Tag Archives: Lancaster

The Confluence of Design and STS: Reflecting Disciplinary Positions and/or Situatedness

This review reflects my involvement and roles in a panel (B07 “Situating designs”) and a special event (Diseña 12 journal launch) on design and STS. The piece takes this year’s conference theme “Meetings” to discuss how the quite divergent fields of design and STS interact with each other, what challenges, in particular, STS scholars encounter when studying design, but also how the aspect of interdisciplinarity behind both of them is tackled in the everyday “situatedness” of STS scholars and designers alike.

Disciplinary design problems. Installation at London Design Biennale 2016. Photo by the author.

Meetings — this year’s EASST theme — closely recounts my conference participation and attendance. I had just submitted my dissertation (for its defense) the day before the conference. As a result, all I could think of at this singular moment of my PhD was the many familiar and unfamiliar faces I would meet and converse with over the next three days. Yet I wasn’t going to EASST to listen and absorb other scholarly research only. Instead, I had planned and prepared for myself a very active and participatory schedule — chairing a panel I had co-organized, then presenting a paper on my dissertation in a different panel, and finally commenting at a lunch panel. In hindsight, it seemed like I was testing my academic aptness. Although meetings was the conference theme and in some way framed my participation, my actual research focus was on design and STS. Put differently, it was a conversation on the confluence of design and STS.

This conversation on design and STS began as a reunion of two STS doctoral students at 4S 2017 in Boston. Sharing common interests with Peter Fuzesi from Lancaster University in questions around user-technology interactions, the corresponding design processes, and practices, and the role designers play in defining what we understand as design, to submit a panel proposal for us came across as a fitting opportunity to expand our conversation. The proposed open panel “Situating designs” (B07) inquired into the situatedness of design practices and artifacts. The call ultimately brought forth eight papers and two sessions from a multiplicity of disciplinary backgrounds (from architecture to education) and research perspectives: social work for health (Jade Vu Henry, Peter Fuzesi), postcolonial transformation design (Nicholas Baroncelli Torretta), collaborative processes for urban and rural infrastructure development (Sampsa Hyysalo, Kostas Latoufis), and design knowledge production and ethnographical methods in/for design research (Bernhard Böhm, Yutaka Yoshinaka, Goetz Bachmann). While as panel convenors we had the opportunity to stir the direction of the conversations and discussions on questions around design practice and how STS interacts with it, we chose to step back and assign that role to our two discussants who work in the confluence of design and STS — Daniela Rosner and Alex Wilkie.

Although both discussants probably did not deliberately take up the conference theme as a point of orientation, their approach emphasized two aspects of meetings that opened up the conversation in different ways. Alex Wilkie rephrasing Latour’s famous title about the missing masses provokingly asked the panelists in the first session about “the few missing things” either in their presentation or research — what are the problems of design education, where are the politics in a participatory design education project, how can we avoid Western ontologies in decolonization projects, where and how do we understand transformation and transformative processes. Wilkie’s questions and some of the audience’s questions reminded of what is already at stake in the confluence and perhaps in the collaboration of STS and design—namely, that the seeming interdisciplinarity of both areas of research and practice is not generally predisposed to a mutual language of interdisciplinarity. More often, they act inward and outward in very traditional and disciplinary way.

Daniela Rosner’s commentary in the second panel, on the other hand, focused on how the research presented by the four speakers acknowledged how STS and design are connected, as well as how their work reconnects to broader questions prefiguring that. For instance, whereas ethnographers in different social disciplines have intensely studied and recognized their impact on their subject of research, designers adopting ethnographical methods for project-based work either miss this level of awareness or are being to gain that. Other papers, as Rosner noted, revealed a similarity of recognition processes of care practices, maintenance work, or user design activities, which have been essential in the past two decades of STS research and are now taking place in design and engineering work. This “slow” approaching also happens between STS and design as Rosner’s research work and design practice of Rosner (2018) display, but also many other more recent examples demonstrate: reflective design (Sengers et al., 2005), adversarial design (DiSalvo, 2012), studio studies (Farías & Wilkie, 2015), or the special issues in Design Issues (2004) and Diseña (2018).

While the papers in our panel offered a broader focus with a particular emphasis on practice, the special issue of the bilingual (Spanish, English) publication Diseña 12, edited by Ignacio Farías and Tomás Sánchez Criado, and launched at this EASST conference looks at the methodological confluence of design and STS. Titled “Re-learning Design: Pedagogical Experiments with STS in Design Studio Courses,” this collection of essays and design-research projects presents reflections on how the design disciplines and their actors encounter and collaborate with the social sciences, in particular, with STS. I had the privilege to be invited as a guest commentator on the journal launch along Teun Zuiderent-Jerak, and thereby continue some of the conversations from the “Situating designs” panel. But whereas in the panel I could quietly listen to other scholars’ perspective, here the challenge was to comment in 15 minutes on over 300 pages of incredibly diverse and rich material, primarily the work of design professionals and design scholars. Turning the focus onto pedagogy in general and STS pedagogy in “slightly different sites,” as Zuiderent-Jerak called it, helped narrow down and allowed us to reassess our position and the challenges as STS scholars within academic institutions. As many of us often end up being hired in technical universities or engineering departments, the question of pedagogy and the confluence of different pedagogies, be that STS and design, calls for a shift from the predictive model of reading and teaching literature to more experiential pedagogical activities that might involve the practices of design, architecture, engineering, art, and many others. The journal launch at EASST emphasizes the importance of these conversations about our interactions with other substantially different disciplines regardless if that means for research or for teaching.

Finally, and perhaps in continuation of what began in Boston, I met Zoë Robaey, a postdoc researcher on biotech and society at TU Delft, at the Lancaster train station on the way to Manchester airport. She had attended our panel on design but time constraints and convenor duties limited a conversation between us. The overcrowded Saturday morning train offered unforeseen possibilities that EASST’s full schedule would probably not have opened for us. From discussing about her experience in working as a philosopher in an engineering design department and the kind of research one can accomplish in this setup, to how different STS and design appear to be in different parts of the world, this unplanned EASST meeting hopefully opened up new avenues for collaboration, research, and exchange on the confluence of design and STS.

 

References

DiSalvo C (2012) Adversarial Design. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Farías, I and Sanchez Criado, T (eds) (2018). Disena 12: Re-learning Design: Pedagogical Experiments with STS in Design Studio Courses. http://revistadisena.uc.cl/index.php/Disena/issue/view/3

Farías, I and Wilkie A (eds) (2015) Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies & Displacements. London, New York: Routledge.

Rosner, Daniela (2018). Critical Fabulations: Reworking the Methods and Margins of Design. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Sengers P, Boehner K, et al. (2005) Reflective Design. In Proc. 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: pp 49-58.

Woodhouse E, and Patton J (2004) Design by Society: Science and Technology Studies and the Social Shaping of Design. Design Issues 20(3): 1-12.

Scientific identities: how to re-engage with identity and its politics

Why re-engage with identity in STS?

Fig. 1: Niki Vermeulen presents on “Finding a place in science: the  role of institutional configurations in the formation of scientific identity” (co-author: Andrea Nunez Casal); picture credits Inga Ulnicane, adapted from https://twitter.com/IngaUlnicane/status/1022762073019875329

At EASST 2018, we organized a full-day panel on the topic of Scientists – agents under construction. Exploring the scientist – or the researcher, the knowledge-maker, the academic – as a category of person may seem strange, even old-fashioned, given that STS has worked hard to produce accounts of knowledge construction that are relational and contextual; in which scientists are parts of a network. Moreover, STS has fought for knowledge construction that includes those who are not given the label and authority of “scientist” or “expert”. However, it was neither the aim nor the outcome of the panel to essentialise the person of the scientist. Instead, the emphasis was on “under construction”: scientists not only as producers of knowledge, but as products-in-the-making of knowledge cultures. As Bulpin and Molyneux-Hodgson (2013, p. 93) have argued, focusing on the empirical production of the epistemic subject highlights how “machineries of knowing” (Knorr Cetina, 1999) construct both the subjects and objects of science. Accordingly, we believe this perspective can enrich approaches that focus on knowledge production, while also drawing attention to historically and culturally specific ways of being a scientist, how these change over time, and how they are entangled with political struggles of our time. 

