STS in context: Provincialising STS from central Europe

by Sarah R Davies, Tereza Stöckelová, Fredy Mora Gámez, Roos Hopman, Patrick Bieler, and workshop participants

STS’s central area of study is the nature of knowledge production itself. While the ‘fact factories’ (Knorr-Cetina 1995) of natural science have been its primary focus, it also seeks to incorporate reflexivity regarding its own methods, findings, and modes of representation. How is our knowledge situated (Haraway 1988)? What ‘method assemblages’ are used, and what worlds do these enact or render other (Law 2017)? What new ways can be found to articulate academic arguments (Downey & Zuiderent-Jerak 2017; Mol 2002)? In recent years this reflexivity has been honed and developed through feminist and postcolonial approaches, which have further emphasised the situatedness and non-innocence of academic knowledge and practices. Abandoning historical assumptions concerning centres and peripheries of knowledge production, and expert compared to ‘local’ knowledge, such scholarship has argued that, ultimately, all knowledge is localized, with deep onto-epistemic and political implications. All (STS) scholarship is shaped by the contexts in which and actors by whom it is produced.

It was this idea that was the starting point for a recent workshop, held in Vienna but involving participants from institutions in Berlin and Prague (though framing us in terms of our institutional affiliations is, of course, a simplification: we all come from different countries – within and outside Europe – disciplines, and career points, and have different kinds of relations to the institutions in which we are currently located). The aim of the workshop, titled ‘STS in context: Provincialising STS from central Europe’, was to build on prior work that has sought to characterise how the institutional, geopolitical and other contexts in which we work shape our academic practices, and to discuss how we can and should intervene in these. Funded through a network of ‘central European universities’, the workshop organisers (Patrick Bieler, Roos Hopman, Fredy Mora Gámez, Tereza Stöckelová, and Sarah Davies) saw the event as an opportunity to build connections and relationships between ourselves and the sites at which we are based, whilst also reflecting on how the contexts in which we work are helping to constitute both the knowledge we produce and our experiences of academia. A central goal was to get to know each other, and to see what emerged from these new associations.

Workshop participants in Vienna

From the start we resisted structuring the event through a traditional workshop format. It should be low effort (in terms of preparation), explicitly anti-hierarchical, and consistently interactive. We therefore avoided long presentations, starting the first day (of two) with 5 minute lightning presentations where each participant reflected on the questions we used to frame the event: 

What institutional homes do we come from, and what does STS look like in these sites? What geographic, disciplinary, and other hybridisations are forming our academic identities and practices? What new practices – from experiments in interdisciplinarity to new ways of caring – can or should we invent to do STS otherwise?

These lightning presentations were interspersed with reflections on the histories and current configurations of STS in Germany (Patrick Bieler), Austria (Max Fochler), and Czechia (Tereza Stöckelová) – a discussion which raised fascinating differences and similarities between these national contexts. Why does Czechia have no formal STS university department, while Germany has multiple different national associations? How has the rise of new public management in universities allowed for the possibility of distinct STS departments? Why, indeed, do national associations continue to be so prominent at a time when nationhood is ambiguous, and research not clearly tied to particular countries? In addition to discussing such questions, the first day closed with a guest talk from Prof. Olga Restrepo Forero, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, titled ‘Asymmetries, margins, and traces: reflections from a career in STS’. In generously sharing her experiences of an international career in STS, and of her work at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Prof. Restrepo Forero offered inspiration to us for thinking about the localness of STS in different sites, whether South America or Central Europe.

‘Unconferencing’ in action

The second day was structured through an ‘unconference’ format. We started by gathering topics, shared interests, and activity ideas on whiteboards, clustering these so we could see emergent themes in what had struck or moved participants in the discussions so far. We ended with four broad and overlapping sets of ideas for further discussion: 1. questions of care, and how to produce caring, non-toxic institutions in our different contexts; 2. how to engage with and think about interdisciplinarity; 3. what it would mean in practice to decolonise and recognise the regionalisation of STS; and 4. intersections between art, STS, and innovative forms of making and doing. The unconference then continued with a ‘walkshop’: across two sessions, we met in four groups to discuss one of the emergent themes, doing this as we moved around the city.

