One of the ways in which we work with participatory data design is in so called data sprints (Munk et al. 2019a). A data sprint is a one-week occasion to prototype a digital methods project together with those who have a stake in it, a.k.a. the issue experts. This could be actors in a controversy that the project is attempting to map, the intended users of the results, or groups for whom the results could have adverse consequences. The week begins with the issue experts presenting their matters of concern followed by a Q&A session. In the afternoon of that first day, initial ideas are transformed into protocols for digital methods projects that could be feasibly carried out in a week. There is always this intensity that results have to materialize by the end of the week and so participants tend to engage. Within the first few days we begin to build tentative and exploratory visualizations capable of eliciting feedback from the issue experts. The process makes it clear what can and what cannot be done, of course, but more importantly, it tends to prompt reflection and what we actually came to do. Like in an ethnographic interview, in a sprint, participants tend to discover questions rather than answers (Munk et al. 2019b). Spurred by these reflections, projects are recalibrated or completely redesigned during the course of the week.
Another way in which we have engaged with critical technical practice is by inviting tool developers to join us for a coding retreat at the lab. These are also workshop-style events that unfold over several days, but there are no issue experts. Rather, the object in focus is a digital methods tool in need of development. Our visitors would have to take on this task anyway but typically appreciate the opportunity to have some days where they can focus on it without distractions. By providing that occasion we get an opportunity to sit in on their discussions and, if relevant, have a say on key choices that will affect our use of the tool. In several cases we have organized these retreats around specific issues where our concerns as digital methods researchers converged with those of the tool developers, for example on how to visualize ambiguity or define a web entity in a crawl. Taken together, coding retreats and data sprints provide some of the occasions for spending time in critical proximity with the technical, that is necessary for the lab to be lab-like and for us to get our fingers properly into the digital minced meat.
Munk, A. K., Meunier, A., & Venturini, T. (2019a). Data sprints: A collaborative format in digital controversy mapping. digital-STS: A Field Guide for Science & Technology Studies, 472.
Munk, A. K., Madsen, A. K., & Jacomy, M. (2019b). Thinking through the Databody. Designs for experimentation and inquiry: Approaching learning and knowing in digital transformation, 110.
A professor emeritus at the University of Copenhagen once used to explain to new students why the Department of Material Folk Culture was located at an open-air museum north of the city by saying that you need to get your fingers stuck in the minced meat if you want to make meatballs. It has become something of a slogan in our lab. Digital STS is in the business of making a somewhat different kind of meatballs, of course, but like those ethnologists who thought it necessary to learn how to wield a turn plough, card wool, or build half-timbered houses in order to study material folk culture, we try to remind ourselves that to study the digital (or, indeed, to study anything on or with the digital) hinges on our willingness and ability to also make and do the digital as we go along.
The Techno-Anthropology Lab (or TANTLab for short) was established six years ago as a digital methods research laboratory under the Techno-Anthropology Research Group at the University of Aalborg in Copenhagen. Techno-anthropology had begun some years prior as a transdisciplinary study program between the faculties of engineering and humanities. Our research group, led by professor Torben Elgaard Jensen, was covering the humanities angle and consisted of scholars with a broad foundation in STS and the anthropology of technology. Common to many of us was an interest in digital methods and digital STS. In the years leading up to the establishment of the lab we had done research visits and longer academic exchanges with some of the pioneering European institutions in the field: the SciencesPo médialab, the Digital Methods Initiative (DMI) in Amsterdam, Noortje Marres’ group at Goldsmiths in London, or the Oxford Internet Institute. We all felt that we had witnessed first-hand and in different contexts how working alongside tool developers and information designers made new forms of digital STS possible. Following Latour, we framed it as an ambition to do digital STS in “critical proximity” (Birkbak et al. 2015) with its objects of study.
Our research infrastructure, however, did not really support that kind of working-alongside tool developers and information designers that we had experienced abroad. Our university had an efficient IT support organization equipped with resources for research computing, but it remained a support function which required you to have well-defined problems in order to receive help. For us, the main attraction of making and doing the digital together with technical experts was the ability to reframe and reimagine our matters of concern together. As an example, one of the ongoing challenges in digital methods is how to repurpose online media platforms for research. Understanding what can be done within the technical affordances of platforms that are constantly changing and in general not very transparent or well documented requires a significant amount of practical experimentation and reverse engineering. It rarely (if ever) makes sense to formulate questions and device research designs prior to seeking technical support. What institutions like the DMI or the médialab understood early on was that the technical aspects of tool development had to happen as an integral part of digital STS. Lacking the funding to copy that model and bring a team of research engineers into our digital STS group, however, we decided to try and bridge the gap from the other side: those of us with an SSH background and an interest in digital methods would try to become more technically proficient. Thus, the TANTLab was founded as a mutual pledge to get our fingers stuck in the digital minced meat.
How to practically do it proved to be an altogether different and more challenging question. In the daily competition between preparing your teaching, writing grant applications and trying to get published, prioritizing the necessary time and resources to write a python script, set up a server, master a new technique, or learn a new method can seem like a long shot. There has to be concrete occasions for it and the pay-off must be clearly in view. If it makes sense to frame the various activities we have undertaken over the past six years as ‘lab-like’, it is precisely because they constitute an ongoing effort to make such occasions available through experimentation. The lab routinely organizes workshops and other events based on a concept we call participatory data design (Jensen et al. 2021) where the core idea is to get those who have a stake in the way datasets are harvested, curated, or visualized tinkering with that process. For example, in a project about the way in which the field of obesity research has been the subject of shifting political pressures, we asked ourselves if it would be possible to involve both obesity researchers and STS researchers in designing a semantic mapping of the scientific literature in the field and thereby collectively mapping one of the central objects of study into knowledge (Jensen et al. 2019)? Doing so required skills in natural language processing, but instead of hiring outside support to fix our issues as they arose (the support solution) we took it as an occasion learn some of those techniques ourselves. The motivation was clear enough: if we were to have the flexibility to actually tinker with the more technical part of the methodological setup as part of the workshop with our colleagues from obesity research, we had to know what we were doing and especially what we could be doing.
The obesity project was one of the first we undertook together in the new established TANTLab. It quickly cemented the challenge involved in getting your fingers stuck in the digital minced meat. At the time, only one of us, a student assistant, knew how to code. On top of that a couple of us had managed to learn how to master a piece of software called Cortext for semantic analysis. It was bluntly evident that this was a bottleneck in terms of participatory data design – the limit on how much of the data design our participants could actually participate in was defined chiefly by the time of that student assistant with python skills and secondarily by the time of those of us who knew Cortext. The experience validated to us that these things are worth prioritizing and we have since instituted monthly tool lunches where students and researchers in and around the TANTlab bring their food and exchange technical tips and tricks. The ability to both engage and draw on the skills and resources of our students in this way also turns out to be essential for the ongoing sense of community around the lab. Indeed, the community is not really confined to the lab. On an international level we have been part of establishing the Public Data Lab (www.publicdatalab.org) which brings together a network of similar groups across Europe and we constantly discover sister labs in digital STS, such as the RUST Lab in Bochum, for whom the minced meat is not something you buy prepacked but aim to get your hands dirty doing.
Birkbak, A., Petersen, M. K., & Elgaard Jensen, T. (2015). Critical proximity as a methodological move in techno-anthropology. Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, 19(2), 266-290.
Elgaard Jensen, T., Birkbak, A., Madsen, A.K., Munk, A.K. (2021). ”Participatory Data Design: Acting in a Digital World”, in G. Downey & T. Zuiderent-Jerak (eds.) Making and Doing STS, MIT Press
Elgaard Jensen, T., Kleberg Hansen, A. K., Ulijaszek, S., Munk, A. K., Madsen, A. K., Hillersdal, L., & Jespersen, A. P. (2019). Identifying notions of environment in obesity research using a mixed‐methods approach. Obesity Reviews, 20(4), 621-630.
Over the years, STS Helsinki has drawn together researchers with a longer background in the field, as well as early career researchers. STS research is distributed between several universities and departments. STS Helsinki has provided the possibility to build collaborations over institutional borders and allows a shared sense of coming and working together out of intellectual interest. In an academic world of constant changes in terms of funding, affiliations, collaborations and research projects, STS Helsinki has proven to be a community that helps researchers stay connected even during discontinuities in terms of funding or contracts.
Currently, STS Helsinki is a lively collective that meets regularly at the STS Helsinki Seminar Series, where we have had visiting talks from scholars from both Finland and abroad. During 2019, for example, Sheila Jasanoff, Stephen Turner and Nik Brown presented their research at the seminar. Moreover, the Knowledge, Technology and Environment PhD Seminar (TOTEMI) at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki, with its 6-8 annual seminar days, is a venue where many of us meet to discuss STS by commenting on manuscripts of the current PhD students. In addition to research seminars at the University of Helsinki Faculty of Social Sciences, STS related teaching and supervision is an important activity that contributes to the development of the community. Courses ranging from AI and society to environment and sociology of health, illness and medicine, not to mention STS focussed introductory courses, offer students a range of courses and topics to choose from.
Additionally, the PhD Data Lab allows junior members of the STS Helsinki community to present short excerpts from their data and data analysis and receive help in developing their work further to the writing stage. The community also regularly goes away on writing retreats where members get a chance to focus on intensive writing and commenting of work in progress. We regularly publish blog texts, conference and workshop calls, and job advertisements on our STS Helsinki blog (https://blogs.helsinki.fi/sts-helsinki/fi/), and disseminate information about our activities through our social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. The blog has been a venue for STS researchers to publish their texts for a popular audience.
Members of the collective have their own research focuses and institutional settings, and deploy and develop a wide range of STS approaches in terms of theories, concepts and empirical focus. Even though STS Helsinki is not devoted to a strictly defined theoretical or methodological program, there are numerous shared projects and interests many of us are involved with. The following examples offer a glimpse on some of the research activities taking place within the STS Helsinki community.
The Cultures of Cultures research group studies microbes from various perspectives across five different research projects. The projects take a comprehensive look at human-microbe connections focusing on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in global contexts; how lay and scientific communities are constructing a post-antibiotic world; and develops experimental methods for studying microbes via fermentation. This work develops a theoretical opening in the field of STS as regards to social study of microbes. Moreover, these projects come tied with a strong focus on tackling AMR in collaboration with environmental and clinical microbiologists.
