Being, doing, and using STS in Germany? Reflections on identity questions, normative commitments, and conceptual work after 2023

by Mareike Smolka, Maximilian Braun, Carla Greubel, Philipp Neudert, Cindy Rentrop, Lisa Wiedemann

In recent years, we have observed the emergence of a vibrant group of researchers strongly linked to or affiliated with German institutions who associate their work with STS (Niewöhner 2018; Mewes 2019). Nevertheless, discussions of STS in Germany tend to be characterized by narratives of precarity, fragmentation, and fluidity. These narratives go beyond precarious working conditions in the German academic system––for example, the centralization of power in the hierarchical organization of university chairs, the national legal system limiting the time researchers can spend on PhD and postdoctoral research, and the structural underfunding of administrative and infrastructural support at German universities (Lippert et al. 2021; Hölscher 2023). They also highlight institutional impasses that are specific to STS, in particular the growing but fragmented STS landscape in Germany. Although there are STS-oriented research groups and study programs at the Technical University of Munich, the Humboldt University Berlin, the Goethe University Frankfurt and other German STS locations, STS researchers often work within the institutional homes of specific disciplines. In this context “many STS-minded scholars – especially early career scholars – are sitting in disciplined departments and struggle to find interlocutors for those matters of concern that exceed the established thought styles that surround them” (Niewöhner et al. 2021, 13). The disciplinary organization of German universities and the disciplinary funding schemes make it difficult for STS scholars to ‘fit in’ and to establish a scholarly identity in STS. To support academic socialization and community building for STS in Germany, a number of networks and associations, such as the German Society of Science and Technology Studies (GWTF), the Interdisciplinary Network for Studies Investigating Science and Technology (INSIST), and stsing e.V., organize regular opportunities for their members to meet up. Interactions among these networks and associations are usually not formally structured, depending on the initiative of individuals. 2023 was an attempt to create an inclusive format for networks, associations, and individual scholars working at or related to German institutions to come together, exchange ideas, and interconnect. The vision behind the hub was twofold: to create or strengthen connections among STS scholars, groups, and activities, and to build bridges between those who primarily identify as STS researchers and scholars who feel more strongly rooted in academic disciplines, such as anthropology, geography, history, philosophy, and sociology, or fields like gender studies, media studies, and postcolonial studies. Alongside the exploration of shared interests and potential collaborations within and beyond STS, the hub sought to open up opportunities for discussing the conditions of research and education, especially in light of recent instances of sexual harassment and power abuse (#MeTooSTS, #WeDoSTS), unjust labour relations (#IchBinHanna, #IAmReyhan), and the pressures induced by the new public management regime in academia. Finally, the STS-hub format could increase the visibility of existing German STS locations. Taking place in a bi-annual rhythm in-between EASST conference years, the hub could travel across Germany to host institutions which would like to showcase their local research interests and specific approaches to STS. 

After two years of planning and organizational work, the first edition of took place from March 15–17, 2023, at RWTH Aachen University.1 The size of the event exceeded the expectations of the organizers: among 392 registered participants, 303 participants attended the event. A feedback survey with 126 respondents indicates that it attracted not only researchers from Germany, but also from different European countries, Israel, South Africa, Brazil, and the United States.2 More than 70% of survey respondents were PhD and Postdoctoral researchers. As participation in the hub was free of charge, the event was inclusive of researchers at different career stages and accessible to those with few funding opportunities for conferences. Such an inclusive event was made possible by the financial support of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg Aachen and the Human Technology Center at RWTH Aachen University. Moreover, the way in which the format of the hub had been developed and organized supported the guiding visions of inclusivity and connectivity. The steering and management committee consisted of a group of researchers dispersed across and beyond Germany. Members of the committee launched calls for participation within their academic networks to co-create a program on the theme of circulations with 57 panel sessions, 133 presentations, a PhD bootcamp, a discussion on good academic practices, creative formats like walkshops and drawing sessions, regional network meetings, and keynote lectures by Ulrike Felt and Susann Wagenknecht. 

