STHV, Special Issue on Context: Comment One

Comment one on the July issue of Science, Technology, & Human Values (July is volume 37, number 4).

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Recently, I claimed that STHV had produced what I thought was one of the best issues in a while.

I will, in a series of posts over the next month or so, comment on each paper in the special edition on context with comments, criticisms, and occasional tangents.

First paper is “Experiments in Context and Contexting” by Asdal and Moser.

Original Abstract:

What is context and how to deal with it? The context issue has been a key concern in Science and Technology Studies (STS). This is linked to the understanding that science is culture. But how? The irreductionist program from the early eighties sought to solve the problem by doing away with context altogether—for the benefit of worlds in the making. This special issue takes its points of departure in this irreductionist program, its source of inspirations, as well as its reworkings. The aim is not to solve the context problem but rather to experiment with context and what we label contexting.

Reaction and Commentary:

The scope of this opening piece is like any introduction to the the topic, as one would expect in an edited book or special edition. Typically, and this is no exception, it is at once not broad enough or deep enough to adequately do this, but does a fine job of setting up the relevant lines of research, which are developed in papers afterward.

Still, context is not really defined (in the old fashioned, positivistic sense), even though the abstract sort of promises something of a definition. Instead, a bit of a dance is initiated. Context is raised as a hopeless sociological concept, which has traditionally been used to explain all manner of relevant issues for sociologists such as group-level human behavior, social trends, and the like. However, this traditionalist vision of context is challenged by a traditional vision of context, but this time from Science and Technology Studies, namely, the irreductivist camp otherwise commonly known as actor-network theory. From the vantage point of ANT, we can be critical of the reductive potential of “context” (and many other constructs that aid in sociological explanation generation). We see that, while context is useful for sociologists, it is also something we cannot see, that is, we cannot observe it directly; however, so reified in sociological circles, context is something you feel like you might be able to snap a picture of!

The definition of context, then, is exchanged for a ‘balance’ (like in a ledger, but for theory): the authors write:

We suggest  a series of moves [read: assumptions and rules of thumb] that may keep the irreductionist program alive while at the same time acknowledging that context is something we cannot escape (p. 293).

This is an insight drawn largely from Donna Haraway’s commentary on what to do about ‘nature’; a notion that is hopelessly troubled, but something that we nevertheless cannot do away with completely. In this way, they suggest ‘context’ is a similar sort of concept.

Here is where a missed step took place. Context is not a concept (in the singular). Instead, context triggers the same sorts of issues that ‘nature’ does, and ‘the body’, ‘the economy’, or ‘the state’ do … they are ‘differentiated singularities’ (to use a phrase from the special issue) or, to use a phrase I am more familiar with, they are multiple. In this case, hence, my insistence that ‘context’ must strike a balance (of sorts) on a ledger for theory; balancing the traditional ways of using the term with new ways for understanding both the same term and a new version of it. The trick, then, of course, is to determine what links them together or when one version/face of context appears rather than another.

As a closing comment and insight, one of the reasons that context can balance so many seemingly incommensurate definitions is because of its centrality to the social sciences. The upshot: do away with context (context dependence, cultural context, organizational field or environment, and so on) and much of the conceptual infrastructure supporting sociological analysis and explanation generation techniques goes with it. One might say that you cannot have sociology without it. Jens Bartelson once wrote a terrific book, good for students (if read slowly) and advanced colleagues (still, take your time), about ‘the state’ as a multiple concept, which he studies both historically and conceptually as it was born in political philosophy and then as the term was migrated to political science in The Critique of the State. One insight from the book: the state cannot be defined, but instead balances sets of abstractions about itself, sometimes abstractions so contradictory that they appear impossibly incommensurate; however, such (multiple) concepts as the state or the law become the fodder that disciplines are made of, so close to the heart of the discipline as they are buried.

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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.

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