Societal knowledge-making practices are approached from multiple perspectives. Expectations and policies regarding carbon neutrality are examined, for example, in debates on energy transitions in Finland. Another approach to knowledge can be found on studies of expertise. There is research concentrating on how actors can make reasoned judgments about (or based on) expertise in which these actors are non-experts. This issue is studied in the context of law-science interaction. Similarly, a recently published dissertation highlighted the constructedness and expansion of expertise in the contemporary public sphere through the case of healthy eating.
Members of the STS Helsinki collective are also active in relation to academic organizations such as the Finnish Society for Science and Technology Studies, The European Sociological Association’s Research Network 24(Sociology of Science and Technology Network), and the Science and Democracy Network(http://stsprogram.org/sdn/). The EASST journal Science & Technology Studies is also managed by members of the STS Helsinki community. The journal has been a long-running publication that was originally published by the Finnish Society for Science and Technology Studies, but has since become a joint effort with EASST, making it an important open access resource for STS scholars globally. While the S&TS does not represent STS Helsinki alone, it strengthens the STS community and adds to the vibrant conversations going on in Helsinki.
During the upcoming decade, we will continue with our STS Helsinki Seminar Series. New courses, research projects and writing retreats are being developed and planned. Most importantly, we will continue to work in strengthening the visibility of STS and building the STS Helsinki community.
STS Helsinki arose from a sensation shared by junior and senior scholars at the University of Helsinki that we lacked sufficient forums and spaces for STS at the University. Many of us gathered monthly at the TOTEMI seminar for doctoral students working under the broad banner of “Knowledge, technology, and environment”. Despite being a doctoral seminar, TOTEMI attracted both junior and senior scholars alike since it was at the time the only space to discuss STS regularly. Like many places where STS scholars gather, the seminar was an important site to encounter others employing similar concepts and reading the same texts. Some of us who were doing our doctoral studies came from disciplines where only a few others shared an interest in STS or had even heard of it. At the same time, many of us doctoral students realized the extent of the intellectual field and how little training we actually had received in STS. This stems from Finnish universities lacking a Master’s programme in STS and STS being taught rather sporadically in Finland. These realizations quickly spurred reading groups and informal gatherings to support one another during our doctoral studies and dissertation processes. These encounters were always supported by more senior and experienced STS researchers working in Helsinki, who offered informal guidance and relevant STS content to the discussions.
It did not take long before many of us who gathered around STS felt that something more open to the wider academic community was also required. The desire to have a more public presence face for STS in Helsinki originated from our personal experiences of how much luck was actually required to stumble upon other STS scholars. The typical story consisted of “you should meet researcher A” narratives. However, while such chains of recommendations lead to finding others working on STS, they hardly contribute to a sustained and consistent development of STS in Helsinki. We wanted to correct this with a clear online presence, public seminars and increased collaboration, allowing anyone interested in STS to easily find like-minded scholars and STS activities.
While part of the origin story of STS Helsinki arises from the typical frustration of lacking a viable research environment, another part tells the story of building that collective ourselves. One of the key sites where STS Helsinki was formed are the biological research stations of the University of Helsinki. Located in beautiful seaside or lakeside locations a couple of hours from Helsinki, the research stations have functioned as sites for long-term fieldwork in biology and forestry. They also offer the chance for other scholars to enjoy a peaceful environment and work-oriented routines to productively focus on tasks that benefit from that isolation, such as writing or analysis.
Breakfast, lunch, coffee, dinner, sauna… And some writing in between. Writing retreats at Tvärminne and Lammi have always benefitted from clearly structured days. When all your basic needs are covered for by the research station facilities and you are surrounded by beautiful scenes, it’s much easier to delve into academic work. Our writing retreats have tended to combine the peace to write with social lunches, walks and sauna, fulfilling a rather idealized view of academic work – at least for a couple of days each year.
It is in these spaces in between that STS Helsinki slowly began to take its shape and form. While many of the founders of STS Helsinki are sociologists by training or academic label, it was quickly clear that our research interests cannot be fastened to a single discipline. Nor would this development had been possible at the University of Helsinki, where disciplines and teaching were being merged under the broader banner of social sciences. At the same time, like many STS efforts in Europe, we struggle with carving out a space for STS in situations where disciplinary expertise is valued, as two of our members, Jose A. Cañada and Jaakko Taipale (2020), outline in their recent text on institutionalizing STS in the Nordic Countries.
As we know from STS, things often happen and practices evolve before we know or name what is going on. Likewise with STS Helsinki, we started a blog in 2016 with the idea of showcasing our research and that of others working on STS. Together with the blog, we opened a Twitter account to publicize our work and share STS-related news and events. Around the same time, we decided to hold an annual STS panel at the national Sociology days, a popular yearly conference hosted in Finland.
A couple of years on, we can reflect on what has been achieved. Hosting a blog is hard and unfortunately often ungrateful work: finding authors, pleading for texts, editing texts… At the same time, the online space in Finland is filling up with other initiatives working to bring academic perspectives to new audiences (such as Ilmiö and Versus), in which many of our members have been writing. With these collaborative efforts reaching wider audiences, hosting our own blog does not seem as valuable large anymore. Meanwhile, the importance of Twitter for networking, sharing research, events and news has increased. Twitter has enabled quick communication of what our members are doing and a great way of interacting and continuing our relationship with other STS units and researchers around the world.
STS Helsinki was named a “research collective” only in the last year or so. Before that, while we had discussed at length what types of things we want to do and what forms of collaboration we want to promote, we had not really found a purpose for specifically naming “what” we are. As discussed by Heta Tarkkala et al on our current activities, our members are conducting STS research on a wide range of topics. As a collective, we do not share a thematic orientation to particular topics. Likewise, STS Helsinki researchers each have their own theoretical and epistemological inclinations within the broad field of STS. Growing from the bottom up, we are not conducting research under the auspices of a research director, but rather encouraging one another along in both distinct and collaborative efforts. As a research collective, STS Helsinki exemplifies how doing things together leads to doing more things together and creating new forms of collaboration.
As a result, many recent efforts have gone into increasing STS activities at the University of Helsinki with the objective of consolidating the group itself and welcoming scholars not directly engaged with STS to our discussions. The STS Helsinki Seminar Series has been a way to invite both Finnish and international scholars to present their work to the Helsinki community. STS teaching at the faculty has increased recently with both an STS classics reading seminar for Master and PhD students and new courses on environment & STS. The aim is to engage younger generations and spark their interest, ensuring the continuity of STS. At the doctoral level, a course consisting mostly of STS perspectives on science in society has been running for a few years, also providing visibility to STS. Finally, seminars, workshops and data labs are used as ways to share our work in the collective, to improve it and to find common ways of thinking and talking STS.
Despite all these activities, challenges for the collective’s viability remain a key concern. Our will to organise a session on the institutionalization of STS in the last Nordic STS conference in Tampere, grew out of a concern for that viability. Does STS Helsinki require more traditional institutional structures to survive? Or can it depend on its rather rhizomatic modes of organization that rely upon the shared efforts made by its members in the nooks and crannies of busy academic schedules? While these questions remain (and probably will stay) unanswered, we have found in the diversification of activities – i.e. teaching, public seminars, collaborations with other STS groups or departments – a way to somewhat to consolidate the public image of STS Helsinki, and to secure the continuous involvement of its members and the addition of new ones.
Cañada & Taipale (2020). Reflections on the Local Institutionalization of STS. EASST Review.
Having shown how the lab has evolved over the course of 15 years since its foundation, it is now time to reflect on where we are and where we are going.
Our members’ research falls, broadly speaking, into two fields: life sciences, medicine, medical technologies and psychiatry on the one hand – and on the other sustainability, global land use, the role of modelling in human-environment systems and political ecology. Despite the broad range of topics we tackle in around 20 individual Master, PhD and Postdoc projects – ranging from the interconnections between (shifting knowledge about) medical care and urban environments, digitalization and memory politics1 and the subsequent changes in work systems/ecologies & governance2 to transformations of food and energy systems3 as well as resource socialities more broadly4 and finally, knowledge produced about such phenomena for example by socio-ecological modelling groups5 – and the geographical distribution of field-sites across Europe, the US, South America and West Africa we are committed to the idea of research as a collective endeavor. This is then our first point to make:
The Laboratory: Anthropology of Environment | Human Relations is more-than-project. Our self-understanding is more akin to what Ludwik Fleck has termed a thought collective:
“Although the thought collective consists of individuals, it is not simply the aggregate sum of them. […] A thought collective exists wherever two or more people are actually exchanging thoughts. He is a poor observer who does not notice that a stimulating conversation between two persons soon creates a condition in which each utters thoughts he would not have been able to produce either by himself or in different company. A special mood arises, which would not otherwise affect either partner of the conversation but almost always returns whenever these persons meet again.” (Fleck 1979 , 41-44)
We are dedicated to providing and generating space in which ideas that are not quite finished yet, as well as research-in-the-making, can be openly discussed. Yet, our thought collective exceeds Fleck’s in that it is explicitly open for and actively seeking disconcertment. We seek to constantly oppose our own problematizations, approaches and findings, thereby seeking to expose their underlying assumptions and understandings to critique from within our collective as well as from the outside by welcoming guest researchers and discussing their works and comments to avoid becoming too comfortable. The lab is not a filter bubble.
Our commitment to work that is ‘more-than-project’ comes in different modes. Through constant reporting from our individual projects around our weekly meetings we establish contact points between projects, thereby fostering ideas, which exceed the individual members’ projects and can then be taken to broader discussions in STS, anthropology and the respective disciplines that define the fields we study, e. g. discussing the concept of niching through different fields in a joint paper (Bieler and Klausner 2019, see also below), working on the idea of situated modelling in a series of meetings together with the modelling6 community (Klein, Niewöhner, Unverzagt) or discussing the effects of situated politics of context for rice production systems in Uruguay and Burkina Faso for a workshop presentation (Hauer, Liburkina) to name just a few examples.
