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The Anthropocene, COVID-19 and ontology: some reflections following the EASST/4S 2020 online conference

The Anthropocene event in social theory has reinforced concerns with ontology within STS (Blok and Jensen, 2019). Not only is the Anthropocene characterized by couplings of human and non-human agency, where the boundaries between social, planetary and environmental forces are increasingly blurred (Latour, 2014), but it also displays heterogenous responses and solutions. Permaculture, the Green New Deal, Solar Radiation Management, Extinction Rebellion and sustainable living, more than indicating distinct visions, narratives and repertoires of meaning, can be understood as interventions that aim at assembling particular versions of the world. By recruiting a wide range of technologies, practices and nonhumans, these interventions are “ways of worlding” (Blaser, 2014), of bringing forth specific ontologies: while, on the one hand, there are concerns with the post-political and depoliticizing undertones of the Anthropocene (Swyngedouw and Ernstson, 2018), on the other hand this proposed geological epoch has become a driving force underlying a multitude of social, political and technological devices – the politics and ontologies of the Anthropocene are up for debate.

The panel “The Ontological Politics of the Anthropocene” stemmed from the recognition that there are many Anthropocenes, often illustrated by conceptual iterations such as the Capitalocene, Chthulucene or the Wasteocene. In his presentation, António Carvalho focused on how the Anthropocene can be understood as a driving force behind devices of self-regulation and self-organization, exploring the cases of mindfulness and Planetary Boundaries, thus delving into the articulations if bio and geopower. Camilo Castillo explored the case of the Páramos ecosystems in Colombia, reflecting on the interface of conservation policies and ontological politics in the Anthropocene, including the ways in which ecosystems are differently enacted by indigenous communities and the State. Adam John Standring and Rolf Lidskog, while reflecting on the current climate crisis, drew on Swyngedouw and Ernstson’s work (2018) to argue that there should be a distinction between politics (as a set of practices) and the political (as a site of socioecological conflict). Stefan Schäfer and Cameron Hu explored some of the theoretical intricacies of the Anthropocene, developing an ambitious theoretical framework that recognizes how the figure of the planetary became a recurrent trope for contemporary models – and workings – of sovereignty, the economy and geopolitics. Richard Randell and Robert Braun dialogued with Carl Schmitt’s philosophy to suggest that during the 20th century we have witnessed the emergence of a new Nomos – the Nomos of the Anthropocene – anchored in technoscientific power/violence. Jacob Barton shared an original perspective on the climate crisis, informed by postcolonial and critical race theory, arguing that the term Blanco-finescene is more adequate than the Anthropocene to represent our current planetary zeitgeist.

These different presentations – and the ensuing discussion – reinforced how the Anthropocene – and the socioenvironmental crisis – have triggered distinct forms of practical and theoretical wordling. Although the presenters displayed distinct – and often conflicting – stances on how to make sense of the climate crisis – and even how to name this proposed geological epoch – all presentations recognized the multitude of hybrid forces shaping the Anthropocene, including economics, politics, technology, energy and human and nonhuman agency in general. The ontological heterogeneity of the Anthropocene is particularly well illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As Bruno Latour suggested, the pandemic is embedded “in an ongoing, irreversible ecological mutation” (Latour, 2020). The current pandemic is a clear illustration of the great acceleration fueled by the Anthropocene, since “the pace of economic extraction virulently broke down ecosystems, releasing viral agents that threaten biological integrity” (Carvalho and Velicu, 2020). Entire economic, social and political infrastructures are disrupted by molecular entities, turning nonhumans into fully-fledged agents of history, inevitably vindicating methodological and theoretical approaches that attend to the multitude of dances of agency between humans and non-humans.

While, on the one hand, the current pandemic requires the reinforcement of biopolitical and immunological strategies to fend off the virus – through FFP2 masks, soap, physical distancing, respiratory etiquette and alcohol-based hand sanitizers -, on the other hand the “social” is inevitably affected by the capacity of viral, nonhuman agency – the economy crumbles, flights are cancelled, entire communities are put under quarantine and the virus becomes a novel meta-narrative. The ontological politics of the pandemic are complex. Its webs of associations entail smartphone apps, viral agents, political and ideological stances, information and media flows, epidemiological models, mobility and the State. While it is recognized that the time is out of joint, we witness an attempt to manage uncertainty and the unknown through the State of Exception and by maximizing double delegation processes (Callon, Lascoumes and Barthe, 2009), relying on scientific and medical authorities to deal with the current crisis. While this could be yet another sign of the current “post-political” climate, with the reliance on technical authority presenting a governance bottleneck supported by the biopolitical rule, virus denial seems to be the strategy followed by those who also happen to deny the dangers posed by climate change.

The practical, everyday life implications of the pandemic have turned our lives upside down. Conferences were either postponed or went online. That was the case of the EASST/4S 2020 conference. Airplane tickets, hotel reservations and coffee breaks were replaced by Zoom calls, never ending email exchanges and SlidesLive presentations. How should we make sense of this? What does it tell us about ontology, the pandemic and the Anthropocene?

In order to safeguard our immunological integrity, we have surrounded ourselves with cell phones and laptops and a wide range of technological apparatuses. Digital life is apparently immune to the biological threat – although it presents threats of its own – and it has been turned into the ideal milieu to cope with physical distancing. Online conferences present a number of challenges – chairs have to be trained on how to moderate a session through Zoom, assigning all presenters co-host status; presenters need to be able to record and upload their communications. During the session, one has to make sure that chat messages sent through the SlidesLive link reach all participants, and that everyone is able to use their microphones to pose questions. 

Zoom meetings are the trope of our current condition – the embodied experience of everyday webs of associations is now mediated by a digital layer, an extension of our quarantined selves. Our academic lifeworlds become software affordances. Just when we thought that the managerial and normative machine of Academia couldn’t get any worse, we are thrown into a biopolitical dystopia that replaces physicality by haptic and audiovisual engagements with technologies. No longer physically together, virtual conferences require a careful crafting of our academic avatars and even of our Skype/Zoom backgrounds. 

Although safer and even more “sustainable” – think about the tons of CO2 emissions saved – online conferences are deprived of the fleshy and lively dimensions that often trigger novelty. Think of the eventful dynamics that can lead to collaborations, innovative projects and new theoretical directions. Although it is certainly possible to reinvent academic rituals through digital technologies, pandemic ontologies of isolation (Carvalho and Velicu, 2020) foster a pasteurization of academic interactions.

 If the Anthropocene has been widely criticized for naturalizing the “human” as a whole, thus justifying the expansion of the biopolitical domain to the planetary realm – through techniques of geoengineering (Swyngedouw and Ernstson, 2018) – it is also critical to rethink the technologies – platforms, software, media – that enact the virtual. After all, we can think about the virtual as the condition of real experience (Deleuze, 1991), and as Haraway constantly reminds us, “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with”. In sum, the virtual is immanent to the webs of associations – and technologies – that are put in place to assemble the social, and by engaging with new technologies and software we can look at the virtual as a site of playful speculation, generating new formats for academic interaction beyond “speech” and “discourse”, such as songs, videos, games, virtual reality, etc. – the list is endless.

In that sense, the ontological politics of the pandemic include the wide range of new webs of associations established between human, viral and technological assemblages, the various interventions that are put in place to manage the public health crisis (quarantines, contact tracing, surveillance technologies, denial) as well as changes related to the ways in which we work and live. The 2020 4S/EASST conference can be understood as a case study to imagine new forms of academic collaboration and engagement, and the STS community should delve into the new ontologies triggered by the current pandemic, namely into the articulations of non-humans, digital technologies, work and emerging forms of expression and academic communication.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Blaser M (2014) Ontology and indigeneity: on the political ontology of heterogeneous assemblages. Cultural geographies 21(1): 49-58.

