Is that really what is “wrong” with STS? Is there anything wrong?


Yesterday Nicholas posted a comment from org-theory that tries to grasp what might be wrong with STS. And although the discussion below that post is fascinating and thought-provocing, I am not so sure in more than two ways if the diagnosis is correct. First I do not agree that the focus on “authorial” concepts (the A->x structure) is really the way STS ticks. That “Latour -> actant” or “Callon -> Agencement” or “Mol -> Multiplicity” schema might work for attribution from the outside, but I am pretty sure Bruno, Michel and Annemarie do not really care. In fact: most prominent concepts have their “one-hit” appearance…for example “hybrids” in WHNBM, the “nonhuman” in the book on Pasteur. What is really at stake is the phenomena these terms try to capture: we have more than one concept to capture heterogeneity, more than one to capture instability, more than one to capture arrangements, more than one to capture translation.

And second I really do not agree that outside of STS the so called “Mertonian Model” is the model we find in practice of, lets say, organizational theory. One should take a deeper look – maybe an STS project on practice in org theory – to really make that point, but the latest prominence of “fields” -> Fligstein/McAdam, “networks” -> White or the classic ones like “garbage can” -> CMO, “embeddedness” -> Granovetter look pretty much like the A->x structure to me. That is no critique, but I doubt that the distinction between two modes (two cultures …hahaha) of scholarly practice really makes sense. I would prefer asking what role both modes (and maybe a few more) play in the production of science and technology and how one shifts from one to the other in practice.

Another take on the issue would play the old tune of reflexivity: As we are scientifically looking at science we cannot simply hammer variables down (as this is, as we have seen, not really what other scientists are doing anyway); nor can we just play the post-modern relativist (as this is disrespects the craft of science on so many levels). So what should we do? One way is to build up our own labs, our own inventory of used and not used inscription devices, some highly tinkered, some dusty, some in the center of the lab, some in the garage. Misunderstanding “concepts” (like agencement, actant, inscription device, lab, etc.) or styles (like the fictional observer in Lab Life or the “Voice of Aramis”) either as mertonian or as authorial is like treating a chromatograph as a scientific paper. They are devices, tools, workbenches to produce reflexive phenomena. Like the wonderful machines in biotech labs our devices might look strange to those not used to working with them on a day to day basis. Ours are cheap, at last…that is why we can dump them so easily and come up with another.

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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.

7 thoughts on “Is that really what is “wrong” with STS? Is there anything wrong?

  1. these sorts of ‘problems’ ( on a side note when I hear/read the word “problematic” these days I must admit to taking a deep sigh if not just moving on) seem to have more to do with the merely academic aspects of STS, the spirit-consumed hangovers of the drive to critique, than with any re-search into how these studies/figures are doing what they do (including what they say) and how they might serve interests (or not) other than those of the publish or perish world…


  2. Okay, let me formulate my response: please do at least consider (before rejecting) that position raised in the previous e-mail (which may very well contribute to the problem posed). After all, many arguments are reductive and essentializing; however, that does not mean they are generally incorrect just because they might be fuzzy on the details. So, your rejection does not really satisfy me. With regard to the “authorial concepts” and Latour not caring … I’m not sure how that changes anything (if I was the person benefiting wildly from a system like that, I would not openly discuss it either, or probably care … what does Latour need to care about these days, anyhow?). It is precisely that we have so many concepts to capture the same thing that it becomes almost a stylistic choice or a choice that shows your membership to a particular squad of thinkers to pick one concept over another. That is an outcome of “authorial concepts” and the cult of personality that may be at work in STS (or was at work during a previous age called “the 1990s”). Next, just because org theory has some concepts that appear like “authorial concepts” does not mean that STS is not … however, if you step away from “the 1980s” and neo institutaionalism, and, instead, look at “organizational ecology” you’ll see that there are only a few variables like “organizational size” or “organizational complexity” and nobody “owns” these concepts; everybody studies them and they do this together (in a way that does not seem to mimic what happens in STS). I don’t know exactly why this might be the case in STS … other than this: when somebody is deemed “genius,” at least in STS, we seem to let them just write whatever they want (and I say this knowing that this happens elsewhere too, which is not a counter argument).


  3. I do like your idea, though, in your closing remark: STS is cheap; make a ton of it; dump what does not work. That is a better explanation: case studies and concepts are cheap.


    • I’m missing some context here but I would like to champion the pragmatist emphasis on focusing on “work”, so not do theorists get ‘It’ right but what work gets done, in what environs/company, using what resources, and serving the interests of what specific people over what other interests.
      To toot my own horn prototypes are intentionally made to be tried, tested, refashioned, and potentially scrapped as needed, they may or may not be cheap depending on the resources and outcomes involved, context matters…


      • I am not sure if “context matters” here (like they say in ethnography), or if we are explicitly describing the context of STS. Surely, terms like ‘cheap’ are relative, which invite comparison, and those comparisons are indicative of difference circumstances (or, as you put it, “context”). I can recognize that, and I was also, to some extent, joking in that last short reply. At any rate, the prototype idea might just as well cover the point; for example, perhaps STS is just a little more “conceptually experimental” than, for example, sociology or something. You’d need a full analysis to make the claim either direction anyways or to prove that, in fact, the context does matter. The only concern that the original post raises that is of some interest to me is this: when a field is, as I said before, a little more “conceptually experimental”, and this is paired with a field that promotes “a cult of personality” (where some scholars are nearly worshiped) … I worry that this is a dead-end as a way to organize a field, for everybody but the “stars”…


      • I guess it matters or not if the field is restricted to academic settings, either wayI was offering the prototype style as a therapeutic prescription and not a description, if only such academics had applied what they found in their research into other organizations to overhauling their own departments/schools they might be in a position to do more than bemoan the corporatization of their institutions.
        But that of course would have required a degree of reflexivity, some capacity for reorganizing/co-operating, and even a dash of fearless-speech.
        Also what if students also learn more by what their teachers do than what they preach?


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