3:1 — Post-STS — 3 of 3

First of all, I have to start with thanking Nicholas for such a warm welcome. I am still a little surprised, but (at the same time!) delighted by the invitation to join the @installingorder.org community.

With respect to this post, I have had the additional privilege of being the last person to respond to the question of “Post-STS!?”. I think the posts by Nicholas and Jan, have setup this conversation quite succinctly in terms of whether a world Post-STS would mean success or failure for STS as a interdisciplinary practice. I am going to shy away from this question. Mostly owing to my own biases (for the lack of a better word!), I have not been able to foresee this possibility.

I once asked Wiebe Bijker out of sheer curiosity, “What is NOT STS?” He smiled and said that every once in a while when he teaches a class, he asks his students to think of a problem that they think is outside the purview of STS and then, within the next few minutes, he turns the same problem into an STS problem. The trick, he said, is to understand that science, technology and society are thick concepts as well as “things” that are ubiquitous and the so-called STS toolkit is amorphous enough to be used productively to understand them.

So, within this context, I have tried to figure out what would a post-STS world look like? I have stared at the question for a couple of days now and then, I started to wonder when and how did the STS toolkit become concrete enough that we reached the stage of looking for a post-STS toolkit? How can I tell you what would be “Post-STS?”, when I don’t know the answer to the question: “What is STS”? To reach post-“Something”, we need a present-“Something” and my feeling is that the present-“Something” for STS is still in the making.

STS remains in a state of becoming because we engage with “wicked problems” that first need to be described or explained (whatever your choice of methodology!) before a possibility of intervention can be imagined. We celebrate multiplicity, plurality, and alternative imaginations of knowledge(s), technique(s) and expertise(s) but don’t necessarily resolve the problems that we try to elicit. Whether we simplify work within science studies as waves or enumerate traditions of recurring and partially overlapping preoccupations in STS scholarship, we are still figuring out new methods and strategies that have to keep pace with the development of new forms of technoscience. This entity/concept/”thing” called technoscience is NOT static enough for us to be able to situate ourselves concretely in a relationship with it.

Maybe post-STS lies within the hope of that resolving ways of engaging with technoscience or maybe it lies in our confidence to move beyond description or explanation to intervention, but, till then, it is the questions that we ask that makes STS unique: What is our place as humans in a world that is surrounded by “things” embedded in different and often conflating forms of technoscientific knowledge(s)?

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17 thoughts on “3:1 — Post-STS — 3 of 3

    • You’re absolutely right! I recently read this piece:

      Choy, T. K., Faier, L., Hathaway, M. J., Inoue, M., Satsuka, S., & Tsingh, A. (2009). A new form of collaboration in cultural anthropology: Matsutake worlds. American Ethnologist, 36(2), 380–403.

      There is some very interesting stuff happening in cultural anthropology.

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      • Oh indeed. There has been a lot happening in CA and the recent debates on “Co-Laboration” or “para-site” research is fascinating. And a far more interesting way to go than other usual sts moves as it is not just turning everything into an sts-topic (verbally) but working actively with others (from technoscience and the like) to practically turn something into an sts-alike issue

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        • It seems that when you actively start to figure out how an STS issue becomes enmeshed in different modalities of interdisciplinary methods, a new and interesting space for reflection opens up. I am still trying to understand it fully. A few more recommendations for readings would be really helpful here.

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  1. Ranjit — welcome aboard and thanks for joining us!

    I would like to return to the “turning everything into an sts-topic (verbally)” point, which Weibe played. He’s an important figure in the field, he made it through the “science wars” but is now an aging player (even though, I admit, he is still productive). That HE said as much; that his position is “what isn’t STS” as a means to define what STS “is” is an interesting issue to consider. After all, what is gained when we say that all “things” (according to their “thinginess”) are under the purview of STS? For a young field, this is quite a big move and gobbles-up a huge range of topics that might otherwise be within the jurisdiction of other fields (maybe an application of boundary work!?).

    Before I’m accused of being a functionalist (i.e., asking, what is the function of porous topics in STS), there is another point: this all reminds me very much of a stance that I take about the field of STS, namely, that STS is a cabinet of curiosities composed very much from delicate and precious case studies (rather than a deep and well-researched knowledge about a specific sub-set of topics (imagine “organizational ecology” as an example of this alternative to STS). Still, it makes one wonder: is this really a cabinet of curiosities (as STS perhaps a la Weibe positions itself) or is STS more like a promiscuous enterprise, happy to get into bed with any topic anywhere? I wrote about this a while back here: https://installingorder.org/2013/11/28/is-sts-a-bordello-or-cabinet-of-wonders/

    Ranjit: any sense of whether STS self-styles as a cabinet of wonders or is indeed a jurisdiction-hunting promiscuous gobbler of topics? Perhaps like the wolf in sheep’s clothing, it is both? I don’t know, but I do think that Weibe’s thought experiment could point either way.

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    • “delicate and precious case studies (rather than a deep and well-researched knowledge about a specific sub-set of topics ” well not sure that this is so much an either for the field (is there a field or a discipline?) some folks have kept to the quick in and out of older ethnographies some folks have camped/embedded in settings/organizations/subjects and stayed longer:
      http://anthem-group.net/2013/10/16/lucy-suchmans-robot-futures-blog/

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      • I am meaning STS as compared to something like organizational ecology (in OE, there are only a handful of models; the variables of interest are generally well-accepted (for example, org size predicts a number of behavioral and economic outcomes); a big contribution to the field would be in unearthing yet another variable that would fit into models about organizational ecology; and so on). Other than “controversies,” I am not sure STS organizes its knowledge the same way…

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    • Hi Nicholas,

      Thanks for the invitation. 🙂 I think there is yet another way of reading Wiebe’s position. In that particular comment, I really don’t think that Wiebe was trying to imply that every “thing” could be an STS topic. It was mostly intended to situate a sensibility and that’s why the ‘verbally’ part is important. I guess, you can see this sensibility in action most clearly while teaching an undergraduate class on STS issues.