Blok A, and Jensen CB (2019) The Anthropocene event in social theory: On ways of problematizing nonhuman materiality differently. The Sociological Review 67(6):1195-1211.

Callon M, Lascoumes P, and Barthe Y (2009) Acting in an uncertain world: An essay on technical democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Carvalho A and Velicu I (2020) Pandemic Ontologies of Isolation. Undisciplined Environments. Available at https://undisciplinedenvironments.org/2020/04/28/pandemic-ontologies-of-isolation/ (accessed 8.9.2020)

Deleuze G (1991) Bergsonism. New Jersey: Zone Books.

Latour B (2014) Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene. New literary history 45(1): 1-18.

Latour B (2020) What protective measures can you think of so we don’t go back to the pre-crisis production model? Available at http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/P-202-AOC-ENGLISH.pdf (accessed 8.9.2020)

Swyngedouw E, and Ernstson H (2018) Interrupting the Anthropo-obScene: Immuno-biopolitics and depoliticizing ontologies in the Anthropocene. Theory, Culture & Society 35(6): 3-30.

Reflections on the Prague Conference: Much more than a successful coronavirus rescue operation

Introduction

Organizing a large international conference is a truly daunting task, so there is no other way to begin this commentary than by showering praise on the courageous team of organizers behind the Prague2020 conference. From my perspective as a remote participant located in Denmark, every aspect of the online conference appeared to function very smoothly. I can only begin to imagine the amount of invisible work carried out behind the scenes that enabled this mega-event to get off the ground.  

 

A social experiment in remote participation

I happen to know that a great number of other people also enjoyed the conference. Not only did I participate in sessions with lively debates, I also experienced the luxury of hanging out with a group of other Danish STS scholars during the conference. This social interaction was the outcome of an initiative by the Danish Association for Science and Technology Studies (of which I am a board member). A few months prior to the conference, we decided to encourage Danish remote participants to book a room in a particular hotel north of Copenhagen during the conference. Our hope was to create some sort of conference vibe and hold ad hoc meetings and joint activities alongside the conference. We had no idea how many people would buy into this idea, but as it happened more than 20 people booked a room and signed up to a shared Teams page, allowing us to do a bit of ad hoc coordination. We ended up having a very nice “conference dinner” together on the second night of the conference and a fair share of other mingling and serendipitous meetings. We enjoyed a particularly proud moment together when the Danish TANTlab received one of the EASST awards. 

 

Figure 1: A group of conference participants gathering outside the hotel to watch the award ceremony.

 

Normal conferencing?

When thinking about my own experience of the virPrague conference in a Danish hotel, I try to remind myself that there is actually no such thing as a normal conference or a normal way to meet. This point became very clear to me when I recently read the Dutch historian Wilbert Van Vree’s marvelous account of how meeting rules and behavior have developed since medieval times (Van Vree, 1999). With Van Vree’s book in mind, I can begin to imagine what might happen if people from other centuries could time-travel to our last so-called normal 4S/EASST conference, the one in Barcelona 2016. They would surely be puzzled. Medieval warrior groups would be proud to see that the conference organizers continued a procedure they invented – a security guard posted at the entrance made sure that swords, battleaxes, and other weapons were not brought inside. But the same warriors would be absolutely shocked to see that the guards allowed women to enter. People from the medieval church councils would recognize the seating arrangement, with some presumably higher-ranking people sitting in front, lower-ranking people in the audience, and inferior others standing by the walls. But they would ask themselves why the inferior meeting participants by the walls only had to stand for 20 minutes, rather than for hour after hour. People from the debating societies of the late 19th century would applaud the authority of the chairpersons who self-confidently allocated speaking time and occasionally cut people off. But they would also wonder why the people in Barcelona completely overlooked the importance of calling a vote.

 

Some personal experiences

So how did I experience the virPrague conference – being of course not entirely able to shake off my preconceptions of what a normal conference should be like. During other conferences, I have found myself moving from an early phase of wild interest in too many different things to a final stage of severe conference fatigue. The experience of virPrague was similar, but not exactly the same. Before and during the Prague conference, I used the feature on the homepage that allowed me to add items to my personal calendar. This of course made it painfully clear that I wanted to see too much, but the pleasant surprise was that it also allowed me to quickly navigate between sessions in a way that was much easier than trying to move my physical body out of one room and into another without disturbing two presenters and their audiences. For better and for worse, the materialities of the meeting did force me to stick with presentations that I did not find immediately interesting. 

I also found the physical strain of listening for many hours easier to bear. The online format made it possible to move my body to more comfortable positions with my microphone muted and my camera shut off. This meant, of course, that the speaker’s sense of whether their talk had captured the audience and demanded their attention was diminished. I also experienced this with my own presentation. My sense of the audience consisted entirely of the people who responded directly. Luckily, there were a good number of active participants in the session and a good fit between the presentations. But I heard from others, who were unfortunate to be in a thematically scattered session, that it was quite an eerie experience to present to a passive audience. 

The experience of conference fatigue phase caught up with me a little later than I had expected, most likely because the physical and emotional labor was less demanding than that of sitting in a conference hall. When the fatigue hit me, I resorted to some of the old strategies: micro-tourism (in this case going for walk), coffee sessions with other participants, and catching up on other work. I regret that I did not use this phase of the conference to contact people whom I had briefly interacted with during the sessions. This is something I will have to do better in future. 

 

Thinking about the future

I have heard people say that they hope we will never have a strictly online conference again. I too hope that the coronavirus goes away, but I am not so sure about the conference format. Has the climate emergency, as well as the ever-growing size of our STS conferences, made the time ripe for a radical change? I realize that not everything is ideal with an online conference, but neither is the climatic situation in which we have put ourselves. Should we really, mindlessly, continue an academic ritual that causes ever more people to fly to international conferences? I think not. In fact, I will encourage the leadership of 4S and EASST to impose a 10-year ban on STS conferences that require air travel!

How would that work? The quick answer is that no-one knows. But the better answer is that once the decision is made, we will have forced ourselves to ramp up our sociological imagination. What kinds of “normal, inevitable, and necessary” meeting practices need to be challenged? What kinds of new socio-technical meeting formats might stimulate and sustain our STS community? Would it be possible to designate a number of regional locations accessible by train, where remote participants could create new types of conference experiences? What else might we do to engage all generations of STS researchers in different parts of the world? How can we stimulate a broad-ranging experimentation and reflection on new types of meetings? What might we collectively learn from being an STS community and doing STS under these new conditions? All of these questions and many more would immediately be raised by a ban on grand physically co-located STS conferences. The questions would be troubling and demanding, but I believe they would also spark an extremely interesting discussion and collective experimentation within our community for the next decade.

The environmental benefits are clear – far less CO2 would be emitted. But there are also other immediate benefits. For one, just think of the message a 10-year ban would send to other disciplines. The STS community would demonstrate that we are not afraid to throw ourselves into a radical collective experiment, and we could proudly say that we are not just talking the talk about responsibility. In this way, a self-imposed ban would be a great way to renew our claim to be a bold, avant-garde discipline.

With this comforting thought, I shall end this personal reflection on the virPrague conference. I warmly thank the organizers not only for creating a superb rescue plan in the era of the coronavirus pandemic, but also for setting us on a path that might lead to the more sustainable organization of STS in the future. 