Of course, scientists’ identities have not gone unstudied. Transformations to research landscapes over past centuries and decades have been studied extensively, and some key works have examined these transformations through the lens of scientists’ changing lives, roles and selves: for example, Law’s Organising Modernity (2004), Daston and Galison’s Objectivity (2007), and Shapin’s The Scientific Life (2008). But there are many contemporary changes to research landscapes that are either new or becoming particularly acute, for example: rise of evaluation procedures as measurements for scientific success; increasingly short-term employment contracts in some countries; the implementation of novel policy agendas such as responsible research and innovation (RRI) and “open science”; and a focus on inter- or transdisciplinarity in academic work. Our panel was partly inspired by our curiosity and concern about how such changes participate in constructing today’s scientists, especially as changes overlap and the figure of the scientist must respond to myriad combined and contrasting demands. 

With the hope of prompting reflective and diverse submissions, we posed questions such as: How do researchers form identities and what are the practices, norms and values that these are based upon? What role does identity play for researchers, their communities and, their institutions? And: How are researchers making sense of their identities, and thereby accommodating to or resisting the conditions of research environments? 

Fig. 2: Rosalind Attenborough presents on “The open science ‘revolution’: changing policy, practice – and people?”; picture credits Niki Vermeulen, https://twitter.com/nikivermeulen/status/1022836926787854338

Exploring identity together

Our idea to re-engage with scientific identities was inspired by a track at 4S/EASST 2016 in Barcelona and a follow-up workshop in Vienna in 2017 entitled “Community and identity in contemporary technoscience”. Following our call for abstracts, we realized that we were not alone with our reflections and concerns. We received great interest in our panel, both in the form of submitted abstracts – which resulted in 18 accepted abstracts, and eventually 13 presentations across four sessions – and in the form of a large audience at EASST 2018 in Lancaster. The group of scientists brought together by this panel was heterogeneous, coming from STS and STS-related fields and mirroring a wide-ranging interest in reflecting on scientists, their self-understandings, and broader implications for science. The presenters were able to shed light on aspects of scientific identities and circumstances of identity construction that are varied but nonetheless lead to common themes and concerns. 

The first thematic group largely consisted of empirical studies that explored natural scientists’ navigation of spatial belonging in individual careers or institutional contexts, often influenced by a prevalent neoliberal regime in the academe. Sarah Davies drew attention to scientists’ concepts of “luck” and “choosing” in their diverse narrations of their career-associated international mobility; Niki Vermeulen* and Andrea Nunez Casal highlighted aspects of spatial belonging and identity that emerged through the upheaval of a research institute’s relocation; and Sarah Schönbauer examined dynamics of conformity and resistance that were simultaneously part of scientists’ belonging to their workplace, and alignment to its corporate identity.

In a second thematic group, the presenters engaged with identity in the context of prevalent regimes of success, excellence, impact and projectification in academia. Alexandra Supper for example showed how nascent researchers navigate a tension between independent and project-aligned identities in doctoral dissertations; Kay Felder* and Ruth Müller discussed how reviewers for the ERC attribute excellence to researchers when they assess CVs and projects; Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner*, Sarah de Rijcke and Ruth Müller explored how scientists make sense of and negotiate the conventions that underpin the assessment of academic CVs; and Justyna Bandola-Gill showed how academics navigate the UK’s research impact agenda in a knowledge culture that also demands excellence. 

The third thematic group engaged with policy and/or funding agendas that set out to transform knowledge-making fields: Andreas Röß* and Philine Warnke made the case for responsible research and innovation (RRI) as a regime with the capacity to shape scientists’ subjectivities; Rosalind Attenborough examined how scientists construct “openness” as an epistemic virtue both within and outside of “open science” agendas; and Thomas Franssen mapped the resource-driven emergence of the digital humanities as an epistemic regime. Also linking with this theme, Mirko Suhari showed that transdisciplinary energy research is an emerging epistemic regime shaping new scientific subjectivities. 

Finally, two presentations captured particularly systematic, potentially generalizable views of how scientific identities can be conceptualized and studied: Anna Kosmützky* and Romy Wöhlert proposed a large-scale study of professional identity formation in international collaborative research projects; and Anja Bauer* and Karen Kastenhofer’s empirical study presented Technology Assessment (TA) practitioners as agents under (re)construction, for whom previous academic socializations are key among several contextual identity-forming factors.

Fig. 3: Group picture with some presenters: Thomas Franssen, Niki Vermeulen, Alexandra Supper, Andreas Röß, Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner, Kay Felder, Sarah Schönbauer, Rosalind Attenborough, Justyna Bandola-Gill

Summing up

So why do we think it is worthwhile to engage with the identities of scientists, after all? The volume and variety of thematic engagements that the presenters made with scientific lives, roles, and subjectivities, shows that there is a vibrant curiosity in STS to engage with the being and belonging of scientists. We believe there is also a demand for more conceptual tools and conversations that develop identity in an STS context. And, 100 years after Weber’s famous lecture on “Science as a Vocation” (Weber 1918/19, 1946), we call for debates on how scientific identity might take shape today in relation to current responsibilities and challenges that transcend changes in the academe, such as societal reconfigurations (e.g. latent individualization) and political changes (e.g. Brexit, the increase in right-wing tendencies, and the post-fact conundrum). These circumstances have been raised in critical commentaries, for example Vermeulen (2018) argued in the context of UK academic strikes that “within our own academic community spaces for debate and discussion are crucial…we need to, for instance, pay attention to the identity of scientists” (p. 5). We believe that it is important to stay with this trouble and stay attentive to what is to come, to the logics that might undermine our worlds as scientists, and to critical approaches that promote liveable and valuable spaces of knowledge production. While these developments and diagnoses are not exclusive to the academic world, it is nonetheless crucial to re-engage with identity in STS, and to articulate how it can be used as a conceptual tool to understand the politics of being and belonging in the world of science. 

 

References 

Bulpin K, and Molyneux-Hodgson S (2013) The disciplining of scientific communities. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 38(2): 91–105. 

Daston L and Galison P (2007) Objectivity. Brooklyn: Zone Books.

Knorr Cetina K (1999) Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. London: Harvard University Press.

Law J (1994) Organizing Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.  

Shapin S (2008) The Scientific Life. A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

STS/Austria/EASST workshop 2017, Vienna/Austria, 16-18 February: ‘Community and identity in contemporary technosciences’, for details see Kastenhofer K (2018) Community and identity in contemporary technosciences: Conceptual issues and empirical change. EASST Review 37(2).   

Track at 4S/EASST 2016, Barcelona/Spain, 31 August – 3 September: ‘(Techno)science by other means of communality and identity’, Convenors: Karen Kastenhofer (Austrian Academy of Sciences), Sarah Schönbauer (University of Vienna), Niki Vermeulen (University of Edinburgh). 

Vermeulen N (2018) Creating spaces for debate and action. EASST Review 37(2). 

Weber M (1946) Science as a Vocation. In: H. Gerth & C.W. Mills. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford. 

“Sticky business” inspires: enacting ethics by adding syrup to laboratory life

“[W]ays of studying and representing things have world-making effects” (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017: 30). With these words Sara Bea, postdoctoral researcher at University of Linköping, opens her talk on normativities in STS research and storytelling during the EASST2018 Conference. She acknowledges that practices such as observing and representing are ways of intervening and constructing (Hacking, 1983). Researchers constantly make choices: which case to select, who to talk to, what to include or exclude, how to tell stories. They have to decide which ethics they want to enact. Bea proposes that STS researchers should move beyond announcing the bad and promoting the good. She calls for sharpening STS tools and vocabulary to grasp the complex entanglements of good and bad, and to tell alternative stories, which expand the interstitial.

