Best STHV issue in a while

The July issue of Science, Technology, & Human Values is out (July is volume 37, number 4).

The entire issue is devoted to what the special issue editors Asdal and Moser are calling “contexting”. The basic issue at work is the 1980s actor-network move towards an irreductive position for STS research. Calling into question the influences of something not immediately present (but ever present) and frustratingly beyond the actors that we cannot observe directly, Latour and others in ANT camp sought to establish a sensible alternative to things like “context”.This position was nicely laid out in The Pastuerization of France (in fact, the STHV special editors open the issue with the well-known line by Latour), but I prefer the exposition in Reassembling the Social, which I once reviewed with Jan-H. and even blogged about a bit.

The basic story goes like this: social scientists routinely invoke “other” actors such as context, which help to explain events, transformations, or people’s behavior. However, context, although ever-present, seemingly inescapable, and quiet powerful, cannot be observed directly. The same could go for all manner of “other” actors that influence us but cannot be observed directly such as “the economy”, “the law”, or “the state”, and other stuff like “time“.

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The key insight being: these contexts do not exist, but actors do and there material and organizational consequences do too.

Contexting, however, helps to avoid the following trap: if we assume none of these “other” contextual factors exist, then great, for a moment we might feel smarter than a few other people, but this does not solve the basic problem we experience in our everyday lives, that is, that people say context matters all the time, social scientists publish on it, journalists tell us about the collapse of the global economy, and media pundits bemoan the inability of the state to govern its people and induce financial austerity. As Asdal and Moser (2012:302) put it: context is a troubled notion and straightforward contextualizing a problematic assumption, but still something we cannot escape”. Thus, the game is to figure out how context is “tied” to actors (and, of course, avoid treating context as something “out there”), moreover, context is decidedly plural (but not pluralist), which also riffs on the multiplicity notion in ANT (that Mol did so much to develop with The Body Multiple).

So, the July issue of Science, Technology, & Human Values is out (July is volume 37, number 4). Check it out. While it seems to be missing from each of the pieces in this special issue, no doubt, infrastructure might be one of those “missing masses” that ties actors to context…

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

One thought on “Best STHV issue in a while

  1. Right, but one of the main pushes in the special issue is about Latour’s old idea that sociologists so meanly brutalize and pose "context" in their accounts where "the social" is at once (1) the way things are associated, (2) the context influencing those associations, and (3) the raw stuff of sociological accounts that is explicitly also not economic or political or what have you. .Thus, it is also sort of an intervention for sociologists addicted to context … "you know, you’ve been hitting the context pretty hard lately, and your mother and I are worried about you."

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