 

 

Reference

Van Vree, W (1999) Meetings, manners, and civilization: the development of modern meeting behaviour. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Navigating 4S/EASST 2020 “virPrague” Conference

This year’s joint 4S/EASST conference entitled “Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds” would be meaty material for a conference ethnographer. I had the honour of being co-chair (with my esteemed senior colleague Tereza Stöckelová) of the programme committee of the 4S/EASST 2020 joint conference that was meant to take place in Prague from 18-21 August 2020. However, as we know all too, this year’s conference did not take place in Prague in a strictly physical sense due to the accelerating onset of COVID-19. 

 

Picture taken by me. This is Alan Irwin during the actual online conference. Apologies for dirty screen – I had no time to clean the blood, sweat and tears from that landed there during preparation period – especially in the final countdown days before the conference commenced.

 

Let me present a time-line first: the premises, number of rooms, extra-conference conviviality and the like were well under preparations by January. Ulrike Felt and Joan Fujimura (the presidents of EASST and 4S respectively), folks from both councils, the local organizing committee (Tereza Stöceklová, Marcela Linková, Luděk Brož, Anna Durnová, Jakub Grygar, David Zavoral and myself), EASST and 4S councils were extremely happy with how things were panning out. With the onset of COVID-19, the Czech Republic opted for an almost complete lockdown very promptly and received praises from the world over as the disease was partially mitigated after several months due to strict restrictions such as legally-mandated wearing of masks everywhere (indoors, outdoors), closed businesses, factories, pubs and restaurants, but also schools and governmental offices. (The government and we – i.e. the large majority of Czechs – thought that we had won the battle against COVID-19, which was, as we see now in the fall, a fatal mistake.) In the midst of the Czech lockdown both 4S and EASST councils, the programme committee and local organizers had to make a decision whether the entire conference would move on-line — whether we would “go virtual”. If I remember well, we barely discussed cancellation, but treated the new normal as an opportunity, an opportunity for a big experiment. 

 

Francis Bacon, Three Studies of the Human Head, 1953. Taken from Fiacci L (2017) Bacon. Cologne: Taschen, p. 72. Words mine. When we learned that Zoom went down in many places around the globe on 25 August we interpreted it in two ways: gosh, had it happened a week before, our Baconian techno-worries would be met; or, had the conference’s smooth running and the participants’ enthusiasm overheated Zoom?

 

What was remarkable nevertheless was the immediately rejuvenated commitment and enthusiasm of all organizational players to do everything we could to make the conference happen. In a sense, the preparation started again and indeed some of us, myself for one, regretted that our colleagues from abroad wouldn’t come to Prague (to try the categorically best and famously cheap Czech beer or to discuss how frequent international flights to conferences cripple the climate). When the decision was taken, many of the organizational ordering had to be quickly re-ordered. Session organizers, session chairs and presenters had to be informed. We had to give some hard thought as to how to “translate” what many of us already knew well – i.e. a “normal” physical conference – into an online, virtual meeting of hundreds and hundreds of people. There were precedents we could follow such as the AAG conference. But did we want to just “copy and paste” what others did? Nope, we were more ambitious: let’s do it our own way. This of course meant that there were as many known unknowns (would people even register after months of teaching via online apps? Weren’t they suffering from “Zoom fatigue”?) as unknown unknowns1. (Retrospectively it turns out it was a tremendous work to synchronize papers into sensible time-zones so that people did not have to present at 3AM.) And so I daresay everyone who took a major part in the organization (especially Steve Coffee, Ulrike, Joan, Wes Shrum, Tereza, David, Luděk, myself) rewired their minds and practices of communication as we held online meetings – in different compositions  – at least once a week. We immediately began negotiations with Czech/US online conference vendor SlidesLive and the preparatory works – as those of you who took part might well recall – took a rather new twist. New systems, new directions, new translations, new thinking. It was tremendously encouraging how many senior colleagues who had the chance to organize either 4S, EASST or joint meetings supported us during the preparation period. Seasoned STS scholar Alan Irwin, on picture above, was one of our great supporters.

 

Mikuláš Medek, A Portrayal of M.d.: An Attempt, 1968 (source: www.dorotheum.cz)

 

Being in the position I was in has been a unique experience. I was for a short while in the “innards” of global STS, its current debates, streams, innovative directions, new interminglings with other corners of the social sciences and many more. I guess all organizers or co-organizers of big conference such as ours who have the privilege to see, co-evaluate and order what is going to be talked about have the privilege of being temporary “epistemic gatekeepers”. All this is not something that unusual – one sees who submits what, assign reviewers; one also sees the ideas and proposals that did not go through. It is indeed a substantive part of the job and a tremendous responsibility weighing on your neck, like big anaconda that often woke me during the night by whispering “Have you forgotten to respond to this or that email? Is it all gonna work? Will people be even interested?” One day in April the anaconda sloughed its skin and turned into a cyborg, a mini-monster that was silent for a while only to remind me that I should forget about a standard conference and re-order myself. Sometimes I went to bed with a Baconian face as a completely new set of questions – often of a technical nature – were softly hissed into my ears from the “phygital” (Zil Vostalová’s concept) anaconda.

 

And finally myself, around 8.30PM on Friday, 21 August. No comments needed…look at wrinkle above my left eye and just look closely at how I breathe. There are number of messages in the eyes too, I would say. Have not done proper self-psycho-assessment yet though.

 

Unintentionally, the shift to “virPrague” – “vir” standing for virus and virtual (credit to Tereza!), interestingly resonated with the “Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds.” Even if Tereza and I were based in Prague, other organizers were in different locations. Prague also served as the main “time-hub” – i.e. the main time-zone that we used, either in scheduling the programme or weekly (in August, daily) meetings, was Central European Summer Time, e.g. Prague time. Some more or less fixed location and strict temporal rules and timing was in play nevertheless – it was Prague. Prague was, if you wish, a “spatio-temporal fix”, a concept used very differently by Noel Castree, David Harvey and Bob Jessop 2004 in their analyses of capitalism was Prague. VirPrague’s spatio-temporal fix, to the surprise of many, worked extremely well – and Prague was in a sense a hub for the conference. In a way then, the conference did and did not take place in Prague at the same time. Hmm, a bit surreal, ain’t it? Is Schrodinger’s cat dead or not? Such surrealism, and surreal humour, has always been part of Prague’s cultural and artistic history.  So all in all, see you in Prague!

 

 

1 To use slightly inflationary Rumsfeld-Žižek conceptual vocabulary.

EASST letter to members May 2020

Vienna, 17 May 2020

Dear members of the EASST community, dear colleagues and friends,

I hope this letter finds you well in these difficult and complex times. COVID-19 has actually transformed from a standard introductory sentence into one which points directly to the importance to care for each other.

I am writing this letter to give our membership a clearer idea of where developments are going in our community, in particular with regard to the – now virtual – EASST/4S conference in Prague (https://www.easst4s2020prague.org/). I will keep calling it “the Prague conference” as much of the thinking, preparing and caring has a place and many of the lines of work that happen in 4S and EASST council across many countries all come together there and are turned into the reality of a meeting in Prague. In particular Tereza Stöckelova and Filip Vostal have been working relentlessly to not only make this special event happen under such experimental conditions, but to make it happen in the best possible ways.

In fact, well before COVID-19 transformed the world in which this conference should have happened, we were thinking how we could create a conference which could give more space to virtual elements, as increasing concerns were raised among our membership and beyond about the environmental sustainability of our conference travelling. As was already visible in the submission process, we offered – under specific limitations – the possibility to join the event from all parts of the world without needing to physically travel there. This was well accepted and I am sure we will continue to think about these aspects, and how to institutionally support them, during the conference and in the future (see also the statement of EASST Council on COVID-19 https://easst.net/covid19-easst-council-statement-and-call/).

