Teaching FS: House of the Future

This is the kick-off to a new and improved section of the existing blog, the “Teaching STS” section, which is just been transformed to the “Teaching STS/FS” section, and each new and old post in this section will be differentiated with a “Teaching STS” or “Teaching FS” in the title to help sort things out.

This image above comes from “plan59” and was found through a great blog, “paleofuture” (similar cool stuff on pintrest too). In the past, we’ve used this image, which is closer to the year 1900 than it is to present day, as a teaching tool.

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Teaching Paradigms


Like anybody actively teaching STS, I imagine that you too reach back to teach a little of Thomas Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific RevolutionsWell, among the many other lessons about “normal science” relevant to students (periods of shared vision regarding what constitutes a “legitimate” scientific question, general consensus about “proper” methodological techniques, etc), how “anomalies” mount under the conditions of normal science until eventually scientists come to the realization that these “errors” or “unaccounted for findings” were a kind of data in themselves, and then, of course, all the insights about how entrenched scientists protect their privileged positions as purveyors of truth as more recently trained scientists make new, unorthodox, or counter-intuitive claims (in search of achieving their own legitimacy and recognition.

I have two examples to use in the classroom: one that I’ve used for years, and another I only learned about today (thanks Alexander Stingl).

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Co-opting Participation Infrastructure?


Kenny Cuppers has a cool set of papers on the rise of shared “cultural centers” in major Postwar European cities. His is the first substantive chapter in a not-yet published book, which seems tailor-made for his research line, and which acts as a kind of companion piece for his published article “The Cultural Center: Architecture as Cultural Policy in Postwar Europe.”

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Reflexivity, The Post-Modern Predicament


Been reading a good book on reflexivity, Reflexivity: The Post-Modern Predicament by Hilary Lawson, after our 3:1 week on postmodernism and after thinking about some new directions for Jan and I’s old paper on reflexivity.

Here is a choice quote from the opening passage, in discussions about reflexivity being at the core of Western philosophical thinking:

This questioning, however, has led to views which are unstable. Such claims are ‘there are no facts’, ‘there are no lessons of history’, ‘there are no definitive answers or solutions’, are all reflexively paradoxical. For, is it not a fact that ‘there are no facts’, and a lesson of history that ‘there are not lessons of history’, and a definitive answer that ‘there are no definitive answers’? (page 1)

* Imagine from Roskilde University in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Latour’s inconsistencies unveiled


In this terrific article in New Literary History, Graham Harman draws-out some of Latour’s inconsistencies in his shift from old ANT days (i.e., the early Latour) to the more recent emphasis on “modes” (i.e., the late Latour) related to his culture-nature rejection-reficiation (played with a few of these idea a decade ago reviewing his book PoN).

3:1 — Postmodernity — 1 of 3


In the ‘90s, as a student, I was mesmerized by postmodernity’s rejection of all things holy to sociology. In place of depth, we emphasized surface. In place of a singular self, we emphasized multiple selves. In their vision of the academy, scholars were ironic in earnest rather than dry and serious. I was dumbstruck; this seeming reset of all things sociology was inspiring. That is not to say that I knew what to do with it, and after my interest being piqued I put all things postmodern on the shelf and focused on ‘serious sociology’ — the kind that ‘gets you a job.’ After a couple of years doing neo-institutional organizational analysis, I was drawn back into ‘things’ postmodern — literally — through actor-network theory, which took the form of Jan and I’s ‘actor-network state’ concept. I’ve hardly left it behind since, but a recent invitation to the Eastern Sociological Association’s next meeting to oversee presentations on ‘decoloniality’ has helped me to rethink postmodernity a bit.

How has decoloniality made me rethink/reconsider postmodernity? Decoloniality has primarily been developed in the Latin American context as a critical theory approach to ethnic studies, and constitutes practical and academic ‘options [for] confronting … the colonial matrix of power,” which is constituted by the imposition of colonial measures like race, ethnicity, gender, and all other manner of imperial state categorization schemes (Mignolo 2011: xxvii) (in this way it dovetails nicely with the “social studies of politics” that Jan and I have been cultivating over the last half-decade). The decoloniality project problematizes ‘modernity’ not as an intellectual or industrial sea change, but through emphasis on all the ‘other’ things modernity brought with it like ecocide, genocide, and the foundational self-defining notion of modernity that situates Europe in the center of the world and others on the periphery.