The framework of situated modelling stems from longer-standing discussions at the IRI THESys and will be elaborated on the basis of fieldwork currently under way in the field of participatory modelling (Unverzagt) and social-ecological modelling (Klein). Rather than striving for the single most accurate simplification of complex events, situated modelling acknowledges the contingency of simplifications and tries to turn this insight productive. As a research framework, situated modeling relates positive, predictive and quantitative approaches to reflexive, contextualising and qualitative approaches. It does so in ways that move beyond integration and critique.
Thinking across two initially unrelated PhD projects – on land-use and livelihood dynamics in the course of the introduction of large-scale rice production through a development project in Burkina Faso (Hauer) and the role of grand notions such as responsibility, economic growth and sustainable transformation in two distinct food supply chains (Liburkina) – allowed us to experiment with analytical prisms ranging from system to assemblage thinking and asking how de/stabilization is achieved and challenged in practice, while simultaneously raising questions about the construction and comparability of cases. The latter concern is taken up by the group as a whole in a couple of reading sessions on the case as well as on comparison.
Moreover, we cherish concept work on a more daily basis, making it less ‘quantifiable’ but not less productive. In our weekly sessions, we attempt to link conceptual discussions that emerge in one field to other fields as well as to overarching questions in STS and anthropology: comparison, juxtaposition, diffraction. For example, we’ve traced the parallels in the uses of the concepts of hope and experience in the anthropological records in order to circumvent the fallacy of adding another definition of the concepts instead of focusing on the work these concepts do in the world and their effects. Although, these discussions did not result in joint outputs, they enriched the research they accompanied (Hauer, Nielsen, and Niewöhner 2018, Schmid 2019). Paralleling our attempts to think through rather than within projects, we have ongoing discussions about how to empirically trace and conceptually frame relatedness, a question that connects many of our ongoing projects, whether they deal with supply chains, mental health care in urban space or the emerging rice market in Burkina Faso. Exchanging concepts from different fields, switching lenses and thought traditions and exploring what they might add to our own thinking is an inspiring exercise that helps us to strengthen our arguments and positions.
This brings us to our second point: what holds the lab together is more-than-discipline. STS has been, right from the start, an inter-disciplinary endeavor. Bringing it into an established discipline such as Social and Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology, the challenge has been to make an argument for what our approach has to offer to that discipline. Today, lab members are no longer an exclusive group of anthropologists with an interest in STS thinking, rather the lab has assembled as well as produced researchers that transcend disciplinary boundaries coming from or working in anthropology, geography, sociology, medicine etc. We all share an interest in discussions beyond disciplinary boundaries. Yet we are all also eager to take these discussions back to the centers of their respective disciplinary discourses in order to foster friction rather than new comfort zones. By doing so, we are committed to upholding the critical potential we believe STS has so productively developed.
Accordingly, the Lab strongly believes in the importance of long-term co-laborative ethnographic projects carried out in research teams, taking initiatives such as the Matsutake Worlds Research Group or The Asthma Files as examples. So far, this has proved especially productive in the field of social psychiatry. Steady exchange between the projects has led us to a detailed exploration of the ecologies of psychiatric expertise. Starting with fieldwork on different psychiatric wards, our inquiry into the classification and phenomenon of chronicity reached out to the everyday of public community mental health care services, their public administration, and the lives people lived once released from inpatient care. Examining the links between mental distress and (the transformation of) urban environments beyond the psy complex, resulted in recent research on and with administrative agencies, political institutions and lobbying groups. Ongoing discussions with anthropologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, and geographers from Germany, the UK, and Switzerland, reinforced our approach of investigating the situated experiences of people with psychiatric diagnosis as socio-material practices co-constituted by and co-constitutive of knowledges, bodies/minds and (urban) environments. (Klausner 2015, Bister, Klausner, and Niewöhner 2016, Bister 2018, Bieler and Klausner 2019)
The lab pushes ethnographic inquiry and theorizing to be more-than-deconstruction. All lab researchers share the belief that our research needs to amount to more than critically deconstructing any sort of phenomenon or prevalent problematizations on and of the fields we research. We, therefore, aim at co-laborative and response-able research designs and at keeping the possibility open for situated interventions, feedback loops and generative critique. In two medical technology development projects, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, for instance, we contrasted individualized approaches of compliance and technology use with our empirical analyses of daily health care practices and modes of living and working with medical devices. By doing so in regular project meetings together with partners from engineering and through a continuous ethnographic presence, we created space for irritating basic assumptions that were to be black-boxed in the technology under development (Klausner 2018). We do not wish to overemphasize our impact on the way in which the projects developed nor on the general technical set-up of the technologies. Nevertheless, we insist that ethnographic co-laboration and intervention adds a dimension to established research on the ethical, legal and social aspects of technology development as well as user-centered design and design thinking (Seitz 2017).
Although our fields as well as modes of research differ considerably in how they allow for different degrees of co-laboration, we share a commitment to ethnographic research and theorizing not only of but also in, with and for the world as the ultimate vantage point.
So, as you can tell from this text, we are not only more-than-human, but super-human, really: critical and generative, engaged and reflexive, versed in disciplines but also transcending them. Above all, of course, we are more-than-serious, so get in touch and join our sessions if you are ever in Berlin or would like to visit us.
6 The models we are concerned with are numerical models, computer simulations based on mathematical models. For now we are interested in models that take socio-ecological phenomena as their object (on various scales and with different symmetries).
Bieler, Patrick, and Martina Klausner. 2019. “Niching in cities under pressure. Tracing the reconfiguration of community psychiatric care and the housing market in Berlin.”Geoforum. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2019.01.018.
Bister, Milena D. 2018. “The Concept of Chronicity in Action: Everyday Classification Practices and the Shaping of Mental Health Care.”Sociology of Health and Illness 40 (1):38-52. doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.12623.
Bister, Milena D., Martina Klausner, and Jörg Niewöhner. 2016. “The Cosmopolitics of ‘Niching’. Rendering the City Habitable along Infrastructures of Mental Health Care.” In Urban Cosmopolitics. Agencements, Assemblies, Atmospheres, edited by Anders Blok and Ignacio Farias, 187-205. London, New York: Routledge.
Fleck, Ludwik. 1979 . Genesis and Development of a Scientiﬁc Fact. (First published in German, 1935) ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hauer, Janine, Jonas Østergaard Nielsen, and JörgNiewöhner. 2018. “Landscapes of Hoping – Urban Expansion and Emerging Futures in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.”Anthropological Theory 18 (1):59-80. doi: 10.1177/1463499617747176.
Klausner, Martina. 2015. Choreografien Psychiatrischer Praxis: Eine Ethnografische Studie zum Alltag in der Psychiatrie. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
Niewöhner, Jörg. 2016. “Co-laborative Anthropology. Crafting Reflexivities Experimentally.” In Etnologinen tulkinta ja analyysi. Kohti avoimempaa tutkimusprosessia, edited by Jukka Joukhi and Tytti Steel, 81-125. Tallinn: Ethnos.
Niewöhner, Jörg, and Margaret Lock. 2018. “Situating local biologies: Anthropological perspectives on environment/human entanglements.”BioSocieties. doi: 10.1057/s41292-017-0089-5.
Schmid, Christine. 2019. „Ver-rückte Expertisen: Eine Ethnografie über Genesungsbegleitung. Über Erfahrung, Expertise und Praktiken des Reflektierens im (teil )stationären psychiatrischen Kontext. Doctoral Thesis, handed to the Institute of European Ethnology at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin on February 19th, 2019.”
Seitz, Tim (2017): Design Thinking und der neue Geist des Kapitalismus. Soziologische Betrachtungen einer Innovationskultur. Bielefeld: Transcipt Verlag.
The laboratory started in 2004, when Stefan Beck and Michi Knecht together with Jörg Niewöhner initiated the “Collaboratory Social Anthropology & Life Sciences” at the Institute of European Ethnology1 at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. The notion of the Collaboratory was adopted from a group of anthropologists around Paul Rabinow in Berkeley (Stavrianakis 2009), with whom Stefan Beck had stayed as an assistant professor in 2000. The term is meant to signal a more epistemically focused relationship between ethnography and its interlocutors. “Damn, I also want to save lives!” Stefan Beck quipped back then and so we started to look for ways to elaborate the intersection of critical medical anthropology and science and technology studies beyond its established mode of deconstruction. This effort rested on three commitments: thinking and working across individual projects for the sake of developing empirically grounded middle-range concepts and methodologies; placing knowledge making practices of science and technology centre-stage in anthropological inquiry; and collaborating with members of the fields we explore. When the Collaboratory started, science and technology studies (STS) – though of course well established internationally – had arrived neither in the discipline(s) at large2 nor in our department in particular.
One of the first efforts to establish a different relationship with biomedicine and the life sciences took shape through the research cluster “Preventive Self” funded by the German government. Here, social inquiry including history worked in close connection with general medicine to better understand cardiovascular risk, obesity and prevention efforts as a set of practices giving rise to a new form of self-care and self-management. Inspired by recent thinking on the multiplicity of the body (Mol 2002), we built on Foucauldian analyses of biopower and technologies of the self. Moving ethnographic analyses right into the heart of medical practices emphasized their ambivalences and contingencies and allowed us to address another politics of life as such (Fassin 2009). In this first phase (2004-2010), we tried to better understand the intricate entanglement of nature and culture as well as technology and ‘the social’, which led us to explore ‘practice theory’ and material semiotics. Building on Pierre Bourdieu, Sally Falk Moore, Anthony Giddens, and Tim Ingold, among others, we grappled in our ethnographic encounters and research puzzles with the insights feminist science studies and (post) actor-network theory had to offer. Connecting ethnographic research, practice theories and collaboration was our way of translating the shift from matters of critique to matters of concern (Latour 2004) into actual research practice (Environment and Relations 2019a, b). By that time, the lab was beginning to develop its format, which it retains until today: weekly meetings during term time to discuss our own ethnographic material, read about and debate theoretical concepts, write together, invite guests and host visitors.
This format quickly began to attract masters and graduate students as well as postdocs and staff from the Institute of European Ethnology as well as from other Berlin-based institutions and beyond. It began to succeed in bringing together researchers from different stages in their careers working on an increasingly wide range of topics in a work-in-progress format. In 2007, this formatwas adopted for the entire institute in order to create an institutional structure based less on professorships and status hierarchies. Laboratories became open and experimental workspaces along particular perspectives, within which students, postdocs and staff engaged in order to develop a shared set of intellectual practices. The Collaboratory became the “Laboratory: Social Anthropology of Science and Technology”.