In light of the numerous research projects presented at the hub and the impressively high number of participants, Estrid Sørensen, a member of the stsing e.V. board, proposed at the General Assembly of the association in May 2023 that STS in Germany should reflect on its narratives of precarity. According to Sørensen, 2023 had shown that STS in Germany ceased to be marked by marginalization; there existed a strong STS community. In his welcoming lecture at the opening of the hub, Torsten Voigt offered a heuristic for characterizing the STS community at RWTH Aachen University, where he serves as the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. The heuristic includes three types of STS researchers: those using STS theories and methods to study objects other than science and technology, those doing STS by studying science and technology from the perspective of a traditional discipline, and those being STS who draw on STS theories and methods to study science and technology. Although an STS-derived response to such a heuristic would be to criticize the boundary work that such categories can perform for exclusionary and other instrumental purposes, the heuristic can also stimulate reflections on questions of identity and belonging, normative commitments and responsibilities, as well as epistemic quality standards. 

Such reflections were captured in the afterthoughts written by four STS-hub attendees. Philipp Neudert and Cindy Rentrop observed identity questions resurfacing throughout the hub and revolving around the societal responsibility of STS scholars to inform research, development, and policy-making. For Carla Greubel, the hub was an opportunity to interrogate the epistemic standards of good STS research. To avoid the proliferation of vague concepts, she let herself be inspired by observations of fine-grained conceptual work at the hub. Lastly, Maximilian Braun applied a normative lens to the conditions of STS research in Germany, questioning the kinds of structures, institutions, and relationships we aspire to work within. In sharing these reflections, this essay foregrounds what an event like 2023 can do for academic socialization, identity formation, and community building in national STS contexts.

Identity issues in STS: Who are ‘we’ as ‘the’ ‘STS community,’ and why do we care so much? (Philipp Neudert)

When an Imagined Community (Anderson 1991) like the STS community in German-speaking countries is, on occasion, gathered in a single place, an inevitable theme is its (supposedly) shared group identity. Who are ‘we’ as ‘the’ STS community? Who are ‘we’ as STS scholars with different disciplinary backgrounds and at different career levels? What could our ‘agenda’ be? 

The (imagined?) STS-community at 2023 in Aachen.
© Lennart Göpfert

Whereas some scholars celebrate the ubiquity of such questions as an expression of reflexivity, many others tend to be annoyed and disregard them as navel-gazing. A welcome guest or not, the discussion keeps on popping up unexpectedly on a regular basis. But why do we, in spite of being annoyed by it, seem to care so much about who we are? 

In the panel Politics, Crisis, and the Contested Role of Science and Technology, for example, the identity question surfaced unexpectedly. The panel was dedicated to the epistemic and normative role of science and technology in times of ‘crisis’ with regards to ‘societal challenges’ and how they come to be framed as such in the first place. Filippo Reale made the argument that, under conditions of urgency, the circulation of non-redundant knowledge tends to be inhibited and patterns of epistemic authority (re)stabilized. The panelists discussed quantitative virological models (Hälterlein 2023) as an example for such a de-contextualization, which eases the over-interpretation and even abuse of scientific knowledge to legitimize far-reaching policy decisions. These observations led to a cautious consensus that STS might have a role to play in informing the public debate in which knowledge is circulated, particularly in times of crisis. During crisis, it is often the case that decisions need be taken quickly,  the public demand for reliability is high, and  ‘expertise’ is addressed to meet these demands. 

At this point of the panel, identity issues had become impossible to ignore. The discussion turned into a self-inquiry of STS and its assumed (productive, critical, reflexive, or other) capacity to inform or change policy-making, running up against sticky imaginaries and power structures. What should or could ‘we’ have done to ‘improve’ the crisis management during Covid? How could STS come closer to policymaking––and should it, really? 

What such discussions demonstrate is that there is widespread vexation with the current state of affairs, in particular: how easy it seems to be for policymakers to ignore STS insights altogether and get away with it. Even though there is nothing close to a consensus on what should be changed, the perceived need to try out something different is overwhelming. 

Maybe one of the reasons why the identity issues keep on coming back is that they point to a deeper problem: that it is still unclear what should happen to the (seeming) implications of STS insights for policy (or similarly entrenched domains like corporate governance) if the relevant decision-makers do not, by chance, begin to study STS journals and adopt what they consider as important insights. 

