Tag Archives: STS research

From the Collaboratory Social Anthropology & Life Sciences to the Laboratory: Anthropology of Environment | Human Relations

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.

Heike Zappe. Published in Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. May 2011. HU Wissen: Humboldts Forschungsmagazin / Humboldts Research Magazin.

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.

Heike Zappe. Published in Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. May 2011. HU Wissen: Humboldts Forschungsmagazin / Humboldts Research Magazin.

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.

https://ethnoserver.hu-berlin.de/sts/

 

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.  

 

Literature

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, Matthias  Krings and Carola Lentz, 211–228. Berlin: Reimer.

Changed but Undescribed? What STS Could Say on the Research Practices of Social Sciences

It’s amazing how much STS has to offer to say about contemporary social sciences. STS began as a vigorous and dynamic substantive field focused on the natural sciences and technology development and then expanded its scope to a variety of phenomena. Now it is considered not just as a subfield centered on some particular subject matter but a method providing a whole new approach to the ‘hybrid collectifs’ we used to call societies. STS has considerably changed not only the agenda but also the very practices of the social sciences. And, yet, isn’t it surprising that STS has invested so little effort in describing and understanding the practices of the social sciences? 

We barely have studies of social scientific knowledge production comparable to now ‘classical’ in-depth laboratory ethnographies like the ones of Lynch, Knorr Cetina, and Latour or the analyses of controversies and consensus formation in natural sciences by Collins, and Pinch. Where are the books, we could ask, that trace multitudes of actors and crucial practicalities behind social sciences big theories, research projects and historical diagnoses in a mode equivalent to Leviathan and the Air-Pump, The Pasteurization of France and other outstanding works that did this for the natural sciences?

In the early 2000s STS shifted their focus from ‘hard’ sciences to ‘softer’ forms of knowledge in medicine, finance, and economics. For some, economics counts as the ‘hardest’ and the most formalized of the social sciences. But what about sociology, anthropology, political science, and/or psychology? And what about knowledge practices in humanities? Sure enough, there are some individual research efforts (Lamont, 2009; Law, 2009; Maynard, Schaeffer, 2000). Yet a brief look at two flagship journals (Social Studies of Science, Science Technology & Human Values) and the last two STS handbooks (Hackett et al., 2008; Felt et al. 2017) suggests there is nothing like “social science studies” that could be recognized as a subfield within STS. Although already in the late 1980s Latour suggested that “social sciences are part of the problem, not of the solution” (Latour, 1988: 161) to understanding the contemporary world of science and technology, it seems that STS still hasn’t taken this part of the problem into account seriously enough. Perhaps genuine ‘social science studies’ do actually exist and it is my fault to overlook them. Perhaps a subfield like this should not exist in order not to reproduce inside STS the notorious bifurcation between ‘natural’ and ‘social’ sciences. But if it does make sense to talk about relative neglect of social sciences and humanities in STS as objects of research, then I would seize the opportunity to speculate on why it is so. Let me take my mother-discipline of sociology as an example. 

It may well be that the lack of STS research on the production of sociological knowledge is an expression of a particular politics of knowledge in which we are engaged willingly or unwillingly. Perhaps, we are following the lead of the powerful elites of the Euro-American world in their ambition to first control and govern resource-intensive ‘hard’ sciences and technologies and, more recently, manage risks intertwined with ecology, biomedicine, and digitalization. In this context, sociological knowledge production does not put much at stake for the management of science and technology. The discipline is not as demanding for money as physics and not as ‘risky’ as biotechnology. Indeed, unlike the natural sciences, sociology is considered a far less powerful tool for shaping the world. Sociologists do not produce weapons, pharmaceuticals, or gadgets. But what do social sciences actually produce or perform? Ideologies? Facts? Critique? Socio-professional categories? Self-descriptions of societies? Societies themselves? The question we need to pose is how do these ‘sociological entities’ circulate and hold us together. For this question we still have few empirical answers. 