In its second phase (2008-2015), the Laboratory shaped its profile through a number of research projects that continued collaboration with the life sciences: particularly with molecular biology and the social and cultural neurosciences. In 2010, the lab implemented a specialization in Science and Technology Studies in our department’s Master program and published an edited introductory volume to the social anthropology of science and technology in German (Beck, Niewöhner, and Sørensen 2012). It also launched a very productive and extensive research collaboration with social psychiatry that continues until today shaped first and foremost by Stefan Beck, Martina Klausner, Milena Bister, Patrick Bieler, Christine Schmid, and Jörg Niewöhner as well as Sebastian von Peter and Manfred Zaumseil on the psychiatric / psychological side. It started off with the ethnographic project “The Production of Chronicity in Mental Healthcare and Research in Berlin” that was funded by the German research foundation despite having co-applicants from psychiatry on the proposal and thus breaking with the tradition of disciplinary social inquiry and critical distance. This research context quickly produced new collaborative formats that inspired conceptual work (choreography, doing presence, niching) and expanded ethnographic methods (longitudinal ethnographic work and mobile methods such as go-alongs). We started to discuss the specificities of collaboration with social psychiatry: How does it differ from general medicine, molecular biology and the neurosciences? Within social psychiatry, we did not exclusively collaborate with academic colleagues that had their own research interests and agendas, but additionally with professionals and practitioners who aimed at reflecting upon and intervening into existing treatment practices. Our research was constantly put to the test of whether or not it offered meaningful results to the places we explored (clinical wards, a day hospital, community care facilities). Hence our interpretations were incessantly challenged by established epistemic practices within the field. Without necessarily sharing goals and moral values with our collaboration partners, our anthropological analysis and ethnographic theorizing substantially benefited from the tensions that arose from engaging with (not appealing to!) different audiences and epistemic cultures. This research trajectory has culminated in conceptualizing our work as co-laborative (with the hyphen), i.e. “temporary, non-teleological, joint epistemic work aimed at producing disciplinary reflexivities, not interdisciplinary shared outcomes.” (Niewöhner 2016, 3) By doing so, we foreground that co-laboration differs from interdisciplinarity in significant ways: Co-laboration includes joint work with experts from various fields without limiting itself to collaboration with scientists or academics. It enables the partners to work jointly on the basis of shared objects of concern without necessarily aiming for a common goal. In a nutshell, co-laboration acknowledges the heterogeneity of existing knowledge practices. It draws on the generative potential that arises from reading different communities of practice through each other (diffraction), rather than reflecting on one from the standpoint of the other. Today, we are still enrolled in inventing formats of laboring together with partners in our current projects, which include participants within (mental) health care settings, but also reach beyond the medical field into areas of (urban) policy making, agricultural production, or business organizations, to give but a few examples. Involving respective community members in ethnographic inquiry while it is still unfolding significantly impacts the ways in which we approach and craft anthropological concepts and problematizations.
In spring 2015, the lab was forced to enter its current third phase under tragic circumstances. The unexpected and sudden death of Stefan Beck shook our group to the core. He left us in the midst of a number of projects, plans and ideas. In getting to grips with this loss, it became clear to us how deeply our thinking has been informed and challenged by Stefan’s way of doing ethnography – not in the sense of an academic ‘school’, but in the way he constantly confronted thought styles, which were at risk of becoming (too) settled, through making unorthodox connections. It took us a long time to find our way into a new rhythm and we continue to miss his most ‘irritating’ presence every day.
For the lab, this meant that Jörg Niewöhner stepped in as head and a handful of postdocs and PhD-students assisted in organizing our meetings and ensuring a continuity in discussion and planning. Continuing Stefan’s approach of a relational anthropology (Beck 2008), our group tied the last discussions with Stefan together to develop the notion of “phenomenography”, i.e. the ethnographic inquiry into ecologies of experience and expertise in relation to the material-semiotic practices that bring them about. (Niewöhner et al. 2016) We define phenomenography as an inherently co-laborative research practice, which aims at curating concepts jointly and by doing so re-articulating reflexivity within anthropology. The fact that Jörg took over the chair in Social Anthropology of Human-Environment relations at the Institute of European Ethnology and became director of the Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, affirmed our group’s ecological approach on anthropological, political, and geographical issues. Over time, the Lab also became home to scholars eager to explore the entanglements of social practices and material worlds in the Anthropocene. In these last three years, our department also attracted new staff with an explicit expertise in STS (e. g. Tahani Nadim, Ignacio Farias). This happy proliferation of STS inspired ethnographic research widened our scope beyond a single STS umbrella.
Hence in 2018, we marked the beginning of this new phase by giving our group its current name “Laboratory: Anthropology of Environment | Human Relations”. Why such an awkward name, you may ask: Human-Environment relations or interactions is a term largely occupied with ecological and systemic thinking in the biological and human sciences. While we co-laborate with these thought styles, we are keen to explore ethnographically how these relations are enacted rather than assuming them within a particular epistemological position. We also want to emphasize the environment to avoid its reduction to symbol or metaphor. (Niewöhner and Lock 2018) The vertical bar ‘|’ marks our inquiry into an open, dynamic as well as often ambivalent and excessive relationship. We take our cue here from Stefan Beck’s inaugural lecture entitled “Nature | Culture: Thoughts on a relational anthropology” (Beck 2008). ‘Relations’ summons elective affinities including Gregory Bateson, Marilyn Strathern, Stefan Beck, Annemarie Mol, to name but a few with a lifelong interest in relentlessly relational research and thought. We see our approach within the broad and multi-facetted tradition of social and cultural anthropology, including its German-speaking strand of European Ethnology. We have dropped the ‘social and cultural’ to reference our background in science and technology studies, the material turn and our understanding of ‘the social’ as always already entangled with environments, artefacts, infrastructures and bodies.
Somewhat ironically for a contribution to the EASST review, ‘science and technology studies’ has disappeared from our group’s name. This is not accidental and only partly explained through the institutional developments described above. While we remain deeply committed to the last 40 years of excellent scholarship in STS, we note that the success and growth of the inter-discipline also raises some important questions. Most importantly, perhaps, the question how STS can rekindle the productive friction with its disciplinary kin that has been key to its development.
1 For further discussions of the divided histories of an ‘anthropology at home’ (Volkskunde) and an ‘anthropology abroad’ (Völkerkunde) and subsequent institutional divides between ‘European Ethnology’ and ‘Ethnology’ in German academia see (Bierschenk, Krings, and Lentz 2016, Welz 2013)
2 In Germany, neither European Ethnology nor its sister discipline of Social and Cultural Anthropology had really taken note of the first two waves of STS with the notable exception of Richard Rottenburg and his group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle.
Beck, Stefan. 2008. „Natur | Kultur. Überlegungen zu einer relationalen Anthropologie.“Zeitschrift für Volkskunde 104 (2):166-199.
Beck, Stefan, Jörg Niewöhner, and Estrid Sørensen, eds. 2012. Science and Technology Studies. Eine sozialanthropologische Einführung Bielefeld Transcript.
Bierschenk, Thomas, Matthias Krings, and Carola Lentz. 2016. „World Anthropology with an Accent: The Discipline in Germany since the 1970s.“American Anthropologist:n/a-n/a. doi: 10.1111/aman.12535.
Fassin, Didier. 2009. “Another Politics of Life is Possible.”Theory, Culture & Society 26 (5):44-60.
Laboratory: Anthropology of Environment|Human Relations, eds. 2019a. After Practice. Thinking through Matter(s) and Meaning Relationally. Volume I. Berlin: Panama.
Laboratory: Anthropology of Environment|Human Relations, eds. 2019b. After Practice. Thinking through Matter(s) and Meaning Relationally. Volume II. Berlin: Panama.
Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.”Critical Inquiry 30 (2):225-248.
Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice: Duke University Press.
Niewöhner, Jörg. 2016. “Co-laborative Anthropology. Crafting Reflexivities Experimentally.” In Etnologinen tulkinta ja analyysi. Kohti avoimempaa tutkimusprosessia, edited by Jukka Joukhi and Tytti Steel, 81-125. Tallinn: Ethnos.
Niewöhner, Jörg, and Margaret Lock. 2018. “Situating local biologies: Anthropological perspectives on environment/human entanglements.”BioSocieties. doi: 10.1057/s41292-017-0089-5.
Stavrianakis, Anthony. 2009. What is an Anthropology of the Contemporary? Field Statement (Concept Labor), no. 1, April 2009.
Welz, Gisela. 2013. “Europa: Ein Kontinent—zwei Ethnologien? [Europe: One Continent—Two Anthropologies?].” In Ethnologie im 21. Jahrhundert [Anthropology in the 21st century], edited by Thomas Bierschenk, MatthiasKrings and Carola Lentz, 211–228. Berlin: Reimer.
Controversies or public problems? Open questions and research proposals
Public problems and controversies usually refer to two traditions of social sciences. The first one focuses on processes through which private issues transform into collective concerns and raise interest among politicians. Its most classical case studies include civil rights or environmental issues. The second tradition refers to conflicts related to science and technology in society. It underlines the role of scientific reasoning on highly debated topics such as nuclear waste or big data. I argue that the two research perspectives, as different as they are, could gain in analytical depth and precision from one another. My paper is an attempt to illustrate this through some research projects developed over the past ten years on traffic safety and smart cities in France and the United States.
From controversy to public problem: a struggle for political order
What is wrong with traffic safety statistics? The question seems legitimate for anyone who reads for the first time the statistical form used by state officials to report accidents in France. Indeed, every possible characteristic of the crash appears recordable and accessible in a standardized format, from age and sex of the driver to profession and blood alcohol concentration, date, time and place of the accident, light conditions, road design or vehicle type. Physicians, however, expressed criticism in the early years of the new millennium. More precisely, they opposed engineers in a growing dispute on data collection. Borrowing from Dorothy Nelkin (1979), I studied this controversy as a lens to reveal some hidden assumptions of scientists in the field of traffic safety. I realized that physicians asked for data on injuries, as they wanted to prevent first and foremost the most severe crashes, rather than accidents in general. State engineers, in turn, focused on roadway design to cope with what they perceived as the core structure of the problem. That was how the two groups expressed and reaffirmed some core values of their professional communities.
