Introducing students of STS into engaging with differences generatively

‘The very idea of [disciplining students to know and do] cultural and social studies of sciences and technologies is surprising, and the use of plurals rather than singulars underscores the strangeness’, I want to rephrase the first sentence of Sharon Traweek’s (1993: 3) early ‘Introduction to Cultural and Social Studies of Sciences and Technologies’. I wonder what is happening to the tension between plurals, singulars and, I might add, multiple Science and Technology Studies as it is coming of age? STS becomes increasingly institutionalized, being taught in STS programs and STS textbooks are filling the market. It is exciting to participate in this thriving. Yet, in this process of institutionalization lurks a possibility that the tensions between plurals, singulars and multiples of STS are smoothed until they lose their generative character. This editorial aims to contribute to a discussion on how to introduce students to differences between discourses, concepts and methodologies in STS.

Recently, I gave a course of ‘Introduction to STS’ at a university other to the one I am employed; at an institute where I know how my colleagues are knowing and doing STS. As I tailored the syllabus to the needs of these students and the requirements of that university, I noticed we would read and discuss methodologies and stories of STS different to the one I am usually working with, and I assumed some of my colleagues might give different introductions in STS classes. I imagined the members of my small reading group in Berlin introducing students to STS. How would they introduce students to STS?

We were all disciplined in academic knowledge traditions other than STS and we work with and teach a variety of methods in different fields, cities and even countries. We all identify as STS researchers and although we all participate in performing STS, we know and do it all differently: What we know and do, how we know and do it, and what emerges in our specific daily routines is likely to be shaped by historical contingent governmental regulations as well as institutional possibilities and limitations. We contribute to bringing different phenomena into existence and to shaping them by talking, writing and visualising them in different ways, questioning, agreeing or opposing each other, by adapting and simplifying in various ways. We engage in specific ways with students and superiors, with specific curricula and specific funding. Knowing and doing STS differs in our daily routines, in how and what we know and do our work in a STS community. Most notably when discussing recent STS literature in our little group, we mobilize and enact STS discourses and concepts that often differ profoundly. We have heated discussions in this reading group and we enjoy these discussions emerging in our different knowings and doings of STS. We value the frictions as beneficial for our conceptualizing. I believe it is worthwhile to take these differences into account when introducing students to STS and to ask how students need to engage with these differences to contribute to STS in a meaningful way.

While STS is increasingly taught as a discipline, we need to take care of how these differences are taught. Helen Verran portrayed a story of different methodologies in her recent review of Pickering’s ‘Science as Practice and Culture’ (Verran 2017). When working with graduate students in Holland, Denmark and California, she noticed a recurring story of what STS is nowadays and how different methodologies came into being in STS epistemics. In this story ‘objectivism, social constructivism and ontological constitutionalism all now thrive as variant STS epistemic practices in their own niches’ (Verran 2017: 78). Verran, then, wonders what is silenced in this story.

Interestingly, this story is at the same time separating as it is homogenizing. Although differences between methodologies are pointed out in this story, the friction gets lost. It generates a tolerance that acts as a truce. Students are invited to differentiate between methodologies and to sort new work into these already existing ones. This story invites an othering and closes debates, instead of nurturing them. My hope is that we do not end our stories of differences in STS here, but keep telling these stories as yet incomplete. May students of STS be invited, and maybe introduced, to explore these differences, to challenge them and to play with them. When we are introducing students to engage with these differences in such a way, they may find ways to use differences in STS as generative differences. They would become skilled to shape STS in unique ways. I do hope that students of STS can enjoy these intense discussions that I find so particularly beneficial in my little reading group.