Jessica Mesman, associate professor at University Maastricht, and Su-Yin Hor, lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, follow this call in their presentation on “Sticky business” in which they introduce the notion of “stickiness” to analyze and intervene in interstitial spaces in health care. Stickiness is in-between fixed and fluid practices; it is sticky between supposedly stiff and preservable practices on the one hand, and those that seem to be open, flexible, and easy to adjust on the other. Stickiness occurs in health care, for instance, when clinicians make efforts to follow protocols, but are confronted with the hectic and surprises of everyday work, such as an unexpected admission of two patients at the same time or an emergency call (Figure 1). Tension between fixed and fluid produces sticky practices that are stiff enough to be directive and pliable enough to be adjustable to constantly changing work contexts. This tension is productive because it allows for practice improvement. For example, Mesman (Mol and Mesman, 1996) observed how a nurse introduced a drip system for stomach-tube feeding at a neonatal care ward. The nurse intended to optimize the feeding protocol so that she did not have to hold a bag containing food above a baby for a long time with a trembling arm and lots of other things to be done. 

Mesman, Su-Yin Hor, and Bea regard the space between two extremes – between fixed and fluid, good and bad – as a locus of potential for intervention, either by telling stories that unsettle the polarity of good and bad or by improving practices. When listening to their talks, Helen Verran’s captivating book Science and an African Logic came to my mind. Verran describes “disconcertment” as a fairly common but often overlooked “fleeting experience” (2001: 5) when doing research. It occurred to her when she encountered interruptions that did not fit her line of argument during fieldwork, working as a primary school teacher in Nigeria. According to Verran, being attentive to disconcerting experiences enables a researcher to detect productive tensions at actual times and places. Rendering these tensions and actors’ creative practices explicit offers “the possibility of innovation, a way that things might be done differently to effect futures different from pasts” (20). Verran’s concept of disconcertment seems to provide an alternative vocabulary to the notion of stickiness. Whereas sticky moments allow to navigate between fixed and fluid practices, disconcertment protects a researcher from becoming trapped in the foundationalist tendencies of universalism and relativism. By cultivating attention for disconcertment, Verran moves away from her initial conclusion that math is culturally relative, that an incommensurability separates ‘Western’ and ‘other’ knowledges, and that children should be taught either one or the other. She acknowledges how Nigerian teachers navigate between and merge Western and Nigerian maths, how they engage in “sticky business” to resolve tensions. 

I approached Mesman after her presentation to ask how stickiness relates to Verran’s concept of disconcertment. Mesman appreciated my comment as an incentive to scrutinize how stickiness overlaps with disconcertment and what it enables researchers to see and do that disconcertment does not. Stimulated by Bea’s call for sharpening vocabulary and tools to capture normativities in STS research, I reflected upon what stickiness could do for my own research. My ethnographic fieldwork in a European biomedical research institute where neuroscientists study the impact of Buddhist meditation on healthy aging has been influenced by Verran’s work. I have been watching out for neuroscientists’ creative and innovative practices for dealing with diverse kinds of tensions: How do scientists comply with ethical standards while struggling with the bureaucratic burden that grows with increased regulation? How do supervisors take responsibility for acquiring ethical approval of research projects that they co-conduct with their PhD students without interfering with a student’s learning process? How do researchers deal with their uneasiness when they show videos of disabled individuals or scenes filmed in Third World countries to research participants to capture how these participants emotionally react to people’s suffering? Observing how these videos were displayed in the context of a meditation research project left me with a feeling of disconcertment. I had the impression that these videos perpetuated negative stereotypes about minorities and foreign countries. However, Verran’s book does not provide guidance for what to do with my disconcertment besides including it in my fieldnotes and eventually in my dissertation. 

As Verran developed her conceptual tools only after returning from her fieldwork to Australia, she merely enacts ethics in storytelling by foregrounding what tends to get “excluded, marginalized, forgotten, unconsidered, or disfigured in the process of normalizing social and political action” (Schillmeier, 2011: 514). Yet, I was wondering how I could use my feeling of disconcertment as a tool to actively engage the setting that I am studying to find out how I could bring value to those who I am studying (cf. Downey and Zuiderent-Jerak, 2017: 225). For this purpose, the notion of stickiness seems to be useful. As an ethnographer at a ward, Mesman enacts ethics both in writing and at her field site. When writing about sticky moments and actors’ productivity in adjusting practices, she increases their and others’ awareness of resources available for resilience (Mesman, 2007). At the ward, Mesman uses video-reflexive ethnography (VRE) as a method to capture sticky moments in daily routine on film. Discussing the video footage with health care practitioners, Mesman intervenes by stimulating reflections on how to adjust fixed protocols and cultivate creative practices. She actively contributes to practice optimization, for VRE requires practitioners to sit down and reflect on their practice for a while. Inspired by Mesman and Su-Yin Hor’s “Sticky business”, I will try to decelerate the pace of laboratory routine by asking neuroscientists to sit down with me on a regular basis. I will bring moments in which I have felt disconcerted up for discussion and ask scientists to answer questions that probe for ethical and societal dimensions of their research (cf. Fisher, 2007). Initiating sticky conversations, I enact ethics by adding some syrup to laboratory life so as to make it a little more sweet, tasty, and hopefully better. 

Fig. 1: Presentation slide from the presentation on “Sticky business” by J. Mesman and S.Y. Hor:
The pictures juxtapose a fixed hygiene protocol and the fluidity of actual hygiene practices in moments of emergency that leave no time to properly clean up the work space.

 

References

Downey G L and Zuiderent-Jerak T (2017) Making and Doing: Engagement and Reflexive Learning in STS. In: Felt U, Fouché R, Miller C A and Smith-Doerr L (eds) The Handbook of Science and Techology Studies. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 

Fisher E (2007) Ethnographic Invention: Probing the Capacity of the Laboratory Decisions. NanoEthics 1: 155-165.

Hacking I (1983) Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mesman J (2007) Disturbing Observations as a Basis for Collaborative Research. Science as Culture 16(3): 281-295.

Mol A and Mesman J (1996) Neonatal Food and the Politics of Theory: Some Questions of Method. Social Studies of Science 26: 419-444.

Puig de la Bellacasa M (2017) Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  

Schillmeier M (2011) Unbotting Normalcy: On Cosmopolitical Events. The Sociological Review 59: 514-534.

Verran H (2001) Science and an African logic. Chicago: Chicago University Press. 

Encounter, create and eat the world: a meal (workshop)

How can we do STS not about but with food? How can we make the concerns of STS edible? In the workshop Encounter, create and eat the world: a meal at EASST Lancaster we did STS by collectively preparing a lunch. This involved conducting a series of exercises, experiments and tests with ingredients, their relationship to us and the world, and how to prepare them. In preparation for the workshop, we asked all pre-registered participants to:

  • Bring two ingredients amounting to 500 g in total (at least one of the ingredients had to be vegan). Such ingredients might be anything that can be eaten without being further cooked.
  • Prepare four identical cards for each ingredient with a story about the ingredient inspired by STS.
  • Bring their own choice of dinnerware and utensils to eat the food with. This could be anything they liked from the most usual (plate and fork) to the most unusual (some found plastic from the street), as long as ready and clean. They also needed to prepare a two-minute story that they could tell about the sociological, technological and environmental background of these tools.
  • Bring one mechanical kitchen tool of their choice (grater, sieve, hammer, peeler, garlic press, whisk…).

Once in the workshop, people sat on tables in groups of five people. The first activity was to pass your eating utensils to the person on your right and tell them the prepared story. Then, each person had to chose a portion of an ingredient from each of the other four people in the table. As a result, each person had six ingredients in total. All the packaging and food waste was put to the side before starting the tasting exercises sequence, as follows:

  1. Blind tasting: Close your eyes. Then ask your neighbour to feed you a random ingredient. Write down your thoughts.
  2. Bengt af Klintberg, “Event score Nr. 8” (Klintberg is a Swedish Anthropologist and Fluxus artist. The event scores are written instructions for actions): Eat an X (orange) as if it were a Y (apple).