The study went on with a sociological analysis of the media, to understand how journalists selected their sources to write about the debate. It helped to go beyond some naïve appreciations of science and its diffusion, to emphasize precisely some specific norms and practices related to science communication (Lewenstein, 1992). More specifically, the study showed that journalists were active players in the controversy, not only as obligatory passage points for the debate, but also as tacit promoters of another viewpoint on the issue, different from that of physicians and engineers. Indeed, they draw on their day-to-day experience with the news to underline a matter of drivers’ behaviors and discipline. The words used in the press articles, as a consequence, reflected a problem of individuals, rather than of roads or vehicles, with people actually not injured or dead, but deliberately “maimed” and “killed.” Such a disciplinary stance relied on the testimony of police officers presented as the experts on the issue. This analysis helped to reveal another professional community involved in the debate, besides those of engineers and physicians, with spokespersons from state police asking for data on cell phone use or drug abuse, for instance. This contributed to set the stage for a typical study of a scientific controversy, with competing groups and professional values made visible through a public dispute.
The analysis gained depth when confronted with some classic works in sociology of public problems. In that scientific domain, traffic safety is not a minor topic of interest. It rather stands as a major theme of investigation after the publication of Joseph Gusfield’s Culture of Public Problems (1981). In his book, the sociologist investigated how a private practice, that of drinking before driving, became a public problem in the United States. His research proved seminal in many ways, as he proposed to consider as “public” an issue not only made “visible” or transformed as a matter of “collective” concern, but also developed as an “institutional” theme of interest. The approach led him to highlight the processes through which political responsibility was distributed for the cause and the treatment of problems. Indeed, even if actors may not be aware of their own conceptual biases as regard to the definition of accident, toward a question of vehicles, of roads or individuals, they all enter into a competition for some scarce public resources, to see their priorities become political (Neveu, 2015). Through that process, a plurality of possible realities tends to disappear, as only one definition of the legitimate question and its realistic answer remains in the end (Best, 1995 ). To Gusfield, as a result, public problems are powerful sources of legitimization or de-legitimization of the existing political order.
This brings new light on the study of controversies related to science and technology in society. In the case of traffic safety, it helps to uncover some political programs beyond competing claims for objectivity. Physicians, for instance, had been advocating for years, long before I started fieldwork, for a reallocation of public funding to injury control, through meetings and talks in academic arenas and professional societies. Their proposal, however, faced opposition from state engineers, as they struggled to save resources for road maintenance at a time when public budgets began to shrink. They also confronted indifference, not to say resistance, from journalists intimately convinced that safety was a matter of individual discipline, to be dealt with police officers rather than physicians. The controversy on accident statistics, then, became a struggle for political visibility, to end up either with the recognition of the existing order, or with a profound reordering of traffic safety policies. Some similar processes seem to prevail in other domains of interest for science and technology scholars. As regard to nanotechnologies, for instance, Brice Laurent argues that political order is necessarily at stake, when scientific objects become a problem to be debated beyond laboratories and universities (2017). It is a sign, to me, that scholars interested in science and technology in society could find great interest in developing an in-depth dialogue with sociologists working on public problems.
From public problem to controversy: the social production of credibility
Sociologists interested in public problems, in turn, might also want to build bridges with science and technology scholars. To make it clear, I will use a case study related to so-called smart cities, on which I have had the opportunity to work on at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées and the Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, together with sociologists and historians of the Laboratoire Techniques, Territoires et Sociétés (LATTS, UMR 8134). “Smart cities” usually refer to the development of connected cities, where the dissemination of numerical technologies brings a series of new public and private services to enhance the citizens’ experience of urban life. Their promoters often present them as the solution to a wide variety of problems in the United States. The spread of numerical technologies, to them, would help to treat environmental issues, for instance, through real-time energy management. It could also bring security to the most insecure places, with police officers likely to access new sensors and monitoring devices. These arguments tend to draw political attention on smart cities as the solution to some highly debated issues, which, to me, make them an interesting case study for the analysis of public problems.
Who are the promoters of the smart city, and how do they manage to make it a solution to public problems? Scientists and engineers may have their word to say in the process, as science and technology seem at heart of the topic. Indeed, they could provide academic authority and legitimacy to the development of smart cities, most notably through scientific writing, to depersonalize claims and universalize projects that would otherwise be difficult to disseminate (Henry, 2017). It would seem easy to them, for instance, to play on the apparent complexity of sensors or data mining, deliberately or not, to create a hyper-technical and obscure discourse on the topic. That would be a perfect way to raise the entry cost for new comers in the debate, and make sure no strong criticism from non-scientists could develop easily, as show in other cases (Comby, 2015). I could not find any such practices, however, as regard to smart cities, which led me to search for alternative options to study scientific involvement in the field.
Back to the academic literature on controversies, I realized that scientific authority was not even central, most often, in the processes through which scientists get approval or credit from non-scientists. Scholars interested in science and technology rather emphasize a need for the engineers, for instance, to translate their claims, to rephrase and to problematize them to make them appealing outside of laboratories and universities. Scientific demonstrations, in that sense, become political, as they develop to convince a public and to attract allies for the scientists (Barry, 1999). Even in the Silicon Valley, where science and technology may seem most legitimate and unquestionable, researchers and engineers engage very frequently into public “demos” of their work and projects, not only to secure funding or get recognition, but also to coordinate and create routines to interact with non-scientists (Rosental, 2002). Scientists do not always encourage these practices. They can even resist them, depending on their academic positions and social trajectories. Most often, however, they end up adapting to the targeted public and modifying some pieces of their initial research project. Such a result is a reminder that, in many cases, scientists and non-scientists have to “co-produce” science and technology to gain technical credibility and social legitimacy (Jasanoff, 2004).
This is an interesting point to keep in mind, while investigating the interactions between scientists and city officials working on smart cities in the United States. Through interviews and field observations, indeed, I could realize that information specialists tried first, a few years ago, to impose their projects to municipal bureaucrats. As they faced resistance, however, they decided then to adapt to some of the needs of their counterparts within city councils. It led them to define a new discourse and to develop new practices on smart cities, as the solution to some specific public problems (Bernardin, 2018). The analysis echoes that of scholars interested in a broader history of urban technologies and their relation to municipal governments. To me, it comes as a confirmation that sociologists working on public problems could learn a lot from science and technology studies, to better understand the processes through which experts can gain or lose social legitimacy over time.
Barry A (1999) Demonstrations: sites and sights of direct action. Economy and Society 28 (1): 75-94.
Bernardin S (2018) De l’audace technique à la conformation politique ? Quelques hypothèses de retour de la Silicon Valley. Quaderni. Communication, technologies, pouvoir 96: 43-57.
Best J (ed) (1995 ) Images of Issues. Typifying Contemporary Social Problems. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Comby J-B (2015) La Question climatique. Genèse et dépolitisation d’un problème public. Paris: Raisons d’Agir.
Gusfield J (1981) The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking Driving and the Symbolic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Henry E (2017) Ignorance scientifique et inaction publique. Les politiques de santé au travail. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po.
Jasanoff S (ed) (2004) States of Knowledge. The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. London: Routledge.
Laurent B (2017) Democratic experiments: Problematizing nanotechnology and democracy in Europe and the United States, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lewenstein B (ed) (1992) When Science Meets the Public. Washington: American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Nelkin D (ed) (1979) Controversy: The Politics of Technical Decisions. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.
Neveu E (2015) Sociologie politique des problèmes publics. Paris: Armand Colin.
Rosental C (2002) De la démo-cratie en Amérique. Formes actuelles de la démonstration en intelligence artificielle. Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 141-142(1-2): 110-120.
Making snow on indoor ski slopes, growing cherry tomatoes in western Iceland, recreating tropical rainforests in central Paris… The capacity to create and control strategically useful and productive microclimatic conditions within indoor enclosed ecologies may well be a significant key shift in human – environment relations. As the planet’s climate experts cast doubt yet again on our collective ability to urgently and appropriately respond to clear signals that global warming is happening and its deleterious effects are becoming ever more widespread1, there seems to be a somewhat paradoxical focus on fashioning artificial environments for leisure, food production and botanical display that bear little or no resemblance to either the setting in which they are developed or the original milieu from which they take their inspiration. These ‘arks’ thus constitute a new, highly selective form of urban environment in which boundaries between inside and outside come to represent nothing less than priorities and choices about the types of species, spaces and activities of humanity worth saving and those which can be discarded in an already emerging, uncertain and turbulent future.
Tracing the processes and practices through which these emerging environments are constituted is thus at once crucial, fascinating and, as is habitual in STS, worthy of close attention for understanding how inherently socio-technical worlds come to be. In this short article, I explore two brief examples of emerging enclosed ecologies which are reliant on technology deployment to create, what are claimed as, efficient conditions for the activities they sustain.