Let me add that sociology is not just ignored in the contemporary apparatus of science and technology. In many parts of the world, sociology is at least since the 1970s recurrently under attack. These attacks are going from other parts of academia, from outside academia, as well as from within sociology itself. So, sociology as many other social sciences and humanities are not only ‘soft’, but also weak, ‘vulnerable’, and sometimes endangered sciences. To study its ‘mode of existence’ is to be engaged in a political epistemology that could have profound political implications for STS. It may go hand in hand with our reflections on new forms of interventions, and inventions in our field. 

Engagement with ‘soft’ and ‘weak’ sciences would definitely bring new conceptual challenges for STS. For a long time, both positivist and anti-positivist sociologists used a distorted image of natural sciences to define a self-conception of their discipline. Anti-positivist sociologists thought that sociology is special because unlike natural sciences it deals with interpretation, rhetoric, discourse, normativity, situatedness, as well as cultural and political contexts. But STS found all this at the very heart of the natural sciences. So how then to explain the seemingly obvious difference between social and natural sciences when previously held distinctions evaporate? And in what sense are our own studies ‘science’? Or are they not? But then again what is the difference? 

It seems then that until now STS has ‘only’ changed social sciences, in various ways. The point, however, is to describe them also. 

 

 

References

Felt, U., Fouché R., Miller C.A., Smith-Doerr L. 2017. The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. The MIT Press. MIT Press.

Hackett, E., Amsterdamska O., Lynch M., Wacjman J. 2008. The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. MIT Press.

Lamont, M. 2009. How Professors Think. Harvard University Press.

Latour, B. 1988. The Politics of Explanation: An Alternative in Woolgar, S. (Ed.) Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge. Sage, 1988. Pp. 155–176.

Law, J. 2009. “Seeing Like a Survey.” Cultural Sociology 3 (2): 239–56.

Maynard, D., Schaeffer N.C. 2000. “Toward a Sociology of Social Scientific Knowledge: Survey Research and Ethnomethodology’s Asymmetric Alternates.” Social Studies of Science 30 (3): 323–70.

Doing and Talking Research Excellence: By Other Means?

As I was looking over my notes from the 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona to write this essay for the EASST Review, a post on the Facebook page of Nature caught my eye. With the title “Young, Talented and Fed-Up: Scientists Tell Their Stories,” the article focuses on the experiences of three young scientists, suggesting that young researchers today face unprecedented pressure to publish, gain funding and secure permanent positions (Powell 2016). Intrigued, I perused further and realized that the article that had first grabbed my attention was part of a special issue of Nature on young scientists – and the implications their working realities have on scientific production. That the two concerns are deeply interrelated is quite unceremoniously stated in the first line of the editorial of the special issue: “Academia is more difficult than ever for young scientists. That’s bad for them, and bad for science” (Nature 2016). Importantly, one of the reasons for this “badness” is the increasing understanding that the focus on the quantity over quality of scientific output may be detrimental to science as an enterprise that is supposed to tackle the world’s big questions.

The narratives of the special issue of Nature could not have been more timely. In many ways, they give voice and legitimacy to the socio-economic uncertainties that many early career researchers around the world experience and try to navigate. It is also the topic that I have explored in my own dissertation work on young international scientists in contemporary Japan; focusing on the experience of the configuration of science, mobility and labor, I have suggested that, in the context of Japan, transnationally mobile researchers rely on cultural explanations in their attempts to make sense of the uncertainties embedded in global scientific labor regimes. The concerns of the Nature special issue also speak directly to the questions raised throughout the 4S/EASST conference track “Governing Excellent Science” and, importantly, some of the themes permeating the postgraduate workshop as well.

That unpacking the quite elusive concept of research excellence is a topic of great interest for STS scholars is reflected in the fact that the “Governing Excellent Science” track brought together many researchers: four panels with four or five presentations in each of them. The conveners of the track successfully pinpointed and rendered visible an ongoing moment of transformations in research policies around the world – that of the policy makers’ increasing reliance on quantifiable indicators to evaluate research processes and scientific thought (Sørensen, Bloch & Young 2015). In addition, the presentations of the track participants highlighted how reliance on bibliometrics and other quantifiable measurements of scientific productivity and quality have been more and more incorporated in the evaluation structures of research institutions themselves, despite the unease with and critiques of this shift.