Coming back after these periods of movement and reflection, we shared what had struck us, discussing topics from the affordances of the German and Czech languages for talking about care to the ways that regional geopolitics are shaping our work and what it means to be ‘inter’ – located between different knowledge practices, languages, and spaces. We repeatedly found ourselves caught in binds: in trying to deconstruct certain categories (North and South, centre and periphery, disciplinary boundaries, for instance), we ended up mobilising and thereby somehow reifying those ideas. Similarly, words (in whatever language) often failed us in trying to explain lived, embodied experiences. We thus also discussed the inconvenience of primarily using one language in STS (English), and how important it is to gain a better understanding of each other´s linguistically-shaped experiences of STS and academia in general.  

Gathering topics for the unconference walkshops

We therefore found few answers in these discussions; rather, more and more questions were opened up. Our collective sense was that, in discussing and working on the question of how we do, and should, live and work in academia, it takes significant time to build trust, find common themes and interests, and develop substantive foci for further reflection. We thus see the workshop as a first step in a series of conversations in which we can interrogate some of the themes that emerged – the nature and affordances of interdisciplinarity, thinking STS in different languages, the value of liminal spaces such as ‘central Europe’, the urgency of finding new ways to care – in more depth. Such engagements also speak to our interests in moving forward in academia in ways that are sensitive to ongoing climate and ecological crises, and in finding ways to be ‘international’ without the carbon emissions of excessive air travel. 

While we met our aims of connecting, reflecting on our contexts, and building new relations between them (and of enjoying our time together), we plan on the workshop being a starting point, rather than a final outcome. Most immediately, some of us will meet in Czechia before the end of the year to continue reflecting on the potential and generative intersections between STS and various forms of art, and want to invite any other EASST members from the region who are interested to participate in these developing discussions. Just get in touch.

“For me, the workshop in Vienna was the first in person engagement outside of my institution after a hiatus of more than two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In this regard, it reminded me of the power of face-to-face conversation and the importance of felt experience and embodied, physical presence when communicating with others.”

“It will not be an exaggeration to say that the Vienna workshop was a transformative experience for me as a scholar. Being a part of this network is a great opportunity not only to build connections throughout universities and countries, but also to create a (stronger) connection to my own researcher’s identity.”

“Es revelador e inspirador poder continuar algunas de las conversaciones sobre decolonialidad y localidad de los ESCT (STS) en las que he participado en el pasado, pero ahora en un lugar totalmente distinto para mí. Este taller ha sido también una oportunidad para contrastar algunas de las discusiones sobre centros-periferias que han tenido lugar en otros contextos. … Escuchar las experiencias de varios colegas, en especial de Praga, ha sido estimulante y revelador sobre la multiplicidad de condiciones y visiones de los ESCT, incluso dentro de Europa (como región) y  de Europa Central (como localidad).”



Downey, G. L., & Zuiderent-Jerak, T. (2017). Making and doing: Engagement and reflexive learning in STS. In U. Felt, R. Fouché, C. Miller, & L. Smith-Doerr (Eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (4th ed., pp. 223–250). MIT Press.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575. 

Law, J. (2017). STS as Method. In U. Felt, R. Fouché, C. Miller, & L. Smith-Doerr (Eds.), The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (pp. 31–57). MIT Press.

Knorr-Cetina, K. (1995). Laboratory Studies: The Cultural Approach to the Study of Science. In S. Jasanoff, G. Markle, J. Peterson, & T. Pinch (Eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (pp. 140–166). SAGE Publications, Inc. 

Mol, A. (2002). The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Duke University Press.