Event score versions:

  1. Eat an ingredient ‘as a mouse or any other animal (it should be an animal that actually eats this food)’.
  2. Eat an ingredient as if it were completely artificial and had no nutritional value.
  3. Eat an ingredient as if it had been blessed by the divine.
  4. Eat an ingredient as if you suspect it may be contaminated by an infectious parasite.

People were asked to read each corresponding ingredient card after the first three tastings and before the last three and an A3 sheet was provided to write down observations throughout the workshop.

After the tasting sequence, participants had to build a dish taking into account at least two of the following concepts: Gender, Ecology, Politics, Health, Human non-humans, Technology, Religion.

For this purpose, participants were able to choose two herbs or spices to include in the dish. These came from ‘Spiritual Flavours Spice Lab’, which is part of Laura Cuch’s research on food and spirituality (www.spiritualflavours.com). Participants also had to incorporate one element from the waste pile, either as a new utensil or a new ingredient.

Finally, people were invited to:

  • Explain how the eating utensils informed /shaped / contrasted with their dish
  • Define a consumption situation that problematised or contradicted the dish logic.
  • Make a drawing of the dish
  • Share their dish with the person to their right, whilst telling the story behind it.

Bon appétit!

* All photographs by ©Laura Cuch, 2018

 

#01 – Ingredients that people have brought to the workshop.
#02 – People choosing herbs and spices.
#03 – Blind tasting exercise.
#04 – Ingredients that people have brought to the workshop.
People choosing herbs and spices.
Blind tasting exercise.
Participant reading a card of a chosen ingredient brought to the workshop by another participant.
#05 – Two participants performing a tasting exercise, which proposed to eat an ingredient ‘as a mouse or any other animal (it should be an animal that actually eats this food)’.
#06 – Participants following directions.
#07 – Someone using a chosen cooking utensil in a different way than its designed purpose.
#08 – Mixing tarragon into a chosen ingredient.
#09 – Having one of the ingredients of the dish blow-torched.
#10 – Participant writing about her experience of the tasting exercises on the workshop sheet.
#11 – Participant about to eat her STS dish.

What does infrastructuring look like in STS? When? Workshop Report

The workshop was organized at the EASST2018 Conference to take stock of empirical insights and conceptual developments around the notion of infrastructuring in STS. We report on the collective process that aimed to critically map and disentangle assumptions, identify blind spots, and chart the varied uses of the notion in STS. By using a hands-on approach inspired by Participatory Design, the workshop contributes to the quest for new ways of thinking and inventing, in addition to proposing formats where collective conceptual experimentation could take place in cross-disciplinary settings.

During the EASST 2018 conference, we organized an experimental workshop with the title Infrastructuring in STS: What does infrastructuring look like? When does it look like that? The aim of the workshop was to stir discussion and reflection on the notion of infrastructuring in STS. The first instances of the use of the term infrastructure as a verb is found in Star and Bowker’s work (Star and Bowker 2002). Since then, it has gained traction in the STS field as can be testified by the close to 100 references we collected as part of the preparations for the workshop. The use of the gerund ‘infrastructuring’ is an analytical measure that shifts attention from structure to process, which has proven to be also appealing to many different research communities, including many design fields (Karasti 2014, Karasti & Blomberg 2018). Widely travelling concepts can be enriched by being influenced by different traditions in the research communities that adopt them. However, as acknowledged in the workshop, enthusiastic use and widespread adoption may also dilute the analytic purchase of this concept if connections between the different understandings of the concept are not maintained. In the workshop, some participants suggested the notion has become inflated, whereas others continued to see its value as the first wave of enthusiasm (with expected easy profits) passes.

We were interested in exploring and opening up the concept in a convivial way, with the daring idea of doing so using a hands-on approach. The possibility offered by EASST 2018 Conference to organise workshops triggered us to take inspiration from Participatory Design (Simonsen and Robertson 2013) with its focus on building together and using material artefacts as a way of thinking and drawing together through actual doing together (Latour 2008). As Noortje Marres elegantly put it in her closing keynote at the 2018 Participatory Design Conference, participatory design allows for “curating deliberate artifactual occasions as ways to reach to issues of entanglements” (Marres 2018). In the workshop, our understanding of entanglement was a conceptual one: what and when is infrastructuring?

Helena points at an image she brought to the workshop, while explaining what infrastructuring looks like. The same activity is going on at another table in the background. (Photo: Sanna Marttila CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

We asked the workshop participants to bring an artefact to the workshop: an object, image, or drawing that would help them talk about “What does infrastructuring look like? When does it look like that?” The artefact would relate to the infrastructuring theme they would want to open up during the workshop. Participants assembled into groups of 5-6, each at a table accompanied by one of the organisers. The first session started with participants presenting their object (Picture 1) and placing it on the table, then introducing the themes and questions they wanted to address. In the second part of the workshop, the participants formed new groups and continued with the previous objects already on the tables, starting to draw connections between them or reflecting on themes they had previously brought up by using a range of materials provided, such as post-it notes, toothpicks, straws, stickers and tape (Picture 2). At the end of this session, each group presented their work to all the participants.

The feedback we received from this workshop was generally positive but also provided some constructive criticism. Participants appreciated the opportunity to have a facilitated critical discussion with peers interested in the same topic. However, some participants found it difficult to engage, think and communicate with the provided workshop materials. In addition, several participants expressed a wish to continue working with the same group throughout the workshop. In retrospect, rearranging the groups did not necessarily work well for the participants. Our idea had been that the afternoon groups would be able to build on reflections that were developed in the morning groups, but it seems we had not sufficiently taken into consideration the extent to which these reflections would be rooted in the dynamics of the specific groups.

Participants discuss while gathered around their shared construction. (Photo: Sanna Marttila CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

To be able to revisit the discussions that occurred at the workshop after the event, we decided to ask for permission from participants to record the discussions at each table. Some participants questioned this choice. They argued that a workshop is something that takes place here and now and is not meant to endure outside the room and the moment. This critique addresses the intent of the workshop. Should the workshop aim to produce an outcome that could travel out of the room, or should the outcome rather be understood as residing within the participants? If the former is the case, are there other ways of preserving the discussions for later contemplation rather than by recording them? Can the material outcomes of the workshop serve this purpose, and in that case how? These are among the issues we will consider when arranging future workshops.

In working with the artefacts that participants had brought and materials provided by the organisers, many different understandings and uses of the notion ‘infrastructuring’ were compared and questioned. One of the participants noted in the feedback form that: “I was surprised that the notion of ‘infrastructuring’ has different meanings in different disciplines and practices”. Some participants were primarily attracted to the notion because of what it can add to the analysis of the empirical, such as a heightened sensitivity to process, practice, and relations. Others emphasised how ‘infrastructuring’ is situated in an ontological discussion so they were primarily interested in whether and how it constitutes a productive contribution to driving this discussion further. The process of understanding how the other participants at the table understood and used ‘infrastructuring’ analytically thus not only contributed to reflection about the concept as such, but also to broader reflections about interdisciplinary differences, similarities and entanglements between STS and disciplines that overlap or share a border with STS, such as Design, Anthropology and Information Systems.

With this workshop we brought to an STS context some practices from Participatory Design where materials, people and ideas are mobilized in collaboration. In the first session, this entailed using participants’ artefacts to talk about the notion of infrastructuring. In the second session, this entailed using different materials, such as modeling clay, straws and thread to explore connections between the objects and themes and to engage in mutual and constructive reflection about infrastructuring. Several participants expressed that talking through artefacts they had brought with them was helpful for the discussion because the objects or drawings concretized the themes that were addressed. The second session, which invited simultaneous reflecting and making, was viewed more challenging. For those who are not used to working with materials for reflection and reasoning, simultaneous thinking and making can initially be experienced as multitasking or sidetracking and thus divert one’s full attention from either. Entering a stage where making is seamlessly integrated with the thinking, may, however, serve to advance reflection. More guidance could perhaps support the transition from talking about artefacts to working with materials. This might take the form of explicit instructions to help overcome hesitancy in the encounter with an unfamiliar process. It could also include the gradual introduction of materials, so that the participants become familiarized with one material before having to deal with another. At the workshop in EASST2018 Conference we did, however, find that the different groups eventually warmed up to the task of thinking and communicating through making (Picture 3).

