Tag Archives: Editorial

Politics by other means: Sitting at an angle

I understand the title of the recent 4S/EASST conference ‘Science and Technology by Other Means: Exploring collectives, spaces, futures’ as a play on Bruno Latour’s claim that ‘science is politics by other means’ (1988). The title draws our attention to the extent to which knowledge production and technological innovation is being seized by all sorts of citizens and activist collectives. The conference was crammed full of presentations, workshops and informal and formal discussions about science and technology being done and imagined in unexpected places, diverse collectives, multiple spaces and various possible futures. Latour’s widely cited phrase captured a subtly differently sensibility that was especially crucial to early Science and Technology Studies (STS). It reflected and inspired a wealth of work that exposes and explores science and technology as a deeply political achievement of assembling non-human and human actors in ways that create a ‘Centre’ and it’s ‘Others’.

Feminist Technoscience Studies (FTS) put more flesh on the bones of this work through attending to embodiment and situatedness in the processes of assembling, and to the differentially experienced effects, asking ‘Cui Bono?’ as questions of justice and to make other worlds possible (Star, 1995). F/STS is skilled in telling stories about the ways in which specific examples of science and technology build worlds. It attends to the multiple ways in which technoscience is embedded in the realities that we are coming to live with. Moreover, many of the stories at the conference participate in the collectives, spaces and possible futures they are engaged with in complex ways. In particular, researchers told stories that interrogate the objects enacted in technoscience as oozing essentialisms by way of critique, but also to participate in building more equitable worlds (Haraway, 1988). That is, the stories often explicitly consider what realities we would like to come to live with and how F/STS might contribute to their becoming. There is, it seems, a keen interest to explore the multiple ways in which F/STS is politics by ‘other’ means.

The walls of the conference, in Britain and in the US, parliamentary politics was extraordinarily visible and being done by very obvious means. That is, overtly and loudly by individual politicians proselytizing. I refer here to political debates around Brexit (British exit from the European Union) and the recent US presidency elections. These displays of politics have been full of stories that attempt to clearly define allies and enemies and they enact universals and polarisations. This is a deeply disturbing moment in which it seems urgent for our European Association for Social Studies of Science and Technology (EASST) to reflect upon how it should contribute to the making of the realities that are coming into being.

For me, some of the most inspiring theorising in F/STS is profoundly at odds with these recent events. This work appreciates the interdependency of human and non-human bodies and beings, in which connections and cuts are always in process, precarious and condensed to momentary stabilities. These insights challenge us to ‘stay with the trouble’, resist origin stories and remain curious and response-able. We need to tread care-fully so as not to flatten otherness but rather to seek ways of ‘doing difference together’ (Verran and Christie, 2011). It seems incredibly important right now to articulate the weights that are pulling against these sensibilities, inwards towards an illusion of the possibility of just and productive, stable simplifications. These weights are crafted from alluring ingredients – the possibility of durable solutions, obvious answers, so-called straight-talking and common-sense. This is evident in many spheres not only national government parliamentary politics. For example, Sheryl Sandberg’s (COO of Facebook) ‘Lean In’ campaign urges working women to ‘sit at the table’, both literally and metaphorically, in order to achieve success. Her book and TED talk is described by Time Magazine (2014) as a hugely successful feminist mission (Sandberg, 2013; see www.youtube/TED). At the same time some feminist academics are critical that it is an example of neo-liberal corporate feminism that appropriates feminist terms to achieve capitalist agendas and creates divisions (McRobbie, 2013). The ‘Lean in’ campaign is problematic but seductive. It is catchy ‘politics by obvious means’ that has gained huge support. I have an unsettling feeling that while I have been ‘sitting at an angle’ to truth-claims and definitive knowledge, exposing and challenging the practices of centring and simplification, leaning in, talking straight and making problems doable has gained widespread support .

