Lowercasing “sts” and “ant” – What comes next?

On various occasions during the last few months I noticed that we in STS (and we as ANTers especially) have a tendency to talk small when talking big. Some examples needed? Small ones of course? Here they are:

  1. not a theory, not a method”: A classic! Despite its beginnings – does someone still remember the Sociology of Translation or the great methodological subtitle of Science in Action? – nearly every account given of the status of ANT “today” resonates on the “oh, it is not a theory” (starting in 1999 with Latour’s “Recalling ANT”) and the “oh, it is not a method” theme. And while this looks like a withdrawl from “big debates” on theory and method and as a way of saying “we have nothing to offer if you are looking for that”, the answer of what it is, if not a theory and not a method, is: an approach, an attitude. That sounds modest, but has, when takken seriously, massive effects.
  2. “Thin concepts, modest methods, weak explanations”: Now if that is not at the center of the approach…in theory, methods and even in respect to what really is at stake we love to be modest — although we of course are not. Thin concepts are regarded as the strongest possible for thick narratives, modest methods are in fact really demanding and hard to “use” and weak explanations of local, situated and limited phenomena are valuated as far more solid than those with bigger pretense.
  3. “don’t try to get it right!”: ok, we (Nicholas and I) are to blame for that… but reflexivity in STS demands that whenever we studiy epistemic processes and knowledge creation we should not try to know better as our voice is just one more that adds to controversities we study. That was easy when studying technoscience – knowing better than someone working in particle physics or biotech is just too hard. But once we study ourselves or our relatives in economics, population science or political theory it is tempting to know better…but it is better not to try.

It is not just a matter of style: we actually like our concepts, our cases and our methodological rigor to be tiny and gigantic at the very same time. That has a lot of reasons, of course, the history of science studies, the science wars and our, well, not so great experiences with Bruno’s (and Michel’s and John’s) big gestures in the mid 90s being just the least important. After lowercasing science we are lowercasing ourselves. And then? What will follow? Will we stop there? Thoughts?

This entry was posted in New Ideas, Old Ideas, STS, Theory by Jan. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jan

Jan studied Sociology, Political Sciences and Computer Science. As a Research Group Leader at the MCTS in Munich he connects Sociological Theory and Science and Technology Studies by working on problems of social structure and infrastructures, human and non-human agency and discourse and material culture.

21 thoughts on “Lowercasing “sts” and “ant” – What comes next?

  1. On #1: everybody should go to QUALITATIVE SOCIOLOGY as fast as they can to see the new Law and Singleton paper about fisheries in Norway … the on-line edition is free! http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11133-013-9263-7

    Of immediate relevance to this discussion? check out this line a few sentences in: “Indeed, ANT is probably best understood as a sensibility, a set of empirical interferences in the world, a worldly practice, or a lively craft that cherishes the slow processes of knowing rather than immediately seeking results or closure.”

    I like “sensibility” over “attitude” (from Gad and Jensen)…


    • Ha, yes! Indeed. Look at:

      “John: So the underlying point is quite radical, isn’t it? In effect you’re saying that science and social science don’t represent reality neutrally. You’re saying that we work in the world, but also that we work on the world. And, as the anthropologist Tim Ingold puts it, we’re alive to the world too.

      Vicky: Yes. Exactly that. Academic work is performative. It is always an intervention. It’s just that often the intervention may be invisible, denied or unacknowledged. And, the difference it makes will always be unknowable in its entirety.”

      May that is exactly what I am looking for: By asking “so, what comes next?” I did not want to start a critique – instead, like at the 1996 Keele meeting (published 1999 as Actor-Network Theory and After) I am interested if we stop with modesty. No, we are not. This is a great example: lowercasing ourselves is actually a big and – in John´s and Vicky´s words – “radical” move…


    • I like Isabelle Stengers’ pragmatist emphasis on “interest” as it highlights the rhetorical/affective aspects that might get lost in Dewey’s instrumentalism and or Deleuze’s tools, reminds me of Wittgenstein’s perspicuous-presentations and Dennett’s intuition-pumps, I have been trying to sell prototypes (as opposed to arche-types/arche-logos) but so far nobodies buying…
      and yes everyone should be reading more Law starting with the above suggestion and than Modes of Syncretism & Assembling the Baroque.


      • Modes of Syncretism & Assembling the Baroque has been inspiring to me too; dmfant, tell us more about “prototype” as a sensitizing concept vis. arche-types/arche-logos…


      • just trying to highlight the experimental and manufactured/engineered aspects, also that these are tools that have been made for very specific circumstances/purposes (and by specific people) and may or may not travel well across time/settings so aren’t universal and will need reworking/bricolaging or even scrapping.
        For a while the social “sciences” were honestly grappling with the post-modern concerns about particularity/emergence/complexity and what to do if their case-studies weren’t producing universal laws/models, what value might they have than? but than they quickly jumped onto new mechanized/digital means, again to my mind confusing engineering for science.
        that’s a bit dense and rambling but hope it gives you some feel for the gist of it.


      • my more radical/fringe related notion is that “concepts” don’t exist, don’t get transmitted, etc. That thinking is something that we do rather than thoughts/ideas being some-thing that we have or that have us. So along the lines of extended-mind-ing we have tools (like printed words/marks) and feeling-toned complexes/behaviors like tool-uses and speech-acts, but these are not programmed by codes that can be recovered/divined/etc, that we should leave behind literal-minded structuralisms, cybernetics, and quasi-transcendental moves like Derrida’s chatter about what real/authentic Hospitality or Justice is (calls for). Also to be left behind bewitched by grammar talk about (policing of) what Philosophy, Politics. Culture, Democracy etc. is/demands. To borrow an old slogan there is no Justice there is just-us manipulating away as we do…


  2. Does the ‘small talk’ really denote modesty? Perhaps. But I think that perhaps it allows STS-ers to be sneaky! To slink around, following their trails, trials and travails in ever more expansive and ambitious loops without being detected. To keep their ambitions secret. The quietest of coups.


  3. Although an old, but important insight from ANT was that one needs to do a ton of work to “hide your steps” (adapted from how scientists “hide” all their failures and report only their successes, which gives the uninitiated no way to learn to do science by reading scientific communications) … so that could also be part of the general (perhaps, reflexive) sneakiness of ANTers.


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