As STS scholars are increasingly embedded in multidisciplinary research projects, the question of ‘what we’re all about’ will be asked more frequently rather than disappear. The contribution by Paula Helm and Joakim Juhl took this increasingly projectified ‘embeddedness’ as a point of departure to argue that an ‘ethics of engagement’ is needed to deal with the various, often conflicting expectations and interests with which embedded STS researchers are confronted. They warned, first, against broad normative commitments (e.g., to ‘democracy’ or ‘diversity’) that almost everyone can agree to precisely because of their vagueness and, second, against implicit, veiled normativity. Such normativity, they argued, could be misused too easily, for instance for manipulation or lobbying. By contrast, they recommend a form of ‘strong normativity,’ i.e. a normativity that abandons the idea of neutrality (vis-à-vis universal agreeability), spells out its assumptions and normative commitments, and, in this way, makes them vulnerable to critique. 

For example: Instead of committing to the vague project of democratizing science and technology development (and then mostly complaining about why it is unviable), we should be able to give a more precise account of what a democratized research project (or research system, university, or innovation culture) looks like and why we think it should be valued. To this end, we must bridge the gap between STS and ethics, as Helm and Juhl argued. This might as well apply to other domains of philosophy (e.g., democratic theory or political philosophy), and to other disciplines (e.g., institutional or organizational theory). Therefore, the question lurking behind the identity issues is not so much what STS is, but what it is in relation to what (policy, neighboring disciplines), how the gap between STS and these various others can be bridged, and how STS can enrich and must, at times, challenge them.

Dialogues, monologues, discussions and debates on the construction of identity (Cindy Rentrop)

What does it mean to do STS? This question emerged repeatedly in conversations, debates and panels at in Aachen in March 2023. Three days of repeating questions and repeating answers on the identity of STS seemed to circulate through the hub, indicating an aspiration to construct an identity that characterizes our scholarly purpose epistemologically, conceptually, and disciplinarily. 

Young PhD scholars from across Europe long for guidance throughout their academic process, but questioning the institutional makeup of STS during a PhD bootcamp organized by INSIST added an extra layer: While PhDs in STS regularly face isolation within their projects, for some isolated institutional settings are also an everyday experience. Therefore, the joy of meeting like-minded scholars was even greater. In analogue breakout rooms, scholars discussed foundational topics on disciplinary identity and boundaries, inter- and transdisciplinary work as well as publication strategies and teaching. By summarizing all of these topics within the plenary, an atmosphere of lostness emerged: What are we? Who are we? Whom do we want to address? What is our contribution in this world? 

The debate between the High and the Low Church of STS, in which the former is concerned with the academic conceptual description and interpretation of science and technology, while the latter works towards an approach that focuses on the public’s integration into science and technology for a greater societal benefit, became apparent in the panel on Politics, Crisis, and the Contested Role of Science and Technology, where the question on the engagement of STS played a central role (Sismondo 2008). While we heard insightful contributions on disparate topics (the circulation of models and simulations in pandemic politics, the role of science in Swiss regulatory legacies, the circulation of knowledge under the notion of urgency, the circulation of expertise for regional innovation as well as the uptake of sociotechnical imaginaries on circular economy, to name but a few examples), the panel moderator tried to link the different contributions through a set of questions. The discussion shifted back in focus to our identity as STS scholars in engagement research: What is our role as STS scholars? How should we act in this economically driven world? While some argued for a High Church approach, others emphasized STS’ productive integration in interdisciplinary research projects and democratic governance processes. However, calls for integration, at times, remained silent on the practical feasibility of and potential obstacles to such interdisciplinary research. It was also left as an open question of how to deal with the re-interpretation of our concepts and ideas being applied in public settings (Wynne 2007, 501). 

The contextual gap between young and established scholars became apparent in informal and formal settings, as the notion of identity mostly left young scholars trouble-hearted, while established researchers demonstrated integrity and courage in keynotes and panels such as Experimental Democracy. The presentation of distinctive topics proved STS’ strong, resilient epistemological and methodological grounding. Concepts must not mutually exclude but can fertilize each other. By recognizing the existing diversity, scholarly identity can be strengthened rather than unsettled. 