That’s the hang-up. Postmodern theory — I’m thinking of Lyotard, for example — meaningfully questioned modern rationality and knowledge production. This was a boon for science and technology studies, no doubt. Recognition that scientific facts are not as stable as previously believed (if that itself was ever true) resulted in research emphasis on the creation of scientific facts, which, in turn, revealed so much about the exigencies of producing “truth” and how the scientific enterprise “worked.” Postmodern theory also — I’m thinking of Harvey or Jameson now — meaningfully questioned modern industrial production and the rise of service economy and rationality of ‘late capitalism.’ This too was insightful because in addition to rationality, modernity brought industrialization with it.

According to members of the decoloniality project, while attending to knowledge and industry, postmodernists tend to reify some of the most foundational elements of modernity, namely, genocide, ecocide, and the foundational self-defining notion of modernity that situates Europe in the center of the world and others on the periphery, which advanced sociological theory might just as well serve to perpetuate. With rare exception, postmodernity contains few practical solutions to these ‘other’ thoroughly modern problems.

*Image from: http://karaflaherty.com/infographic-new-york-school-postmodernism/

4S Volume 1 Issue 4 (Fall, 1976)


Issue in brief (PDF is here: 1976 Volume 1 Issue 4 Fall).

  1. Specific but preliminary schedule for the first annual meeting — John Law, Karen Knorr, Nicholas Mullins, Sal Restivo, Robert Merton, Steve Woolgar, Bruno Latour (at the Salk Labs at the time!), H.M. Collins, and a 6:00pm cocktail hour.
  2. Plans for the second meeting chaired by Nicholas Mullins.
  3. List of current publications includes a few from Kuhn, Merton, and Nelkin.
  4. In the dissertations section, H.M. Collins’s dissertation from University of Bath is mentioned along with Donald McKenzie’s dissertation from University of Edinbugh and Steve Woolgar’s dissertation from University of Cambridge. A good year…
  5. Extremely odd: there must have been a misprint this issue because, as Trever Pinch’s bold arrow drawing verifies, we go from page 8 to page 21.

Given that a few pages are missing, this review is a bit limited. I wish I had a full copy — if anybody does, please write (njr12@psu.edu).

Arnold Thackray writes a short innocuous piece about the future of the burgeoning — purportedly, the society boasts 400+ members since its inception in a San Francisco meeting (anybody know anything about that particular founding meeting?) — society that reflections on the need for professional societies to attend to annual meetings and publication outlets for its members.

The first annual meeting program is in this issue too. The meeting was held in Ithaca, NY, at Cornell University. The meeting started November 4 (Thursday) with an invited panel on interdisciplinary in the social studies of science (including Jean-Jacque Salomon). After lunch, John Law give a talk “Anomie and Normal Science” (I’m not sure what project this relates to in his long publication history) and Karen Knorr gives a talk “Policy Makers’ use of social science knowledge: Symbolic or instrumental?”. The next session is about the structure of science where Nicholas Mullins and a big group from Indiana University present. On Friday morning the next session starts with Karen Knorr giving another presentation, this time about the organization of research units, along with Sal Restivo’s talk about Chinese social studies of science — interesting. After lunch, business meetings ensue, a cocktail hour at 6:00pm, and then during the banquet Nelson Polsby introduces Robert Merton’s presidential address. On Saturday morning (November 6, 1976) — I would really have loved to see this session, although I was not yet alive — “Problems in the Social Studies of Science” could be applied to the topics (and the participants), which includes Steve Woolgar’s (Brunel University) “Problems and Possibilities of the Sociological Analysis of Scientific Accounts,” Bruno Latour’s (The Salk Institute) “Including Citation Counting in the System of Actions of Scientific Papers,” and — another classic — H.M. Collins’ (University of Bath) “Upon the Replication of Scientific Findings: A Discussion Illuminated by the Experiences of Researchers into Paraphychology” (the research project that Ashmore later lambastes him for in The Reflexivity Thesis under … Steve Woolgar’s tutelage — perhaps Ashmore attended the session). After lunch we see another session by the same title with invited scholars — possibly from the ISA — from Bielefeld, Kiev, Hungary, and East Berlin).

Not a lot more of interest given that a few pages are missing — the missing pages include notes on the forthcoming meeting as well as an unnamed book review — but the list of just-completed dissertations is a fun tour of the past.