The track addressed four major themes within the governance of excellence: funding for excellence, the excellence rhetoric, the management and evaluation of excellence, and the comparative aspects of research excellence. The presenters added flesh and inspiring nuance to these themes and inspired enlightening discussions: they examined a multiplicity of ways in which research processes and scientific outcomes are shaped by access to funding and mechanisms of evaluation; they highlighted the strategies scientists and administrators employ to navigate the excellence system; and they offered glimpses into the ways scientists “talk back” to the rhetoric of excellence.

At the same time, however, the “Governing Excellent Science” track presentations seemed to every time underscore an argument Chandra Mukerji already made more than twenty-five years ago when addressing the relationship between scientists and the bodies governing science: “[t]he successful use of science by the state gives science a potential value so great that it cannot be ignored. But scientists are rarely given much power” (1989: 85; emphasis in original). While in many cases supra-national organizations such as the European Union have subsumed the role of the state and non-state actors such as private corporations have come to be increasingly influential, the point still stands: research policies shape scientific outcomes in particular ways, and scientific practitioners seem to have no other option than to comply or quit. The special issue of Nature which I brought up in the beginning of my reflection highlights the fact that this unilateral shaping is deemed problematic not only by early career researchers but also by scientific practitioners in positions of relative power, and that the number of discussions on the topic should increase. It also suggests that both scientists and social scientists researching scientific work aim to address similar questions (for instance, the uses of bibliometrics in assessing research excellence).

It is for this reason that I suggest that STS examinations of research excellence would benefit from two simultaneous approaches: first, explicit acknowledgment that STS researchers are also affected by research excellence policies; and, second, a shift in the focus towards multi-faceted critiques of the excellence rhetoric with the goal of imagining its alternatives.

To address the first point, it was intriguing to note that, even though the presenters of the “Governing Excellent Science” track were at moments gently reminded of their own participation in the “excellence system” (van Kammen 2016), there was a dissonance between, on the one hand, efforts to unpack excellence and, on the other, lack of acknowledgment of the ways STS scholarship may also be shaped by changes in research policies. The fact that STS researchers are also affected by the narrowing definitions of quality scholarship and productivity, however, came to the fore during the postgraduate workshop. Focused on the theme of “doing (post)graduate STS by other means,” the workshop served as a venue for sharing ideas on how to be successful STS scholars in the changing research landscape. It offered its participants an opportunity to meet STS practitioners engaged in research, publishing and other types of careers that were at least partially outside the conventional path. As such, the workshop was a reminder that STS scholars – and in particular early career researchers, of which I am one too – are deeply implicated in research excellence policies and structures and have to invest diversified efforts in order to retain their employability in the job market. As one of the participants mentioned in a passing comment during the workshop, “It sounds like doing STS by other means just means doing more.”

To address my second point, I find it important that we offer multi-faceted critiques and imagine alternative futures. At a time when we – both as scholars of scientific production and as research workers ourselves – are provided with increasingly narrow definitions, operatializations, and indicators of research excellence, it is more crucial than ever to account for the interconnectedness of epistemic and social uncertainties (Sigl 2015). Reflecting my training in cultural anthropology, I suggest that this approach would imply turning an analytical eye to the examination of practices and affects, movements and desires, strategies and uncertainties of those who are enlisted to produce research excellence in different parts of the world and contexts of scientific production. Equally importantly, it calls for an exploration of practices of those who fail or refuse to meet the demanding conditions required by the rhetoric and structures of research excellence, as well as those who are actively involved in the search of alternatives. This approach would involve, as anthropologist Dominic Boyer has suggested, approaching scientists “not solely as rational(ist) creatures of expertise, but rather as desiring, relating, doubting, anxious, contentious, affective – in other words, as human subjects” (2008: 38).

