Colourful, Courageous and Community-Building. Reflections from the Organizer of the 2nd Nordic STS Conference

by Torben Elgaard Jensen

The interest in STS has been strong and growing in the Nordic countries for a number of years. Two years ago, researchers on this growing Nordic scene introduced an organizational innovation in the form of a biennial Nordic conference. One might think that yet another conference is not exactly what is needed in the already densely populated ecology of STS conferences. But the Nordic conferences, do in fact seem to occupy a vacant spot. Their current participant number (100-150), makes them significantly larger than most national STS conferences, yet still less overwhelming that the 4S or the EASST conferences, not to mention the combination of the two. In addition, the Nordic conferences are conveniently located in odd years, i.e. out of sync with the EASST conferences.

The first Nordic STS conference was held in Trondheim in 2013, the second has recently been held in Copenhagen (May 27-29). The editor of the EASST review, has kindly asked me, as the leading organizer of the recent Copenhagen conference, to offer my account of the conference to the readers of this journal. I happily accept this invitation.

In the following, I will first outline some of the developments and ‘organizing forces’ that made the Copenhagen conference conference possible. Through this I hope to convey an impression of the organisation of STS in and around Denmark. Second, I will attempt to say something about the current state of Nordic STS, and finally I will briefly speculate on where Nordic STS might be going next. It goes without saying that I am speaking from the point of view of the organizer; others might have entirely different interpretations of conference event in Copenhagen on those late days of May.

The organizing forces behind the conference

To give a sense of the people and institutions that came together at the conference, I wouId like to outline some of the ’organizing forces’ that were directly involved. In my book there were 4+1 of these organizing forces.

The first force was a small and informal coordination group with one representative from each of the Nordic contries. This group, which has also occasionally been dubbed the scientific advisory board, was established by the organizers of the first Nordic conference and it has stayed in existence. For me, as a the local organizer, the Nordic group has proven to be an indispensable resssource for quick responses on a variety of issues such as scheduling and channels of communication. The group currently consists of Kristin Asdal, Sampsa Hyysalo, C-F Helgesson and myself.

A second organizing force and local driver of interest in the conference, was the Danish Association for Science and Technology Studies ( DASTS was established in 2005 as a network organisation for Danish STS. It has been successful in stimulating the Danish STS field through a very active homepage, an online journal, and an annual conference. To give an impression of Danish STS scene, it could be mentioned that the number of subscribers to the mailing list of DASTS has now grown to more than 500. This growth of interest in STS has developed in parallel with a considerable institutional embedding of Danish STS since the mid 00’s. In 2006 there was only one organisational unit at a Danish University that explicitly described itself as STS (Centre for STS-studies at Aarhus University). In 2015 there were four additional organisational units with a substantial official dedication to STS research (Technologies in Practice, IT University; Centre for Medical STS, University of Copenhagen; Centre for Design, Innovation and Sustainable Transition, Aalborg University; The Techno-Anthropology Research Group, Aalborg University). It is also noteworthy that STS in Denmark has gained considerable prominence in the thinking and curricula of a number of established disciplines, such as Organisation studies, Ethnology, History & philosophy of science, Design studies, Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, Educational research and Media studies. In sum, the growing Danish STS scene, in part stimulated and channeled through DASTS, was a part of the momentum that pushed forward the conference. Not least because DASTS has decided to participate in the Nordic conference instead of arranging its own national conference in odd years.

A third important organizing force was the local host, the Techno-Anthropology Research at Aalborg University Copenhagen. I am the leader of this relatively new group, and the task of organizing the Nordic conference was of course a welcome opportunity to place ourselves on the map of Nordic STS. The Techno-Anthropology Research Group in its current form was established at Aalborg University Copenhagen in 2012 in connection with a bachelor and master programme in techno-anthropology. The group now consists of 9 researchers covering a broad range of STS, including feminist STS, innovation studies, studies of expert cultures and public engagement of science. The group has strong interest and commitment to ’mapping controversies’ and the use of digital methods in STS and has recently opened a ’techno-anthropology lab’ as a centre for these activities (

A fourth organizing force that must be mentioned was the local organizing group that handled every practical detail before, during and after the conference. Two techno-anthropology students worked on the conference for the better part of a semester. Invaluable help was also given by local secretaries, a handful of other techno-anthropology students, members of the research group and my head of department, who supported the conference financially.

As I mentioned earlier, I count 4+1 organizing forces. The fifth and final one, was the self-organizing of the conference participants. The conference had no specified theme. It was merely announced as a space for discussion between Nordic STS researchers, and participants were therefore encouraged to submit papers as well as proposals for panels. The final shape of the conference was thus very much in the hands of the 125 participants and in the hands of three extra-nordic keynote speakers who were given a free choice of topic (Steve Woolgar, Estid Sørensen and Fabian Muniesa). In the following, I will use the conference programme as springboard for speculating on the current state of Nordic STS.