Detail from one group’s board featuring a person – modelled in clay – standing in relation to infrastructures as living and lived – labelled by post-it notes. (Photo: Sanna Marttila CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Using collaborative making and building to support abstract reflection seems like a promising direction for joint work on conceptual development. In a few cases we saw how the use of the materials reinforced “performative” aspects of the argument that a participant wanted to make. One example that occurred in several groups is how certain points were stressed by building a connection between concepts or infrastructure elements using bits of modelling clay or toothpicks and pieces of tread, and then smashing them up or cutting the connections while talking. While making is not the only strategy to achieve these types of connections, it is certainly one that could be used more. At a time when social sciences are starting to express interest in building new collaborative relationships with Participatory Design (Marres 2018), we support the quest for new ways of thinking, inventing and sensing collectively; hoping to further develop formats where such experimentation can take place, particularly in cross-disciplinary settings. Using a hands-on approach by working with artefacts appears to be a promising avenue to explore.

Perplexing, experimental and affective meetings at Lancaster conference

I approached this year’s EASST conference with a heightened sense of anticipation and excitement. After all, it is my favourite scholarly encounter, akin to a colourful STS pride parade, and it never fails to provide a strong sense of community and belonging amidst fruitful academic exchanges. That was certainly my experience in the previous EASST conference, and even more so because it took place in my home country, Catalonia, and in a city that is very close to my heart, Barcelona. This year was not so different, as the UK has been my adoptive home country for the past fourteen years and the legacy of the Lancaster Centre for Science Studies looms large in my way of doing and thinking with STS. The conference was also my last stop in the UK, I was about to leave behind my PhD years in Edinburgh and start my new life in Sweden, ready to join my next STS academic home at Linköping university as a postdoc.

At Lancaster’s bus station I was greeted by a group of bus drivers that kindly indicated how to make it to the conference venue; transport has been arranged, nothing to worry about. Yet, and due to a particular tendency to publicly display my practical incompetence, I still managed to head to the wrong bus. The group of drivers called out my attention and teasingly pointed out ‘you should know, you are supposed to be clever going to conferences and talking about books!’. Their observation made me laugh and got me thinking on how something so taken for granted in our academic lives such as attending conferences can be perceived by non-academic others. Are we all just a bunch of intellectuals spending public money on book club retreats? What’s the point of conferences after all? What do we get out of these choreographed gatherings? In what follows I will provide my personal answer in three parts: perplexing, experimental and affective meetings.

More than book clubbing?

Perplexing meetings

The ‘meeting soil’ plenary that brought together Starhawk with Maria Puig de la Bellacasa provided a privileged glimpse into an ongoing conversation between two seemingly disparate authors. It was a generous and unconventional move to open up a conference with a non-STS, non-academic figure in dialogue with a well-known feminist STS scholar. A testimony of STS’ capacity to embrace the other without appropriating it neither adapting it and translating it to its own academic language. Meeting in the difference and celebrating the interference. The point of departure was Maria’s transformational encounter with soils whilst taking part in Starhawk’s Earth Activist Training, thus, the meeting rendered the scholar as apprentice and the activist as intellectual. The dialogue run smooth albeit in an asymmetrical manner, it ploughed through the abundant common ground between feminist STS and activism for ecological justice but it did so by privileging Starhawk’s notion of ‘the sacred’. My curiosity was sparked and my attention tuned in as I struggled with the discomfort brought about by the language of spirituality and feminist essentialism. Such feelings of perplexity are rare and greatly generative, a sense of disquiet always invites to rephrase the questions at stake and to dig into one’s entrenched dualisms to test their obduracy. For in Starhawk’s ecofeminism the spiritual and the political are thoroughly entangled and underpin her ‘Goddess religion’ that in turn also embraces science as part of the solution[i]. Even though my initial reaction was to question what the notion of the sacred could be adding to soil activism, I decided to ‘stay with the trouble’ and embrace the odd as I went along their joint articulation of Earth remediating practices. It was indeed inspiring to see how their assemblage of small stories on bioremediation methods and transformative human-soil relations promoted alternative, affective and ethical ways of being in the world. I was struck by the message that we are all creatures of the soil – humans, animals, worms and bacteria alike – living in and off the soil whilst also being the soil. The ethical and political consequences that follow from this assertion are manifold and have become intrinsic to permaculture initiatives part of a growing culture of regeneration, remediation and repair that seems to be imbued with a stubborn and brazen sense of hope. Maria’s and Starhawk dialogue resonated with Haraway’s, Stengers’ and Tsing’s artful contestations to apocalyptic visions of Earth’s demise. It is their collaborative thinking and doing that generously provides a novel sense of hope and places the work of activism both outside and within academia in a uniquely interdisciplinary and political manner. The conversation also helped to confer a heightened sense of political responsibility to our knowledge-and-world-making practices; it defined STS’ intervention as mediators that work at the intersection of disparate domains and bring them into conversation. STS scholars were called upon as (re)mediators by intervening and interfering in environmental practices and politics. It was certainly worth staying open to an unexpected conversation that acutely brought into high relief STS’s capacity to claim that ‘it could be otherwise’. I personally left the plenary room with a strong sense that after all we might already be living in hopeful times. 

Experimental meetings

EASST has been for me a forum in which I feel allowed to be experimental, to try out new ideas and tentative approaches and offer them for collective discussion. Whilst preparing my paper for Lancaster I felt the usual frustration of struggling to capture with a succinct presentation a whole article, let alone my entire doctoral project. The ethos of Lancaster encouraged me to change gears and instead I opted for providing a thought-provoking and entertaining performance. After a few years conferring in different sites and formats I have acquired a strong allergic reaction to conferences that feature a painful succession of soliloquies directed to a distant audience that merely comes back to life to clap. I am thankful that this was not the case at EASST and that the hard work of the organising team at Lancaster transpired in the many panels that successfully delivered (more) meaningful academic encounters. It was a matter of turning up the experimental and transforming monologues into fruitful dialogues. These experimental meetings offered excellent academic value whilst retaining a sense of fun and consideration to each other because ultimately, we are each other’s audience. 

Affective meetings

The social event at Lancaster conference provided the felicitous conditions for building STS community by night: drinks, food and music. I relish these fleeting festive moments at EASST conferences, where else can you catch up with so many friends, colleagues and turn familiar names into lovely people to meet and chat? Before, during and after dinner we shared a disposition to engage with each other and to nurture our affective meetings that are also essential in our academic relations and productions. STS might not be a well-defined discipline and it might remain a heterogenous field that barely hangs together. However, when we were partying at Lancaster we enacted a sense of collective that hangs (out) together pretty neatly.

Hanging (out) together and building STS community

[i] I am grateful to Joan Haran for providing a clarifying conversation after the plenary and later sharing her working paper ’Bound in the spiral dance: Haraway, Starhawk and writing lives in feminist community’.

Innovation and STS: why, how and for whom?

How to be part of innovations is one of the crucial questions of many academics. This text deals with a question of innovation as a process of re-thinking and re-doing already existing ideas, mainly the academic findings and their consequences on non-academic world. While many academics do admit that our subjects of study are inevitably part of the research processes, the next step should be to innovate the relations outside the academia, especially after the research is done.

For many years now, STS has focused on how different socio-technical matters and worlds are enacted and for whom. In many ways, those questions are turning back to STS scholars themselves. For whom are STS theories and objects of knowledge enacted? One of the questions opened at the plenary Meeting Machines was a question of „applied STS“; similar questions were raised in the panel on multidisciplinarity (what is interdisciplinarity in practice?) and methodography (what is co-laboration in practice?). Connecting these three questions might be useful while thinking about STS and innovations.