Creating new and improved nature
With climate change creating uncertainty over future land availability and agricultural productivity, there are increasing attempts to transfer the rationales and practices of precision agriculture into urban areas in a variety of ways to provide control and greater efficiency of the growing environment. AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey is, for example, using “a completely controlled environment… [to] take indoor vertical farming to a new level of precision and productivity with minimal environmental impact and virtually zero risk”.2 Taking over a former industrial building it has almost 70,000 square feet of space for growing salad greens and other plants on twelve stacked layers each eighty feet long.3 This is ‘closed loop’ aeroponic farming which provides plants with water, nutrients and oxygen by spraying a mist over their roots, thus using 70% less water than hydroponic farming (which itself uses 70% less water than normal farming), and substituting a patented and reusable artificial fabric cloth for soil: “If crops can be raised without soil and with a much reduced weight of water, you can move their beds more easily and stack them high”.4 AeroFarms balances the place specificity of being based in Newark with a desire to replicate its model to fit other urban contexts using algorithms, sensing devices, CO2 enriching and bespoke LED lighting technology that totally controls the environment it is configuring: “The technology it uses derives partly from systems designed to grow crops on the moon. The interior space is its own sealed-off world; nothing inside the vertical-farm buildings is uncontrolled… In short, each plant grows at the pinnacle of a trembling heap of tightly focused and hypersensitive data”.5 The advantages for AeroFarms are multiple: “We have optimized our patented aeroponic growing system for faster harvest cycles, predictable results, superior food safety and less environmental impact”.6 Given the high-tech process, the result is indeed a product unlike anything in ‘nature’ whereby “plants create themselves partly out of thin air”,7 and there is production of “more crops in less space while minimizing environmental damage, even if it means completely divorcing food production from the natural ecosystem” . As AeroFarms chief marketing officer argues: “Out there, in nature, we don’t have control over sunlight, rainfall, here, we are giving plants what they need to thrive”. 8
Driven by the need to save land and resources and reduce pollution, such as from agricultural runoff, for future environmental planetary sustainability, but also feed a rapidly growing global urban population, many variants of this initiative – reducing the amounts needed of one or more of sun, soil and water – are seeing the light of day in cities around the world (see figure 1). And the logics, practices and techniques are becoming ever more diffuse and democratized beyond experiment and scientific expertise into the lay domestic realm. For example, having teamed up with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Ikea now sells a range of hydroponic indoor gardening technology kits complete with seeds, nutrients and LED lights. These kits are deliberately aimed at apartment dwelling citizens across the world who do not have direct access to outside gardens.9 Through these initiatives, large-scale farming previously done beyond the city is being brought or rescaled into urban areas and into the home, creating new ‘insides’ that aim to alleviate the problems of, and therefore improve on, increasingly turbulent unsustainable ‘outsides’.
Snow as infrastructure: making the perfect piste every day
Indoor ski centres are becoming ever more popular across the UK, Europe and North America as skiers of different ages and abilities seek exact, guaranteed, all year long and locationally convenient conditions in which to practice on the piste.
But the novelty and diffusion of these centres shrouds the sheer complexity of the infrastructure systems required to reproduce Alpine conditions in an urban indoors in Manchester or Hemel Hempstead. The snow has to be actually produced on a daily basis with precise physical qualities as well as in sufficient quantities, while there is a constant struggle to keep the ambient temperature at the right level (-2C during the day and -8C at night). The scale of the enterprise is astounding – this is a veritable industrial ecology of leisure with a series of inputs and circulations of material flows (water, ammonia, glycol, cooling, condensers and so on) to allow skiing to take place in a manufactured and controlled setting which transcends the climatic, seasonal and topographic limits of the immediate environment.
Much of the preparation and maintenance of the whole system is done at night, and involves a surprisingly substantial amount of actual human labour. It takes 8 people to move equipment and décor to get the machines and ploughs in. “Every night, our snow machines pump out 10 tonnes of snow to keep it fresh”.10 But the slope then has to be ‘groomed’ and the computer monitored control of the snow on the slope is backed up by somebody double checking every square meter for depth and quality. Then the snow has to rest to harden up for 7 hours before ‘use’. As the facilities manager for the Manchester centre summarises: “My primary objective is to maintain the snow conditions. It’s a very fine balancing act, but we maintain a level of 400mm of snow, and a lot of work goes into that”.11 The complex maintenance procedure was foregrounded when the facility was forced to close temporarily in February 2017 due to poor snow conditions.12
These centres resemble ‘boxes’ as their protected, controlled settings become crucial to create the precise conditions for snow making: an insulated structure, air conditioning to circulate cold air, chilled water supply, a slope with a glycol antifreeze cooling system underlay, liquid ammonia storage tank. The process resembles the natural process of snowfall (‘clouds’, ‘tiny particles’, ‘snow crystal formation’)13 but filters out extraneous elements and the unreliability of not knowing when it is going to snow. There are considerable environmental externalities to these centres which consume huge amounts of energy and other resources on a daily basis, often requiring their own electricity substations and water provision. This is a new form of closed loop industrial ecology bringing into being a synthetic leisure space which resembles the conventional outdoor activity but actually constitutes something else and new, as demonstrated by the increasing number of people who now regularly ski indoors without ever skiing outdoors. The remarkable thing about this process is that there are now a number of ski resorts in the Alps and elsewhere actually using similar systems to produce artificial snow for their slopes when there is a natural shortfall.14 The recreation of outdoors indoors is now being taken back outdoors, the simulacrum is reality.
Urban anthropogenic futures?
These two brief examples demonstrate a close focus on what can be called the infrastructuralisation of new enclosed ecologies. A set of intertwined socio-technical processes underpin enclosed spaces by introducing and reinforcing logics of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control through technology. What an urban STS perspective foregrounds is how this infrastructuralisation is materially (concretely and politically) done in and across a wide range of cities to allow the work of enclosure to take place for particular productive purposes, while excluding that which is not required or is less desirable. It thus begins to uncover some of the contradictions and consequences of this development, which will demand further critical interrogation.
If this appears to be something out of space age experimentation or science fiction, then that’s because it is. The knowledge, techniques and practices of enclosure, experiment, manipulation and improvement behind these new ecologies have circulated and transmuted into the urban arena from other domains including biospheric engineering, the technoscience of space exploration and precision agriculture. In critically exploring both the hybridization of insides and outsides and technology and ecology, and the crossovers between distinct domains of expertise, knowledge production and life support, developing an understanding of these controlled environments is crucial for navigating and forging possible urban and human futures in the anthropocene.15 This area of research pushes at and looks beyond the traditional boundaries and settings of the city in order to develop new ways of understanding human-technology relations on a turbulent planet.
3 “The willingness of a certain kind of customer to pay a lot for salad justifies the investment, and after the greens get the business up and running its technology will be adapted for other crops, eventually feeding the world or a major fraction of it. That is the vision”, Frazier, I. (2017) “The vertical farm.” The New Yorker (9 January 2017).
LATTS is a multidisciplinary research centre exploring the emergence and evolution of the complex sociotechnical systems that support, or “infrastructure”, modern societies, with a particular interest in networked infrastructures: the systems handling the material and informational flows upon which societies increasingly rest. For doing so, LATTS researchers have privileged a mesoscopic approach centred on relevant organizations: the sociotechnical organizations operating these systems and the productive, territorial or political organizations dependent upon these systems. Collectively, they have cultivated a spatial orientation; i.e. a specific interest for the organization of space and the management of spatialized organizations. Over the years, LATTS developed distinctive sociotechnical understandings of the processes at play, through ad hoc combinations of science and technology studies (STS), sociology of organizations, political science, human geography and history.
Technical systems, infrastructures, territorialities: from the production of space to a sociotechnical perspective on contemporary societies
Created in 1985, LATTS (Laboratoire Techniques, Territoires et Sociétés; or, Technologies, Territories and Societies) is a multidisciplinary humanities and social science research centre, which brings together sociologists, political scientists, historians and « spatialists » (geographers, planners, architects…) studying the complex sociotechnical systems upon which the large productive, territorial or political organizations in current (and past) societies rest. LATTS results from the integration of two groups: one group based in the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (ENPC, allegedly one of the oldest civil engineering schools in the world, created in 1747) studying engineers and their role in organizations (firms, public administrations, public utilities) and the other based in Université Paris 12 (now Université Paris-Est Créteil) studying urban management with a particular emphasis on networked infrastructure systems (water, energy, transport, telecommunications…).
The initial ambition of LATTS was to provide novel understandings of both the spatialization of productive activities (through a combination of economic geography and sociology of firms) and the production of (especially urban) spaces. The centre’s founders (Henri Coing, Gabriel Dupuy and Pierre Veltz) aimed at moving beyond, or beside, the then still largely prevailing neomarxist approach (Lefebvre, Castells, Godard). A foundational choice was to research these processes through the study of relevant organizations. It allowed to develop, so to speak, a mesoscopic perspective on spatial and urban change, distinct both from “macroscopic”, structuralist approaches just mentioned and from “microscopic”, interactionist approaches centred on the actions of, and relations between, individual actors. This choice was indeed fully consistent with LATTS’s strong connection to an engineering school. And indeed, since its inception, LATTS has been interested in the deeds and the (changing) worlds of engineers and engineering, in particular networked infrastructures: the complex sociotechnical systems handling the material and informational flows upon which modern societies increasingly rest.
This interest for the organizations operating the sociotechnical mediations essential in and for modern societies fuelled from the start the attraction of LATTS researchers toward the then emerging STS community. Indeed they shared, and still share, with other STS scholars a number of convictions: they take technology seriously, but they do not consider that society is determined by allegedly autonomous scientific and technological progress; they believe that technologies are socially shaped, and at the same time they are convinced that technologies in use (Edgerton 2006) produce social effects (much) beyond the particular contexts in which they were initially developed, and they agree that « the material world is not a simple reflection of human will, and (…) one cannot make sense of the history of technology if the material world is seen as infinitely plastic and tractable. » (MacKenzie et Wajcman, 1999, p. 24). In short, they believe that society and technology coevolve; they can be regarded as soft technological determinists.
The relevance of this sociotechnical positioning was comforted over the years by the increasingly complex forms of technicization at play within contemporary societies. In fact, as a result of these evolutions, humanities and social sciences have demonstrated a growing interest in the technological, the material and, relatedly, the ecological dimension(s) of the world.
In this context, STS research and debates within the STS community offered, and still offer today, valuable intellectual resources, epistemologically, theoretically, methodologically, and even politically. In particular, along with many other STS scholars, LATTS researchers have:
Postulated that, in order to account for the social significance of complex sociotechnical systems beyond generally oversimplifying conventional understandings (and even ideological discourses), it was necessary to “open the black box” of technologies and analyse in detail the practices associated with them. Even though it is obviously not a necessary condition to study technology, it is worth noting here that a majority of LATTS researchers were initially trained as engineers, and some as architects, hence possessing an early acquired familiarity with the internal working of (some) technology;
Challenged prevailing conceptions that technological change, especially pertaining to large technological systems, should result in unmediated, systematic and uniform effects on social activities, societies and space. In particular, they have documented the variegated configurations of the dynamic relations between infrastructure systems and the territories they serve, emphasizing the crucial mediating role played by stakeholder organizations (state or local administrations, public or private utility companies, etc.) in shaping these relations;
Been particularly concerned with the political dimension of technologies and technological change, by examining, for example: which social interest support which technological options; who are the winners and losers of a specific “technological choice”; what the attention to the politics of technological choices helps us understand about society (as well as about technology); how the “effects” of a technological choice are produced and what are the political implications of the mediation processes at play; and, from a more reflexive perspective, what possibilities of action and intervention are made possible by the type of “sociotechnical knowledge” produced.