Examining planning ‘by other means’: reflections on STS and planning from 4S/EASST

The Barcelona 2016 conference was my first experience of either EASST or 4S, and a welcome opportunity to get a sense of the breadth of STS research in different areas as well as themes that unify them. Against the background of a rich buzz of topics, presenters and tracks, which made planning each day an exciting but challenging task in itself, I also presented and participated in one full track, STS and Planning (T004).

The track, as introduced by the convenors, was an opportunity to consider how planning can be explored by STS prisms of inquiry, for example considering the role of artefacts, different forms of knowledge, and centres of calculation. Hybrid approaches were strongly represented, particularly with planning being conceived of as a discipline that actively draws together and works with the material and the social in producing space. The aim, in the track’s description and as seen in the presentations, was not just to critique and open up ‘black boxes’, but to consider how planning could be ‘reassembled’ in a more diverse and reflexive manner.

While not representative of all the papers presented, a major theme that crystallized in my reading of the track was the unpacking of how different types of knowledge are defined and understood when analysing planning processes. In particular, it appeared that certain types of knowledge, associated with certain actors, had a different influence on decision-making to what might have been expected. This played out on themes where STS has much to contribute, such as the role of calculation and calculative devices (e.g. Porter, 1996; Callon & Law, 2005) and interactions of expertise and lay knowledge (Epstein, 1995).

In the session on standards, for example, Alan Lewis described use of the ‘daylight factor’ by architects, a mathematical calculation of daylight that was adopted to signify a design approach based on verifiable principles. Despite requirements to use the calculation, he showed that architects didn’t routinely do so. Instead, the calculation itself was separate to the meaning it represented, as it created an impression of mathematically verifiable principles in design while the individual knowledge of architects still determined outcomes. In my presentation on the adoption of environmental assessment methods for buildings by local authorities, I aimed to make a similar point on the disconnection between the calculation provided by standards and how they are used in and influence actual decision-making. This emphasised that the environmental assessment tool was adopted not just for the knowledge it generated, but for what it represented to decision-makers as a standardised tool. In this sense, when decision-making processes themselves were the focus of study, rationalist decision-making fuelled by calculative devices could be shown as a veneer, behind which decisions relied on other forms of knowledge.

Other presentations spoke more explicitly about the involvement of different types of knowledge in the planning process. Looking at ecological controversies in Hong Kong, Anders Blok used the term ‘planning ecologies’ to consider how different publics interact and shift to challenge official planning practices, such as environmental groups suggesting new possibilities for river and floodwater management whilst up against a strong culture of engineering-based knowledge. Yvonne Rydin’s paper on planning hearings for an offshore wind farm in the UK showed how quite different types of modelled and personal knowledge on landscape and ecological values coexist in the decision-making process, opening up room for deliberation about the voices given to nature in planning. Isaac Marrero-Guillamon discussed the politics of participation in planning processes in a post-Olympic Games site in London, and charted how a particular group emerged as a respected site of communal expertise within that process, developing new categories of knowledge and influence within a particular representation of ‘the community’.

Yet other presentations provided a more materially driven sense of knowing about urban space. Helena Leino discussed the results of research focusing on experiences of the visually impaired in urban spaces in Finland, and their interaction with other people and material elements. Pedro Ferreira discussed the process of ‘spot-making’ by skateboarders, with special attention to the distributed agency of different surface materials, humans and their environments in this particular form of city building. These specific experiences of space are likely often overlooked by planners but still influence the experience of broader publics.

 

Fig. 1: Energy performance standards in real estate listings in France. Looking at the meaning created by standards can open up space for understanding the different types of knowledge at play.
Courtesy of the author.

 

While a rough brushstroke over the sources of different types of knowledge in planning, this led me to think that discussing planning ‘by other means’ (the conference theme) may contribute to rejecting a priori explanatory trajectories of how knowledge influences planning. It suggests that the knowledge brought by different groups (professionals, experts, communities) may influence planning processes in unexpected ways that are not usually associated with these labels.