It is the above disconcertment that promotes me to ask; should our Association ‘lean in’ and engage in increasingly obvious political activities, and what would this mean? Or, perhaps our Association has a more important role to play in ‘sitting at an angle’. What are the ways in which F/STS does politics? The 4S/EASST conference showcased multiple ways of doing F/STS and the EASST Review wants to facilitate different modes of writing and presenting the work of the European F/STS community. For me, sitting at an angle is my favoured positioning because I consider it to be itself an interference, not only an intervention. It is critical of looking inwards, of centring, as well as of what is on the table. Moreover, I sense that sitting at an angle facilitates ‘politics multiple’ – by various means including allegory, quietism and ambivalence. As I learned from reading Star, when we ask cui bono? it is in order to imagine what other worlds are possible as well as to expose what has been hidden or denied (Bowker et al., 2016). This is more difficult to do if we are leaning in. I invite us to explore what ‘leaning in’ or ‘sitting at an angle’ might mean as we imagine the future role of EASST.

STS by other means?

‘How would STS look like in the future?’ That seemed to be a question many of us asked not only in preparing or organizing but also in taking part in the recent 4S-EASST joint conference in Barcelona: ‘Science and Technology by Other Means: Exploring Collectives, Spaces and Futures’. Prolonging and re-appropriating the conference’s ‘by other means’ motto in presentations, concept work, track titles, or informal jokes, the nearly 2000 participants proved, with great prowess and ingenuity, that this is not only a growing but also a still vibrant and burgeoning field. The many informal meetings, presentations and workshops with regular or ‘alternative’ formats also demonstrated that our field has become a space increasingly triggered and activated by a concern over our collective future: not just as frightened academics facing a job situation without great prospects in a shrinking job market, but also as planetary beings, friends, neighbours, or citizens worried about the somewhat gloomy horizon of our life in common with others.

In her electric keynote talking about the ‘alterlife’ practices of many indigenous communities in the Great Lakes, Murphy did not just make us reflect on our breathing in chemically-loaded spaces. Some of us sensed that something else was also in the air. Something infusing many of us with an air of the ‘otherwise’. Telling us–sometimes surreptitiously but also making itself very palpable–that STS could be undertaken or practised ‘by other means’: not only with a desire to work ‘in, with and alongside’ collectives, but also undertaking many new practices in a variety of other spaces beyond the formal locales of knowledge production. Of course, as Madeleine Akrich warned us in her tour-de-force keynote on patient collectives and their embodied health activism, this more collectivized and spatially diverse ‘by other means’ should not merely direct us to an acritical assumption that anything collective is necessarily better. There are many forms and practices of the collective and we should, indeed, pay strong and dedicated attention to dwelling on the particular ‘politics of collaboration’, such as the ones being articulated, for instance, in scientific societies or associations.

As Isabelle Stengers had beautifully put it elsewhere, and as she summarised in a marvellous detour across the greatest hallmarks of her recent works in the closing keynote, the ‘by other means’ “is not a matter of converting us but of repopulating the devastated desert of our imaginations” (Stengers, 2015: 102)1. In this most daunting of moments, where current forms of academic capitalism and its diverse alliances with Game-of-Thrones-like forms of nepotism are putting our academic–and personal–lives in danger, we need to rethink at great length not only our endeavors as a community of STS-minded scholars, but also the kind of research spaces we would like to populate and bring into existence ‘with and against’ our established forms of institutionalization, so that a more hopeful future for all could be co-articulated.

In the many plans to renew and upgrade the EASST Review, it would be one of our aims to turn this into one of those hospitable spaces. Amongst the many audacious open-source media transformations that our field is suffering affecting the modes of publication of journals and books, the EASST Review would like to occupy a different space, fostering many textual genres ‘by other means’: that literature situated ‘in between’ the conversation and the published paper that would not usually find a home in regular academic journals. But to make it true, we will certainly need your complicity and audacity, to help us reimagine our sections and to discuss and excuse our trials in prototyping a new artefact for our STS community. Will we be able to collectively manage to craft a new line of hope in the horizon of our discipline, perhaps even an STS by other means?

