What’s wrong with STS?


Here is what’s wrong with STS. For a better STS, consider the following:

hmmm … My sense is that what’s “wrong” with STS is what’s “wrong” with a lot of organizational theory. There are no well-characterized phenomena to study (case studies are not phenomena, although they can lead to their discovery). Instead what you see is a proliferation of schematic “concepts.” In science, “progressive” cosmopolitan collectives build on phenomena and are pragmatic towards concepts and models (the one that provides a more satisfactory account of the phenomenon wins); “oppositional” enclave-based scientific movements deplore phenomena and focus on “authorial” concepts. Authorial concepts are those that are inherently associated with an author, who thus “owns it” (e.g. Latour –> actant). Because oppositional enclaves tend to be organized around “groups” and authorial charisma scientists do not compete to offer the best explanation of an explicitly recognized phenomenon (as in the Mertonian ideal type) but instead the incentive structure is biased for leaders of different subtribes to provide their own authorial concept. The reason is that without your “own” concept, you don’t have a reputation.

Thus, conceptual proliferation in oppositional enclaves is simply the outcome of a more basic underlying socio-structural logic. This contrast to the Mertonian ideal-type collective (which actually attaches names of authors to effects not concepts), which favors the proliferation of different explanations of the same (small) set of (clearly characterized) phenomena. Because authorial concepts, like all concepts, have the general structure (A as X) where X is the concept and A is some empirical setting, “progress” in oppositional collectives follows a “turf-war” model as you extend your concept to cover other realms, in particular realms that were previously covered by your rival’s own authorial concept (e.g. B as X and not Y, C as X and not Y, etc.)

This is not to say that well-characterized phenomena are absent from STS. Obviously one interesting phenomenon to emerge out of the STS enclave is what has become known as performativity (although Ezra might disagree as to whether this phenomenon is well-characterized), and not surprisingly, this is where STS has been the most influential outside of the enclaves. If you prefer the Mertonian model of science (and I’m going out on a limb here and presume that Ezra–who is a boy–prefers this model) then the good thing about phenomena (as opposed to let’s say “concepts”) is that they don’t carry authorial copyright, so that anybody can take a “shot” at (accounting for) them. Phenomena-centered science thus leads to cosmopolitan, interdisciplinary endeavors that follow more closely the “progressive” line traditionally associated with normal science. Given a phenomenon as a reference point, we can make a pretty good estimate of where we stand in relation to the immediate past.

Take for instance the phenomenon of “boom and bust” in industries (or organizational imprinting). You’d be crazy (or just uniformed) if you didn’t realize that we are in a better explanatory position in relation to these phenomena than we were let’s say a three decades ago. However, given a “concept” (let’s say “social structure”) no such “progressive estimate can be given, instead it seems as if we are stuck in second gear. Authorial concepts-centered science instead leads to either Spenglerian “coming crises” types of analyses or cynical, “nothing matters, there’s never progress, everything goes in cycles”(e.g. Abbott in Chaos of Disciplines) types of takes regarding the health of a given field.

It is obvious that STS is a “concept-based” enclave and the “system of thought” that governs most STSers is based on this make-a-”contribution”-by-offering-a-new-concept model. A typical example is Callon, who in a recent paper (2007: 140) argues that “Relying upon the anthropology of science and technology, we can define economic markets as socio-technical arrangements or agencements (STA) whose functioning is based on a set of framings concerning not only goods and agencies but also price-setting mechanisms(1).” Then if you have the patience to go to footnote one we get the definition of agencement:

An agencement is a combination of material and technical devices, texts, algorithms, rules, and human beings with their various instruments and prostheses. I discuss elsewhere the reasons why I prefer the French term agencement (which unfortunately has no equivalent in English) to assemblage or arrangement (Callon, 2007). Agencements denote socio-technical assemblages when they are considered from the point of view of their capacity to act and to give meaning to action. By defining markets as STAs we emphasize the fact that they are simultaneously malleable and capable of actions.

At this point, of course Ezra has already thrown the paper in the trash. Callon’s strategy here follows the template offered above (markets as agencement) But the main point is that throughout this paper, you will not find the usual Mertonian goodies; e.g. a characterization of a phenomenon, a specification of our ignorance regarding the mechanisms that generate it and the proposal of a new model of these mechanisms that does a better job of accounting for the phenomenon than other competitors, but simply more definitions, and stylized descriptions of sites that could be thought of as “agencements.” This is the style of thought characteristic of STS.

We can go hoarse trying to evaluate whether this is or is not a good strategy, but for now I’ll simply play the good anthropologist and say that it is “different” (I have been known to play both sides of this field) but in addition (and now putting on my more specific Mary Douglas hat) it should be noted that it is also exquisitely attuned to the social context within which it makes sense (enclaves where charismatic authority based on authorial concepts is the most natural reputational currency). Since, the main issue after reading this paper is that you come out with the impression that: agencement –> Callon so that you have to cite Callon (2007) if you want to use the concept (the same of course goes for agora, actor-network or what have you).

Please note: This is not my post; it is a recycled comment from orgtheory.net by Omar, a comment to a post that Fabio wrote about some eerily similar territorial scuffles I experienced as a guest blogger there.

3 thoughts on “What’s wrong with STS?

  1. Pingback: Is that really what is “wrong” with STS? Is there anything wrong? | Installing (Social) Order

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