Moving away from the modernist idea of a single knowledge reflecting truth, planning theory has grappled with the presence of multiple ‘knowledges’ and ways of knowing that need to be mediated by planners. This brings with it challenges such as how to consider scientific expertise alongside localised knowledge (Rydin 2007) and how to define what it is for planners to ‘know’ and expand their knowledge base, when acknowledging that knowledge is represented by different types of cognitive, moral and skills-based learning (Davoudi 2015).

The presentations in the track provided examples where otherwise accepted categories of knowledge, or typologies of knowledge, could be questioned, and even unravelled. As a result they challenged obvious explanatory dichotomies such as expert/lay, scientific/subjective etc. Rather than taking these categories of knowledge for granted, the ‘knowledges’ found in the papers were not easily categorised but instead mediated and established by other elements. Whether a scientific model (in the form of standards), community stakeholders (participatory planning), or expert judgement (planning hearings), in each case, these apparent types of knowledge were mobilised into these categories by artefacts, professional cultures and negotiations.

In some cases, examining the way in which the knowledge was built up and used seemed to weaken the knowledge claim, unpacking scientific rationalities behind standards for example. In others, it suggested empowerment, showing how spaces for lay knowledge, communities, judgement and multiple voices are made within institutional arrangements, and how these can influence the very core of planning decisions, despite appearances to the contrary. An STS-led reading, which invites questions about how taken-for-granted knowledge is established, could invite more analysis on the types of knowledge discussed in planning, and how they are established and categorised in relation to particular groups.

Another striking aspect of the track as a whole was its diversity, and what this signalled about what it is to discuss ‘planning’. There were sessions on planning and urban design standards; practices and operations; planning and ecological issues; and politics and participation. Some ethnographic presentations, such as by Pim Peters and Julio Paulos, brought the listeners up close to the daily practices of planners, and the meetings, discussions, interactions and practices that translate into their broader work. Marko Marskamp suggested a study of planning that decentres the planner from the process and focuses on planning tools such as codes as the object of research. Other presentations, such as by Anders Buch (with Anne Katrine Harders) and by Malve Jacobsen, emphasised that the implementation of plans is contingent on social practices, material infrastructures, discourses and ideas. Both of these highlighted the hybrid arrangements that fill the space between plans and their material implementation. As noted, there were also more material accounts of the interactions between particular users and the city and their voice within the planning process and city-making.

I was left wondering what ‘planning’ represented to the different speakers, and whether there is a gap between examining the practice of planning, and examining how planning emerges, ‘in practice’, or whether they are one and the same. In the context of thinking about what planning is and what it is represented by (e.g Alexander 2016), this sparked my interest to consider what STS in planning can bring to this question.

Considering the performativity of STS research practices. And do it seriously!

As a brand new PhD graduate, one month after the defence, I approached my first joint 4S/EASST meeting with a twofold feeling: the need to start reflecting seriously upon my doctoral research on the one hand, and a blend of curiosity and anxiety generated by the key question ‘what’s next?’ on the other. These two dispositions required me both to look back at the work done and to look ahead to find out job opportunities inside or outside of academia. In hindsight, I realized I tackled these interrelated preoccupations by attending two moments of the conference, that is the postgraduate workshop and the track titled “Considering the performativity of our own research practices” wherein I presented a contribution. I found my condition of “in-between-ness” (Anzaldúa, 1987), that of not being a PhD candidate anymore and the one of yet-to-being something else, interestingly depicted during these two different moments of the conference. They have both confronted the challenging motto of the meeting — “Science and technology by other means” — by calling into question not just the non-traditional experiences and practices where science and technology are performed, but mainly the “other means” by which STS deals with its own epistemic practices. Indeed, the doctoral workshop invited graduate, postgraduate, and early-career scholars to reflect collaboratively upon new and unconventional research practices, publishing options, and careers. On the other hand, the track 014 — chaired by Juliane Jarke, Lisa Wood, and Lucas Introna — wherein I was involved has aimed at discussing the performative conditions of STS scholars’ research practices by drawing upon Karen Barad’s powerful concept of ‘ethico-onto-epistemology’ (Barad, 2007). These two happenings, therefore, have characterized my first experience at the 4S/EASST conference by sharing a common overarching inquiry: how do we (as junior and seasoned scholars) do STS studies “by other means”?