STS-hub Panel on Experimental Democracy organized by Jan-Peter Voß and Stefan Böschen. © Noushin Gheibi

What did I take away from three days of encountering diverse perspectives? STS is distinctive in its own right as it brings together not only manifold ontologies and methodologies but also representatives all across Europe who work in institutionalized or project-based settings. While longing for a shared concept of STS engagement to make a difference in this world, it could deprive us of our normative core to critically reflect upon contextualization. As our perspectives as scholars are co-produced by the contexts in which we are engaged, we all do engagement differently. Fewer questions on identity might give us more space to appreciate and discuss each other’s work in respect and solidarity. The STS-hub insistently underlined that our soft spot is also a sweet spot: rigid identities can lead to inertia, but we are on the move. 

STS-hub voices on futures of STS: “Let’s keep up the inspiring, fine-grained conceptual work!” (Carla Greubel) 

In my experience, writing a conference abstract and preparing one’s presentation always involves a form of localization work, of making the piece fit to the theme and local context of that specific conference. Reading the program of the STS-hub in Aachen, this localization work seemed to have worked exceptionally well this time: circulations was the title and theme of the hub. The word circulation(s) or circulating appeared 538 times in the STS-hub program. In the first slot of parallel sessions alone, 6 out of 10 panels had circulation(s) or circulating included in the title of their panel, for example “circulations ergonomics,” “waste in circulation,” “circulating practices,” “circulating imaginaries,” and “circulating expertise.” The panel to which I contributed during the second day of the STS-hub added yet another object of circulation: values. Circulating Values: From What is ‘Good’ Somewhere to What is ‘Best’ Elsewhere and Back Again, organized by Mareike Smolka, Maximilian Braun and Ruth Falkenberg. 

The title and questions of this panel were inspired by a panel during the EASST conference in Madrid on Closing the Loop of Empirical Ethics: Away from Normativity and Critique and Back Again (Sharon et al. 2022). Whereas the panel in Madrid asked whether empirical ethics should be more political and, if so, what empirical ethics scholars might do to close the loop of empirical ethics, the focus in Aachen was on how values travel with researchers and how these values adapt and are adapted to local practices, subjectivities or institutions. Different angles, but overlapping interests and also overlapping panelists (both Maximilian Braun and myself presented in Madrid as well as in Aachen). My presentation at the STS-hub was a follow-up version of the research that I had presented during the EASST conference in Madrid. At EASST, I presented reflections on whether and how STS making & doing might be an inspiration for closing the loop of empirical ethics. By the time of the STS-hub in Aachen, I had (almost) finalized my STS making & doing project with a big technology company involved in a disease prevention pilot for older adults living in the south of Italy and could therefore draw on empirical material to reflect on my proposition. What else had changed between EASST and the hub? I had invested in localization work. I had included the word “circulations” and “circulating” in my presentation text, to adapt my contribution to the theme of the hub and the questions of the panel––just as the many other presentations and panels that had twisted their abstracts and headings in such a way that the connection to circulations as the conference theme would be apparent. 

It was a moment of realization, and almost like catching myself, when Susann Wagenknecht in her keynote pointed out that “circulations” has been used as a rather fuzzy concept throughout the STS-hub presentations and discussions. To me she seemed to have a point. Throughout the first two conference days I had heard and read the word circulations many times, but what exactly was meant with it, and how exactly it could relate to other notions like ‘translation’ or ‘fluidity,’ was still unclear to me. Susann Wagenknecht asked in her keynote what a stronger notion of circulation might be, and presented three ideas. What struck me in particular about her keynote speech was the depth of her conceptual work. Since that moment at the STS-hub, I have been coming back to the question of how I myself engage in in-depth conceptual work in my own dissertation? What concepts do I use without (yet) having really thought about them from different angles? And where can my empirical material provoke new reflections on these concepts? 

In the room next to coffee and refreshments, there was a paper wall that read in big letters: “Which futures of STS should stsing e.V. promote?” “[D]on’t turn STS into a discipline” was the answer of one hub-participant. In afterthought of the conference, I now would add “keep up the inspiring, fine-grained conceptual work.” Or, as the organizers of a panel on “epistemic dizziness” put it, drawing on the work of Anna Tsing, “it is important not to let the metaphors and figures make you dizzy” (Tsing 2018, quoted in the program of 2023, 117).3

Edited photo of the paper wall “which futures of STS should stsing e.V. promote?” © Carla Greubel
Open doors for STS in German academia? (Maximilian Braun)

Almost like a class outing. That’s what traveling to the STS-Hub in Aachen with my colleagues from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) felt like. Around 20 researchers currently affiliated with TUM attended the conference event at the RWTH, another German technical university where STS thinking seems to be increasingly preaching to the choir. However, not only the number of TUM colleagues, but also the number of contributions from other German universities to the hub impressed me: STS seems to be riding the crest of a wave!