The current state of Nordic STS

In contemporary academic life, we are all caught up in the game of making appealing accounts of activities that are somehow beyond our full control or comprehension. We constantly write precise plans for future projects or elegant abstracts of papers that we haven’t been able to write yet. I therefore trust that the reader will be familiar with the genre, when I now present my very neat summary of Nordic STS. My claim is that it can all be boiled down to the three C’s.

Nordic STS is Colourful

The conference programme is a wonderfully rich and broad collection of topics and perspectives. It contains concepts such as noise, love, morality, revelation and empowerment. It engages practices such as elections, education, drug trails, biobanking, male masturbation, peer innovation, and eugenics. And it talks of objects such as digital maps, synthetic biology, electricity grids, nuclear bombs, publics, earthquakes, climate change and calculative devices.

Nordic STS is indeed colourful. Some may even prefer another c-word: carnivalisque. We can think of this colourfulness as a charming feature that makes STS conferences fun and sets us apart from other fields that are tied down by a more narrow scope of interest. But the colourfulness is however also a part of a long trend in Nordic and international STS to move attention beyond the classic sites of knowledge production and technology development. It somehow performs the argument that the seamless web of science-technology-society extends and can be studied everywhere. The creative application of STS styles of analysis to all sorts of phenomena is thus not merely a curious feature but an important part of how Nordic STS collectively constitutes its object of research.

Nordic STS is Courageous!

When glancing through the programme, it strikes me that a good deal of courage is involved in the topics and approaches that are taken on. In fact, the paper titles indicate several different forms of courage. There is the well-know type of ’ethnographic’ or ’anthropological’ courage involved making critical, reflexive or ironic accounts: ‘On the trail of the calculator boys’. There is also the self-reflexive courage involved in constantly rethinking the our own tools: ‘Pixels and Pencils: Improvising Methods for Writing Futures’.

An additional form of courage relates to the collaborative roles that Nordic STS researchers often assume: ‘Make room for emergence when speaking about synthetic biology’. The interest in collaboratory roles is indeed a strong and well-established trend in Nordic STS. Close affiliations between Nordic STS and the Scandinavian participatory design tradition, as well as with various types of democratic public engagement with science experiments, have generated a broad interest in finding ways for STS research to work closely with both designers and users, and scientists and publics.

The commitments to collaboration, or bridging, do of course generate problems of their own. A fourth kind of courage is therefore also needed, namely the courage to rethink our roles as STS researchers. Something, which might be indicated by the following title: ‘Enough of Ethnography? Or: What I learned from being an ad-hoc lab rat in an Internet of things’.

Nordic STS is Community-building.

The participants’ self-organizing forces resulted in the clustering of interest and discussion around a number of topical areas. Some of these topical areas were: Technical Innovation, medical STS, science communication/PES, educational practices, valuography, calculating & documenting technologies, environment, biotech governance, new big science, and eating. In addition to these topical areas, there were also a number of cross-cutting issues or themes, which became the basis for sessions: Intervention, digital methods, technoscience & the social, and empowerment.

The communities and sub-communities in Nordic STS are surely grounded in more enduring practices and instititutional affiliations than a three day conference. I am not able to say exactly what generates these numerous communities. What I can say, however, as a conference organizer, is that there is a good deal of shared commitment to topics and issues in Nordic STS. When we, the organizing group, gathered to work through the pile of submitted abstracts and panels, we found it surprisingly easy to group the papers into meaningful sessions. It was basically a 3-hour job.

Where will Nordic STS go next?

It would be reckless to try to predict where the buzzing scene of Nordic STS will go in the future. But I will nevertheless end with a bit of speculation. My sense is that Nordic STS will remain committed to following and reflecting upon all sorts of new, significant and controversial scientific and technological developments. For this reason alone, we can expect an ongoing renewal of the discipline. My sense is also that STS researchers will turn their attention to grand societal challenges of all kinds, not only because STS researchers are curious and committed people, but also because of the opportunities for significant research funding. The renewal our field may also be driven by methodological developments, such as the current experimentation with digital methods, which has generated entirely new collaborations with media scholars, IT developers and several others. I believe that digital methods will gradually open up significant new opportunities for data gathering and visualization, which will expand or conception of what kinds of research STS can do (Elgaard Jensen et al. 2012; Munk & Elgaard Jensen 2014). Finally, and on a more general level, my hunch is that the increasing maturity of STS as a discipline will lead to an increasing number invitations to participate more directly and more actively in scientific, technological and political projects (Elgaard Jensen 2012; Birkbak et al. 2015). This, I suspect, will engender increasing reflections on our roles, opportunities and responsibilities as STS researchers, and perhaps also increasing tensions and dilemmas within our field.

So where will Nordic STS go next? I can only speculate and encourage others to do the same. But one thing is certain. Nordic STS will go to Sweden, since this is where the next conference will be held in 2017.