Such tricky question brings up the ethical and political implications of epistemological and methodological practices, an issue that goes beyond the popular debates around reflexivity and representationalism in STS (Woolgar, 1988). The postgraduate workshop saw PhD students, postgraduate and early-career scholars engaged in discussions on how to do research by other means, that is to say how to account for our own research practices carried out outside of conventional academic borders (art, architecture, design) and how to disentangle the complex relationships between the researcher and the worlds they contribute to enact. This discussion brought to the fore the methological question of how to tell different stories, explore different ways of knowledge transmission, and what are the contexts that allow us to do research by other means, expanding the range of methods we already employ.

 

Fig. 1: Take-home messages from the postgraduate workshop sketched on a poster
Courtesy of Mariacristina Sciannamblo

 

A widespread criticism of the academic habitus (Bourdieu, 1988) combined with lively ideas on how to look at the future characterized the sessions on publishing practices and career opportunities. We discussed our experiences and challenges regarding writing research and publishing through conventional and unconventional channels. We discovered that many of us run or ran a blog to tease ideas out and that, in turn, such use of writing to shapes who we are as researchers. Some of us agree that traditional academic products — of which the conventional paper is the quintessence — and the system of peer-reviewing serve more to reproduce disciplinary standards of knowledge and conformity within the university rather than to bring about an effective impact on the world they assume to get to know. This concern nicely resonates with Geoffrey Bowker’s critique of the linear thinking and narrative conveyed by the scientific paper, whose data would often be known by the average citizen without doing any research (Bowker, 2014).

The reluctance to conform with the academic habitus — “I don’t want to be an academic. I want to be a person who gets to work in academia” —, the encouragement not to compromise our interests and the way we do theory along with practical advices such as “learn how to write funding proposals” marked the concluding moments of the workshop. For someone like me, who was looking for new perspectives and motivations to pursue a career in research, the postgraduate meeting has been an inspiring experience not just for the stories, challenges, joys and concerns I shared with my peers (see Figure 1), but because the idea itself of organizing a pre-conference workshop in which to discuss an alternative set of logics and values has been a successful attempt to put those very alternative logics and values into practice (Erickson et al., 2016).

With a reinvigorated spirit, I left the Hangar where the workshop was held to reach the International Convention Centre for the conference opening. I got to my track, scheduled throughout the last day of the conference, with the idea that the insights emerged during the workshop would have bounced back during the four sessions dedicated the discussion of the ethical, ontological and epistemological implications of STS research practices. After all, I tackled both the situations with the same concerns: to reflect on the ethico-onto-epistemic challenges of my doctoral research on the one hand, and to come across other research and researchers with whom I seemingly shared the same experiences and research interests.

As hinted, the track invited contributions relating to the performative conditions of methods and methodology in STS, the entanglement of subjects and objects in research, the enactments performed by epistemic practices and their relationship with everyday practices. The papers presented had both theoretical and empirical orientations, and covered a wide range of topics: a theoretical discussion around a posthumanist in social sciences, the critical issues raised by autoethnographic accounts, the implications of praxiography, diffraction in practice and as practice, touching as method, ethico-onto-epistemological commitments of and for sociomaterial research, and the process of writing research as ethico-onto-epistemic practice.

The concept of ‘ethico-onto-epistemology’ that inspired the track has been developed by Barad rejects the ontological separation between object of observation, instruments of observation and observer, to suggest that the materialization of reality depends on different entanglements between subjects, matter and meanings. This means that there is not a reality “out there” to be scrutinized and described, but ongoing (re)configurations of concepts, methods, human and non-human agencies. Drawing primarily upon Barad’s call for ethico-onto-epistemology, the track invited to appreciate the intertwinement of ethics, knowing and becoming that nurture any research enterprise by highlighting the generative and ontological character of methods. Considering this, the tracks aimed at exploring the ways we can perform STS “by other means”, actively and creatively participating in the enactment of the world trough research methods.