This meso sociotechnical perspective has been preserved until today. LATTS researchers are convinced that the study of the emergence and evolution of the complex sociotechnical systems that support, or “infrastructure”, our increasingly interconnected but uncertain, unequal and informalized world remains highly relevant. And they are convinced that this study requires evidence-based and comparative research aimed at revealing the combined influence of institutional arrangements, tools and instruments, and variegated forms of knowledges on effective practices.
This sociotechnical perspective has been applied to the study of the changes that affect the functioning of urbanized areas, public administrations or manufacturing or service-oriented organizations, and it is gradually extended to the study of evolutions in everyday practices. In the remainder of this short piece, we would like to illustrate how this perspective has allowed LATTS researchers to develop specific approaches and to produce novel insights on the organization of space and the management of spatialized organizations. Indeed, this “spatial concern” is probably what is most characteristic in LATTS’s contribution to the STS community.
The spatialities of large technical systems
LATTS has a long tradition of research on large technical systems (LTSs) and a large number of LATTS researchers and doctoral students have been involved in this undertaking. LATTS’s specific take on LTSs has been to explore the mutual relations between the development and management of LTSs on the one hand and the organization and functioning of territories, as well as processes of spatialization, on the other.
Early work on these issues within LATTS emphasized the dialectical and dynamic relation between the institutional spaces defined and delimited by political bodies (states, local governments) and the living spaces largely produced by technical networks or infrastructures; in what variegated ways this relation affects modern forms of territoriality (a term by which we mean, broadly speaking, how societies are organizing in space); and how variations in this relation could be accounted for by studying the work of the organizations concerned. In doing so, LATTS researchers have early on reconceptualized “local” contexts as, in fact, cross-scalar (“from local to global”) and at the same time shaping and shaped by the development of networked infrastructure systems. On a more generic level, they have emphasized the mutual reinforcement over time (since the early nineteenth century) between the development of networked infrastructures and the growing importance of networked forms of territoriality, i.e. forms of spatial organization increasingly resting on relations in space based on (distant) connections rather than, or in combination with, relations based on spatial proximity. They have criticized still influential discourses emphasizing (spatially) structuring effects of transport infrastructures, which assume that improved accessibility necessarily results in enhanced economic development, and discourses emphasizing despatialization effects of telecommunications networks.
LATTS researchers have also sought to account for the diverse forms of development, governance and management of infrastructure systems, showing that they result from national or local community-specific combinations of knowledge, history, institutions, and forms of economic development and sociopolitical organization. They have challenged “endogenous” models or understandings of the development of these infrastructure networks, which assumed the overarching influence of a drive for ever-increasing interconnection and the systematic prevalence of the “most efficient” technologies.
More specifically, LATTS researchers have contributed to studies of the networked city and networked urbanism; and to the understanding of the contemporary urban as having to do with the size, density and diversity of connections rather than solely with the size, density and diversity of population and activities as the conventional wisdom held. This in turn has important implications on the conceptualization of urban powers, inequalities, and on the understanding of the urban condition more generally. LATTS researchers and doctoral students have contributed to the debate raised by the very influential splintering urbanism thesis (Graham and Marvin 2001), challenging its over-generalizing character, and discussing the methodological causes and the debatable normative implications of this over-generalization. They have explored the urban “beyond” the networked city. And they are actively exploring, more generally, the urban politics of the contemporary transformations of infrastructures, the rise (or rebirth) of small-scale networks or facilities, the resulting hybridization of incumbent sociotechnical systems, and the growing influence of forms of urbanization alternative to the modernist networked city.
Urban risks and infrastructures: a multi-scale, multi-risk approach
Risk and crisis studies have been developed within LATTS relatively early on, but they have gained momentum since the early 2010s with the start of several collective research projects and the hiring of several postdocs and doctoral students. Together, these projects aim to revisit urban and environmental issues through risks and vice versa. Studying the technical worlds generated by risks and crises and the tools and mechanisms implemented by relevant actors to measure risks and manage crises allow us to think about these questions in novel ways. ‘STS glasses’ allow to capture risks beyond the conventional categories applied to them (natural, technological, social, environmental), to take into account their diverse spatiotemporal dynamics, to explore the role played by dedicated sociotechnical devices in risk and crisis management, and finally to account for the involvement and influence of heterogeneous actors (public authorities, inhabitants, private actors, etc.) involved in capturing and objectifying risks (Daston and Galison 2007). It also allows to think about risks and crisis as infrastructuring, i.e. shaping materialities, technologies and societies.
The EURIDICE project (Équipe de recherche sur les risques, dispositifs de gestion de crise et des événements majeurs; or, Research group on risks, crisis management and major events), for example, developed in collaboration with the Paris police department (préfecture de police) aimed at the observation and analysis of the management of both planned events (COP21, the EU Sequana exercise, Euro 2016) and unplanned events (the Paris attacks of 13th November 2015, Seine flood damage, oil crisis). The research crucially depended on building a lasting relationship of trust with police authorities in order to be able to observe in situ and in real time the work involved in coordinating all stakeholders in crisis management situations. The observation of a crisis management exercise (EU Sequana) about the Seine’s rising and receding floodwaters over two weeks, which brought together 87 private and public stakeholders, became the subject of a book (November & Creton-Cazanave, 2017). It shows the long process of producing a common world. The book’s originality lies in the fact that each chapter was co-written with crisis management professionals who had taken part in the exercise.
More generally speaking, risk studies within LATTS can be grouped under three main themes:
Researching the spatial footprint of risks. Although it may appear obvious that most risks have spatial effects and that they affect areas (in their political, economic as well as social dimensions), it is less often acknowledged that (urban) spaces also generate risks. And the performativity of risks, their capacity to transform spaces, is also often overlooked. These issues and their interrelations are explored under this theme.
Understanding risks as public problems. Analysing the measures taken to assess, monitor or manage risks and crises reveals the details of the tensions and frictions that occur within and between the concerned organisations and stakeholders. A research on the monitoring devices in safety and security systems in the railway sector showed that the main problem is not one of the (dangerous) accumulation of information but rather the processes of knowledge selection and data segregation effectuated by these systems. In other projects, crisis management exercises are analysed as a specific device of governmentality, and researchers examine the capacity of these exercises to transform over time the organisations or institutions that carry them out or stage them. Still other projects are focused on the governmental organisation of major crises and are analysing the French interministerial crisis unit.
Exploring and codeveloping risk and crisis management tools. Some projects are focused more closely on the coordination tools set up in certain organisations in order to help elucidate the tensions/limitations/solutions these organizations try to resolve. For instance, LATTS researchers collaborate with actors to establish dynamic mapping tools responding to the requirements of the various public and private partnerships.
Within these different themes, some researchers are researching risk and crisis issues by studying the activity of professionals affected (architects, safety engineers, insurance companies experts, crisis management professionals…), while others focus on the perspectives of citizens, users or residents.
LATTS has around 80 members, 30 of whom are permanent researchers. Community life here takes several forms: once a year, LATTS organises a 1-2 day residential seminar (off-campus) aimed at both team building and group work on a common theme (cf. photo of a recent residential seminar in Buttes-Chaumont, Paris). The most recent theme addressed collectively concerned infrastructure and resulted in an edited book (Chatzis et al. 2017) covering sectors as diverse as bridges, airports, water and electricity grids, submarine communication cables or IT server farms. Authors navigate between ‘smart’ infrastructure systems and longer-established ones (those originating in the first and second industrial revolutions), and some chapters study what happens to traditional infrastructure in the digital age. This diversity allows the authors to explore in greater depth what different infrastructure systems have in common and to discuss the relevance of extending the notion of infrastructure to other fields (e.g., telemedicine, architectural projects or crisis management organizations). It also allows to highlight some more generic developments, particularly with regard to the assertion of individuals within modern infrastructural landscapes, and the intrinsically political dimension of infrastructure that usually tends to remain overshadowed, in the same way that infrastructures generally tend to be buried and kept out of sight.
A one-day conference was recently organized to celebrate LATTS’s 30th anniversary, based on a dialogue between former and current researchers of the centre. The conference was a great success with over one hundred participants. LATTS PhD students and recently arrived researchers were able to present their ideas to the laboratory’s founders and old members. Over time, empirical objects have shifted, research questions have evolved, and the relationships between technologies, territories and societies components are explored anew… but the original blend appears robust.
Finally, let us note that LATTS members lecture in several Master programmes, mainly in urbanism, sociology, political science and geography. Among these courses, a typically STS-oriented masters course has been organised by LATTS since 2013 for the ENPC engineering students; entitled Mapping controversies in science and technology, it was developed in relation with the FORCCAST project launched by Bruno Latour a few years ago, which brings together teaching experience in controversies from around the world.
Daston L and Galison P. (2007) Objectivity. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Edgerton D (2006) The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900. London: Profile Books.
Graham S and Marvin S 2001. Splintering urbanism: networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition. London : Routledge.
MacKenzie D and Wajcman J (1999) The social shaping of technology. 2nd ed. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
Chatzis K, Jeannot G, November V and Ughetto P (Eds.) (2017). Les métamorphoses des infrastructures, entre béton et numérique. Bern: Peter Lang
How to avoid the ‘catching up’ framework and participate in contemporary scholarly and political debates as they happen? This is a key issue for the social sciences and societies today in Central and Eastern Europe. Now that the myth about the West being a source of ready-made solutions has been shattered, CEE scholars need to work towards making conceptual and theoretical contributions that draw on the specificity but avoid the essentialisation of the Eastern geopolitical and epistemic location.
After the transformation of the political and economic regime started in November 1989, the country – Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic – was searching for a way to articulate its own geopolitical, as well as its epistemic, location. While ‘capitalism’ was not the preferred option of the majority of the population (people favoured more a ‘mixed economy’, as was revealed in a rare public opinion poll on this issue in the early 1990s), the consensus about heading ‘West’ and ‘back to Europe’ prevailed as the desired geopolitical direction. Importantly, this consensus was shared across social classes and regions in the country.