Innovation is not necessarily about producing something new, but it also can be about re-thinking and re-making something already existing. According to Craig Calhoun, innovation is mostly “not only coming up with a new idea but continuously improving existing ideas” (Calhoun 2009). To improve existing ideas, it is necessary to co-laborate with those we study, i.e. to mutually involve ourselves with the object of study (e.g. Niewöhner 2016). Co-laborations are nothing new but often rather hidden or silenced. I suggest to keep re-thinking innovations and co-laborations; not only to give voice to those we study, but also focus on our (academic) role in the processes of innovations. Re-thinking the mode of engaging with the object of study can make us be part of, or influence, the socio-technical innovations being studied. Thus, one of the crucial questions of innovations within (social) sciences should be how to co-laborate and engage with our “subjects of study” more and better.

One might wonder why should we co-laborate even better? As one of the scholars noted during a discussion on the question of innovation, „we failed in something. Maybe in explaining. What we do is discussing together how the world works and what who performs, but we fail in communication with people outside academia.“ – „So what should we do?“ asked someone else. Should we engage differently? Or innovate more?

I suggest, we should innovate on our engagements and co-laborations with the world outside academia. For example, Science is entangled with many other world-ings: politics, but also values, cultures, and non-human agencies. At least within the STS epistemic mode, we agree on that. Yet, do we share this, quite innovative, quite revolutionary thought with either specific communities, or even the general public? Is it even possible? How should we innovate our relations with non-academics?

There are no magic answers (certainly not in this short piece of a text). However, if we understood engagement, innovation and knowledge not as final products but as processes, it will make us reflect above asked questions every time, not once but repeatedly, continuously. As much as our co-laborators whose world we study are shaping our research and our findings, we as social researchers are shaping their worlds and their understandings. As social science researchers, we already are part of our „fields“. We do engage in some, more or less explicit, more or less reflected and analyzed, ways. We co-create worlds (or world-ings) we study and shape them back. There are certainly many forms of engagement: sharing and support, teaching and public education, social critique, co-laboration, collaboration, advocacy, activism, to name some of them. Some scholars notice that while doing research, we (at least as ethnographers) tend not to co-laborate with those we do not like. That must have consequences on the disciplines, on the fields of study, and on the relations with others: politicians, economists, broader public. This makes the first point in innovation of the relations between academics and non-academics: to open ourselves to those worlds we marginalize for our lack of sympathy.

The second point should be to think through our communication strategy with non-academics. It took decades after Claude Lorius raised what is now considered to be the first scientific concern about climate change, for the general public, politics, economists, and others to somewhat incorporate it into their ontologies and epistemologies. We should try to learn from this and push the right buttons faster this time. If we want to be part of innovations, not only do we need to accept other reflexivities, but we also need to care about relationships, and to the use of knowledge depending on those relationships – not only before and during the process of research, but especially after the research is done.

We need to find out what is important, how the knowledge is used in practice and whether those we are aiming for and relate to, pick up on what we are saying. To do so, it is not only important to have a thought-through communication strategy (Calhoun 2009). We also need to keep analyzing our own world, our own processes we are living in, and co-laborate with others, including non-academics, on it. Even without magic answers, if we want to innovate, we need to reflect on how to do it, how it has been done by now and what are the limits.

I call for more openness. Let´s open the tower of academia. Let´s take the time and energy to write to the daily newspaper, comment on what is happening – credit academics and junior researchers for their writings, and public events outside academia. Let´s collectively, and openly, talk about changes needed both within and outside academia. Let´s co-laborate with those we do not like (Niewöhner 2016). Let´s institutionalize applied STS. Let´s be creative in methods. And let´s collectively reflect on what we are doing, not only as academics but as part of the broad public. At the end, we will not be alone, in the thinking and doing.

Talking about them with them? Representing objects-subjects in STS Conferences

Following some examples for the EASST Lancaster “Meetings” conference, I use this short paper to reflect on a few of my concerns regarding representation in STS conferences. I review here briefly examples regarding socio-material complexes implicated in the fields of health, medicine and environment as discussed in Lancaster. I suggest that as far as STS conference talks are concerned, a cue can be taken from STS’ own concern with different aspects of materiality, to transform the ways in which objects-subjects of research are represented verbally.

Attending EASST conferences in Torun, Barcelona and now Lancaster, I have gained a certain perspective on how subjects, matters and issues of discussion have evolved. The issues with which STS is engaged have become more varied, complex and numerous. This echoes the complexity and indeterminacy of challenges that figure in public life and discourse, on the backdrop of a changing political context. Changes in climate, environment, health and medicine, data, gender, governance, and regulation. All these, to name just a few, preoccupy STS scholars. As reality is in flux, this is brought forward to be discussed in EASST conferences. The Lancaster conference explored the conjoining of these various changes, as its lead theme of “Meetings” indicates. Yet, as reality multiplies (Mol, 2002), I could not escape the growing impression that discourse multiplies as well and that the gulf between the two, reality and discourse about it, widens.

Figure 1 – Gothic ornaments at Lancaster Priory Church overseeing discourse at the EASST Meeting (photo: Nadav Even Chorev)

I will illustrate what I mean with a few examples from talks I have listened to, or the one I gave in the panel I co-chaired (C26). This last one focused on the state of STS research into the field of precision medicine. Remarkably, in my view, the panel consisted of three full sessions with some members of the audience holding through all of them. Some of the papers clearly addressed problems in precision medicine that have direct implications for practitioners, medical technologies and the sometimes subjugating practices by which these are administered. Above all, the problems discussed impinged directly on patients, their experiences and pre-discursive suffering. Those papers that dealt with patients, but also with clinicians and scientists, including my own, brought quotes and excerpts from interviews and direct observation. Can this type of bringing the voices from the field be turned into actual participation of informants, artifacts and so on? Will such participation distort an STS theoretical approach of some kind or the explanation of knowledge production practices or make them less symmetrical? After all, some of the STS stories told (Law and Singleton, 2000) entailed practices of exclusion (for example, of ethnic groups from Nordic biobanks, or in possibilities to access population-wide genomic studies) or coercion (e.g. in the use of a new respiratory diagnostic technology in the UK). The need to explain and generalize from the idiosyncratic practices on the ground is clear, but can a more direct way of mediating be found (Geertz, 1988)?
This can be viewed as a post-modernistic disconnection between the signifier and the signified. The concept of “fact”, denoting real, hard, undeniable empirical evidence, has lately fallen out of grace. Only a year before the Lancaster meeting, post-truth was debated over the pages of Social Studies of Science (2017). It is not my intention here to decide whether discussions in Lancaster represented an epistemological democratization or retreat from the world. The great majority of presentations and papers that I have had the opportunity to hear were focused on pressing problems that concern people everywhere. However, I wish to use this opportunity to make sense of my concern that the way issues are talked about, is detached from issues themselves. This concern stems in part from my own engagement with an environmental health phenomenon that is associated with long-term adverse problems. The basis for this is an approach that examines effects originating from real-world scenarios. Interestingly, this comes from medicine’s own recognition that science does not exist in a void (Sherman et al., 2016). This understanding has affinity with STS reformative, engaged, underlying aspirations (Sismondo, 2008).

The next two examples pose a more complex case in light of these questions. They deal with two distinct perspectives on issues of environmental contamination and how to act on it. One concerns the plenary titled “Meeting Soil”, the other, a panel on toxicity (A29). In the plenary, two ecofeminists spoke about engagement with soil itself through micro-practices of permaculture. Both speakers, one activist, the other STS scholar, explored the possibilities of pushing beyond legitimate scientific knowledge on soil by recognizing its sacred and affective qualities. One departed from a binary historical narrative to describe this, the other used ‘STS dialect’. Common to both was the grounding, so to speak, and belief in small-scale, grassroots activities and their capacity to instigate environmental improvement. In contrast to the benign tone of the plenary discussion, under the same sun, on the same planet, other man-made environmental harms are taking place, as reflected by papers in panel A29. We are not only constantly exposed to a myriad of chemicals. Exposure relates to multiple social and political practices, from the most mundane to the most powerful expressions of late-modern capitalism. In a sense, toxic chemicals, as understood in this panel too, are a kind of material-semiotic complex: a matter inextricably connected with discourse. Like soil, the challenge is to make the all-encompassing presence of chemicals visible, turning our gaze so as to enable action. As some of the papers have shown, even in the field of chemical exposure, bottom-up actions are possible. Both soil-emanating permaculture and chemical-countering activities are strategies for dealing with imminent environmental threats. What is the difference between regaining the visibility of soil and that of chemicals? Perhaps it is in the metaphorical part of the material-semiotic complex, where soil may be sacred, but health effects of chemicals represent the consequences of a disenchanted world. What kind of political action is required to act on these two different facets of the environmental whole? Grassroot action if possible in both field. Yet, action on the scale of ‘humble’ or ‘invisible minor stories’ can be regarded as a weapon of the weak, while what is necessary is concerted political action on a different scale.