… read more

Reflections on the Local Institutionalization of STS

Intro

Opening words by Reetta Muhonen at the Nordic STS Conference. Picture by Petra Kotro

The Nordic STS conference took place in Tampere, Finland between the 12thand the 14th of June 2019. Judging from numbers, STS continues its steady growth in the Nordic countries. With 222 registered participants, 176 presentations, and 27 sessions (including the special panel we report here), the fourth iteration of this bi-annual STS encounter was the biggest to date. The event has become a stable meeting point for scholars based in the region. Even more remarkable, 57 of this year’s 222 participants came from a total of 21 non-Nordic countries, with seven of those countries being non-European.

As the conference – organized by the Tampere University and the Finnish Society for Science and Technology Studies – drew close, we started to reflect on the performative power of such an event in terms of the institutionalization of STS. From our own little corner in the University of Helsinki, we were aware that the level of such institutionalization differs across the participating countries, and even more in each of the universities and institutes that host each participant. While some participants are in established STS departments (or at least very STS-oriented departments), some find more challenges to achieve continuity, access resources, and give visibility to STS scholarship in their institutions. These concerns connect clearly with similar discussions such as those reported earlier this year in EASST Review (Mewes, 2019). In this context, we wanted to take the chance offered by the event to know more about differing experiences across the Nordic Countries.

The session The Local institutionalization of STS – Challenges, advantages and possibilities was organised by the research collective STS Helsinki. There were four panellists participating: Mianna Meskus, (New Social Research programme, Tampere University); Oili-Helena Ylijoki, (TaSTI, Tampere University); Karoliina Snell, (HCAS, University of Helsinki); and Andreas Birkbak, (TANT-Lab Copenhagen, Aalborg University). The speakers started by presenting the role, manner and impact of institutionalization (or lack of it) in their own academic environments, after which the discussion was open to the audience. In the following, we summarize and reflect on the main points from the overall discussion, and conclude with some practical considerations.

 

Variability in STS environments

From left to right, Mianna Meskus, Karoliina Snell, Oili-Helena Ylijoki, and Andreas Birkbak. Picture by Aaro Tupasela.

During the discussion it became clear that institutionalization looks very different in different settings, and not only regarding the level of institutionalization but also regarding the ways in which it has been achieved.

Tampere University’s TaSTI (Tampere Centre for Knowledge, Science, Technology and Innovation Studies) was created in the 90s as a science studies unit. Over the years, the unit moved from being based in a research institute to becoming part of the Faculty of Social Sciences, while also surviving a merger with innovation studies in the early 2000s (which gave it its current acronym) and an attempted merger with higher education studies. In 2011 TaSTI started to shift towards a clear interest in politics, epistemology and technologies of everyday life, thus bringing STS to its core. Although TaSTI’s institutional recognition has helped it to accrue funds, the unit still exists in the margins of the university and depends on external funding. TaSTI is now looking to develop its teaching curriculum – which has not historically been a priority at the research centre – in cooperation with different faculties at Tampere university.

The history of STS in Helsinki starts in a similar way through HIST, an institute combining science, technology, innovation and economics in Helsinki. HIST was establish from top to bottom, in a collaborative endeavour between the Finnish government and different Universities in the Helsinki metropolitan area. Interests quickly centred on distributing the received funding instead of establishing common research interests and teaching. HIST slowly faded away together with the institutional status of STS in Helsinki. In contrast, current efforts to develop STS were started and driven by junior scholars in collaboration with senior researchers, who share a will to collectively develop STS scholarship through research, public seminars, communication and teaching. The activity has crystallized in the STS Helsinki collective. However, the lack of allocated budget limits the development of the group.

The TANT-Lab in the Aalborg University, Denmark is an example of institutionalization not taking place through the creation of units but rather as a result of teaching. While STS has not had a unit by itself, it has been through the formula ‘STS+discipline’ that the approach has found continuity. Combining STS with technoanthropology, IT, medical anthropology, or administration studies has generated spaces for STS to spread. It was the combination of these different synergies between STS and other disciplines that led to the formation of DASTS (Danish Association for Science and Technology Studies) in 2006. An important part of DASTS has been its free membership, which has led to large and very lively community despite the lack of financial means.

Finally, the contrast was offered by researchers from Lund University, Sweden, where STS is virtually absent in institutional terms, with only a handful of people working from an STS perspective. In such a context, attending international events becomes one of the few chances to interact and discuss with other STS scholars.

STS: An institutional space or an approach?

The level or type of formal organization has an effect on the vitality of STS. The growth of the Nordic STS community is an indication that the informal ways of creating research communities that the panellists discussed are an efficient way to create possibilities and identity in the field, without formal recognition in the guise of academic positions and study programs.

In the long run, however, issues of job security might appear. If all salaried top positions are non-STS, then it is hard to get good talent to take up STS as anything but an ’approach’. As a mere approach, STS can be understood as an epiphytic entity, dependent on academic currents and good will. While this may be sufficient to a few individual careers, it does relegate STS into fringes of academia and does not provide an inspirational leadership and career narrative for junior scholars to follow. There is also an involved risk for young scholars; for promotions, disciplinary merits often count more than interdisciplinary merits. Universities work with traditional disciplinary institutional boundaries, and genuinely interdisciplinary units seem to be an exception, and as such always subject to scrutiny.

As has been discussed, informal networks or collectives, such as STS Helsinki or the Danish example that centres on teaching, can be highly successful initiatives for mobilizing and recruiting new scholars to STS. Such quasi-rhizomatic networking and creative buzz is necessary for (and also a sign of) a vibrant field. The question to think about is whether this is enough for continued success of STS in Nordic countries and beyond, or should STS strive to create institutionally stable spaces beyond doctoral programmes and specialised research institutes?

Strategies for the future of STS

Professor Sheila Jasanoff (also a keynote at the Nordic STS conference) conveniently prequelled our panel  with her talk in Helsinki on Tuesday 11th of June. Prof Jasanoff discussed the early days of STS and how the field was established, and highlighted the publication of the Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (Jasanoff et al., 1994) and the popularization of the 4S meetings around the year 2000 as keystones of the process. Jasanoff advocated building bridges and partnerships to expand the influence and reputation of STS as a relevant field in itself. This call was echoed in the panel discussions. Reaching out (both as individual researchers and as STS communities) was explicated as a clear way forward for STS, especially as traditional institutionalization paths do not seem to sit comfortably with the epiphytic character of STS that we mentioned above.

One discussed area of interest in terms of attaining societal relevance was policy spaces. One of the discussants stated that if STS does not advice on scientific knowledge and its uses in society, someone else surely will. There was a suggestion that national STS associations or subject specific STS societies could take the lead on this for example in the form of inviting politicians to discussions on topical subjects. This would at best create a positive loop between politicians and STS scholars, with the attribution of ‘science experts’ rooting into the STS community.

Second, teaching is a key tool for STS to get a foothold in the disciplinary environments of universities. Especially if developed by junior scholars, teaching elevates scholarship and generates work experience that is crucial to accessing better salaried positions. At the same time, teaching and curriculums help to promote STS among undergraduate students, whose successful recruitment into the field is pivotal to both continuity and intellectual vitality of STS communities. Although developing new teaching in existing departments is not easy, there are opportunities to develop STS teaching during programme creation or renovation processes. Furthermore, senior scholars should be pushing for more cross-university teaching programs that can properly represent the interdisciplinary character of STS.

Finally, not only reaching out is key for STS to achieve continuity, but also reaching inside the STS community itself. From a more micro perspective, activities such as reading groups, writing retreats, or STS walks were mentioned as ways to develop STS communities, especially in the absence of institutional infrastructures and funding. These activities help to identify shared interests and a common theoretical framework that bestows STS identity to the group or community. From a more macro perspective, it is important for STS units, departments or communities to be in touch with each other. One of the panel discussants suggested more regular interaction between national STS organizations in the Nordic Countries that goes beyond the organization of a biannual conference. This would help to strengthen STS networks across the region while giving visibility to Nordic STS scholarship among international associations such as EASST and 4S.