      In practice, when you turn some “thing” into an STS topic, it does require work that in some ways speaks to the same sensibility that we as STS practitioners bring to the analysis of the topic at hand. And yes, this work is easier and more defined for some case studies and provides perplexing issues of method in another. That doesn’t change the underlying ways of operating for us to consider science, technology and society as thick “things”.

      So, yes, you could potentially imagine STS as a “cabinet of curiosities”, but I would rather say that there is a distinct sensibility to STS madness. On the other hand, because we kind of situate ourselves in a plurality of ways of knowing technoscience, I think the idea of “jurisdiction-hunting promiscuous gobbler of topics” seems to be a move away from such plurality.

      STS does not have a singular discourse or a distinctively worked out methodology, but I do think that our reflections on technoscience merge into a generative space for thinking about the complexity of studying such topics.

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      • So, if I am understanding this: STS is foremost a sensibility for studying complexity/complex objects?

        And if it is not (let me preempt that), then is STS anything foremost?

        Almost every time I hear a description of STS it sounds as though the only fitting description is some variant of “there is not description” or “there are so many descriptions it defies summary.”

        That’s an intersting position to adopt, for it affords its adopter some nice benefits…

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        • I can totally understand why this particular way of arguing for plurality may seem frustrating because it avoids taking a position on the issue. I reacted to it in a very similar manner too! However, in all the interviews (more as a hobby rather than a serious research endeavor) that I have conducted on the issue of “What is STS?”, it has become increasingly evident to me that the answer varies depending on the research interests of the interviewee and their particular perspective. So, it became increasingly clear to me that I can not say that one position is better than the other or that a particular position does not qualify as STS work.

          My current hunch is that maybe the answer to “what is STS?” lies in sensibility rather than a description or explanation. For example, it is possible to study infrastructures from the point of view of how different organizational ideologies come together to make it operational without invoking any STS work. In such a hypothetical study, it is also possible to consider the underlying technical systems of the infrastructure as a given for the purpose of the study. Would the product of this research work be STS-ish? I would say, “No”.

          At the same time, it could be argued that researchers don’t do that anymore. Or, another way of arguing against my “No” would be that the purpose of the study is different and it does a different kind of work for the audience of the study. Maybe it’s STS-ish in a different way and opens up a different question to explore the relationship between science, technology and society.

          So, clearly I don’t have a good answer to the problem and this is one of the reasons why I also wrote – “How can I tell you what would be ‘Post-STS?’, when I don’t know the answer to the question: ‘What is STS’?” In this regard, I like dmf’s comment – “I tend to think of STS in terms of case-studies and than in need of something like ANT, post-phenomenology, or anthro of the contemporary to supply the how”.

          I think that creating a unifying discourse that spans across different genres of work that claim to be STS-ish is a difficult endeavor and does not have a straightforward solution. At least I don’t have one, but I do think that it’s valuable to think through the possibility and may be there is light at the end of this tunnel.

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          • Oh please don’t mistake my earnest interest for frustration (precisely the opposite).

            I have no problem with the sensibility characterization of the field (Jan and I routinely refer to ANT as above all “an attitude toward inquiry”) so I really, really get that point of view. I guess the reason I press is related to multiplicity. Law and co. roughly summarize the idea (theoretical accouterments not withholding) to mean “more than one, less than many” (with the must under appreciated follow-up idea, “that is still generally treated as one.”

            I tried to think about STS this way: surely, I agree, there is no one discourse that neatly summarizes STS research (nor, as you mention, would we necessarily want one) so, in this way, we have satisfied (tentatively) the “more than one,” but what about the “less than many”? Sensibility or attitude, I admit, gets us close. Searching for a topic-set is also now something of a dead-end as nearly anything can be positioned as scientific-non-scientific (as we are interested in both and the boundary between) and technology or “thinginess” can applied to literally anything from a toothbrush to “the economy.” This is where “sensibility” or “attitude toward inquiry” does supply some much needed boundary.

            It is precisely at that moment, however, in my thought experiments, at least, that what I see in practice (i.e., what you generally see, Ranjit, which is “what holds us together is, at best, a sensibility that (1) creates the “thick description” case studies in need of a how (thanks, dmf) and/or (2) opens-up new lines of inquiry which is especially valuable in previous lines of research that need a little refreshment. So, in theory, I get the position, am not frustrated with it, and generally adopt it myself (maybe I’m projecting, as the psychologists might say!). However, in practice, I still get all sorts of comments, for example, on submitted manuscripts that might say “this is too STS” or “this is not sociology enough” (coincidentally, this is the topic, loosely, of an STS paper that Jan and I wrote about reflexivity in ANT account-making, wherein we document how all scientific communication is reflexive enough to be communication in the first place and that one cannot really be more or less reflexive and expect any academic or normative payoff, and yet in practice we are told all the time to be more or less reflexive in our papers during the manuscript review process). So, perhaps I am already falling into my own trap (if it is fair to call it that): I have taken a theoretical problem, analyzed it in practice, and applied my sensibility from STS to this sort of an STS case …

            At any rate, on behalf of the installing order community THANK YOU RANJIT, this was a fun, fun week that generated a lot of interesting discussion! Thank you for joining us.

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