ‘Making a Mess with Method’, Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University. Available at http://www.comp.lancs.ac.uk/sociology/papers/Law-Making-a-Mess-with-Method.pdf

Law, J. (2004) After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, Psychology Press.




p.s.: Time worked against us and we didn’t get this issue sent out before the Torun conference after all, which means I do get to add some brief impressions from Torun.

  • I wondered how the Torun organizers would manage to offer a social event as memorable as the tango lesson and tango show in Buenos Aires. Now I wonder which I will remember longer: tango in Buenos Aires or fireworks in a fortress in Torun.
  • I heard different opinions in Buenos Aires regarding the relative advantages of hotel vs. campus conferences – price, food quality, convenience, cohesiveness.  I’m sure both preferences still have their adherers as the two conferences made the most of their respective relative advantages.
  • Having attended almost only my own track at the EASST conference, plus one session of a closely related track when my own was finished, I of course got an impression of a very compact, cogent conference. That papers I heard about when chatting with other conference attendees on the tram to and from seemed to resonate with my own conference theme was, I have to allow, probably down to my own state of mind at the time.
  • I have to consider with the same self-sceptical distance the sense that my take on the discursive archaeology – the rise and fall, the spread and implosion – of concepts, and on the meaning(s) and role(s) of the concepts “mess” and “entanglement” in particular, also seemed to be confirmed by other attendees when the topic came up. Please don’t hesitate to challenge me on this topic! Debate is far more constructive that simple acquiescence!
  • EASST’s awards policy of celebrating community efforts in and for science was yet again confirmed with a well-deserved trio of prize-winners. Of course, we are battling against a tsunami of individualistic awards, tick-boxes, benchmarks, and (not least!) negative sanctions for somehow falling behind in zero-sum individually competitive rankings. Still, we hope our three awards will inspire to further community efforts. Please read up on them on the EASST web site and in this now updated issue of the Review, congratulate the winners, recognize potential future winners in your midst and nominate them for the awards in 2016, and aspire to make award-worthy community contributions of your own!
  • And finally, I’m happy to announce that at least one person has come forward and expressed an interest in being the Review’s next editor. Don’t let that stop you if you were thinking of making that offer yourself. The decision is not yet finalized by either the prospective new editor or EASST Council. But it does seem that a solution to the editorship question is on the horizon. ☺