Our discussion reveals a heterogeneous understanding of what the institutionalization of STS entails. While some talk about outward validation, job security, and access to funding, some make references to the social and intellectual aspects of STS, with a clear interest in the development and growth of the discipline. In our understanding, these different dimensions point towards the objectives of viability and continuity. While there are multiple strategies to achieve these objectives, we infer from the discussions that all of them rely on constant efforts to develop the STS community and the enactment of practical actions for and from STS. With this in mind, we think that it is crucial for STS to continue to develop in rhizomatic ways in addition to seeking recognition inside traditional disciplinary academic environments, ensuring the resources that such a status guarantees.

 

 

 

References

Mewes, JS (2019) Report: ‘Stsing’ – Towards inclusive forms of STS-in-Germany. In: EASST Review, Volume 38(2). Available at: https://easst.net/article/report-stsing-towards-inclusive-forms-of-sts-in-germany/ (accessed 29.7.2019)

Jasanoff S, Markle GE, Petersen JC and Pinch T (1994) Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Call for Application: Pre-conference Doctoral Workshop “Invent Your Job”

 

EASST Conference “Meetings” at Lancaster University

We invite early stage researchers graduate, postgraduate, and early-career scholars to apply to our workshop immediately prior to the EASST conference in Lancaster.

How can we translate STS knowledge, sensibilities and practices to the job market, or how could we create jobs to make place for these capacities? For many students this seems to be a real concern. The question is a hard one to answer, however, because fast-paced changes in society push the definition of work to new frontiers, and STS is a very diverse field. This is why in this workshop for early stage researchers we turn the question upside down and ask how STS knowledge, sensibilities and practices can help us invent/imagine/design jobs for the future! We will explore this proposition in three different settings, starting with:

  • A walk shop “Wild Ideas”. During an hour long walk in the beautiful surroundings of Lancaster, we will brainstorm in groups about what our capacities as STS scholars are and how they can be articulated into roles/careers/jobs.
  • A work shop “Prototyping Society”. With the help and guidance of two STS scholars who have developed their own, ‘unconventional’ careers, participants will develop speculative job descriptions and discuss ways of bringing these into reality.
  • A social dinner “STS Careers of the Future”. We will end the day with a dinner, where a group of students will be chosen as ‘Future-makers’ for having developed very unconvenitonal and inventive speculative jobs. As a reward, this group’s job desriptions will be published in the EASST Review.

What: A pre-conference workshop for Master students, PhD candidates and other early-career researchers to meet and share ideas, experiences, and enthusiasm.

When: July, 24th, 11:30 am – 20:30 pm

Why: Brainstorm about the jobs of the future and our place as STS scholars in that future. Network with an international mix of colleagues. Share refreshments and get to know Lancaster.

Cost: Free.

How: You will need to provide us with a short statement of motivation (max. 500 words) and upload your  CV (PDF or Word files only).
Apply online here

Application deadline: May 1st, 2018

We hope to accommodate all completed applications; however, due to venue limitations we are limited to about 25 participants. Applicants are expected to attend the EASST conference in Lancaster and be or become EASST members.

Remember you can also apply for an EASST conference fee waiver!

Please contact  Dara Ivanova (students@easst.net) with questions or suggestions.

Preliminary program 

11.30 – 12.00 Welcome and registration
12.00 – 13.30 Wild Ideas
13.30 – 14.30 Lunch
14.30 – 15.30 Prototyping Society I
15.30 – 16.00 Coffee/Tea Break
16.00 – 17.00 Prototyping Society II
17.00 – 17.30 Free time/leisure walk to restaurant
17.30 – 18.30 STS Employees of the Future Ceremony
18.30 – End    Dinner

Make Space for Place STS & architecture on place-making

In October 2017, the conference ‘Building Care: Intersections of Health and Architecture’ took place at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. The symposium brought together scientists, policy makers, architects and even some patients to talk about how places of care and place-making for care matter. The participants tried to connect and exchange on place as a unit of analysis in thinking about healthcare. Their different ideas about place-making (building-making for architects; people and budget centered for policy makers, and a process of meaning-making for the STS scholars) made for rich interdisciplinary discussions on how to think about and do place.

STS and Place 

The idea to organize a conference explicitly dealing with places and the making of places originated in what the organizers felt was an incomplete conceptualization of place in STS.  Certainly, the underlying importance of place has been there from the beginning, as knowledge production was tied to a particular site: the laboratory. From then on, STS has tended to categorize knowledge, based on the places where it happens (Henke 2000). Tom Gieryn made this relationship explicit when he distinguished between lab and field knowledge (2006) and tied knowledge production to particular truth-spots (2002). There has been STS work done on the importance of particular places as political and techno-cultural assemblages (e.g. Marres 2013 on eco show homes or Farias & Wilkie 2016 on studios), but the relationship between place-making and care has not been explicitly theorized.

How to challenge ourselves in thinking further about place? Looking beyond STS seemed like a good way to start exploring. The conference was conceived as an interdisciplinary, open conversation with policy makers, cultural geographers, historians and, importantly, the experts on place-making: architects.

Fig. 1: Participants in the workshop ‘Place-making’ work in groups on building care places.
Courtesy of the author.

Places: transient and concrete

The morning session was structured around three keynotes and showcased very different approaches to place. Tim Cresswell, a human geographer, broke down place into three ingredients: location, locale and sense of place and, quoting Tuan, referred to place as “a field of care”. He then outlined a theory of place, consisting of the overlapping spheres Materialities, Meanings and Practices, which are intersected by vertical and horizontal axes of temporality. This conceptualization becomes more intricate and is too complex to summarize here, but it is important to note that for Cresswell places are not bounded entities. Rather, places are intersections of numerous forces coming together and linking in nodes of relations that are always articulated in particular temporalities. In this understanding of places, they are emergent centers of meaning, transient and unbound.

The architect AnneMarie Eijkelenboom’s keynote was conceived with a very different concern: how are places of care built and what can this process teach us about place-making in healthcare? Her talk focused on the way built environments affect health and perception. Place was a concrete object in this keynote – it was a building, a garden, a room. Yet, it was also a process of continuous considerations of different materials, physical elements and users. In this talk places were broken down to numerous ingredients and the three overlapping spheres – Materialities, Meanings and Practices – were made visible in the examples of care buildings that AnneMarie discussed.

Designing Death and Dying

The afternoon parallel workshop sessions encouraged participants to think through the different conceptualizations of place, presented in the keynotes. Hands-on cases were the hospice as a place for dying and Maggie’s cancer centers as places of (physical and emotional) comfort. Ken Worpole, who had delivered a keynote in the morning on the history of hospices in the U.K., discussed how sense of place frames the experience of dying. The design and build of hospitals is geared toward cure. The materialities, practices and meanings of hospitals converge to fight for the preservation of life, often resulting in prolonged suffering for both patient and loved ones. CPR procedures have become so thoroughly embedded in western healthcare practices that it is now routine response to most deaths. The particular environment of hospices is, on the other hand, geared toward care: a dignified way of dying. This insight made an impression on the architects in the room, who started thinking about the ingredients necessary to create the intimacy and calm of places for death, but within hospitals. It is a good question to ask about place-making, as well. Does place-making consist of ingredients that can be pinned down? How can a place’s transient quality be captured and scaled up or down? Place-making for care is very different from place-making for cure. Materialities must align with practices and meanings; otherwise places ‘don’t work’.