Similar concerns have inevitably challenged conventional forms of knowing, resonating with the critical issues teased out during the doctoral workshop. For example, Lisa Wood discussed the limits of the acceptability of the personal experience in research accounts by presenting both a traditional ethnographic and an autoethnographic account relating to medical visualization practices. Her argument pointed to the recurrent beliefs that consider autoethnography as lacking in rigor or as “sloppy sociology” by criteria such as ‘reliability’, ‘generalizability’ and ‘credibility’. This made me wonder: if hierarchies of knowledge still stand, what do they serve to? Who is interested in holding such perceptions of methods and why? This issue reminds me to what John Law has called ‘normativity of method’, that is to say the hegemonic pretensions of certain versions or accounts of method. It follows a call for a “slow, vulnerable, quiet, multiple, modest, uncertain, and diverse” method in social science (Law, 2004). Along similar lines, Eva Svedmark’s talk pointed to the case of doing “uncomfortable science” such as that of studying digital narratives and self-disclosure online practices related to suicide, self-harm, and mental illness. Drawing upon feminist tecnoscience and posthuman theory, Svedmark suggested touch as method within ethico-onto-epistemology. She explained how she got in touch with the research material through the body, emotions and technologies, a sociomaterial configuration that — Svedmark explained — enabled to articulate and enact phenomena rather than to capture data. In this respect, she drew on Donna Haraway’s work to emphasize the ethical challenges posed by “what stories make worlds and what worlds make stories” (Haraway, 2011), an argument that resonated quite interesting with postgraduate workshop’s remark about the need to tell different stories.

Finally, I would like to mention Lucas Introna’s reflections on performative epistemic practices. Here, I am particularly interested in his stressing the importance of the adverb ‘seriously’ contained in the track’s pivotal question “What happens if we take Barad’s call for ethico-onto-epistemology seriously?”. The presence of this modifier is anything but trivial inasmuch as, according to Introna, we do not take alternative research practices seriously because we are into regimes of truth. As a matter of fact, he argued that there are many scholars in STS that claim to use the theoretical apparatus of the ontology of becoming, but still present their research methodology — collecting, ordering, and describing — and enact their epistemic practices in the language of the representational paradigm. When I raised a question about the power differentials between epistemic practices and research fields and the consequent difficult to conceive of and carry out alternative research practices, he acknowledged the issue, but still his claim was clear and simple: “the point is that we don’t do that. So let’s do it!

The Padova University PaSTIS unit and the infrastructuring of STS research in Italy

 

 

The PaSTIS (Padova Science Technology & Innovation Studies) research unit was set up in 2008 as an attempt to unify and catalyze the research of a number of professors, post-doctoral researchers and PhD students in the social studies fields of science, technology and communication within the Department of Sociology at Padova University (http://www.pastis-research.eu). PaSTIS’s emergence is interesting not only in that it tells the story of a specific STS-focused research unit but also because it offers a glimpse into the path taken by the STS perspective in a country like Italy which was until recently at the periphery of the main European STS geography.

It is not far from the truth to say that PaSTIS is today the most important research center expressly devoted to STS research in Italy, although there are also other universities in the country with a STS milieu such as the University of Trento, where the last 6th STS Italia conference was held in late November 2016. Although not exclusively Science & Technology Studies focused – but also interested in other approaches to the study of culture and communication – PaSTIS today encompasses around 15 scholars mostly with a sociology background including full and associate professors, several post-doctoral researchers and a turnover of PhD students and research assistants. During its almost ten years of existence, the research unit has also hosted around ten foreign visiting scholars from Europe, the US and South America. This highlights the fact that PaSTIS is also a place where STS scholars from other countries can spend a period of research finding a collective and stimulating environment: we would be happy to receive further visiting proposals in the near future.

