3:1 — Post-STS — 2 of 3

Do academic disciplines die? They are born, they are propagated, they are institutionalized. But can they disappear? While thinking about possible paths into a (hypothetical) Post-STS world, I tried to think of blueprints of such a path. There are some examples, yes, but none of them can really serve as a banner case: classic rhetorics, alchemy, classical (national) economy — sure we are post them, but what happened? Rhetorics? Still valued, but even in ancient Greece it has been a craft and a science and it seems that it today just embraces craft-i-ness. Alchemy? Well, yes, but that was, if you will, the lab work of natural philosophy and both lab and theory live on in modern chemistry and pharmacology. Classical (national) economy? Oh come on — that is not dead, it just serves as the dismissed precursor of neo-classical economy. So…do disciplines die? Well, we have talked about leftovers quite a lot and it seems part of the “dark side” of institutions is that it is hard to finally get rid of them.

That set aside: in a way I agree that the dream of STS has always been one of a world in which it is no longer necessary, but there are two versions of that dream. The first is mainly about the background of those who turned to STS: Wouldn´t it be great if sociology, philosophy, history and so on were more about science and technology? Isn´t STS sociology, philosophy or history how it should be? And would a world in which STS is no longer necessary not just a world in which the old disciplines finally noticed the importance of S&T for our contemporary world? The second is this: Wouldn´t it be fantastic if we could help technoscience to be so reflexive and aware of how they shape our world that no STS is necessary any more? And isn´t a Post-STS world just a world of upgraded technoscience? Both Post-STS worlds are incompatible as the success of the latter makes the former impossible: if technoscience does not need STS anymore, if sure does not need an upgraded sociology, philosophy or history of science or technology. But if technoscience still needs STS it would be counterproductive to disband the joint forced of our inter-discipline and talk different S&T related sociological, philosophical and historical lingo again, right?

Given these options, a Post-STS world would be one of failure, not of success. But on the other hand: given that the death of a discipline is a rather rare event, we can be pretty sure that STS will be around for a while. After all: look at Horizon 2020 (the current EU funding scheme) or similar statements of national funding agencies. The more they ask projects in particle physics or urban engineering to integrate ELSA (ethical, legal, social aspects), the more they strengthen the demand for sociologists, philosophers and historians who can help. In living the Post-STS dreams, it seems, we are strengthening an STS world.

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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.

15 thoughts on “3:1 — Post-STS — 2 of 3

  1. Pingback: 3:1 — Post-STS — 3 of 3 | Installing (Social) Order

  2. Hmm, yes. I would frame it more like a “you do not always get what you dream of, but it might turn out that what you get is even better”. The “losing” part does not sound that bad to me…


  3. it really called for an overhaul of how higher-ed worked from research to teaching and so never really got any traction, which is tragic given that it might have offered a kind of thoughtful counter to the bog like retooling that is now underway from neo-liberal-tech-pressures for systematized, debundled, and on demand education modules. my wife is back in grad school (after having abandoned a tenure-track history job in the face of grade-inflation pressures, students who didn’t do homework, and requests to video her lectures for online distribution without any compensation beyond her regular salary) and her
    e-online-textbooks not only give her homework and quizzes but grade them as well, oh the ironies in this STS context…


  4. Indeed!! That is exactly exactly why both “old dreams of success (of an STS no longer necessary)” are not completely right: the alternative is to both!


  5. Well, I am convinced that at least the near to not so near future will not see a dead STS (a dead sociology, maybe, but not a dead STS) and part of the reason for this is that I think that there is something wrong with the dream of an STS that is no longer necessary in the first place. It it true that this dream is deeply implemented into the core of our inter-discipline, but that does not mean it needs to be right.

    Given the post as after but not dead: I tried very hard what that might be and I agree with your previous post: The only way that is possible is the case of success. But then I was wondering: what would that success be? And I noticed that there are two possible successes (an upgraded sociology, history, philosophy…or upgraded technoscience) — and they do not match!


  6. for me folks like St.Fish showing how tasks like practicing law or academics lit-crit get done (and so deflating what he diagnosed as theory-hope) is akin to the behinds the scenes work done by STS folks looking into lab-life/politics or A.Mol looking into how hospital-medicine gets done and Derrida showing that there is no principled difference between engineering and bricolage/tinkering. That may not so much bring the two worlds together as offer an alternative more of a via medium if you will.


  7. The meeting of two worlds makes a lot of good sense. Early 4S newsletters (and even those for EASST) appear to confirm this “sense of convergence.” In all fairness, though, I’m not sure if it is a “convergence” or if it is a “sense of convergence” (that may or may not have happened) or, beyond that, a “sense of convergence” that resulted in said “convergence.” I really don’t know, even though my training provided me with the same narrative of “2 worlds.” I do wonder what an empirical reconstruction of those times might elucidate…


  8. Being dismissed from the “table” as pseudo scientific is all but predicted from within the very walls and halls of STS via my mentor Tom Gieryn and his thesis about the cultural boundaries of science. Remember (not Tom’s) papers about para-psychology in that vein. Sure, the issue I will take-up, however, is one of terminology: since when does “post” imply a straightforward translation of “dead”? You are crafting an exceptionally steep slope for yourself in this post if “Post-STS” means explicitly “Dead-STS” … I assumed “Post” might imply “After” — any room for that idea here?


  9. I came to STS from inside the lab-sciences and via philosophy of tech/science with Don Ihde and all and my father had been there from the beginning as part of his research into environmental-systems as an engineer and planner but I would say that the broader success of STS (and than ANT) has to do with being a kind of via media between the “2” worlds and in some sense picked up where folks like Canguilhem & Husserl left off about the same time that anthro and all were coming home to roost. The literal minded study of technologies&science are obviously timely but it was the correspondence with the end of grand-narratives/colonialism/coldwar/etc that made it more than a sideline.

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  10. Nahh, it is not 🙂 (Spoiling for a fight, I mean) At least no more than in the case of particle physics. But seriously: yes, there are a few options that I did not mention above: The possibility of STS (or sociology, or philosophy, or history, or political science, or…) being dismissed as pseudo is one of them.


  11. Not many disciplines die out but some are transformed beyond all recognition. Anthropology and geography, for two (compared to their nineteenth-century iterations). But then those are very, very broad churches. What disciplines have gone kaput? Phrenology and other pseudo-sciences, certainly. Things like certain specialised area studies come and go depending on the geopolitics of the time. Psychoanalysis? (Is it spoiling for a fight to say that?!)


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