Place-making is doing [together] 

In one of the afternoon sessions participants were challenged to build places of care in small groups. The groups were purposefully diverse, including architects, doctors, academics, policy makers and patients. Each group was given modeling foam and basic supplies to make a place by focusing on a care process. The idea behind the workshop was to do place, as opposed to talking about place. Each group had differing and sometimes divergent concerns, but these had to be articulated in very practical terms. The question ‘what is a healing environment’ was understood and answered in different ways. In the plenary discussions that followed, it became clear that place-making is about working with multiplicities, which sometimes fit together and sometimes fall apart. The doing of places – the correct lighting, sound isolation, view toward a garden, privacy, the feeling of comfort, the feeling of home – is even more complex in terms of healthcare. Places of care must be safe, for both patients and professionals, yet they must also be cozy. They must be a physical articulation of a balance between care and cure, between patient autonomy and professionals’ ability to perform their tasks. Beyond materiality, places are also “fields of care” and meaning making, but also of politics and policy. Places are made of people, objects and ideas, couched in particular temporalities. They are planned, designed and built, but are in fact contingent and emerging assemblages.

Place Agenda

The conference was an attempt to set a place agenda in healthcare and STS. Borrowing insights from human geography, we know that places are not empty containers that may be filled with the importance of people and practices, but that they are co-produced with people and practices, while producing meaning within particular temporalities. Furthermore, we may say that places are always there, acting as a backdrop, while linking practices and objects in nodes of relations.

What does such an insight offer healthcare studies? A place-centered analysis may be particularly useful for understanding governance arrangements and practices. Oldenhof et al. (2016) argue that the governance of healthcare is being done through particular spatial arrangements, which are often viewed as a neutral backdrop to policy making, but must be taken seriously as governance tools. At the intersection of architecture, design and health, place may play an important role in interrogating popular notions, such as evidence-based design (EBD) and healing environments. In STS, work on places as sites of knowledge production and even political ontology has shown that places have the capacity to unpack social complexities (cf Yaneva 2012). Using place as a productive analytic lens will mean developing the relationships between place and knowledge further and tracing the ways places are productive in multiple ways.

This ‘place agenda’, as the conference participants referred to it, is more of a tentative mapping of the issues and methodologies that may benefit from a place analytical angle, and certainly not a thorough program. Conceiving of places as “fields of care” in multiple may open up spaces for thinking further on governance, politics, ontology and the meaning of care.

 

The conference Building Care was organized by the Erasmus School of Health Policy and Management (ESHPM) with the support of the Netherlands Graduate Research School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture (WTMC).

 

Bibliography 

Farías, I & A. Wilkie (2016) Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies and Displacements (Routledge: New York)

Gieryn, T.F. (2002) ‘Three Truth-spots, Journal of History of the Behavioral Sciences’ 38 (2): 113-132

(2006) City as Truth-spot: Laboratories and Field-Sites in Urban Studies’, Social Studies of Science, 36 (1): 5-38

Henke, C.R. (2000) ‘Making a place for science: The field trial’, Social Studies of Science, 30 (4): 483–511

Marres, N. (2013) ‘Why political ontology must be experimentalized: On eco-show homes as devices of participation’, Social Studies of Science, 43(3): 417-443

Oldenhof, L., Postma, J. & R. Bal (2015) ‘Re-placing Care: governing healthcare through spatial arrangements’ in Ferlie, E., Montgomery K. & Reff Pederson A. (eds), Oxford Handbook of Healthcare Management (Ofxord: Oxford University Press)

Yaneva, A. (2012) Mapping Controversies in Architecture. (London: Ashgate)

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EASST Student Member on the EASST Council – one vacancy

An opportunity for you to play a role in the future of EASST

We are seeking self-nominations for the following vacancy on EASST Council (following an unsuccessful earlier call). The position is for 4 years (but some previous student members have stepped down after 2 years if they are no longer a student). There will be an online election where all current EASST members will be able to vote.

To learn more about the recent work of the Council and the opportunities and challenges ahead please read our out-going President’s article in the latest EASST Review at https://easst.net/article/easst-achievements-opportunities/. A list of current council members can be found at https://easst.net/about-easst/easst-council-members/ and the formal roles of the president and council are described in the EASST constitution https://easst.net/about-easst/easst-constitution/. You are welcome to contact the President or one of the existing Council members (emails on the website) for more information. Candidates need to be a current student member of EASST.

If you are interested in this position, please nominate yourself by sending an email to easst(at)univie.ac.at providing a short statement (no more than 250 words) introducing yourself and saying why you are interested in standing for the Council and what skills and experiences you would bring to the role.  This statement will be made available to those voting.

Nominations must be received by Friday 13th January 2017.

The election will open soon after nominations close and all members will be sent an email with details of how to vote.

 

A note from Márton Fabók

Dear fellow PhD students,

As the outgoing EASST student representative, I would like to encourage you to nominate yourself to become the student member of EASST Council.

The student representative is a full Council member. The EASST Council takes decisions collegially, and often subdivides tasks among members (see this and other issues of the EASST Review for our latest activities!), so it is more than just raising a voice for fellow postgrad students and early career researchers. There are generally two Council meetings a year; one is often adjoining the EASST conference. Council membership is voluntary work for the community, but travels to meetings and accommodation are fully reimbursed.

Personally, being a student rep was one of the best things during my PhD. It provided a unique perspective to understand how our STS community and generally academia across different national settings work. Coming from a non-STS department, this was a great way for me to be involved in the discipline. The nice and collegial atmosphere of the Council provides a very supportive environment, so it’s really up to you how do you contribute to STS in Europe. For example, I have learnt a lot from the activities I was involved in, such as organising the postgraduate workshop before the biannual conference or revamping the EASST Fund. All in all, I fully recommend you to think about what you would do as a council member and to take a brave step to nominate yourself to the student rep position.

Please email me if you have any questions or have something to share at marton.fabok@gmail.com.

Márton Fabók

History, ontology, science studies How to study open science and scientific data

An event as the EASST/4S annual meeting can be a key object to study the ever- forming discipline of science studies. I will try to use my scattered experiences of two different tracks to draw a few draft conclusions about some methodological features of our discipline, and propose some more critical research questions that could shape science studies.

In the track Open Science we heard presentations, among them many case studies on how and which actors should be and are included in science (for example local communities affected by macro-level political decisions about the environment, the general public concerning GMO, Wikipedia-contributors, lay biologists, urban communities, etc.). There were lively discussions about who thinks what is important about open science. We also heard recommendations how to achieve the goal of “open science”. A considerable part of the scholars working on open science (and some of them presenting in Barcelona) are also working in policy-related committees or other organizations to foster open science.

Often, open science is contrasted with the issue of whom the data belongs to. Making such a contrast — we have to be aware — constructs a space where property issues are opposed to a concept of an open science where openness is a normatively positive entity (which should be achieved, with the help of scholars/experts in committees). If we understand science in this manner and in this context of contrast, then propriety issues will tend to attain a negative connotation. However, in my incomplete perception of this track and its presenters, not very often were such ontological questions about the category “open science” asked: it was not in the main focus to address why and with the help of which people or groups this category emerged and was shaped during history; under what political, cultural, scientific contexts it operates; what functions it has or had in shaping society, business, culture or science. Rather, most of the time, the discussions covered the different semantics of open science (of course, not always — for a detailed and thorough analysis of the track see Mayer and Aibar’s review in this issue, analysing the different semantics of openness in the presentations as well), about the different perceptions (for example of stakeholders, policy-makers) on what open science is, or about how open science is performed (on Wikipedia, in journals, in participatory science projects, etc.). We also heard many presentations on the question of how to implement open science; this latter question can be characterized as presupposing a normative understanding of open science.

