Building academic living spaces from heterogeneous networks: the story of STS Austria

by Helene Sorgner, Nikolaus Poechhacker

STS as a (un)discipline has always emphasised the need for reflection and the practices of (infra)structuring scientific communities. Staying true to these ideals, we appreciate the opportunity to reflect our own efforts of institution building, becoming and being as (a part of) STS Austria. In the following, we want to describe some of the processes involved in assembling a heterogeneous network of researchers and institutions into a shared national organisation and common academic living space. But before we can do so, we have to ask ourselves an important question …

What do we mean when we say “STS Austria”? 

Since 2015, “STS Austria” designates a not-for-profit organisation established to represent and integrate the thriving community of STS researchers in Austria. According to its bylaws, the organisation aims to foster the institutional establishment of Science and Technology Studies in Austria, improve scholarly communication and exchange in the field, support and integrate junior STS researchers, link the Austrian STS community to other national and international STS bodies, and increase the visibility of the subject outside the field. Membership is open to all active scholars in the field of Science and Technology Studies who support these objectives. The organisation is run by a president and a board, each elected from among the members for a period of two years. Its first elected president was Ulrike Felt (2015-2017), followed by Max Fochler (2017-2020) and Daniel Barben (since 2020).

The organisation “STS Austria” was launched to represent a research community with a comparatively long and institutionally diverse tradition in Austrian academia. Pioneered by Helga Nowotny, who established and held the first chair for Social Studies of Science at the University of Vienna, the research field has been well institutionalised in Austria since the 1980s (see EASST Review 34(4), December 2015). During the last two decades, research groups at the University of Klagenfurt, the Technical University of Graz, the Institute of Advanced Studies, the Austrian Institute of Technology or the Institute of Technology Assessment were founded or adopted STS as a dedicated approach. Two master’s programmes, one in Vienna (since 2009) at the department chaired by Ulrike Felt and one in Klagenfurt (since 2016), further institutionalised STS in Austrian universities, spawning a growing community of STS graduates and early-career researchers. STS Austria was initiated to connect members of these numerous research groups across institutions and research topics. To emphasise this cross-institutional character, we take care that all participating research groups are represented in the organisation’s board, including master’s and PhD students.

STS Austria provides a meeting and networking place for the Austrian STS community and increases its international visibility mainly by regularly organising academic events. From the beginning, the annual assemblies of STS Austria have been public events that combined the business meeting with public guest lectures and panel discussions. The launch of STS Austria was celebrated with an international conference in autumn 2015 (see EASST Review 35(1) 2016). Following the success of this conference, the first research workshop supported by STS Austria took place in early 2017. Organized chiefly by Karen Kastenhofer and Martina Merz, it brought together an international group of researchers investigating the shifting meanings of ‘Community and Identity in Contemporary Techno-Sciences’. A selection of contributions to this workshop was recently published as the Springer Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook in 2021, edited by Karen Kastenhofer and Susan Molyneux-Hodgson. 

The thematic focus of the second international conference on ‘Innovation and Societal Transformation: Science, Democracy, and Sustainable Futures’, organised in September 2018 at the University of Klagenfurt, resulted in a smaller event, with around thirty participants engaging in concentrated formal and informal exchanges around a single stream of talks. With Luigi Pellizzoni as a keynote speaker arriving from nearby Udine, this event also showed the viability of connecting to neighbouring STS communities, in this case, STS Italia. The workshop format, allowing the discussion of a smaller number of thematically connected contributions in a focused manner, proved to be the preferred type of events for STS Austria ever since. 

The 2018 conference was the first to include a dedicated junior track in the form of a pre-conference workshop, which allowed students and early-career researchers to present their work and receive feedback from senior STS Austria members. This pre-conference workshop marked the beginning of a series of initiatives explicitly dedicated to supporting students and junior researchers in STS. Shortly after, the workshop ‘Ignorance and non-knowledge: what consequences for democratic governance, politics and policy?’ in Vienna, co-sponsored by STS Austria, combined high-profile keynotes and panel discussions with contributions from international early-career researchers. 

A particularly successful initiative intended to support the young STS community have been two workshops dedicated to mapping out career paths in and with STS. These events invited STS master’s students to learn first-hand about potential career paths from STS graduates working in a range of occupations within and beyond academia (see text on the “Living Books”-format below). To also support early-career researchers in a more tangible sense, STS Austria opened a call for outstanding publications (including master’s theses and doctoral dissertations) by junior researchers in 2019. The first STS Austria Prizes for Early Career Publications were awarded to Ruth Falkenberg, Nils Matzner and Andrea Schikowitz at the annual business meeting in February 2020.

Unknown to us at the time, this award ceremony would remain the last physical meeting of STS Austria – both as an organisation and a community – for more than 18 months. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the newly elected board managed to organise two well-received events in the autumn of 2021, with the workshop ‘Digital Living, Digital Infrastructuring’ even taking place in person at the University of Graz (see workshop report below). As this difficult period is coming to an end, some of us are leaving the board while others will stay on for another two years, we hope to continue our mission of providing virtual and physical venues that foster engagement and new alliances among Austrian STS researchers, building an academic living space for a diverse and thriving community.

If you would like to support us on this mission, please consider becoming a member or join us as a candidate for the STS Austria board: If you have an idea for a project or event that could be supported by STS Austria, feel free to send us your proposal: