Tag Archives: STS Events

Webinar Report: “Back to Normal? Social Justice & DOHaD in the COVID Era”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, many countries are resuming economic and social activities, with the goal of returning to some semblance of ‚normality‘. But how should this new normal look like? This was the topic of an interdisciplinary webinar entitled Back to Normal? Social Justice and the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease in the COVID Era, which took place on December 7, 2020. The webinar was hosted by the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS) at the Technical University of Munich in collaboration with the International Society for Developmental Origins of Health and Disease as well as the University of Southampton. 

The webinar was the result of a longstanding collaboration between Mark Hanson and Chandni Jacob from the Institute for Developmental Sciences (IDS) at the University of Southampton and Ruth Müller and myself from the MCTS. The IDS is a leading center in the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) field. This biomedical research field is based on the hypothesis that many chronic diseases have developmental origins (Gluckman, Buklijas, & Hanson, 2016). DOHaD traces how environmental influences like nutrition, stress or toxic exposure during susceptible periods (such as in utero or the first two years of life) can condition the developing organism in ways that make it more likely to develop disease decades later in adulthood. DOHaD has received interest from Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars because it promises to open up a ‘biosocial perspective’ that considers how social factors shape biological processes and that allows bringing questions of social justice into biomedical thinking and practice (Müller et al., 2017). At the same time, some STS scholars have cautioned against reductionist tendencies in DOHaD that might lead to focusing predominantly on maternal factors and thus re-produce gendered stereotypes that contribute to ‘blaming the mother’ (e.g., Richardson et al., 2014).

In this context, the webinar was part of our ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration with DOHaD researchers on how STS perspectives can contribute to socially responsible DOHaD research and policy translations (Penkler et al., 2019). It brought together in equal parts researchers from DOHaD and STS to discuss what social justice questions arise in the present pandemic. One of our departing premises was that the current pandemic has dramatically highlighted how social inequalities are tied to unequal vulnerabilities, with disadvantaged groups bearing the biggest social, health and economic burden. While associations of adverse effects with so-called ‘pre-existing’ conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes have been widely reported, it is important to highlight how many of these conditions have their roots in underlying social inequalities. At the same time, the economic and social effects of the current crisis are set to exacerbate existing inequalities, with potentially long-term health consequences as women and children are groups that, while not being at high risks of adverse health outcomes from COVID-19, are particularly affected by the pandemic’s economic and social impact (Penkler et al., 2020).

After an introduction by Mark Hanson and Ruth Müller, Martha Kenney from the San Francisco State University delivered the first presentation on Social Justice and Recovery from COVID-19. In her presentation, she pointed out that a focus on so-called ‘pre-existing conditions’ like obesity runs danger of losing sight of underlying social inequalities and of locating risk and responsibility primarily at the level of the individual. This could reinforce a eugenic logic that separates healthy ‘us’ from unhealthy ‘others’ who are blamed for their own ill-health. Instead, it is important to highlight and address the structural factors that drive health disparities. DOHaD insights on how adverse conditions during early life can increase the risk for later life disease accord with social science insights how social inequalities and structures of inequality become embodied, shaping health outcomes across the life course and generations. Therefore, social justice is fundamental to promoting health in society, and resilience to health emergencies requires systematic rather than individual change. In this context, Kenney ended her talk with recommendations for strengthening the social justice impact of DOHaD research: Collaborating with STS scholars and other social scientists can help design studies that account for both biological and social complexity. DOHaD researchers should further identify concerns and research questions that are relevant to the communities being studied. Additionally, she recommends to focus DOHaD research on investigating structural causes of inequality instead on lifestyle and individual behaviors, and to conduct research on how to promote community resilience instead of focusing mainly on the negative outcomes of adverse early life conditions. 

Tessa Roseboom from the University of Amsterdam delivered a talk that was deftly named Using the ‘shit’ of the COVID-19 crisis as a fertilizer for the soilbase to build a sustainable society for future generations. Roseboom’s work has focused on the long-term health consequences of prenatal exposures during the Dutch Hunger Winter, which was a famine caused by a German embargo during World War II (Roseboom, de Rooij, & Painter, 2006). Her studies have provided evidence for how adverse conditions during early childhood can have severe long-term impacts on the risk for cardiovascular disease as well as on cognitive function in later life. According to Roseboom, this shows how fundamental early life is for later wellbeing and for the possibility of children reaching what she calls their ‘full potential’. In this context, providing adequate conditions for children to grow and develop is fundamentally children’s rights issue, as captured by the United Nation’s Declaration of the Right of the Child. This is especially pertinent in the current crises, where children and families are particularly affected by increases in domestic violence, a deteriorating economy, increased stress and food insecurities. Given the possible long-term effects, we need to invest in early human development now to lay the foundation for a more just and sustainable future for all.

In her talk, Sarah Richardson reported findings from Harvard University’s GenderSci Lab COVID Project, which show how social factors mediate and drive sex disparities in COVID-19 outcomes. For example, gender-related behavioral factors influence the uptake of preventive practices (e.g., men are less likely to wear masks). Structural aspects are important, too: Gender differences in occupation effectively lead to a gender-segregated structure of exposure, with men being more likely to work in fields that come with a higher risk of exposure. Together, these findings highlight how context matters for interpreting disparities in health and for explaining sex differences that were originally seen as primarily biological in origin (Shattuck-Heidorn, Reiches, & Richardson, 2020). Richardson argued that this provides an important lesson for DOHaD research. The C-19 pandemic will offer an opportunity to study the long-term effects of prenatal and early life exposures. This corresponds to a well-established research approach in DOHaD to work with so-called ‘natural experiments’. However, such study designs run the risk of reducing complexity, as events like the Dutch Hunger Winter or the current pandemic are incredibly complex. The idea that we can study these events at the level of the body is a move that potentially translates modest and uncertain findings into very bold biosocial theories that often locate causality and agency in the intrauterine period. Such an approach risks collapsing very different scales (from the social to the molecular), levels of biological and social analysis as well as different time scales and histories into very specific claims about biological processes like neurocognitive development. According to Richardson, these claims produce potentially very compelling narratives, but they need to be critically questioned. In investigating the long-term effects of the C-19 pandemic, DOHaD researchers should be aware that we are dealing with very complex social factors and that we are reasoning about risk under conditions of uncertainty and large gaps in the data. 

In the final presentation, Shane Norris from Wits University spoke on global health and justice perspectives raised by the current pandemic, with a specific focus on South Africa. South Africa had initially a very rapid and successful response to COVID-19 that ended in preventing many hospitalizations. However, this response had also very uneven effects on its population. In particular, it severely disrupted the informal economy on which many South African communities rely. The substantial economic fallout has disproportionally affected women, who work to a larger extent in the informal economy. This is one example of how multiple inequalities in a very unequal society intersect and reinforce each other, with strong intergenerational effects. According to Norris, we need to pay attention to these inequalities and narrow the gap if we want to achieve better health for everyone. Bringing a better understanding of the social determinants of health and disease to the DOHaD literature is absolutely critical in this context. 

In sum, the presentations and the following lively discussion revealed substantial shared “matters of care” (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2011) between DOHaD and STS scholars. Speakers and participants from both fields shared concerns with how to build a more equitable world that provides better health for everyone. There were also some points for debate: for example, some discussants pointed out the danger of deterministic narratives that describe certain population groups as biologically damaged due to adverse experiences in early life, arguing that this could have eugenic implications. But overall, the webinar provided a strong example for how biomedical researchers and social scientists can engage in mutual and symmetric discussions on how to promote the social justice impact of health research. The next step, from my perspective, will be to further explore how to turn these discussions into actual interdisciplinary collaborations that for example include STS scholars into the design and implementation of DOHaD research studies.

You can find a recording of the webinar here: https://youtu.be/6xgOlVYeufo 




Gluckman PD, Buklijas T and Hanson MA (2016) The Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) concept: past, present, and future. In Rosenfeld CS (ed) The epigenome and developmental origins of health and disease. Boston, MA: Academic Press, pp. 1-15.

Müller R, Hanson C, Hanson M, Penkler M, Samaras G, Chiapperino L, Dupré J, Kenney M, Kuzawa C, Latimer J, Lloyd S, Lunkes A, Macdonald M, Meloni M, Nerlich B, Panese F, Pickersgill M, Richardson SS, Rüegg J, Schmitz S, Stelmach A and Villa, P-I (2017) The biosocial genome? Interdisciplinary perspectives on environmental epigenetics, health and society. EMBO Reports 18(10): 1677–1682.

Penkler M, Hanson M, Biesma RG and Müller R (2019) DOHaD in science and society: emergent opportunities and novel responsibilities. Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease 10(3): 268-273.

Penkler M, Müller R, Kenney M and Hanson M (2020) Back to normal? Building community resilience after COVID-19. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology 8(8): 664-665. 

Puig de la Bellacasa M (2011) Matters of care in technoscience: assembling neglected things. Social Studies of Science 41(1): 85-106. 

Richardson SS, Daniels CR, Gillman MW, Golden J, Kukla R, Kuzawa C and Rich-Edwards J (2014) Don’t blame the mothers. Nature 512: 131-132. 

Roseboom T, de Rooij S and Painter R (2006) The Dutch famine and its long-term consequences for adult health. Early Human Development 82(8): 485-491.

Shattuck-Heidorn H, Reiches and Richardson SS (2020, June 24, 2020). What’s really behind the gender gap in Covid-19 deaths? New York Times. 

Unraveling the landscape: a 360° workshop

The idea behind this workshop was borne out of a previous collaboration between António Baía Reis and Michelle Kasprzak in 2018. At that time, and within the same natural and research setting of Câmara de Lobos, the two authors where brought together by the desire to explore 360° video storytelling and ended up producing a short documentary about the life, achievements, and misadventures of a Madeiran master boat builder. Inspired by this previous experience, they sought to outline a project where they would teach and guide young people to critically and creatively reflect about the world around them using the same emerging storytelling techniques. With this in mind, the workshop gathered a diverse group of people consisting of four finalist students from the bachelor’s degree in Visual Arts of the University of Madeira, a young man from Câmara de Lobos, and an Italian Ph.D. student based on the island.

Drawing from our field notes and by observing this group’s specific dynamics and interactions, one might clearly split this group into three different mindsets, he first consisting of the four university art students. These four students were very much in harmony with each other throughout the entire workshop, especially during the brainstorming that led to outlining the production of the short video. Their approach was evidently aligned with a certain esthetic complexity and abstract way of thinking and approaching problems, quite distinctive of students that are exposed to art history, theories, and practices. They always seemed to try to find subliminal ways of conveying an idea, through the subtleties that artistic expression might encompass.


Art students experiencing virtual reality. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

On the flipside, the young man from Câmara de Lobos showed a different mindset, conveyed by a pragmatic way of thinking but overall a mindset that proved to be quite effective in terms of accomplishing a smooth group workflow. His insights and ideas were strong and informative. When facing a creative challenge, he showed a consistent ability to go straight to the point. Efficient creativity might be a good category to define this young man’s approach.

Telmo (young man from Câmara de Lobos) and Mela (Italian Ph.D. student)during the braistorming. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

Finally, the Ph.D. student acted as a typical academic, i.e., balancing between free thinking and scientific analyses of everything that was happening around her, a sort of a limbo between herself as a participant and outsider making detached scientific observations. The idea that diversity triggers creative and innovative outcomes in groups is broadly accepted (Bantel & Jackson, 1989; Austin, 1997). Nevertheless, having different backgrounds and perspectives can create some difficulties. It wasn’t the case with this work group. The combination of the diverse abovementioned approaches clearly contributed to accomplish the goal of this workshop, which was the creation of a collaborative short 360° video.

The workshop took place in the Madeiran Press Museum – in the midst of old press machines and with the ghost of Gutenberg – a quite evocative setting to be thinking and reflecting about storytelling. On the first day, and after quite a thorough team building exercise, the participants were introduced to the most relevant concepts, theories, and practices around 360° video storytelling. This theoretical outline was informed mostly by key studies on immersive journalism (Baía Reis et al., 2018; Jones, 2017; Laws, 2017), and it was focused on concepts like immersion, presence, and emotion in relation to virtual reality technologies to set the basis for understanding how to use 360°storytelling to tell stories yet untold. This was followed by a showcase of a selection of 360° videos using a virtual reality headset to expose the participants first-hand to this emergent practice. Then, we proposed that the group come up with a story yet untold that they wanted to tell about their community that would make sense in virtual reality storytelling. The group decided to tell a story about the unexpected influence of Winston Churchill in Madeira. The third and final days were devoted to shooting, editing, and presenting the short video.

Braistorming and defining the storyline for the 360° video production. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

The brainstorming for selecting the story and the video production processes were clearly the most relevant moments for us to examine, e.g., creativity as both a process and an outcome (Miliken et al., 2003) and how that manifested through the diverse perspectives within the group. During the brainstorming, when everyone was asked about what story should be told, an immediate and clear  idea about doing something on Winston Churchill came from the young man from Câmara de Lobos. Throughout the brainstorming and video production, the inputs of this young man were clearly the ones that established the focus to effectively create a successful collective outcome. One might say that he unconsciously guided his fellow participants and their divergent ideas into a convergent structured attitude. In fact, creative processes require both divergent and convergent thinking for the sustained development of creative outcomes by work groups (Miliken et al., 2003).

Shooting the 360° video in the bay of Câmara de Lobos. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

Furthermore, by assuming a relevant role in the shooting and editing processes, he showed an ability to focus on his tasks and to make quick, simple, and practical decisions. This approach was complemented by a certain artistic finesse that arose from the art students, who tried to think of original ways for conveying the story, and a sort of a mediating approach by the Ph.D. student who throughout the entire process seemed to be mediating ideas by deconstructing them to her fellow participants so that everyone could see its advantages and disadvantages, thus making informed and coherent decisions. Overall, one might argue that the combination of these diverse perspectives led to a fluent, flexible and original creative process. Fluency, flexibility, and originality of thought were, therefore, defining qualities of the final creative outcome (Miliken et al., 2003), the short video about Winston Churchill and his relation to Madeira.

The “Winston Churchill” viewpoint in Câmara de Lobos. The sign says “Winston Churchill painted here in 1950” Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

Creative processes and analysis apart, some attention should be given to this most unlikely combination: Winston Churchill and Madeira island. At the entrance of Câmara de Lobos there is a viewpoint which owes its name to the British prime minister Winston Churchill, who painted a seascape depicting the bay in this location. The Winston Churchill viewpoint, located at the entrance of the city of Câmara de Lobos, allows you to enjoy a magnificent panoramic view of the dry dock, the bay, and the town. Built in 1963, it was known at the time as the “Espírito Santo” (Holy Spirit) viewpoint. Later the name was changed, as a way for the picturesque village of Câmara de Lobos to remember and pay tribute to Winston Churchill, since in this location the British prime minister painted the abovementioned seascape depicting the bay. But this is not the only Churchill reference you find in this fishermen’s town. Churchill is everywhere, in restaurants, in guided tours, souvenirs shops, a true “Churchillmania”. With this mind, the short video produced within this workshop explores this phenomenon and counter reacts to it by telling the “true stories” about this town’s old traditions and culture, so deeply related to the lives of fishermen.

The bay of Câmara de Lobos. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

In short, we engaged a diverse group of people in understanding the potential of emerging technologies and how to use them in a creative way to tell stories yet untold in a small neighborhood at the edge of Europe; we promoted an open event where the results were discussed, the short 360° video was showcased, and all the participants had the opportunity to share their experience with the wider community; Finally, we had the chance to academically reflect about this experience by analyzing the various dynamics between the participants, the setting, and the creative processes involved. Having the bay of Câmara de Lobos and the Atlantic as our background, this workshop succeeded in achieving its proposed goals by combining three classical features of science and technology studies: scientific knowledge, technology, and society.





Austin, J. R., 1997. A cognitive framework for understanding demographic influences in groups. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 5, pp. 342-359

Baía Reis, A., Coelho, A. F. V. C. C., 2018. Virtual Reality and Journalism, Digital Journalism, 6 (8), pp. 1090-1100

Bantel, C. A., Jackson, S. E., 1989. Top management and innovations in banking: Does the composition of the top team make a difference? Strategic Management Journal, 10, pp. 107-124

Jones, S., 2017. Disrupting the Narrative: Immersive Journalism in Virtual Reality. Journal of Media Practice, 18, pp. 171-185

Laws, A. L. S., 2017. Can Immersive Journalism Enhance Empathy? Digital Journalism. DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2017.1389286

Miliken, F. J., Bartel, C. A., Kurtzberg T. R., 2003. Diversity and Creativity in Work Groups: A Dynamic Perspective on the Affective and Cognitive Processes That Link Diversity and Performance. Group Creativity: Innovation Through Collaboration, Oxford University Press, pp. 34-62


Report: ‘Stsing’ – Towards inclusive forms of STS-in-Germany

Due to the rising number of STS programs the first generation of STS trained alumni is about to emerge in Germany. This potential is not to be wasted due to loose integration, coordination and missing mutual support. STS needs more visibility within the German academic community and beyond and career paths for both junior and senior scientists still need to become an integral part of German research facilities.

The two STS related organizations in Germany (namely INSIST and GWTF) are only addressing particular strands of STS. This is why, a group of Germany based STS scientists from various institutions decided to enable an inclusive network for STS researchers of all academic career stages and theoretical, methodological and institutional backgrounds. A first German STS meeting was held at last years´ EASST conference in Lancaster. Since over 100 researchers attended and many voiced interest for more networking, the workshop “STS in Germany – But how? An open workshop on possible organization forms of STS-in-Germany” took place at Kassel University from February 20th to 21st 2019 to further explore the shape this network could take. 

The first evening started with an informal dinner and the possibility to get to know each other and network. The second day started with an introduction of the organizing team. Afterwards inputs by Göde Both, Stefanie Büchner, Max Liboiron, Michelle Murphy and Jutta Weber were given about inclusive and experimental ways of developing an academic organisational form. These varied inputs were all deriving from diverse geographical and disciplinary experiences.

The second part of the day was dedicated to seven discussion groups in which the attendees had the chance to debate institutional support, adisciplinarity, peer-support, STS training, international exchange, connecting and communicating, and infrastructure. Due to the young academic age, of most attendees and the fact, that STS itself is a relatively young discipline with its first generation of scholars who went to STS Master´s and PhD programs still in the making in Germany (see report by STSing 2019), a focus was laid on ways of STS training, peer support and related issues. 

In order to further facilitate the process, five working groups were established concerning: future events, a code of conduct for STS-in-Germany, a tool in order to map the STS landscape in Germany, the creation of an infrastructure for formal ways of peer support, and a web platform and other communication devices to enable us to do so. These working groups resonate very well with the needs already voiced during the first meeting in Lancaster, asking for representation of STS to the outside world, online collaborative support, the organization of meetings and overall formats for “exchange, mutual inspiration and knowledge production” (Niewöhner 2018). 

https://stsingermany2019.com Photo credits: Sophie Hässelbarth

Two groups were added in posterity, one to address the need for funding future activities and another to explore the organizational form this network can take. 

Each group nominated two to three people who will act as “access points” for these working groups. Anyone interested in joining one or more of the groups can do so by contacting the access points. These working groups will enable the next steps towards finding a working infrastructure until a founding conference planned for the first half of 2020.

As an attendee, I would argue for taking a step back and think through what STS actually is and which potential it has within the German academic discourse and institutional infrastructures. Rather than organizing a founding conference just yet, I believe a reflection and discussion on what it is that connects the different strands of doing STS, and how our multitude of epistemological and methodological interests and approaches might enrich each other more than in the past, is more necessary than stabilizing a network through classical venues such as a conference. 

So far, it seems to be clear, that the existing structures do not represent STS in Germany in all its forms and shades. But in order to do so in the future, the “fragmented character” and “youthfulness” of German STS should be seen as its strength and not its weakness when it is assured all voices are heard within the process of establishing an alternate network. When mapping the STS landscape in Germany, more qualitative data on the meanings and execution of STS in the individual institutions will help to outline this research ‘rainbow’. The web platform therefore should enable all STS researchers in Germany (and its allies from everywhere else) to further reflect upon the question on what STS actually is to them, whether STS in Germany defines itself through common research topics, concepts, theories, methods or epistemic agendas. Finding a common ground will help to support a diverse and inclusive STS community and enable further connections and networks for the future. 

Concluding with the words of the organizers: “[c]onsidering the fragmented character and experimental dynamics of actual STS activities in Germany, this and other outputs are a great step forward and a success for stsing.” (Bogusz et al. 2019) 

The organizers want to invite explicitly those who were not able to attend the workshop but are eager to engage with STS in Germany to get in touch and get involved. Please visit: 



1  See a summary of the event by Jörg Niewöhner (2018) and a personal reflection by Tim Schütz (2018).


Bogusz, Tanja; Stefanie Büchner, Endre Dányi, Anja Klein, Stefan Laser, Martina Schlünder and Estrid Sørensen: #stsing – but how? An open workshop on possible organisation forms of STS-in-Germany, 20. – 21.02.2019 at Kassel University, see https://stsingermany2019.com/workshop-report/ 

Niewöhner, Jörg on behalf of the committee: STS in Germany: Ve vill go on!, 2018, see https://www.dests.de/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/STS-in-Germany-–-Ve-vill-go-on.pdf 

Schütz, Tim: Still “in its infancy”? Afterthoughts on the relevance of STS anchors in Germany, EASST Review Volume 37(4) 2018, here https://easst.net/article/still-in-its-infancy-afterthoughts-on-the-relevance-of-sts-anchors-in-germany/ 

Circling the Square: Re-designing nature-cultures in a changing urban climate

In November 2017 the workshop ‚Circling the Square: Re-designing nature-cultures in a changing urban climate’ took place at the Technical University of Munich. An international group of scholars from STS, landscape architecture, anthropology and design set to explore conceptual and political strategies to turn societal imaginaries of urban public squares upside down. Circling the square, we argued, is necessary to unleash the potential of these spaces and of certain design strategies to ensure urban sustainability and ecological conviviality in the Anthropocene.

Continue reading Circling the Square: Re-designing nature-cultures in a changing urban climate

“How to do research with Science and Technology Studies?” Workshop report on the empirical impact of STS

The workshop “How to do research with Science and Technology Studies?” held at the University of Siegen, 26-27 Octoberstarted with the supposition that in the field and during fieldwork, concepts of STS often become ‘black boxes’. They work like self-evident tools and their specific performativity goes unrecognized, for example how they restrictively regulate the research process, prevent observations and structure empirically based theory production. The different contributions of the workshop reflected upon the research done with and performance of empirical-theoretical concepts and thus tried to open the black box of STS research practices and projects. It became relevant to discuss methodological devices thataccount for the heterogeneity of research objects, the challenges these devices impose on fieldwork practices and how STS can be better characterized as acertain way of thinking than a fixed method.

I. Initial considerations  

In “after method” John Law acknowledges the multiple and non-neutral ways in which research methods create and fabricate knowledge. He points out that methods in research practices “not only describe but also help to produce the reality that they understand” (Law 2004: 5). Hence, a strong emphasis lies in the question of how the social world and research methods shape themselves in a mutual way. Case studies in Science and Technology Studies (STS) of various disciplines in the humanities display how methods, theory and the empirical world come together (Law 2015). In addition, as Latour showed in numerous studies, knowledge production is based on blackboxing the instruments of knowledge production (Latour 1999). The question is: does that hold for STS studies too? And if so, a whole range of new questions can be raised: how do such studies account for their own instruments of knowledge production – and not take STS and its self-reflexive capacities for granted? What are the implications of Law’s and Latour’s arguments for concrete STS research projects? More precisely, how is empirical work shaped by theoretical concepts of STS? And the other way around?  

In STS itself lies the opportunity to put methods under investigation and not merely take them for granted. Therefore, the workshop was initiated to debate about the possibilities and impossibilities, the implementations and blind alleys, the do´s and don’ts, the implications, failures and attempted solutions to challenges of empirical research using a STS framework. Furthermore, the workshop originated in the impression, that throughout stages of the research process, concepts eventually become black boxes themselves. So the participants set out to examine how STS concepts shape the world of research, assembling theoretical concepts, research practices and empirical data. Supported by the University of Siegen’s Locating Media graduate school, the workshop focused on this and engaged basic methodological reflections about how to do research with concepts like boundary objects, actors, assemblages, immutable mobiles, multiple bodies, and others. One is compelled to consider whether and how these theoretical concepts are translated into empirical strategies, as well as what the consequences and challenges are for field work, data collection, interpretation and representation. The core aim of the workshop therefore, was to investigate the relations of empirical work and abstract theoretical concepts that have emerged under the banner of STS. 

Besides young researchers from diverse academic backgrounds working with STS, Estrid Sörensen (University of Bochum) and Ignacio Farias (Technical University of Munich) participated as keynote speakers, both deeply involved in debates about STS. In addition, two experts in ethnographic methods of the “Media of Cooperation” research cluster at Siegen University, Cornelius Schubert and Ehler Voss, fostered and moderated the discussions. All contributions shared an interest in reflecting upon the implementation of empirical-theoretical concepts rather than to undertake new exegeses of STS’s canonically formulated principles. Different approaches and projects were grouped together, calling attention to the broad thematic and methodological range of STS case studies: from ethnographic to historical research, tube mail to Big Data, Uganda to Lithuania, software to desks to bodies.[1]

[1] For the entire program check: https://stsworkshopsiegen.wordpress.com


II. Making objects with concepts 

One part of our discussion was about the idea that even though research starts with clearly defined concepts and research objects, this clarity never lasts for long. However, in the process of fieldwork and through the methods in use, things start to shake, concepts and objects become blurry, and another order of things emerges. This assumption leads to the questions: how is the research object constituted by methods and concepts? How can we accomplish and shape different perspectives on the same object? Or rather simply, what, where, and how is the object of research? How does one find anything at all in a chaotic diversity of impressions and ideas? 

Starting from the premise that usually there is more than one side to an object of research, we asked, how to take this multiplicity and heterogeneity into account? And what are the possible consequences? For example, patient autonomy can be reconstructed by choosing different conceptual approaches as Annekatrin Skeide pointed out. As the body is conceptualized as a present and fixed state of embodied subjectivity (in phenomenology), or as a constantly enacted, materially related and situated entity (in material semiotics), together the diverse perspectives illuminate the heterogeneity of the phenomena and enable the reconstruction of controversies about how patient autonomy is embodied. The empirical narrative then includes multiple perspectives, instead of one that explains everything. Integrating diverse theoretical frames in order to represent the diversity of the research object, shapes the research object as multi- and not one-dimensional. Regarding this, a related aspect is the non/coherence (Law 2007) of the research object. How, for example, some water cooling device shapes local interactions and the access to resources differently, depending on where the device is enacted, as Christiane Tristl reconstructed. To make this relationship comprehensible, it’s essential to locate the research in different areas and at different sites, consequently generating the object as a non-coherent, non-fixed entity. It is clear from the above that both, multi-perspectives and –sitedness, critically analyse assumptions like the coherence of a device, and instead highlight multi-dimensional as well as controversial meanings and socialities. Both also bear the possibility of coming across different narratives associated with the object, to estrange the object and to build and map counter-narratives. In conclusion, STS typically tells stories in the manner of “it’s not like that”. But every researcher has the task to deliberately decide, what story s/he writes and to demonstrate how s/he came upon the story. 

In her keynote Estrid Sørensen presented such an approach by focusing on the issue of multi-sitedness as well. In her research on media harm and its diverse socio-material configurations, she developed the method of multi-sited comparison (Sørensen 2010) to understand and determine similarities, differences and patterns across field sites. To account for this, STS should not only focus one single object/entity/site (as a big strand of research has), but instead explicitly reconstruct an object through different sites. This shows how research practice, methods or methodologies construct these sites and multiply perspectives. Therefore, she argued for a general methodological shift in order to allow more than one research object to be present and talk about it in a wider context. Finally, such an approach has the side effect to overcome micro-macro-discussions when combining micro-studies with Ludwig Fleck’s idea of thought styles (Fleck 1980) and to situate findings as constitutive for or as representative of a culture. 

III. What is an actor and how to follow? 

Another way to account for multi-sitedness is to combine research methods with different time logics. Migle Bareikyte and Laura Meneghello presented insights and data from their research on infrastructures of communication: tube mails in hospitals and internet in Lithuania. In their accounts, multi-sitedness is constituted by the differences of diachronic, historical and synchronic ethnographic research practices, and therefore different narratives about the objective can be brought to light. Combining methods with different time structures imposes the challenge to make comprehensible, that different questions are asked about the same object as it changes through time. How can data from archives and interviews with employees be assembled and arranged, related and compared? In an archive, relevant material is mostly stored in a visual way, and in interviews there is a logic of narrating and looking back from the outset of the present. The diverse, sometimes contradictory views on the matter, are constituted through different time logics. Combing those in a non-hierarchical dialogue does not only account for how meanings attached to technologies change, but also makes it possible to see what is absent or present in the one or the other perspective. To accomplish such a task, it is necessary to take both, archive and interview, seriously in their own dynamic and structure, as an object of its own, not as a non-neutral resource. 

Building on this, we discussed some very basic questions that a couple of research projects stumbled upon: How to find and follow relevant actors or objects? How to handle dis/continuity as well as in/visibility of actors? The contribution of Astrid Wiedmann showed that following is a demanding and not self-evident practice: actors appear and disappear, are visible then become invisible, are at times upfront and then hidden in the background, may dissolve completely, constantly withdrawing from sensual captivities, hidden behind screens and interfaces. Hence, the famous maxim “follow the actor” (Latour 2005: 12) was critically discussed, as it is resting upon acts of defining and assuming constant entities throughout time and space. In a research field, this can lead to uncertainties about defining and finding the ‘right’ actors and leave no chance open for new impressions or unexpected actors. More generally, actors are no stable entities, but have multiple states and shapes (Law/Singleton 2005). Furthermore, ‘following’ as a practice is based on assumptions about the continuity and visibility of something stable to follow, which showed to be contradictory and non-instructive for areas like software research and development aid. The reflexive capacity of STS in general allows for reflecting one’s practices, such as being critical about the very possibility and sense of following actors through time and space. 

IV. STS as approach not as application 

In his keynote, Ignacio Farías underlined the open character of actor-network theory (ANT). Hence, ANT, in his view, is neither a fixed set of concepts nor of methods. Referring to Michel Callon, he defined ANT as an “open building site” where a certain empirical sensibility and conceptual work are mediated and combined. Thus, ANT could be understood as a particular way of doing concepts or seen as an “intellectual practice” consisting of inquiring, writing and intervening. He illustrated this point with his research about the techno-juridical controversy around the failure of the tsunami warning system in Chile in 2010 (Farías 2014). Farías also questioned the famous ANT-maxim ‘follow the actor’. Instead, he described ANT as an intellectual practice of ‘following the inquiries’ of actors in situations of uncertainty. 

 Against this backdrop, the performativity of conceptual work comes to mind again. Research maxims like ‘follow the actors’, or ‘describe, don’t explain’, ‘be symmetrical’, ‘make a mess’ tend to also restrict empirical sensibilities. Therefore, they regulate the research process, barricade observations and basically structure empirical based theory production. To fully evolve STS’ potential, concepts and research practice must be critically reflected upon and applied not as a dogma. They should be deployed in a flexible manner in specific situations in the field of investigation, arranged to tell other stories and opening new questions. Based on this, the workshop concluded with the idea that STS is not a technique or an instrument, but an approach with a strong emphasis on self-reflexivity. 

Knowledge/Culture/Ecologies. Interdisciplinary perspectives on social-ecological transformations

20-min documentary of KCE  

 Knowledge/Culture/Ecologies International Conference (KCE2017), the fourth meeting of the Knowledge/Culture series developed by the Institute for Culture and Society (ICS) at Western Sydney University, was held in Santiago de Chile the 15-18 November 2017 and was organised in partnership with Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, the Millennium Research Nucleus on Energy and Society (NUMIES) and the Centre for Conflict and Social Cohesion Studies (COES).  

 In this brief report we want to summarise the main discussions and conversations provoked in and by the conference, and to transmit –if at all possible—the feeling of community, relevance and excitement invoked by the event, rare in times when academia is beleaguered by the logic of competition and productivism.   

A knowledge experiment  

 A total of 320 papers were presented by a range of humanities scholars, scientists, not-for-profit actors, activists, maker communities, and art practitioners from over 179 institutions and 32 countries. The conference was structured around 6 key themes (socio-territorial conflicts and social cohesion, hybrid ecologies of the Anthropocene, energy ecologies and infrastructures, urban ecologies and everyday life, decolonial political ecology and post-capitalism, ecological imaginaries, experimentation and design ontologies) and included workshops, performances, a postgraduate students workshop, a mixed media exhibition space, and film screenings.  

In a unique experiment of interdisciplinarity, KCE brought together participants from STS, political ecology, anthropology, geography, and the environmental humanities, to think aloud together how the “ecological” has undergone a major renewal in many academic disciplines and socio-technical experiments and forms of governance. Keynote speakers were carefully curated to precisely celebrate and engage with a polychromatic definition of ecology.1 A central goal of the conference was to examine ongoing socio-ecological transformations and explore the possibilities of generating knowledge practices that help us understand their developments and complex effects.  

The discussion revolved around a series of deeply emergent issues along the lines of  what Arturo Escobar termed a “pluriverse of socio-natural configurations”. These discussions entailed the recognition of our ontological amalgamation with geo-atmospheric conditions, chemical forces, geological vitalities and other inorganic powers to the point where our sense of coexistence has extended beyond how “life” has been traditionally defined –but also the political, and often contested ways in which these amalgamations are known and produced.   

One argument, presented albeit in different ways by a diversity of participants, was the notion of “relationality”. Contesting conventional equalisations of relationality to “agreement”, several participants showcased how expanding more-than-human entanglements do not always play with the orchestrated melody of their composers. Here the Anthropocene emerged as a key site of enquiry. On the one hand, many presentations indicated the importance of challenging the (in)visibility and (in)cognoscibility of the Anthropocene beyond geological strata and planetary limits, visibilising the ways exploitation, subordination and inequalities are inscribed in geoformations. On the other hand, KCE was also an opportunity to stress the need of going beyond the “social” for engaging with the Earth, as an attempt at recognising our vulnerability and dependence on the inhuman. Finally, and highly relevant, the conference made clear that these discussions are taking place from different theoretical, intellectual and activist domains, and not only in academic circles.  

Open debate saw interesting conversations and dialogue to resist those who argue that considering new ethical modes of care necessarily contribute to a “gigantic operation in the de-politicisation of subjects”, where ecology becomes a new opium for the masses (Badiou, 2008). Strong arguments were also posed by several colleagues who reminded us of the important and urgent need to confront, and take distance from, some overly flattening topologies of relationality when necessary. This is most important when considering how new conflicts over the ownership, use and value of nature and the more-than-human show how these issues are intertwined in complex imbalances of power/knowledge and corruption linked to extractive economies, inequalities and environmental suffering. While these conflicts arise in response to the emergence of predatory formations, they also allow the creation of new platforms of social and socio-environmental cohesion, new ethics of care and responsibility, new forms of environmental justice and of conceiving the rights of nature that, in turn, instigate a new politics based on new ways of coexistence.   

A range of perspectives were also clear in highlighting the intricate and pervasive ways through which forms of colonialism are still perpetuated in social, economic and ecological interactions, as a structural process that forms our relationship with ourselves, with other humans and with earthly powers and beings. Notions such as popular ecologies, community economies and ecologies, post-colonial ecologies, environmentalism of the poor, and solidarity economies were mobilised to reclaim the plurality of ways in which people involved in emancipatory politics around the world are contributing to the decolonisation of environmental knowledge. In Latin America, new and thought-provoking epistemologies and cosmopolitics have emerged in the last decades, including the Buen Vivir and the Sumak Kasway, and, in a more academic circle, the notion of ‘Amerindian perspectivism’ (Viveiros de Castro 1998). These perspectives propose new ways of conceiving projects, worlds and lifeways. Indeed, as Eduardo Gudynas discussed, in the last two decades Latin America has offered a wide and diverse range of interactions between knowledge and ecologies, showing both substantial innovations and unexpected setbacks, hope for change and disappointments about the results. The political capacities of this debate are crucial insofar as they bring together emerging notions and social movements from the North, such as degrowth, commonalities, ecofeminism, and a variety of transitional initiatives, together with debates more specific to the South, such as current struggles over the Buen Vivir, the rights of nature, ancestral reclamation, and civilizational transitions.  

Another central discussion across KCE was the possibility of empowering new modes of exploration for more sustainable futures. Despite the tabloid media representations of the ecological crisis as catastrophe, the potential of creative methods and artistic and digital practices seems to be, now more than ever, relevant for thinking and creating new socio-ecologies and ways of engaging with and designing for sustainability. In this regard, we were pleased to see a large number of presentations on cinema, literature, digital games and music, together with the very interesting audio-visual programme curated specially for the conference.2 More amply, KCE was rich in discussions and propositions for opening design speculation, experimentality and prototyping as probes into more just and democratic environments.   

This brief summary does not make justice to the multiplicity of conversations propelled in and by the conference. But as a concluding remark, it is important—actually fundamental—to bear witness of the particular type of “academic event” that KCE rehearsed. Agreements were not always reached, and differences –political, theoretical, methodological—abounded. Different sensibilities, different matters of care and concern, different way of defining relevance and urgency. But a sense of community enveloped the conference. Community not as the formation of a coherent and closed amalgamation of peers, but as the empowerment of a collective space for intellectual exchange. Nothing more, and nothing less. Maybe it was its size (300 participants) that allowed for an intimacy-without-being-suffocating, or it was perhaps the urgency of the stakes at play, or the novelty of conversations between traditions–between posthumanism and political ecology, feminism and STS, postcoloniality and design studies—that actually rarely encounter, but KCE left on participants and organisers a sense of having witnessed an unusual experiment in knowledge production. And more importantly, as we retrieved from many conversations, a sense of joy: the sheer pleasure of crafting a time and a place, outside the predatory logics of competition that the university is succumbing to, for debating interests, feelings and matters in an open, caring and challenging way. Perhaps the best news of KCE is that it produced a particular affective economy, one marked by excitement and cordiality, that is not usual to find in our academic arenas. And this was perhaps the most important political interruption congealed by KCE. Paraphrasing Marisol de la Cadena, KCE was a conference, but not only 

Citizen engagement in science: Impressions from an international workshop on citizen science

At the international workshop “(Un)taming citizen science – Policies, Practices, People”, held at KU Leuven, scholars, policy makers, and science journalists discussed and explored citizen science initiatives in Europe and Japan. As citizen science concepts and processes make inroads into science policies and institutions, they create unique opportunities for public participation in scientific research and for the democratization of science.

On December 4th 2017, under the roof of one of the oldest faculties of the University of Leuven, the Belgian Science and Technology in Society (BSTS) network organized a workshop entitled “(Un)taming citizen science – Policies, Practices, People.” Inspired by the global avalanche of citizen science initiatives, workshop organizers invited workshop participants to embark on a journey through different citizen science notions and practices, switching from European to Japanese perspectives and back – and hence, to discover the vastness and multiplicity of the topic.  

Drawing on the notion of (un)taming, which refers to the mutual (mal)adjustment of technology and the social, and which links to domestication theory in Science and Technology Studies (Callon, 1986), the workshop highlighted the buildup  of support for, as well as the generation of controversy over citizen science in contemporary society. By asking Who and what is citizen science for?; Which citizen science forms are amenable to taming, which are not?; How is citizen science politicized? How will citizen science fare in the near future?, a joint group of European and Japanese scholars, policymakers and science journalists discussed the current state of citizen science and the road ahead.  

Figure 1: Discussing the concept of citizen science

Flexible and unruly 

In their introduction to the workshop, Ine Van Hoyweghen (KU Leuven) and Michiel van Oudheusden (KU Leuven, SCK·CEN) pointed to the evolution of the multilayered EU policy discourse surrounding science-society issues. Drawing on Felt (2010), they argued that since 1989, the EU’s governance style has evolved from intensifying public communication efforts towards developing an Innovation Union with citizens, particularly as Europe must now be “open to innovation, open to science and open to the world” (Moedas, 2015). In this policy perspective, citizen science can contribute to a stronger anchoring of research and innovation in society, making inroads into science policy, industry and universities. But while citizen science can be “taken up” and domesticated by established science, industry and politics, it also has an unruly potential, as citizen scientists often resourcefully “work around” established institutes to create their own practices and communities (Meyer 2013). For example, in Japan, citizen scientists measuring ionizing radiation can bring communities together to deal with radioactive pollution in ways that undermine official, institutionally-sanctioned emergency policies and responses.  

Figure 2: Phillippe Galiay (DG Research and Innovation in the European Commission)

Citizen science and Responsible Research and Innovation 

The practice of working around established institutes contrasts with present efforts made by the European Commission to engage citizens in European research and innovation activities, through its agenda of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). As Phillippe Galiay (DG Research and Innovation) outlined in his talk, the EC encourages researchers and citizens “to work together during the whole research and innovation process in order to better align both the process and its outcomes with the values, needs and expectations of society” (EC, s.d.). Considering this definition of RRI, it is not surprising that citizen’s engagement is one of the five main dimensions of RRI. Despite the fact that the EC takes the promotion of RRI to heart and succeeds in grounding it in research practices in areas such as health care, the EC still falls short in mainstreaming the success. Galiay concluded that more efforts are necessary to engage civil society in the design and the implementation of research and innovation processes. Nevertheless we can hold high expectations for the future of citizen science in Europe, as the 3 OS strategy (Open Innovation, Open Science and Open to the World) (Moedas, 2015) and the prospect of the ninth research framework program are proof of the EC’s commitment to engage with citizen science. 

Through his presentation, Galiay made clear that the EC is eager to invest in citizen science participation. But why is citizen science being promoted by the EC and how does it connect with public engagement more broadly? In his talk, Hadrien Macq (Université de Liège) entertained these questions. Drawing on empirical research, including interviews with EU policymakers, Macq situated the emergence of policy discourses on public engagement within the broader political-economic context. Confronted by a perceived legitimacy deficit and influenced by the 2000 Lisbon Agenda, which takes knowledge production and innovation as the key drivers of EU’s future, the EC took initial interest in public engagement as public dialogue. However, due to the financial crisis, research and innovation was increasingly recognized as a solution to solve economic and societal challenges. Within this setting, the RRI approach facilitated the incorporation of societal actors into research and innovation processes. Macq locates this transition as concurrent with the inauguration of the new Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas. His blueprint of science and innovation in the EU requires an even higher level of transparence and inclusiveness, thus attributing a substantial role to public engagement and promoting citizen science. In short, Macq pointed out an important evolution in the valorization of public engagement, from enriching decision-making towards a more active role in the production of knowledge and innovation.  

Figure 3: Yasuhito Abe (Dōshisha University)

Science for or by citizens? 

Even when crossing borders it is clear from Yasuhito Abe (Dōshisha University)’s presentation, that citizens and scientists in Japan and Europe share some common challenges and questions. For example, what do we mean by citizen science? Does it comprise science for citizens or by citizens? And how to deal with the social responsibility of data production and representation? Abe pointed out that citizen science, particularly in the field of radiation monitoring, has undergone dramatic changes over the last decades. Already after the 1986 Chernobyl accident, Japanese citizens launched projects to measure radiation. However, the advent of the Internet and new media have opened up opportunities for citizens that did not yet exist in the time of Chernobyl. Their impact on the organization of citizen science in Japan becomes clear after the Fukushima accident. Surpassing spatial and temporal boundaries, the scale of data-based networked citizen science has become ever larger. Initiatives such as Minna no Data Site form platforms for organizations to organize themselves and to increase standardization in measurement methods across Japan. While creating alternative spaces to engage with science, citizens are using their data to make scientific claims, so that we are now confronted with the question of how we should perceive these claims. Notwithstanding that citizens see their data as scientific, Abe argues that data alone do not constitute a valid scientific claim (Abe, 2015). On top of this, Abe questions whether data production or participation alone is enough to reestablish trust among stakeholders in Japan and elsewhere. Elevated and more open forms of communication are direly needed. 

While Abe contended that communication between stakeholders is key, the next speaker, Joke Kenens (KU Leuven, SCK·CEN), argued that a willingness to take citizen science as an opportunity to learn might also be paramount to improving relations. Citizen science initiatives in radiation monitoring are manifold and are spreading across the globe, creating a global network of grassroots measuring citizen science initiatives. They represent a diversified group of people, who are committed not only to measuring radiation in the environment and food, but also to providing information to wider publics. By taking these measurements into their own hands, they are showing us alternative ways to deal with scientific and strategic uncertainties, to create open data, to look at science as a problem-driven endeavor. In sum, they are laying down their own tracks, irrespective of official procedures and institutional constraints. As it has become ever easier to measure radiation via apps on a smartphone or computer, researchers, experts, and government officials would do well to seize the moment to engage with citizen scientists and create an environment in which all learn. 

Everyone a scientist 

Do developments in Japan suggest that all citizens are, or can become, scientists? Liesbeth Gijsel (EOS Science Magazine) drew attention to this question by introducing the online platform www.iedereenwetenschapper.be (“Iedereen Wetenschapper” – “Everyone a scientist”), the only one of its kind in Flanders and the Netherlands. The platform gathers local and international citizen science projects into one location to create an overview of existing projects. Today, it counts more than 200 participants and attracts a young public (60% aged between 18 and 34). It serves as a resource for citizen scientists and interested others and seeks to inspire scientists to start their own citizen science projects. By sharing their expertise in the field of science communication, EOS has created a tool that potentially strengthens citizen science and expedites its institutional uptake.  

Figure 4: Gert Verschraegen (University of Antwerp)

What’s next for citizen science? 

So what does the future hold for citizen science? In a concluding reflection, Gert Verschraegen (University of Antwerp) provided us with a glimpse of future prospects. One could argue that citizen science is making its way into a rising number of institutions and closely aligns with RRI and Open Science policies. However, when looking deeper into the origins of citizen science, one can outline some further developments as well as tensions to expect in the coming decades. Verschraegen pointed to two traditions, which have shaped our current understanding of public involvement in science. One is the movement to democratize science, which insists on deep public engagement, initiatives taken by citizens, and tackling problems and concerns typically neglected by policymakers (Irwin, 1995). The other is the longstanding, but recently revived, tradition of conducting scientific research with the participation of volunteers who are not professional scientistsHere citizens and scientists work together, but the main focus is on answering scientific issues or gathering data. Most contemporary citizen science initiatives in Europe lean towards this second lineage, also because this tradition is better supported and funded. Verschraegen argues that although citizen data collection projects may yield important scientific results, science projects developed and designed in cooperation with the community have far greater potential to raise public understanding and can have a bigger socio-political impact. Acknowledging and addressing this tension between forms of citizen engagement in science will certainly help to seize the window of opportunity that is being created today. 

Notwithstanding the short timeframe of the workshop, it entailed an exciting journey through space, time, opportunities and hopes thanks to all those who participated. In conclusion, citizen science remains a difficult notion to define. Yet, even as we scratch the surface of what it means, or could mean, citizen science is gaining acknowledgement from different institutions, and seen as a potential bridge between science, technology and society. To face the challenges and to fully exploit the potential inherent in citizen science initiatives, we must continue to reflect on, and learn from, existing initiatives, probe their many forms, rationales, and agendas, and inquire into their possibilities and limitations.  


Threshold is an exciting new adventure in the 28 year history of University of York’s Science & Technology Studies Unit (SATSU). In our project of extending SATSU outwards to become an interdisciplinary hub, we will be developing a series of activities and collaborations around a series interlinked themes. Led by Joanna Latimer, Rolland Munro, Nik Brown and Dave Beer, Threshold is the first of these thematic nodes. It draws upon a range of diverse resources and perspectives and is aimed at exploring the liminal edges of everyday, organisational and social life – and how they are crossed. Threshold is not a project with a pre-defined set of outcomes or a fixed lifespan. Instead we see it as a point of contact between different streams of work and as a center of gravity for cross-disciplinary dialogue.

Thresholds touches on so many dimensions of interest in STS and related fields and concerns. We have a Threshold website which acts as a focal point for activity and we already have posted material on: those thresholds of entanglement that cut across nature-culture; thresholds of security, insecurity and vulnerability; the borders of statehood, nation and colonialism; thresholds determining the boundaries between ablement and disablement in the politics of the body; thresholds punctured, pierced and troubled. Attracting contributions from scholars and researchers with diverse backgrounds, both nationally and internationally, Threshold is primarily geared toward political, conceptual and creative exchanges. Hence the website has been set up to communicate ideas, events and outputs in public. For example, in the ‘news & ideas‘ section we post updates and news along with reflections, ideas and relevant reviews.

As a part of getting our Threshold project off the ground, we hosted an extremely lively and well-attended pop-up symposium at York on the 22nd of September 2017. Nisha Kapoor’s contribution, Deport, Deprive, Extradite, focussed on the extradition from the UK to the US of individuals suspected of terrorism-related offences – such cases are taken to delineate the outer dimensions of state power, positioned at the thresholds of what Saskia Sassen refers to as the ‘systemic edge’ of the security state. These questions of vulnerability, the thresholds between security and insecurity, were taken forward by Joanna Latimer in an entirely contrasting context, where the edgy encounters she reflects on involved rethinking companion species in a rural site in Crete – notably she recounted the mortal consequences of a collision of thresholds, and the politics of being open and vulnerable, and of becoming rendered, including the reassembling that occurs.

Reihaneh Afshari Saleh & Richard Ogden, in Crossing the Threshold in Iran, took the conversation forward in their discussion of the domestic threshold and social conventions and rituals of greeting, embracing, kissing, paying compliments, among others. In doing so they show how appreciating the extraordinariness of ordinary interactions leads to a better understanding of the thresholds of daily encounters. This sense of the ordinariness of encounters and crossing was further developed in Helen Wilson’s contribution focussing on those moments where convention is ruptured and becomes suspended in a liminal state of irresolution and shock. That sense of shock of a threshold being breached was evident also in Sharon Winfield’s contribution on gendered ‘taboo’ in religious tradition, namely the profound liminalities affecting female priesthood.

Thresholds are created and made passable or impassable by all of us, not just the designated institutional and disciplinary gatekeepers, some of which are human and others techno-institutional. Jocelyn Finniear and Paul White explore gatekeeping and delegation as dimension of the ‘management’ of maternity leave following childbirth. Thresholds also define legitimating distinctions between the proper and improper within statutory and regulatory regimes, as illustrated by Isabel Fletcher reporting on her Wellcome Trust ‘Liminal Spaces Project’. For Laura Wigley thresholds provide a way into thinking about the liminal space occupied by ‘disabled students’ in the academy and their efforts in navigating entry to ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the standard university curricula.

In any number of different ways, the question of thresholds indelibly draws into its orbit the problem of the body, embodiment, bodies that do and don’t fit. Julia Swallow’s contribution focussed on genetic breast cancer testing, where the specific category of ‘intermediate risk’ illustrates how patients interpret, share and refine this ambiguous categorisation. In a similar way, Nik Brown, explores the way cystic fibrosis patients seek to limit their contact with others, steering clear of infection risks, whilst also obliged to participate in the flux of life, contact, interaction – his paper explores the role of the built environment (the architecture of the clinic) in structuring the co-evolutionary relationships between the biomes of the body and those of the building. Similarly, in the context of bodily borders Nicole Vitellone’s paper explores the syringe as a tool for thinking, an attempt to reclaim the everyday experiences of injecting drugs, based in a Needle Exchange clinic. These built infrastructures for accommodating liminality also underpin Catherine Pemble’s discussion of ‘dementia friendly’ environment, neighbourhoods, zones and districts.

Inevitably data has come to support and even supplant the kind of thresholds that were once at the heart of the identity thresholds examined mid-century by the anthropologist Victor Turner. David Hill reported on the invisible labour in van drivers meeting the deadlines incorporated into devices like Edo. More generally David Beer gave an inspiring insight into the power of intermediaries to speak with your own data to illustrate the reach and intensity of data-led thinking, judgment and ordering. The borderlines between the human and the animal also featured. The artist Max Kimber explored the porosity of thresholds between art and anthropology from the perspective of a taxidermist. Bethany Robertson’s study looked into the identity of pets in the family home when their ‘owners’ were away at University. Away for animals but with a focus on students, Ella Taylor-Smith discussed a study set up to explore the threshold between employment and study – you can read her take on this in the form of her poem on the Threshold site.









Sensor Publics: Report from a workshop on the politics of sensing and data infrastructures

Invested with ideals ranging from ‘the smart city’, ‘evidence-based policy’, ‘algorithmic governance’, ‘citizen science’, or ‘hack-tivism’, sensors have been widely foregrounded in contemporary debates about the role of digital technologies in addressing the big political challenges of our time. The idea of a workshop on the politics of sensing developed in discussions with our colleagues at the Munich Centre for Technology in Society (MCTS) about the need to take on the political and ethical challenges emerging in data-driven approaches to dealing with public issues and to challenge narrowly reductive and positivist accounts of ‘big data’ and informational politics.

The workshop was developed with three broad motivations: first, to address theoretical questions about how concepts of sensing might be used to freshly problematize recent political debates about the shape of public space and ‘data power’ in digital societies? Second, to bring together researchers in security studies together with participatory and environmental researchers to explore opportunities for collaboration between these fields. And, lastly, and somewhat opportunist on our part, to invite a diverse range of researchers and engineers who themselves are experimenting with sensors to Munich to explore with them whether and how the ‘proliferation of sensors’ might open up inventive approaches to social research.

Through invited keynotes given by Geoffrey Bowker and Jennifer Gabrys, we aimed to put into dialogue two leading figures in the social study of digital devices and data infrastructures. Both speakers engaged with the ways in which sensors not only produce ‘raw data’ but also often problematise the relation between epistemic practices and their environments. Addressing the politics and ontology of data infrastructures, Geoffrey Bowker turned to a provocation from a Business Week article claiming that “the earth will don an electronic skin”, mobilizing this fantastic-sounding proposition as a critical resource for attending to controversies around the uses and abuses of personal data. Rather than reducing the politics of personal data to issues about the rights of private individuals, Bowker proposed that researchers engage with how such controversies can also provoke reorderings between politics and its environments. Attacking the ‘misplaced concretism’ of epistemologies of ‘big data’, Bowker argued against falling into the trap of naturalising relations between digital infrastructures and particular forms of social and political order. In her keynote on environment data and data citizenships, Jennifer Gabrys discussed her work in the “CitizenSense” project by prototyping two devices, the dustbox and frackbox, and working with groups of activists to deploy them in particular environmental controversies. Highlighting problems around the calibration of many ‘off-the-shelf’ sensors, she drew attention to the complex data landscapes in which professional and amateur sensing practices take shape and intervene. Outlining a Whitehead-inspired conception of “environmental data”, Gabrys argued that the instrumenting of the planet with sensors not only brings environmental issues into politics but can also repose citizenship as an environmental problem.

Over two days, presenters engaged with a range of issues implicating sensing technologies and politics. The city as a setting where sensing projects are publicly tested, was explored by Nona Schulte-Roemer, Sara Degli Esposti, Claudio Colletta, Alexander Pólvora, Leslie Mabon and Gerard Jan Ritsema van Eck. A range of these papers addressed the role of sensing technologies in processes of public experimentation, in which urban infrastructure become sites for demonstrating the “eco-city” or “smart city”. Many highlighted that experiments with sensors can, in different ways, provide occasions that problematize the urban environment as a setting of political engagement; often indirectly resonating with Gabry’s proposal to understand citizenship as an environmental problem. Schulte-Roemer, for instance, highlighted the ways in which urban sensing projects can perform infrastructure such as street lights as multivalent in their relation to public space and not only mere instruments for governing it. Indeed, a similar point was made by Coletta who discussed an experiment with a sensor-network deployed in Dublin, highlighting – in contrast to reductive accounts of urban experiments as mere ‘scalable’ procedures – that the such experiments rarely domesticate infrastructure in the ‘low-cost’ way city authorities envisage and can effect the “accidental” emergence of unforeseen urban problems and publics. The provocation of urban publics was proposed as an active participatory design strategy by Claudia Mendes and Hannah Varga in their workshop on ‘prototyping publics’, in which they tested a workshop method to engage groups of citizens with the implementation of a ‘smart city’ sensor installation project in Munich. Pólvora too highlighted that ‘bottom up’ citizen science projects can not only be used to construct an ‘evidence-base’ for policy, but can stimulate broader engagements between art, design and technology in addressing issues such as urban air quality.

In contrast to such post-instrumental understandings of public experiment, a range of papers highlighted that urban sensing trials can in other cases perform more familiar modes of government and privatisation that have long been associated with the technocratic approaches of city management. Many of the presentations understood data produced in urban sensing projects as often highly biased and asymmetric in its political uses, highlighting how ‘data-driven’ initiatives can displace and marginalise issues such as urban poverty, community development or public ownership. Mobile apps encouraging users to report where and when they feel they are in an insecure or threatening environment, offer a powerful example for the manifold and contingent entanglements of sensors, publics and urban security. As Gerard van Eck has shown, this crowdsourced open-sourced content not only stigmatizes streets or neighborhoods (with all the socio-economic implications) but can be valuable for law enforcement agencies in deciding where to target resources. Raising questions on how to overcome what van Eck called an “evidence-based stigma”, Nikolaus Pöchacker also outlined how sensing in the field of predictive policing already assumes attributes connected to imaginations of (in)security where the data is given a specific voice through a complex apparatus of sensing and sense-making.

Questions about relations between ‘local’ sensing experiments and ‘global’ data apparatuses were addressed by several presenters. Christopher Wood´s work, situated at the intersection of artistic and scientific practices, focused on making geospatial infrastructures visible through experimenting with breakdown and infrastructural inversion in the built environment. Wood’s trails of satellite tracking apps with different collectives played with the personal relations of individuals to satellites orbiting above and the disruption of these relations as they individuals navigate through densely constructed urban settings. Moving from art to engineering, the following presentation by Godert-Jan van Mannen on “How to Hack a Satellite” step-by-step showed how it is possible to intrude a communication satellite and get access to radio or television streams using cheap and commercially available technology. This demonstration pointed to some of the often-overlooked vulnerabilities of techno-political infrastructures and the need for a much broader consideration of risk in discourses on sensing technologies. At the same time, it pointed to the manifold forms of resistance against forms of neoliberal sensory governance, e.g. when hackers used their capabilities to claim free access to television for all. Indeed, the ways in which security expertise are claimed and technical competences distributed was addressed by Becky Kazansky whose paper examined how activist groups are dealing with risks and threats of sensory surveillance. Adopting an engaged methodology in working with human rights activists, Kanzansky highlighted some of the different ways in which distinctions between technical and ethical responsibility get translated between what she termed ‘communities of security practice’.

Questions about how the construction of threats – digital or not – come to matter with sensors, their governance and in different forms expert practice figured prominently during the workshop. Ubiquitous sensor networks raised challenges for many participants about how we envision privacy, data protection and configurations of risks. Indeed, one of our central aims for this workshop was to connect the different engagements with sensors in STS, urban- or data studies, that are mainly focused on the level of ‘localized’ collectives to the foreign entanglements of sensors and their embeddedness in the global political economy and international relations. In an attempt to facilitate such a conversation between international security studies and STS, Philipp Olbrich discussed the politics of satellite observation of North Korea as the technologization of security governance. Here, the seemingly objective satellite´s view from above translates and black-boxes it into a socio-material mobile assemblage of satellite data, eyewitness accounts and other sources. In this way, satellite imagery closes off important controversies and political alternatives as it locks in a hierarchy of evidence that reifies an adversarial posture and discredits North Korea as a future dialogue partner in the context of international relations.

The relation between international sensing apparatuses and the politics of the ‘view from above’ was also addressed by Vera Ehrenstein in her presentation on the scientific and political challenges of producing epidemiological data about ‘African pneumococcus diseases’ caused by pneumococcus bacteria. Following the bacteria from international conferences to their collection by lab researchers and street recruiters in Burkina Faso to the offices of the European vaccine distributor that contract the lab workers, Ehrenstein described the challenges involved in translating bacteria from nasal swabs into data that can robustly represent a city population and its bacteria. Where epistemological treatments of epidemiology have long been described the role of this scientific field in making populations known and governing them, Ehrenstein argued that epidemiological measurement was much more a “patchy sensing” process than one of comprehensive surveillance. Ehrenstein’s appropriation of the concept of sensing to think politically about epidemiological measurement was a powerful example of what could be said to be at stake theoretically in choosing to foreground sensing technologies/practices and displace the priority of epistemology to sort out relations between data and politics.

Sensors are, of course, not new objects in STS research. Whether in the design of experimental apparatuses, the implementation of ‘large technical systems’ or the production of novel measuring instruments, sensors have been widely studied as ‘lively’ devices that detect, inscribe, capture and record; if not always as “sensors”. As workshop participants often reaffirmed, there are many good reasons we might want to be skeptical towards hyperbolic and positivist-sounding claims that sensors are now “everywhere” and that we live in an era in which almost anything can be turned into “data”. But the presenters at this workshop also highlighted sensors also offer opportunities for STS research to problematize and extend debates about data-driven politics and power in digital societies. As our MCTS colleague Tomas Sanchez-Criado (Tironi and Criado, 2015) has highlighted in his work on urban politics: even if we recoil at the corporate jargon of the sensor-equipped ‘smart city’, there may nonetheless be many reasons we might value the modes of “sensitivity” that can be occasioned in experiments to instrument cities with sensors. At the same time, the sense remoteness of the satellites that are orbiting above us, appearing as (re-)presenting facts from an allegedly neutral perspective, requires an enhanced sensibility towards the global socio-political, economic and cultural processes (as Witjes and Olbrich 2017) – or the foreign entanglements in Dewey´s sense – in which sensory networks and forms of their governance are embedded.

Infrastructural choreography of STS scholars

Living infrastructures in cities and beyond

The notion of infrastructure became popular in STS literature in the 2000s and in the 2010s (fig. 1). Its popularity might be explained by its relevance to many urban and non-urban systems and networks, at the same it usually demands focusing on particular empirical case-study.


Fig. 1. Frequency of keyword “infrastructure” in comparison with other keywords in STS literature. Source: Own elaboration based on Scopus Database and Science Scape tools by the Medialab, Science Po. URL: http://tools.medialab.sciences-po.fr/sciencescape/


Infrastructure addresses big urban and technological projects like power networks (T. Hughes), as well as situational interactions between people and things (S. Star, G. Bowker). Infrastructure simultaneously covers the fields of urban studies showing the importance of the processes of privatization, neoliberalization and hybridization of city spaces (S. Graham, M. Gandy, S. Collier), informational technology studies addressing issues of scale, connectedness, categorization, and accessibility of information (G. Bowker, S. Star), mobility studies that tackle with the questions of flows, frictions, connectivity, and also the everyday experience of spaces and places, and many others (J. Urry, P. Adey). This kind of multiplicity of the notion of infrastructure makes it fresh and heuristically useful (?) for thinking the contemporary city and beyond.

Dancing with the Western infrastructural ideal

With all these thoughts in mind, a group of scholars from Volgograd and Saint Petersburg (Russia) with the support of Volgograd State University and European University at Saint Petersburg organized the international conference “Living Infrastructures: Beyond Global North and Global South”, which took place in Volgograd on April 27-28, 2017. The topic itself was devised during a previous workshop in Volgograd when several scholars questioned the position of urban infrastructures in Russia with regard to the Western infrastructural ideal. Based on the ideas of scholars from the so-called “second wave” of infrastructural studies, who criticized the normativity and the Western-centrism of infrastructure concepts in the articles and books of the STS cannon, we sought to articulate the specificity of Russian cases, as well as to emphasize the diversity of infrastructures all over the world. The idea was not only to de-colonize infrastructural studies extending them to Russian cases, but to show the delicate relations between people and the everyday things they are engaged with. “Living infrastructures” became thus a metaphor to remind scholars that infrastructures are dynamic and surprising, simultaneously resilient and fragile. They are ecologically mutually dependent on other life forms. They are not invulnerable or “eternal beings”, as social scientists of Durkheimian denomination thought of societies. They confront risks to their continued existence and have sometimes their own life.

The logo of the conference – the “dancing bridge” in Volgograd – might be seen as the symbol of the living infrastructures idea (fig. 2).


Fig. 2. The Volgograd “dancing bridge”. Source: the design logo created by the Volgograd team for the conference.


Volgograd’s “dancing bridge” was under construction for 13 years and it connects the central part of the city, very busy and intense one, with the natural outskirts of Volgograd floodplain, establishing a fast connection between different parts of regions at the cost of harming the subtle ecology of the floodplain. Notably, after the construction, the bridge began to “dance”, that is, oscillate because of wind conditions that created a lot of authority concerns and people’s rumors (look at the bridge here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEQrt_w7gN4). It became an important tourist attraction of Volgograd, although some days after the dancing, with the help of Swiss and German engineers (sic!), the oscillation was stabilized. In this way, the common infrastructural urban object became important part of Volgograd hybrid ecology, its urban narratives and global technological connections.

Organizing and blogging!

Preparing the conference, the organizers decided to “build” a temporary digital infrastructure to liven up an interest in the forthcoming event. The idea was to create a special blog on the WordPress platform, where different topics around the infrastructures could be exposed (https://livinginfrastructures.wordpress.com/about/). The team posted little essays on bicycle mobility, kids smart technological infrastructure, innovation infrastructure, anthropology of infrastructures, the influence of mega-events on urban infrastructures, childbirth infrastructures in Russian central and peripheral regions, and also on the topic of how the urban infrastructure elicit affects and emotions from the citizens. All these essays were disseminated in social media and helped to attract the attention of different scholars and activists to the conference issues. The blog platform attracted hundreds of website visitors.

The infrastucturation of the world

The conference gathered scholars across Russia, India, Bulgaria, Germany, Sweden, and the UK. It was the first STS-oriented conference focused on the topic of infrastructure in Russia ever. The conference was opened with a keynote on “Infrastructuring Mobile Utopia: Global Challenges, Global Responses” by Prof. Monika Büscher (Centre for Mobilities Research,​ Lancaster University) (fig 3). She analyzed cases of material infrastructural breakdown and digital humanitarianism when people converged online to restructure absent governmental. The presentation raised a range of important issues of mobile utopia and dystopia in equipped smart cities, digital and immaterial infrastructure, reflexive resilience in the context of sharing data and the precarity, and creativity in the process of infrastructurization. Three modes were suggested to develop the argument of reflexive resilience – archaeology, ontology, and architecture, in order to contribute to the discussion on relational infrastructure and posthuman relational ethics.


Fig. 3. Monica Büscher gives a lecture on the mobile infrastructures that are enacted in the time of societal crises. Source: Lyoubov Torlopova.


Ivan Tchalakov (PAST-Center, Tomsk State University / University of Plovdiv) opened the second day with his talk “Ships, Channels, Gravity Wells and Valleys: Towards Deep Space Infrastructures” (fig. 4). The examples of SpaceX and ULA were redefined through Latour’s restored symmetry as transportation for human and nature and as a conquest of the resources to become an infrastructure for the space-scape and interplanetary network. Tchalakov also discussed new private projects that might advance space industry further.


Fig. 4. Ivan Tchalakov on the division between the governmental and private space programs.


Both keynote lectures revolved around the questions of new and only anticipated infrastructures that should be delicately and intensely investigated by the STS scholars, using conceptual resources from philosophy, activism and social studies of science and technology.

The main topic of the conference was devoted to mobility infrastructures. The session “Mobilities Infrastructures: Speeding Up the Slow, Slowing Down the Fast” gathered scholars interested in changing practices of urban dwellers, the Russian subdued forms of mobility called “marshrutki”, the social infrastructures of public transport, the ambiguity of bicycle infrastructure, bike sharing systems in Russian big cities, and children “smart” mobilities. The multiplicity of the topics challenged participants to ponder upon the possibility to assemble the cases under the head of the mobility infrastructure notion. At the same time, it became very apparent that mobility is an important part of any infrastructures since it makes informational or material units pass through. How to create the infrastructure in such a way to make easier and comfortable to transit units, and at the same time to make people who use this infrastructure to feel comfortable and not alienated – it is a very important question.

The session “Urban infrastructure” drew attention to the relations between city and infrastructure. Participants demonstrated their interest in the influence of politics and policy on urban infrastructures, the access to the latter and the regime of uses. Many Russian cities represent cases of infrastructures with the centralized logic of a planned economy. Despite contemporary neoliberalism scholars’ emphasis on privatized and splintering infrastructures, we may find a lot of examples of path-dependent urban infrastructure, which follows the old and very obsolete logic of planned economy. It opens up the space for thinking about the very principles of urban infrastructure development.

In the session devoted to digital infrastructures, speakers problematized the relations between online and offline: how the space-based digital games connect to the body, perception, and the social order of city; how visualization and simulations of existing and anticipated infrastructures make work with the city space, and help to construct more comfortable and participative infrastructure. The question of representativity also penetrated the issue of media infrastructure in the game development for gamers’ imagination and anticipation of the cultural product itself.

The “Infrastructured Bodies” session tackled with the biopolitical question of a seamless connection between sociomaterial infrastructures and bodies. The speakers demonstrated how infrastructure matters when certain policies and extensive spatiality affect professional work, patients’ access and abilities and how particular enactments of diseases involve people through mobile applications and handmade infrastructures, where technology becomes secondary to knowledge exchange and accumulation.

Finally, the “Infrastructure Theories” session grasped all the previous insights into the concepts of infrastructure with all their range. Forgotten sociological classic Ferdinand Tönnies was considered to be a pioneer in logics of translation (connection of wills) and assemblage (collectives), dealing with a paradox of things as objects in relations of possession and capital. Bruno Latour’s material semiotics with the focus on operations of shifting (shifting-in, -out, -up, down) was considered an important resource for thinking of infrastructures as a type of relation and not as a set of things.

Make them live!

Monika Buscher from the Lancaster University told about how in situations of risk or accidents people start to help each other and make their own living infrastructure that are sometimes more effective than already created and established state and municipal infrastructures. The notion of living infrastructure could be also told about the conference participation as a special infrastructure when people all around the world gathered to talk about the different cases of infrastructure and by this created temporal emotional and narrative infrastructure to make infrastructure be living longer in the minds of scholars. Geoffrey Bowker and Stephen C. Slota in the brand new “Handbook of Science and Technology Studies” named their chapter “How infrastructure matter?”. We believe that the conference “Living Infrastructures Beyond Global North and Global South” in Volgograd advanced further another vital question: “How to think and talk on infrastructures as a living matter?”.


Fig. 5. The participants of the conference, who have enacted the infrastructures in the Global North and South for the two days of the conference.