The notion of openness that was so frequently used has not really been critically analysed in the majority of the contributions — apart from few, but notable exceptions. It seems for sure that “openness” is positively connoted. Such a connotation has been part of Western scientific tradition since modernity (see for example Merton’s scientific norm of communism, Merton 1942). In his paper on magic and science, talking about historiography, Láng (2015:127) rightly points out that “(r)esearchers simply accepted the view that openness is a positive value that supports academic research, and that secrecy, which is more characteristic of the history of technology, was fortunately abandoned by modern science.” But Láng (2015: 125) also observes that “many scholars have shown how secrecy in science became not only a tool of protecting knowledge from intellectual competitors, but also a dynamic social practice, a force that creates and organizes groups, and influences the mechanisms of exclusion-inclusion”. The analysis of these and similar questions in relation to the many practices around the definition and practice of so-called “open science” might produce valuable knowledge for science studies.

In a way Western democracy seems to be the normative backdrop of the dialogue on open science; but let us play a little bit: What could be the antonym of open science? It could be many things: closed science, science for the few, science for the privileged ones, etc. All of the antonyms shed light on one or another aspect of open science that could be studied by science studies scholars, ever more so if we wanted to accept the normatively positive notion of open science, as it is widely accepted nowadays. Some questions for future empirical analyses of scientific practices could include: What are the normative, scientific or political stakes for different disciplines in performing the movement of open science? Which groups are leading the discussion in this field? Why and how do disciplines, scholars, policy-makers focus on activities regarded as fostering open science? What are the performances in this field? What is regarded as closed science? How does this narrative of bad closed and good open science shape scientific activities? How did this opposition come into being in the first place? These possible questions would shed light on open science from a meta-level: they would show us the processes how the concept of open science is shaped culturally, socially or scientifically, and those cultural, scientific or social entities and their networks that emerge from these processes. Such an approach would not focus on – as did many of the excellent presentation we heard in the track — how a pre-defined “open science” is made, manufactured, constructed, performed or used. It would rather study how the thing we now call “open science” came into place, what its ontological status is, what its changing roles and relationships are in the cultural, political, scientific landscapes of other entities. Steven Shapin (2008: 222-223), in a similar approach, describes for example how what we now define as openness was a normality in the 1970s among biologists in the academia, most of them living scarcely off their salaries; but when the industry became aware of the profitable nature of genetics, scientists were tempted to change their workplace and work in less open circumstances. The opposition in the narratives about dirty secretive industry as opposed to pure and virtuous open science emerged because of these developments: “Since there was no money, a sense of sainthood was required in the situation”, said a student about research in academia (Philip J. Hilts: Scientific Temperaments: Three Lives in Contemporary Science, quoted by Shapin 2008: 223).

I will now propose some possible similar research questions based on another field in science studies, dealing with scientific data. Again, I will focus on what could be an ontological analysis about the emergence and ever-changing status of the different things we in STS call “data”.

In the track “Lives and Deaths of Data” the focus of many of the talks was on the different ways of the “interpretation” of data, the different stops of their “journey”, the “changes” in the translations of data.1 The topics were, among others: sensitive health “data” and their context, discussions around and interpretations of astronomical “data”, “data” sharing practices and inequalities, the commodification of “data”, configurations of public and non-public “data”, etc. Among the many possible definitions of data there was one feature that came up quite often: that data is something that can be circulated (implying as well that it can be used several times).

The secondary use of scientific data, that seems to be one defining feature of data in this view, has been a contested issue for decades. The relationship of what is usually called metadata and data or the relationship of data and context are not self-evident. Even these distinctions are under scientific scrutiny (Mauthner-Gárdos 2015). Postmodern theories have questioned the assumption that data are neutral or objective representations of the world. Performative scholars (Barad 2007) have challenged representationalist approaches (many of them postmodernist or constructivist ones); such approaches, these scholars say, still stick to the view that scientific data somehow represent natural or social worlds (even if these approaches do not necessarily narrate around terms like objectivity or subjectivity). It would be interesting to analyse — in a performative approach — how the notion that data can be circulated itself presupposes a specific notion of data and thus a specific way how data can be analysed; a question that has not quite been in the focus of the presentations in this track. If we understand data as something that can be circulated (and many presenters in this track shared this view), then one of the foci of such science studies analyses about data will be the ways data circulate or data are transmitted, and how different people “interpret” the “same” data. Scientific data will be a well-defined entity without borders that are contested, without ends that may fray. Science on data will be then somewhat less on what cultural, scientific, social, etc. traditions and surroundings influence what counts as data in the first place2, on what in our world does not qualify as scientific data, let alone on the ways how we as science studies scholars choose our objects of study; short: on the ontological status of data in sciences (in relation for example to other types of data, or other similar entities in sciences that end up not being called data) and, importantly: on data as the object of scientific enquiry in STS. In this track, the main focus – of course with exceptions, mostly ethnographic, close-up analyses of processes that result in the production of entities then called data – was less on these latter aspects.

It might be fruitful, if we want to reflect on our own methods as scientists, to look at our ways how we define data, or open science (or anything else as a matter of fact) and at the causes of selection of things that seem worthy of analysing. Also, I propose to analyse to greater extent the ontology of data or open science: what is regarded as data or open/closed science, which scientific, methodological or other traditions influence how these notions came into being in a specific scientific discipline at a specific time in history, at a specific place on Earth.

So: the questions that might be valuable to elaborate and that were – in my view – a bit underrepresented in the tracks under review: What is regarded/defined as data or open science and what not? What are the disciplinary, methodological, political etc. factors that play a role in the processes of and the practices resulting in a specific definition? What are the factors that lead to the concept of open (and closed) science and that of scientific data? How is the relationship of the things that then are called “world” and “data” in different methods, sciences and societies? Through which terms, methods and concepts is this distinction conceptualized, made through different practices, and then used in scientific narratives and texts or in the politics and policies of science? It seems to me that science studies might greatly benefit from including approaches and research questions about the ontology and historicity of the objects we choose to study and thus, in and through our actions and choices as researchers, bring into being as scientific objects.

 

1 I quote here the introductory speech of this track by Sabina Leonelli.

2 One of the notable exceptions in this track was Haider’s and Kjellberg’s analysis about the relationship of the structure of a big scale experimental facility and the type of data it produces. They stressed that the meaning of data starts before researchers begin their work.

Open Science in Practice STS

Approaches to open cultures in research

Open Science (OS) is currently regarded as the next ‘big thing’ in European science policy and elsewhere (Mayer 2015; Levin et al. 2016). It is broadly defined as science that is transparent, accountable, and shareable, involving the participation of (all) relevant stakeholders in the scientific process. Policy visions do not only highlight the transformative powers of OS in regard to research culture, they are also setting high expectations in regard to creation of economic growth, new jobs and innovation opportunities. In practice, tensions are emerging in how OS is enacted and governed by scientific communities, science policy organisations, funding bodies, the publishing industry, and science-related institutions, with diverse uptakes of commons, knowledge sharing, democratisation of technology, participatory design, hacking etc.