The chief topics addressed over the years by PaSTIS with its research and initiatives include a number of areas: the study of public communication in science and technology and analysis of media and public discourses relating to science, technology and the innovation (on this subject see the section on the TIPS project by Giardullo and Lorenzet here); analysis of information infrastructures and media technologies and devices (see the section by Crabu and Mongili); the study of scientific practices and laboratory work, especially in relation to the biomedical domain and the field of nanotechnology; research on media practices, with specific focus on the process of digitalization, the use of social networks, the emergence of new forms of sexuality over the Internet and the processes of consumption of cultural content. A pivotal point bringing together the work of PaSTIS’s members is essentially the idea that social and cultural processes today can be understood by looking at the way scientific processes, technological artefacts and infrastructures innervate contemporary social experience and are thus the core of the reconfiguration of the whole current set of practices, routines, values, meanings, emotions and the overall texture of everyday social organization.

 

Fig. 1: The PaSTIS people (almost all the members, with come guests)

 

However, more interesting than a plain description of PaSTIS’s activities is an examination of the distinctive conditions of the research unit’s development which has not been a top-down process sustained by ministerial or university inputs. Rather, the emergence of PaSTIS was actually a bottom-up process, a sort of alchemic blend, the contingent product of a work of ‘heterogeneous engineering’ which was the response to a situation, the Italian university system, in which research units are not official entities and – especially in the social sciences and humanities fields – still quite few and far between. Many university departments across the country have no research units whatsoever and still prioritise the idea of self-sufficient independent scholars working on their own specific academic interests. At the same time, the experience has been that the setting up of research units has been seen by many as an institutional innovation stirring up traditional power assets and localist logics. This is a distinctive feature of the Italian academic system as compared to other countries and it speaks volumes about the fact that doing STS today (and by extension, social studies as a whole) requires diverse efforts, tools and strategies in diverse countries in order to produce a fruitful alignment of research, theory and local institutional frameworks. The institutional rigidities and weaknesses of the Italian academic system (one which has, over the last decade, also experienced a shortage of new tenure-track positions, a lack of internal mobility, a massive diaspora of Italian scholars and, therefore, has one of the highest average age of professors – in 2013 the average age of assistant professors was 46!) was for us the stimulus to adapt, re-invent and localize the idea of ‘research unit’ seeing it as a crucial strategy in the search to develop new opportunities to deal with the troubles typical of our national academic system.

One of the positive circumstances that helped to develop and sustain PaSTIS has been the growing of a wider STS movement in Italy, making our local unit an intersection in a wider process of ‘co-evolution’ involving an entire national academic community. On one hand, our research unit has clearly been sustained by the broader Italy-wide STS movement which was given institutional form as a national STS society, STS Italia, in 2005 and also sponsored the creation of the ‘Tecnoscienza: Italian Journal of Science & Technology Studies’ journal in 2010. Whilst even before the mid-2000s in Italy there were at least a few scholars linked to STS these were just individuals with no chance of giving a collective dimension to their work and thus having a stronger impact on the study of science and technology in the country. There are many accounts of the way PaSTIS co-evolved within the broader national STS community and, at the same time, also became one of the drivers of STS development in Italy: for example, in 2012, PaSTIS co-organized the 4th STS Italia Conference in Rovigo on ‘Emerging technologies” and in 2015 the 3th STS Italia Summer School on ‘Biomedical research’. Several STS Italia workshops have been hosted in Padua: focusing on creativity in 2009, on interdisciplinarity in 2013 and on biomedicine in 2014. A number of PaSTIS scholars played a crucial role in establishing and editing the Tecnoscienza journal and energised efforts to build up the main STS Italia initiatives organized elsewhere in Italy.

Hence, if PaSTIS has been an instrumental device in the process of STS community infrastructuring in Italy, our research unit is, at the same time, an emerging outcome of the broader establishment of a STS community in Italy, thus confirming once again that science, like culture and art, is a truly collective activity which involves not only, in our case, PaSTIS’s current members, but also a wider group of people as well as artefacts and infrastructures. PaSTIS, STS Italia and Tecnoscienza can thus all be understood as a creative – and to some degree ‘resisting’ – reaction to the limits, rigidities and constraints of our national academic system whose scholars need to open up their work to an increasingly integrated, competitive and fast-developing global scientific community.