Is STS a bordello or cabinet of wonders?


This is based on some ruminations over the last year, which I’ve mentioned a while back casually and which our now full-time blogger Stef Fishel discussed more recently.

Here goes: Is STS a bordello or cabinet of wonders? (I write in the plural because Jan-H. and I were writing this together)


… we recognize the unorthodox and outlandish agency of “nonhumans” like scallops, microbes, Portuguese sea-going vessels, and British military aircrafts. In fact, the way we just listed those example case studies into the minutiae of STS scholarship is more telling than it might immediately appear. You see, STS is populated by intriguing micro case studies, and, from a far, STS appears to outsiders like a “cabinet of curiosities.” Because our research is punctualized into individual case studies, and these case studies were so routinely juxtaposed with one another during the era of great edited volumes of the 1980s, a look back through history of STS research is akin to opening the door to a cabinet whose contents were filled with every manner of wonderful and ornamental trinkets that somehow capture the grandeur of other worlds even in their miniature size. Also, because this cabinet was populated  during the Science Wars, its contents are all the more precious, and, in retrospect, to this day provide a sense of nostalgia to the scholars who filled it, marking the discoveries they had made, as they passed it down both as a gift and a challenge to the students they trained.

Also, in STS, however:

Before we are accused of fickle sentimentality for our academic home, our cabinet of curiosities might just as well appear as a “bar à hôtesses” to some insiders sickened by the excesses of postmodernity, or the bitter, personality-driven, concept-oriented turf wars over aurthorial copyright that have come to typify STS <FOOTNOTE: At feverpitch in the early 1990s, … collins yearly / latour callon etc.> and, to this day, distract the field from sharing any semblance of unity with regarding agreed-upon phenomenon to study as a group, all of which might spell the end of STS in years to come. Thus, calling our cabinet a bordello might be warranted in certain company.

*This post was largely inspired by Fabio’s early characterization of STS as a “cabinet of curiosities,” which has, since I first heard it, stayed with me. As he put it, STS is:

very anti-normal science. You end up with a cabinet of curiosities than a deep and precise knowledge of a specific issue.

**The picture is from:,d.dmg&psig=AFQjCNFDvgagsuepOr4mm7V0rPzbL4qZCQ&ust=1384557853106096

10 thoughts on “Is STS a bordello or cabinet of wonders?

  1. Reblogged this on Installing (Social) Order and commented:

    Nicholas gave us one of our most popular posts this year–a rumination from November 2013. Given its continuing popularity, perhaps the 3:1 Project should take on how we define our disciplines…


  2. Pingback: Cabinet of Curiosities. | Ross Williams, Film Student

  3. Pingback: Fixing Peer Review | Installing (Social) Order

  4. I’ve been critical of peer review for a long time, probably ever since I was “subjected” to it early on in my career. This new approach is not nearly as much of a solution as I think it is being presented as. First, one of the few things that I like about PR is exactly that it is NOT a game of hierarchy. You might get a reputation amongst an editor, but that editor will be replaced eventually, so the influence of “being a good researcher” over “being a good reviewer” was primary. My guess is that this is just something that will further hurt in-coming scholars, meaning, it is precisely newer scholars that will need to be deemed “good reviewers” and it is senior scholars with tenure who are the most free to not care about being deemed a “good reviewer.” Another problem will be: is this yet another thing I have to do in order to get tenure? Again, the young scholar is held to a higher standard than the senior scholars that will oversee their tenure file, and, again, the senior scholar hold the younger scholar to a higher standard for tenure than they themselves were held to. That, however, depends a lot on how university administrators see such activities: will young scholars be expected to be “good reviewers” as a part of the tenure decision OR will young scholars be rewarded directly for being deemed “good reviewers” in the form of larger raises? I would imagine that rather than being directly awarded for this hard work, it will be just another expectation for young scholars; it will be, in effect, just something that can held against a scholar (i.e., being deemed “bad reviewer”) than something rewarded (i.e., we expect our faculty to be “good reviewers”). The predictable counter-argument would look like this: “oh, silly Nicholas, don’t be so cynical, if we can “fix” the peer review process, then you’ll be able to publish even more research and publish it through a process that is more fair.” We all know that the publication process is unfair. It is a reality. We all come to grips with it one way or another. However, if we fix it, it will still be unfair (i.e., instead of a tyranny of advanced/high-prestige researchers having a strong voice in the review process, we will trade one tyrant for another, the good reviewer, and soon we will be forced to publish what they will accept) and there is no reason to think that “good reviewers” are going to be more fair, promote innovation, or let the author’s voice come through. We will just trade one set of intrenched values for a new set of values that will be intrenched later on. Lastly, all of this would not work even if, by some magical coincidence did align university officials, faculty members, and folks that populate promotion and tenure committees … its called “the internet.” Of course, whenever I get a paper, I could determine the author with stunning frequency by just looking-up the title of the paper, which was likely presented in some professional society’s annual meeting that I probably attended, moreover, most of the papers I get to review these days, I know them as soon as I see them because, if you’re an expert in a small area, you know all the main players already. If you want to promote their work, then you can. If you want to thwart their work, then you can. There is no reason to think that a new system should change this. We already know whose papers they are; anonymity for the author seems long dead among specialists. Then comes reviewers: “There seems to be widespread skepticism that peer review without anonymity can be both rigorous and fair” to quote the blog. The idea that anonymity allows one to be “fair” (i.e., fair being defined primarily in terms of being able to say difficult comments plainly) is just BS. There is no reason to believe that in the professional game of science that I (or any other reviewer) cannot be fully honest in a review. Some folks use it to be a jerk. I understand that. I am fine with that. The reason is that some people are jerks. They are jerks in the classroom. They are jerks in their correspondence. I guess I am open to the range of personalities and am not entirely sure that erasing this variation or marginalizing folks that don’t quite have strongly developed social skills or promoting reviewers with glycerine tongues (by rewarding them with higher education’s favorite currency, status) makes much sense. People fail. Editors fail scholars by not taking this into account. This is a human enterprise and because it is I think we need to embrace a level of uncertainty, improve the processes that we have instead of unending a tradition. In the end, if you want to fix one thing, I would say that we need NOT better reviewers (after all, reviews are just what they are, reviews), but better EDITORS. Show me an editor with a real vision, one capable of making tough decisions, one that is not a total tool of the reviews, an editor that is not constantly looking for ways to reduce their workload and simply embraces the huge responsibility of selecting one paper over another or encouraging the work of a young scholar to develop or reject the sloppy work of a senior scholar whose work is popular among reviews.

    … what is this doing in a comment. I’m posting as a new post too.


  5. sounds like a wise fellow, any work of his in particular that you would recommend as an introduction?


  6. Quite quite true! Indeed, my love of taking postmodernity seriously (and not) is one of the reasons that I joined the STS gig in the first place. Indeed, when Tom Gieryn first told me about postmodernity and I realized how odd the approach was but how serious Tom was taking it, I was sold. “There must be something to be harvested from all this,” he told us. Seemed like he was right, to me, at least…


  7. sociology/politics of the academy aside (yes, I know but bear with me) isn’t this understandable given what the early researchers worked out in so much as they found themselves interacting with highly variable/varying assemblages (and such is life, no?) ? To me this is the strength of STS/ANT when all the other social sciences types were paying lip-service to po-mo factors like context/complexity/process/actors/practices in the introductions to their works and than carrying on writing/speaking in contra-dictio to these aspects. Bidding adieu to Grand-Narratives and other theological hangovers of mass-minds/attitudes, various archive-fevers, and also to physics envy, so I’m all for dropping the quest for the Grail of arche-types and say bring on proto-types:


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