Towards data sharing in STS

Let me start this new edition of the EASST Review by thanking Ignacio for his superb work in leading its recent transformations, and making it such an exciting platform for information and exchange about the STS community in Europe and beyond, while also rejuvenating the outlook. As such, I did not hesitate for a second when he asked me to join the editorial board, and it is a pleasure to work with him and the others of the Review and EASST to generate ideas and topics for future publications. This edition features the PAST centre in Syberia, the feminist journal Catalyst, Latour’s Reset Modernity! exhibition, as well as two events partially funded by EASST. Many thanks to everyone contributing and we hope you will enjoy reading.

Building on Ignacio’s previous editorial that diagnosed a collaborative turn in STS, I would like to point at the important new development of data sharing in STS, which can also enhance the collaborative spirit of our field. Many STS scholars are studying transforming scientific practices around data collection, curation and preservation, and how these are changing scientific collaboration and data sharing, but we are just starting to think of the implications of this for our own research practice. How do we as STS colleagues share our data, not only with our close collaborators, but also within our field – with current colleagues and future generations of scholars – and beyond the borders of our own community, with stakeholders and various publics?

This topic has been on the agenda of the science and technology studies community for a while, especially since the US National Science Foundation now requires proposal applicants to include a data management plan. This resulted in a workshop in which colleagues from history, philosophy, and social studies of science and technology1 met last year at the National Science Foundation to discuss the opportunities and challenges of storing and sharing data in science and technology studies (involving two EASST members, Sally Wyatt and I). Workshop members reported on their work during the Denver 4S meeting and also discussed the need for a European discussion on this topic, in line with requests from various national councils and European funding bodies regarding data management and our own wishes as a community. However, as the European STS landscape and its funding sources are quite diverse, we will need to find ways to deal with national diversity, so national STS organization may also provide a role in forwarding these discussions, along with EASST.

What follows is a short summary of findings from the US National Science Foundation workshop2 to serve as a starting point for framing European discussions within this more global initiative on data sharing in STS.

The 4S/NSF Workshop participants identified four main benefits of data sharing for STS which are summarized as follows in the report:

 

The National Science Foundation Report on Data Sharing in Science and Technology Studies (2015). 

First, data sharing has the potential to transform the practice, substance, and scope of science and technology studies. This includes allowing scholars to ask broader research questions, conduct large-scale and cross-case comparisons, and create more rigorous and replicable methods, while also enabling the systematic accumulation of STS knowledge via analysis and synthesis of existing data. Such efforts may also enhance the value of STS data and scholarship for policymakers.

Second, data sharing has the potential to advance STS methodology and data curation practices. This includes improvement of measurement and data collection methods to ensure reuse and replicability, protection against faulty data, and archiving and making sustainable STS data rather than allowing them to decay and disappear at the end of a research project or professional career.

Third, data sharing has the potential to provide professional development opportunities. This includes new research training opportunities for advanced techniques for data sharing, synthesis, and reuse, and facilitating scholars’ abilities to meet granting requirements. New training programs may also help establish a cultural shift in STS whereby datasets, data preparation, and data sharing come to be valued as important scholarly products worthy of professional recognition.

Fourth, data sharing has the potential to make STS research more engaged, democratic, and practically relevant by making data and research findings available to scholars and citizens without access to funding and research materials.

 

We also discussed ways in which this cultural shift towards sharing can be stimulated, recognizing the value of data sharing while also safeguarding the diversity of data produced in different fields and specialties, and via different research methods. Most importantly, it seems necessary that different forms of data can have different levels of openness or access, with some data not being suited for actual sharing due to ethical considerations and anonymity. Moreover, and to promote a culture of data sharing within STS, the topic should become part of the agenda of workshops and projects in STS, as well as the training of (young) scholars. In this context, the development and sharing of example data management plans might also be helpful. In order to enable sharing efforts, alliances with publishers, libraries, archives, and museums can be useful to share expertise about data curation and management.

Last but not least, the topic of data sharing within STS is deeply embedded in existing discussions about open data that are taking place in our EASST community, and it is also quite visible in the 4S/EASST Barcelona programme. Tracks on ‘The Lives and Deaths of Data’, ‘Open science in practice’ and ‘Critical data studies’ will certainly be showing various ways in which we are already engaging with this topic, and can perhaps also provide opportunities to discuss these topics in relation to our own work and interests.