What can be done to address the absence of what is talked about in STS conferences such as that in Lancaster? How to reach for a representation in which the pre-discursive quality (Butler, 1990: 7) of material phenomena can show more directly through metaphorical, ‘material-semiotic’ complexes? How can this pre-discursive quality be articulated while still recounting material agency and performativity (Marres, 2012)? Picking up on the theme of “Meetings”, a preliminary direction could be to ‘meet’ the object-subject of discourse at occasions of discourse themselves, such as conference talks. Instead of “talking about them without them”, create frameworks in which patients, activists, soils, chemical, diagnostic artifacts and abstract data, can play out their own role in presentations. Let object-subjects, be they human or non-human, speak for themselves in a kind of performance styled on citizen science, to allow for symmetry not only in the evaluation of knowledge, but also in its STS conference representation.

 

References

Butler J (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.

Geertz C (1988) Being Here: Whose Lift Is It Anyway? In: Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 129–149.

Law J and Singleton V (2000) Performing Technology’s Stories: On Social Constructivism, Performance, and Performativity. Technology and Culture 41(4): 765–775.

Marres N (2012) Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

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

Sherman RE, Anderson SA, Dal Pan GJ, et al. (2016) Real-World Evidence — What Is It and What Can It Tell Us? New England Journal of Medicine 375(23): 2293–2297. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsb1609216.

Sismondo S (2008) Science and Technology Studies and an Engaged Program. In: Hackett EJ, Amsterdamska O, Lynch M, et al. (eds) The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Third Edition. 1. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, pp. 13–31.

Social Studies of Science (2017) Volume 47, Number 4. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/toc/sssb/47/4 (accessed 12 September 2018).

Political sociabilities: Where are my kin?

These thoughts concern the political urgency of connecting with political kin. The un/doing of social relations enables the performance of planetary politics through everyday sociabilities in material worlds. The parting question of my presentation was ‘where are my kin?’ Which of us desire to perform a politics of matter in concrete material worlds, and in/as mundane everyday experience? How can those insistent on doing political work before and beyond research find and nurture each other, given that we may speak different academic idioms, and that the pressures to survive inside/outside the academic institution may hide or compromise our political intent?

I write of the political urgency of connecting with political kin. My thoughts concern the necessary doing and undoing of social relations in order to perform more lively planetary politics, as everyday sociabilities in material worlds. I have escaped from the traditional academic institution, which I regard as unfit for this purpose. And yet, as I undo my relations with ‘proper’ scholarship, I must learn how to forge new relations with improper, political kin.

EASST was, conceivably, my last ever ‘proper’ academic gig (Panagia 2009), performed shortly before handing in a PhD thesis which takes the form of a suicide note to the neoliberal academy. Submitting the troubling thesis was the final act of killing off the remaining vestiges of a proper academic self. I had hacked the funding opportunities. I had demolished the brief: ’innovation in the digital economy’ became ‘mending as a more than human, noncapitalist politics of matter’. I had stolen research time to plot my escape. I had exited the neoliberal force field and ended up in a fragile, unmarked dwelling in Cuba, where the critters and the weather can kill. I now live an improper, unscholarly afterlife, as the excess. An outside politics (Papadopoulos et al 2008) of matter is what my material labour aims to perform. My disciplined commitment is towards escapology from the dried-in habits and insensible assumptions of the deathly dominant regime. To do this, I experiment in making alternative modes of existence materialise through my everyday experience, through a process I term ‘ontoexperiment’ (Middleton 2018).

Mending in Havana. Credit: Raúl Olivera Hernández

I have embraced indeterminacy, vulnerability, and risk as the new normal, but one of the less anticipated challenges, as I distance myself from proper sociabilities, is to connect with fellow improper kin. By this, I mean those who are also working on the messy construction sites where ‘alterontologies’ (Papadopoulos 2018) are finding form, those who conduct a politics of matter in material worlds, those who also refuse to perform the dominant logic through everyday experience, those who experiment with their lives. I am certain that my kin are many, but too often we keep quiet, we blend in. Our impropriety is so diverse, and so lacking in infrastructure (Berlant 2016) that it is notoriously hard for us to find each other (Halberstam 2013). How can those insistent on doing political work before and beyond research find and nurture each other, given that we may speak different academic idioms, and that the pressures to survive inside/outside the academic institution may hide or compromise our political intent?

The EASST gig went great. I abridged the suicide note in 14 minutes, 58 seconds flat. I was fresh in from Cuba and had short shrift for anyone and anything that stopped short of a concrete material response to the planetary emergency. My performance was deeply troubling (to) habits and assumptions, and yet, my audience made me feel welcome. They were ready to be discomforted, it seemed. Their affect embraced me. The parting slide was ‘where are my kin?,’ and the Q&A stuck firmly within the practicalities of the ‘what next?’ Thanks to comments by Laura Watts and Andy Yuille, I realise that in Cuba my kin are the extended web of ‘amistades’ (friendships); the neighbours who I have ‘nothing’ in common with, those who let my family sleep on their floor during a hurricane, those who give me their last egg to make a birthday cake when none are available for sale, those who come asking for a few leaves from my garden to cure an ailment. These kinship networks do the work that Google and Amazon do in the ‘broken sociality’ (Berlant 2016) of the Global North. These fleshy kin, who are not of my choosing, are the people in physical proximity who help, threaten, take advantage, share, teach, gossip, deceive, sacrifice and protect in the compromised and dis/comforting social ties of everyday life.

Then, quite separately, there are the kin that I can choose, the political kin I interpel in this piece, those I can perhaps tease into online entanglements, those with whom I crave energising, practical-focused conversations. But in the everyday struggles of material existence, these kin are likely to be too busy to sustain a conversation, too distant to populate a community, or too overwhelmed by the discomforts of enduring the risky sociabilities which that would entail. The sociabilities I really seek to join, to create and to nurture, then, are constituted through fleshy-political kinships, among the political kin who, like me, dwell on the vulnerable plane of everyday alternative materialities, kin who dare to depend increasingly on one another, kin whose mutual dependencies can kill off the deathly sociabilities of neoliberal capital. Material politics can really kick off when physical and political kin become a material community, when political kin turn from reading Haraway and Barad, and get un/comfortable, intimate, risky, and dirty nailed.

Back in the unmarked house in the unmarked street, mine is as yet an insensible solo performance in an insensible world. It’s my political imperative to turn this into a collective endeavour, and besides, I’m desperate to find human kin to dance, to laugh, and drink tea. Coping alone was never an aim, but it’s a habit, and I am still undoing the givenness of self and self-sufficiency (Yusoff 2013). We need to become nonself-sufficient, however we might come to understand the term. My ‘affective infrastructure’ (Berlant 2016, 414) is negligible and my desire to ‘conven[e] a world conjointly (ibid, 395), remains in unresolved tension. To live in risk and vulnerability, breaking old ties as I go, requires building networks of new ties to fill the affective and infrastructural gap between the existing worlds we abandon and the alternative worlds we perform into existence. ‘The social relations we create every day prefigure the world to come, not just in a metaphorical sense, but also quite literally: they truly are the emergence of that other world embodied in the constant motion and interaction of bodies’ says Shukaitis (2009, 143).