My more sober self, however, reminded me that this impression could be a delusion given the short period of time I can consider myself as being part of the STS community. I am at best a latecomer to the social sciences, unable to account for the intricate history that STS has in the German-speaking academic world. Still, for the last 4 ½ years, I found myself in the middle of a process of growing recognition for STS thinking, ideas, and concepts at one of the largest universities in Germany.

TUM has actively supported STS research for about a decade now and founded the first explicitly-labeled ‘STS Department’ in German academia in 2021. I met many fascinating and inspiring people with whom I contributed to this department’s ongoing institutionalization through administration work, teaching, and intramural research collaborations. Being part of these efforts rewarded me with many wonderful relationships, be it with students, academic staff, scientists, or––first and foremost––my colleagues at the Science and Technology Policy professorship, which turned TUM into more than just a professional home.

At the STS-hub, I experienced similar vibes. The organizers succeeded in creating a sense of community for STS research in German academia while keeping in touch with the international STS discourses. With this in mind, I found the theme of circulations to be spot-on and a good anchor for the many conversations with other STS researchers during these three days: Besides discussing internationally-circulating STS concepts and ideas in numerous panels and contributions, we also circulated our own, personal experiences of living and working in German academia and our stories of what it means to pursue a career in German STS, be it at the conference venue or in the cozy bars and cafés in the beautiful inner city of Aachen.

One instance of such circulations emerged in the panel Circulating Values that Mareike Smolka, Ruth Falkenberg and I had organized. We had invited other STS scholars to share investigations into the circulation of values in science from a practice-oriented perspective. The panelists shared insights into how researchers value research objects, standards, practices, and outcomes, and how these valuations travel or differ across space, time, and research contexts. Helene Sorgner, for instance, elaborated on a set of recognition practices that govern how epistemic capital can be distributed in the highly collectivized research context of high-energy physics. And in the case of clinical dermatology research, Theresa Willem pointed us to the lasting popularity of machine learning and how it shapes the careers of computer scientists and medical researchers alike.

What all panel contributions had in common were underlying normative concerns, as our discussant Sara Davies highlighted. Is it right that researchers have to blindly follow the motto to “be enthusiastic and work a lot” to become recognized as peers by other researchers? Should we, as STS scholars, intervene if computer scientists in clinical research are told to have “no time for ethics?”

While these questions emerged as concerns in the panelists’ respective research contexts, the STS-hub managed to hold a mirror up to us STS researchers and direct some of these questions at ourselves: What values are important to us? How do we want them to shape German academia? What structures, institutions, and relationships do we want for our own careers? Providing time and space to discuss such questions with the assembled community was, for me, the greatest merit of the hub. This is all the more important because a significant portion of the German academic staff is currently asking themselves a question that Ulrike Felt borrowed from an old song by The Clash in her keynote: “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” I hope that the doors will continue to open for STS in German academia, with ongoing discussions on how to shape the spaces and futures of the people who work behind them.

More open doors for STS in German academia? The entrance door to the STS Department at the TUM School of Social Sciences and Technology in Munich (left, © Maximilian Braun) and the C.A.R.L. at the RWTH Aachen, the venue of the first (right, © Mareike Smolka)


We thank the members of the steering and managing committee as well as the local organizing committee for making 2023 happen! We are also grateful to Lennart Göpfert and Noushin Gheibi for taking pictures at the event. 



1 2023 was organized by a steering and managing committee as well as a local organizing committee. The steering and managing committee consisted of Ingmar Lippert (chair) and, alphabetically ordered, Stefan Böschen, Paula Helm, Jan-Felix Schrape, Cornelius Schubert, Mareike Smolka, Jan-Peter Voß, and Lisa Wiedemann; it was supported by Sandra Abels; and the local organizing committee consisted of Stefan Böschen (chair) and, alphabetically ordered, Sonja Berg, Lilia Bolz, Ana de la Varga, Lennart Göpfert & the Leonardo team, Stefan John, Sally Römgens, and Mareike Smolka.

2 The survey on 2023 can be accessed on

3 The program of 2023 can be accessed on 




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