This conference track invited participants to explore OS from an STS perspective and to discuss what STS can bring into the broader discussion of OS, e.g. by studying institutionalizations of OS, appropriations of OS within prevailing traditional epistemic culture, or how OS is co-shaped by negotiation processes promoted by different stakeholders. Presentations covered socio-technical dimensions of openness in sciences – including the social sciences and humanities. There was less discussion of the “sticks and carrots” (Leonelli et al. 2015) or the perceived benefits to researchers, research organisations and funding agents of utilising open scientific methods, the “disincentives and barriers, and the degree to which there is evidence to support these perceptions” (Whyte & Pryor 2011) – though one of the papers remarked how pressures on scientists to collaborate with industry and commercialize their work, within the framework of open innovation, can work against policy expectations to share research data and results [Sánchez-Jiménez/Aibar]. The aim of the conference track was therefore not to gain consensus over how to define open science in research practice, nor to reach a conclusion on how STS should approach these matters. On the contrary it was an attempt to grasp the multitude of enactments of openness and approaches to study it without being normative about its valuation1.

 

Grasping openness

Most of the discussions in the four sessions revolved around diverse (and unusual non-idealized) forms of co-production of knowledge in various open configurations – involvement of local communities [Albagli et al.], local expertise [Dosemagen] and interdisciplinary collaboration [Oberhauser], hackathons, open consultation processes [Noel, Gruson-Daniel], the open and collaborative editing of scientific articles in Wikipedia [Aibar/Lerga], replication of scientific results, open institutional policies, open access publishing and its abuse by predatory publishers [Wyatt] and so forth. Eighteen speakers told very diverging stories about challenges and limits of collaborations in open settings, some highlighting the need for both normative and legal frameworks in order to safeguard open practices. [Spök et al] particularly pointed to the need of closed spaces for debate in controversy and risk research.

A number of speakers – involved in ongoing open science or citizen science initiatives – focused on collaboration between academia and different kinds of local communities in several countries [Fressoli/Arza]. The relevance and role of lay-expertise and the design of hybrid and innovative institutional settings were highlighted as key points in such experiences. The focus was implicitly moved, from open science as a more effective way of producing science, to open science as a new way to engage citizens (mainly as specific community members) and other stakeholders as active agents in the development of more socially robust research. While open science is commonly associated with access to peer-reviewed knowledge, the emphasis in our conference track was shifted towards peer production.

This line of inquiry understands open science as a social learning venture where the process itself is even more important than the specific scientific outcomes or products than can arise out of it. Consistently with this move from open science as product-oriented to open science as process-oriented, institutional experimentation and the involvement of local communities are considered much more important than technologically deterministic approaches to open science that place great emphasis in the use of new tools. Furthermore, some of the conclusions in our track highlighted the necessary soft-skills and adequate estimation of capacity of such participatory approaches, which are traditionally also a domain of STS.

 

Sharing data

Data and data sharing practices got also quite a lot of attention in the analyses presented. In times when new technology meets old forms of governance, contradictions emerge, illustrating the complex orientations of data generators, researchers and others to open science. Here, criticism was raised by some speakers about the neutral character associated to data in standard open science approaches and in usual calls for data sharing. They problematized data sharing by exposing how data encompasses compromises, ethical standards, different epistemic cultures and values, even different levels of privacy or security, which may entail severe problems in their re-use and replication [Harp-Rushing et al., Velden, …]. Such issues, which built upon traditional STS claims against the value-free or non-situated character of scientific knowledge, should be taken into account in the analysis of barriers to open science and the design of public policies to foster data sharing. Mainstream open data discourse (see the current implementation of data management plans) was criticised for its narrow concept of data (as text or numbers in structured form) and counter-illustrated with other forms of data or data generation, such as organic materials in biobanks [Murtagh et al.] or biohacking citizen labs [Bogdanov], but also urban social data [Perelló], and multimedia data from ethnographic or experimental settings. Besides raising awareness for the intractability of certain materialities or spatialities towards technocratic ideals of openness, the speakers were calling for more ambitions to open up the whole range of media through which “scientific knowledge is processed, validated and circulated” [Pedersen et al.]. However, when it comes to making data resulting from such studies openly available some of the speakers also experienced limits and challenges: unclear copyright issues or vague institutional data policies, for instance, are still hindering data sharing. But what about our own data politics as STS researchers? How could we share our data in its broadest sense, not only among ourselves, but with the communities we work with? We see that issue is prominently addressed in citizen science projects that treat citizens not as research partners, but as data aggregators.

Altogether the open research data theme provides a fruitful ground for many STS concerns. Besides the already mentioned issues, we should deal with the various expectations and imaginaries that science policy and research administration currently develop in regard to open data governance. From the quest of evidence based decision making to the realms of messy research data, following different data pathways could offer rich and exciting STS topics related to scientific ethos, interdisciplinary collaboration, citizen science, infrastructure studies and so forth.

 

Scientific ethos, predatory practices and metrics

Coming to questions of scientific ethos and trust, even if debated only briefly during the track, the phenomenon of predatory open access publishing triggered a discussion on metrics and scientific credit systems. In the predatory business model authors are charged publication fees for publishing an open access article without proper peer review or any other editorial services. In the last years this exploitative practice has not only created confusion about the quality of open access publishing in general, it has also made, once again, visible the problems of researchers from developing countries in need to play the game of scientific recognition and reward. Not to mention the emergent evidence – for instance while analysing EU policy documents [Mayer] – that open science can also be instrumental for worsening present trends towards the commodification of science, within the neoliberal agenda (Mirowsky 2014).

All in all, the fear of losing competitive advantages by opening up access to scientific knowledge production is not only present in innovation contexts, but much more so when it comes to planning one’s career [Attenbourogh]. Giving up control over use and reuse in times of vague institutional data policies and without an established reward/incentive system for opening up data would need more critical engagement with ethical dimensions of scientific practice such as trust and responsibility. Again a domain where STS would be best suited for involvement.

Open research practices shaped by digital technology offer a whole new spectrum of metrics to measure and assess scientific quality and productivity. But what does it mean to count social impact with downloads, clicks or retweets? Such alternative metrics would probably just plug along what we already have, but at least they put existing metrics for impact factors and rankings into perspective (Leiden Manifesto 2015). No doubt, they will also co-shape and preformat research agendas and increase impact driven research (which is not necessarily always a bad thing!). However, policy makers increasingly ask for impact measures to legitimate public expenditure. Alongside counting patents as indicators of innovation scientometricians work on new indicators to assess all kinds of open science including the cooperation of societal stakeholders in research.

 

A reflexive take on Open Science by STS

With open science currently being mainstreamed into western research funding frameworks, STS could help to demonstrate the situative appropriateness of top-down open science policies and engage with bottom-up activities as some of the track’s presenters have shown. Open should neither be defined in strict opposition to closed nor should it be a universalistic principle applicable to all research practices everywhere. STS would furthermore be able to study how such policies impact traditional communication and collaboration procedures, existing reward structures, timescales and hierarchies, as well as reflexively interrogating our own practices as researchers and our specific position with respect to other sciences. If STS were committed not only to study data practices in their diversity, but also in different scientific disciplines and regional contexts, we could critically accompany and help to realize the core principles of the open science movement: being as transparent, accountable, and shareable as possible, and involving stakeholder expertise on an equal footing in the research process.

Last but not least, in the context of open science, STS could once again reflect its own configurations of access to knowledge production and expertise. Maybe we need to step out of a disciplinary ivory tower constructed over the last years (with a whole lot of exceptions, of course!). We should take the opportunity to learn – also on a methodological level – from citizen scientists, hackathons and grassroots movements and rethink how open we want our epistemic cultures to be.

 

1 See also Judit Gárdos in this issue, who criticizes the inherent normative and largely undisputed dimensions of the term open science and in particular its taken for granted connotation of Western scientific tradition.

[Names] refer to presentations at the conference track and a more detailed description of each presentation can be found here:

http://www.nomadit.co.uk/easst/easst_4s2016/panels.php5?PanelID=3966 

http://www.openscience-thebetterscience.blogspot.co.at/2016/10 /open-science-in-practice-4s-easst.html