This new situation was of course reflected in and by the social sciences, which have played an important role in this relocation process of the country. Some social scientists and philosophers – who had been part of official research institutions or active in political dissent – became new MPs or even members of government (these were in most cases economists), others worked (part time) contributing commentary to major newspapers, and yet others obtained expert positions in various public bodies. In academia, an influential stream of ‘transition research’ was established, concerned with issues of the country’s ‘distance’ and ‘delay’ behind the developed West and with what was the best course of action to ‘catch up’.
The ‘lagging behind/catching up’ framing was interesting for and supported by a number of Western scholars and foundations and opened up opportunities to publish work or take up research fellowships abroad (i.e. at Western universities and academic centres). The interest in this ‘country in transition’ from some Western scholars drew to some extent on their pre-1989 connections in socialist Czechoslovakia, which they had viewed as a laboratory in which to test the (failings of) socialism (Bockman and Eyal 2002). Conversely, many Czech scholars who had emigrated from socialist Czechoslovakia to the West made their careers in part by providing testimony directly from that ‘lab’. In post-1989 collaborations, the Czech social sciences were then to deliver the data that were to be incorporated into conceptualisations and theories developed in Western academia. And in the wider field of public policy-making and debates, many existing policies were dismissed as socialist and abandoned, with the help of international experts and local ones, newly trained in the West. Interestingly, as Jehlicka and Smith (2012), for example, have argued with respect to practices of self-subsistence and community agriculture, some of the policies and practices dismissed as supposedly “socialist” in the Czech Republic have meanwhile come to be viewed and supported as largely innovative in the West.
The catching-up framing was not without criticism. Feminist researchers and activists in particular had been uncomfortable since the early 1990s with being ‘lectured’ on women’s emancipation and gender equality. They highlighted genuine local histories of women’s rights (the implementation of which in many respects preceded developments in the post-WWII West). However, catching-up framing embraced by the Czech social sciences remained ascendant. In some respects, this was convenient for local scholars, who could use this framing, for example, to position themselves legibly within EU research consortia. While the place of Czech members of these consortia may have varied, it was definitely difficult for a Czech participant to get out of the position of being a kind of pupil whose role is to supply data on a ‘backward/underdeveloped’ country and who herself is supposed to learn the standards of good social research (Stöckelová 2016).
This is not to say there was not much to learn from our Western colleagues. European ideas, initiatives, and resources supported and drove many useful domestic developments, including the support for critical and activist streams of social research. However, the unquestioned equating of quality with the ‘West’, as was witnessed with respect to the criteria used in research assessment, had negative consequences, such as a drift away from locally relevant social research (Stöckelová 2012; for evidence of similar phenomena in Spain, see López Piñeiro and Hicks 2015). In wider social contexts, the uncritical promotion of the West promulgated in the mainstream media and political debates, along with the unequal distribution of opportunities across the country’s regions and social and professional groups to benefit from EU funds surely contributed to the currently very high level of Euroscepticism in the Czech population (CVVM 2018).
No contribution without convolution
As female researchers who entered academia in the new millennia, we definitely belong to a class, generation, and gender that hugely benefitted from the alignment with the West. We have participated in a number of EU projects where we have learnt a lot; and by publishing in impact factor (Western) journals we have managed to secure relatively stable jobs and recognition for what mainstream Czech social sciences would deem our slightly ‘weird’ research agendas. This author is indeed writing this essay during a research fellowship at the Copenhagen Business School, supported by an international mobility grant provided under the EU Operational Programme Research, Development and Education. We feel at home in Europe, as citizens and researchers. However, for us this primarily means that we want to contribute something original and valuable to international debates, which are still largely centred in the West, but are hopefully moving towards becoming more provincialized (Lin, Law 2014; Law, Lin 2017; Stöckelová, Klepal 2018), with less clear-cut borders, centres, and peripheries. To achieve this, we need to appreciate the unique localised experiences that exist in the society we live in, without, on the one hand, seeing the difference as indicative of backwardness in relation to Western Europe or, on the other hand, essentialising it as something incommensurable with the West. This is, of course, more easily said than done.
We have taken two steps in this respect. The easier one, at least conceptually though not necessarily politically, was to reshape the way we relate to the West in domestic discussions. This is what we have been striving for ever since the KNOWING project. The internationalisation (i.e. Westernisation) of research has been seen as a desirable aim for science since the 1990s – first by a group of, mainly, natural scientists (many of whom had experience abroad in the 1990s or even before 1989) and later by policy-makers and in research policies. This largely manifested itself in the imperative of IF publication as an unquestioned proxy for quality. Western academia tended to be idealised as a utopian place where quality science is produced and research policies work smoothly to support excellence. These policies were referred to as a model to be imitated, and were imagined as a source of ready-made solutions to adopt. With this image paving the way, quantitative, IF-centred research evaluation started to be implemented in the 2000s. When, a little later, players in local industry succeeded in influencing research policies and evaluation frameworks in favour of ‘applied research’ and ‘innovation’, to the detriment of more fundamental research projects in universities and public research institutions, the academic community protested by pointing to local parochial interests and, again, citing Western standards (Linková, Stöckelová 2012). All sides in this dispute, however, kept referring to the West as a model, and international actors, such as Technopolis Group, were invited to serve as supposedly disinterested and most competent arbiters. The dispute then was basically over different interpretations of Western research policies, which were imagined by all as unproblematic.
We set out to elaborate a different position. Based on our research experience from the KNOWING project and current STS literature, we have been well aware of many problems, tensions, and struggles that exist in Western academia and we looked for and experimented with various ways in which to make these a part of the Czech debate. Our book, published in as outcome from the KNOWING project, titled Czech science in flux: the ethnography of making, administering and enterprising knowledge in the academy (Stöckelová 2009), is intended to do just this: to situate Czech developments and disputes over research policy within the context of wider international questions and struggles. In 2009 we also organised a half-day conference in the Senate of the Parliament, where we invited our British colleague from the KNOWING project, Lisa Garforth, to give a keynote – not on the ideal British model but on the problems and tensions surrounding research assessment! However, we were (then) regarded as too junior and perhaps too (female) gender-marked to attract serious attention from senior policy-makers and research managers. Even today our mission is an ongoing exercise, and, somewhat paradoxically, the biggest impact is still made by ‘importing’ senior Western scholars to talk about problems (we have hosted, for example, Paul Wouters and Sarah de Rijcke, Alan Irwin and Maja Horst or Barbara Adam). It is only recently that the Czech academic community started to acknowledge (with the help of such initiatives as the San Francisco declaration and the Leiden Manifesto) that the West is not a source of ready-made solutions or salvation but is a dynamic space of experimentations and struggles that we have no other option but to join.
The second, more difficult step has to do with developing analytical languages and research strategies that can actively engage with (Western) social theory and conceptualisations in critical terms, while avoiding the traps of the supposed incommensurability and essentialisation of our location (which, in our view, to some extent happened to Law and Lin (2014) when they tried to draw ‘lessons from a Chinese Medical Practice’ for STS; for more on this, see Stöckelová and Klepal 2018). This requires steering clear of grand explanatory schemes (about Socialism, Postsocialism or even Totalitarianism, as well as Democracy and Capitalism) and meticulously attending to the empirical specifics of and similarities and differences between various socio-material, political, and discursive terrains. Applying symmetrical analytical vocabularies to supposedly incommensurable realities is a classic strategy of actor network theory (and after), and this strategy definitely proved useful in our studies.
But this is not enough. Our aspiration has been to derail and rephrase some of the social sciences’ established concepts in the light of our empirical material and also to perhaps come up with new ones, which would not, however, thereby lose their potential to speak to international audiences. Speaking from one of the ‘other epistemic places’ (Garforth and Stöckelová 2012), we tried to critically reappraise the notion of immutable mobiles (Stöckelová 2012). We argued that science policies and science studies largely share an understanding of scientific knowledge and objects as immutable mobiles, and an analysis of research assessment in a non-Anglophone country and its effects on the social sciences can shed new light on this shared notion. The preference for immutable mobiles in assessment regimes pushes social scientists to publish in specialised, usually Anglophone journals, which can have the effect of diminishing the local relevance of the knowledge they produce and contributing to the global convergence of societies (Stöckelová 2012).
We also sought to relate a conversation about the phenomenon of ‘predatory publishing’ in so-called ‘developing research systems’ to the ongoing debates about and concerns with the research assessment, publication productivity, and audit culture that currently preoccupies Western academia, and argued for the need for translocal and inclusive open-access collaborations and initiatives extending beyond the West (Stöckelová and Vostal 2017). Most recently, based on our study of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in the Czech lands in the 20th and 21st centuries, we also reconsidered the notion of biomedicalisation. We argue that the CAM practices we examined can play a pioneering role in advancing some of the processes described as ‘biomedicalisation’ by Clarke and colleagues (2003, 2010) and that the concept of biomedicalisation may thus be misleading in how it explicitly links significant transformations in current health-care practices to biomedicine alone (Klepal, Stöckelová, forthcoming).
It is interesting to observe that such efforts resonate in some ways with wider political developments in the country. After years of a deadlock between two rather extreme, though in fact passive positions of either preaching for or rejecting the EU (with the rejection side receiving a huge boost from the recent ‘immigration crisis’), the current Prime Minister set out to articulate a different position and relationship to the EU – one of actively engaging in and shaping the EU’s agendas. Such an active stance and sustained efforts aimed at the sensible use of incoming EU funds, which would clearly benefit a wide share of the population, are the only long-term and robust ways of getting away from Czech Euroscepticism. We indeed believe that articulating a location outside the dichotomy of either ‘catching up with the West’ or essentialising ‘our’ Post/Socialist (Czech or Central European) difference and claiming exceptionalism is crucial not only for intellectual reasons but also in wider political terms.
This essay was written with the support of a grant for the project ‘The international mobility of researchers of the Institute of Sociology, Czech Academy of Sciences’ (no. CZ.02.2.69/0.0/0.0/16_027/0008471) awarded by the EU Operational Programme Research, Development and Education.
 KNOWING was a project conducted within the 6th Framework Programme with partners from the AT, CZ, FI, SK, UK (project no. 17617). For more information, see the preceding text in this section.