PhD study has a toxic effect on everyday sociabilities, it polices the ability to sustain any form of healthy human relations, and to find time for anything other than itself. I’m emerging from the process with my kinship networks in tatters, and with the potential for activist scholarship collapsed. I have taken my doctoral commitment seriously because the thesis is for a politics of matter, not for a potential academic career. As a result, I have produced something approaching a proper thesis at risk to myself and loved ones, and in cruel isolation from the political kin it needs to translate to, learn from, and share with, in the hope that publishing my experience can help to generate political movement in material worlds. What happens next is a collective question. So I ask again, who, and where are my kin?


References

Berlant L (2016) The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34(3): 393–419.

Halberstam J (2013) The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons. In: Harney S and Moten F The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2-12.

Middleton J (2018) Mending the sensible: Ontoexperiments in the politics of matter. PhD thesis, Lancaster University, UK.

Panagia S (2009) The improper event: on Jacques Rancière’s mannerism, Citizenship Studies, 13:3, 297-308.

Papadopoulos D, Stephenson N and Tsianos V (2008) Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the Twentieth Century. London: Pluto Press.

Papadopoulos D (2018) Experimental Practice. Technoscience, Alterontologies, and More-Than-Social Movements. Durham: Duke University Press.

Shukaitis D (2009) Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life. London: Autonomedia.

Yusoff K (2013) Insensible worlds: Postrelational ethics, indeterminacy and the (k)nots of relating. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31(2): 208–226.

Decolonial and Intersectional Feminist Afterthoughts

In this brief short article, I reflect on the relevance to think in decolonial and intersectional feminist ways in order to open up new investigations in the discipline of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and within STS conferences. I do this by highlighting the critiques of indigenous and black feminist scholars about the discipline.

Graffiti, Gore Street, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. Wikimedia Commons.

I start this brief conference afterthoughts with a point made by Malcolm Ashmore and Olga Restrepo Forero’s at EASST conference during their talk entitled: “Why Bogota? The local, the global, and the interesting. Or: STS, here and there”. In their presentation they spoke about the importance of place in Science and Technology Studies (STS). Part of their argument was to highlight a bias in the ways in which researchers needed to give reason(s) why they studying in or about a location seen as the ‘periphery’, while those studying a EuroAmerican topic/location rarely needed such justification.

The issue of place begs a number of additional questions: How does place affect perspective(s)? How does it impact a discipline such as STS? To which extent place influences who is listened to, who has the authority to speak and who is invited to a panel? How does place influence the conference experience? I am located in Canada where I live and where I am doing my PhD. Its current forms of activism and societal debates influence me greatly. I am particularly animated by critical voices and actions that are making cracks in past and present forms of colonialism and capitalism. Questions of decolonization, decoloniality and indigenity are not only part of an analytical framework I am inspired by, but more so my praxis is more and more informed by such thoughts.

In the past couple of years, indigenous resurgence has marked and influenced those who have been willing to listen and to attempt a long process of decolonizing one’s minds. Even in university settings, academic activities are now starting to include land acknowledgment as part of a decolonizing process. After all, Canada, like many other countries, is a settler colonial country. Such acknowledgment reminds us that the land that we live on, that we benefit from in terms of its rich resources (oil, water, minerals) was stolen by French and British colonialism with the doctrine of terra nullius. This symbolic gesture of land acknowledgment within conferences is a small act in a wider and more complex process of decolonization.

I cannot talk about place without talking about situatedness or what Donna Haraway calls situated knowledges. According to Haraway (1988), all knowledge production is situated in social relations, all knowledges arise from a partial perspective, and all perspectives taken from subjugated positions provide the most “objective” accounts of the social worlds from which they emerge. In Canada, one of the most important situated knowledges is that of indigenous peoples. Without taking seriously their claims to sovereignty and for nation to nation relations genuine process decolonization will remain a metaphor (Tuck and Yang 2012).

Discussing the relationship between place and situatedness is relevant when one travels to a conference in a country with a different political heritage, decolonization process, activism, and current burning debates. I consider place and situatedness less as categories and more as relations embedded in larger geopolitical and economic processes to only name two. Notwithstanding, burning debate(s) in a discipline are often informed by place and situatedness and in turn influence ones thinking: the theoretical approaches that one is animated by and the types of voices one wants to listen to, among others.

In an attempt to initiate a process of decolonizing STS, the metis scholar Zoe Todd (2016) who teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa talks about the erasure of indigenous knowledges in STS. Her critique has wide ramification since she argues that knowledge production in STS still perpetuates colonialism today. In her article entitled “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism” she pushes us to rethink how knowledge production functions and how this process is still connected to colonialism. She asks two interrelated questions. First, how can a decolonial approach ensure the acknowledgment of indigenous thinking in Euro‐Western scholarship, activism, and socio‐political discourse? The discourse on STS she argues has to be decolonized and ought to acknowledge the work of indigenous peoples in the turn to new materialism (in other words the human-non human relation) otherwise colonial relationships are replicated. The second question she asks is how can marginalize voices be heard in academia, including within conferences? Making room for such voices is essential for making STS a discipline that continues to evolve, change and be relevant.

Feminist Science and Technology Studies (FSTS) too is a framework that is called to change in exciting directions. New engagements of FSTS with intersectional analysis of gender and race, for instance, open up areas of investigation that have at times been overlooked. This framework for deepening an analysis of power and oppression across multiple axes and rooted in black and African feminist thoughts allow us to highlight the relationality or co-construction of the world we live in. In “Feminist Science and Technology Studies: A Patchwork of Moving Subjectivities” (Bauchspies and Puig de la Bellacasa 2009) Banu Subramaniam identified intersectionality as an understanding of gender which FSTS should engage with more deeply. Such engagement had already started with the writings of Patricia Hill Collins (1999) in her article “Moving Beyond Gender: Intersectionality and Scientific Knowledge”. In this article, she examined how feminist analysis of gender and scientific knowledge might benefit from closer ties with intersectionality. She identified two types of relationship that came to define this understanding of gender. First, the interconnectedness of ideas and social structures in which they occur, and second, the intersecting hierarchies of gender, race, class, sexuality, and ethnicity (1999). Collins argues that feminist criticism of scientific knowledge gives little attention to the issue of race rather favoring the category of gender. She uses the term parallelism rather than intersecting to refer to the assumption whereby social categories such as gender and race are too often disconnected. Emphasising only the male/female dichotomy while forgetting all others weakens scholarly feminist analysis.

In her intersectional feminist technological work, Safia Noble (2018) shifts discourses away from liberatory possibilities of the internet toward more critical engagements with how the internet is a site of power and control over Black life. Her use of intersectionality allows to interconnecting ideas of power and control and the social structures in which they occur. Her work is important for feminist engagements in STS as it highlights the failure of the social construction of technology theorists to identify how these practices are co-constituted in racialized and gendered ways that involve power and often maintain systemic discrimination and oppression.

I close this reflection by stressing for continued engagements with critical and feminist science and technology studies among which are decolonial, postcolonial, anticolonial, intersectional feminist and indigenous perspectives. This engagement can also be reflected in the plenary panels and talks where an even greater place to diversity is made. Feminist science and technology were very well represented at EASST (such as meeting soil and meeting Frankenstein) it would be fantastic to make room for a greater diversity of voices and non-white speakers in the next EASST.

References

Bauchspies WK and de la Bellacasa M (2009) Feminist Science and Technology Studies: A Patchwork of Moving Subjectivities. An Interview with Geoffrey Bowker, Sandra Harding, Anne Marie Mol, Susan Leigh Star and Banu Subramaniam. Subjectivity 28: 334–344.

Collins PH (1999) Moving beyond Gender : Intersectionality and Scientific Knowledge. In: Revisioning Gender, edited by Ferree MM, Lorber J and Hess BB, 261–84. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Haraway D (1988) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feministstudies Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–99.

Noble SU (2017) Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press.

Todd Z (2016) An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ is just another word for colonialism. Journal of Historical Sociology 29(1): 4-22.

Tuck E and Yang KW (2012) Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society 1(1).