Writing the Social Studies of Science

by Des Fitzgerald, Amy Hinterberger

Since the very earliest social studies of scientific communities, we have known that words and worlds are bound together; that intellectual projects – this was an original insight of Steve Woolgar and Bruno Latour of course – are materialised in sentences, images, figures, texts. It remains the case that one of the most important ways to stabilise, organise and grow a laboratory, a group of scholars, even an entire intellectual community, is to write things down. 

Over the last decade, social studies of science, including studies of biomedicine, have become some of the most exciting and cutting-edge areas in the social sciences.  From human geographers working on animal models of human disease; to anthropologists writing about new ways of governing chronic disease in low-income countries; to sociologists charting the rise of new forms of cyborg embodiment – scholars across disciplines are researching at the frontiers of science and biomedicine, and using insights from these areas to innovate the field of science and technology studies (STS). Yet, in Europe, the monograph form in STS remains perhaps less developed to peer-reviewed journal articles and other kinds of publishing forms. And where book series focused on (or friendly to) STS do exist, especially in the American context of US academic presses, these typically gather under the sign of more well-established disciplines (history or anthropology, in many cases) or else around specific theoretical or empirical interests (experiments, technologies, bodies, and so on). 

In 2019 with the help of Tom Dark, a senior commissioning editor at Manchester University Press, we initiated a new STS book series, ‘Inscriptions: Writing the Social Studies of Science’.  The point of this series is to create new space for the monograph form in STS. As the books we have already published demonstrate the series foregrounds theoretically innovative and empirically rich interdisciplinary work that is emerging in Europe and beyond. Our series is self-consciously hospitable in terms of its approach to discipline (all areas of social sciences are considered), topic (we are interested in all scientific objects, including biomedical objects) scale (books will include both fine-grained case studies and broad accounts of scientific cultures) and authorship (it looks to first-time authors as well as to established scholars; to disciplinary newcomers to STS as well as to widely-known insiders).

For readers and writers, we hope the series signals a new generation of scholarship captured in monograph form – tracking and analysing how science moves through our societies, cultures and lives. Three observations make the urgent need for such a series apparent. First, it is clear that scientific and political transformations in the clinical and life sciences, and in other allied scientific areas, are bringing new technologies and practices, along with the everyday forms of embodiment they constitute, to the forefront of political and social attention. For example, genomics, the study of genes, has made it possible to predict, diagnose, and treat diseases more personally than ever before, leading to what scholars have called the molecularization of life. Similar observations can be made about recent transformations in the digital and informational sciences, in the psychological and brain sciences, and many other areas. 

Second, the social studies of science have developed key resources with which to make sense of new advances in science and technology. Part of this comes from changes in scientific and medical practice itself, where social, ethical and political implications of new technologies are recognized as vital to creating productive relationships between scientific knowledge, technological systems, and society. While the social sciences might have been previously bracketed off as a separate ‘ethical’ concern to science, increasingly scientists and social scientists have been working in collaboration to get to grips with how science and technology come to shape law, politics, public policy, society and culture. 

Third, there have been a series of wider shifts in the research funding landscape: an embedded agenda of ‘ethical, legal and social impacts’ has brought significant new funding-streams to social studies of science and biomedicine, while also pressing social science researchers against the face of cutting-edge developments in the natural and clinical sciences; at the same time, many European funders have dedicated new funding streams to critical social study of the natural sciences in general, and studies of the biomedical and life sciences (including clinical practice) in particular.

These transformations signal that it is a crucial time to bring together work that showcases these remarkable shifts. They also call for a renewed urgency in serious, long-form, interdisciplinary thinking and writing in STS – as well as to spaces that can hold such thinking and writing. The first volumes of the series are appearing now (by Anne Kerr and her colleagues, as well as Adam Hedgecoe, and Gill Haddow) with further volumes in the works; we continue to review proposals, and will be glad to hear from EASST members and affiliates.