Talking with Latour about Anthropocene


Latour is at it again! This time Latour is at the Anthropology Museum in Vancouver, British Columbia, taking over Canada. 

Check him out here, it is excellent work.

Short description:

Published on Oct 11, 2013

Dr. Philippe Descola was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Peter Wall Institute and Dr. Bruno Latour was the fall 2013 Wall Exchange lecturer, and on September 25, 2013 engaged in a discussion at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver about the concept of the “Anthropocene”.

Thanks (STS-Africa) Network for Science and Technology Studies in Africa!

On (reading) the Inquiry into Modes of Existence


There is a book that I try to read for weeks now. I always read a few pages, then put it back, pick it up again, read, shake my head and put it down again. You would probably not believe it, but this book is Bruno Latour´s “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. An Anthropology of the Moderns”.

For those who have not touched AIME yet, Latour´s “new” book is not just a book, it is a book + website + collective inquiry, funded by the European Research Council and run by Science Po´s Media Lab. The printed version, the text, is supposed to be mainly a manual, not the report itself. The collective inquiry started somewhere in 2012, being first introduced at Azim Premji University some time before the french publication of the book in September 2012 and the launch of the platform in November 2012. Anglophone readers could join after the publication of Cathrine Porters translation in August 2013, a german translation by Gustav Roßler will be published this July. The project itself, maybe best described in a short piece published in Social Studies of Science, is what could be called a positive version of the, well, negative points made in “We have never been modern”. It is — finally — tackling a problem that accompanied actor-network theory since its beginnings (or at least: since its first movements outside the lab): If everything is made from networks, and “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else”: how to deal with what the moderns have called the differences of regions, spheres, fields, systems like science, law, politics, religion, organization? How can we flatten our approach without loosing our ability to account for the only kind of multiplicity that modernity has accepted, but continuously misunderstood as domains of knowledge? And what do to with what modernity has positioned at the source of knowledge — the self — or its object — matter?

Latour does that — Whitehead, Souriau, James and Tarde in his backpack and ready to dismiss the “Greimas” part of the “ANT is part Garfinkel, part Greimas” definition — by trying to sketch what he calls, borrowing a term from Souriau, “modes of existence”. Like the “regimes of enunciation” that populated earlier writings, especially those on religion and law and that have the same problem as Greimas’ actants, namely that they invoke a textual, discursive, narrative interpretation of what is at stake, modes of existence try to capture what “passes” through the various heterogenous networks that ANT had described. But of course, as in the case of science, the modes are not domains. There is more than passing reference in laboratories and more than politics in parliaments and more than religion in churches. The modes are the multiple forms of being, not essences — or, in Latour´s words, not being-as-being, but being-as-others — that populate the lab, the church, the parliament and that the moderns have crossed specifically and confused with the values they hold dear. The question that runs through the book is: can we find ways to speak with the moderns about what they hold dear without falling back into the traps that the modern constitution has put all over the landscape: the bifurcation of nature, the subject/object distinction, the crossed out god(s)?

As a long time reader of Latour´s work, I find the book both tempting and troubling, making be shift continuously between agreement and the feeling that something is terribly wrong with it. And since the moment I started reading the book, I am trying to find out what it is that produces that oscillation. I first thought it was the tone: the book is written in a very careful and modest, but at the same time educational, sometimes even cavalier style. But the tone, although puzzling at first, surprisingly funny after a few chapters. Then I thought it was the system of 15 modes and I felt the terror of reification and loosing not only the Greimas, but also the Garfinkel side. But no, that is not really the problem, as the inquiry is explicitly provisional. But the feeling that something is wrong remains. My current guess is that it has to do with the both too broad and too narrow definition of “the moderns”: what is said about religion is mostly about catholic christianity; what is said about law is mostly about discretionary adjudication, a very specific form of dealing with legal means in the Conseil D´Etat. The Moderns are at the same time “us”, “rich westerners”, “white moderns” and a species long gong. I guess expect more sensitivity and caution from something that calls itself anthropology. But I am still not sure that is source of my problem reading this book. Have you read it? Are your experiences similar? Thoughts?


Retrospective on “The Carceral”


A chapter of Michel Foucault’s famous 1977 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975, Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison) is titled “The Carceral.” In a few brief notes, I reconsider the chapter in light of contemporary discussions and literature.

As with so much of Foucault’s work, the chapter starts with a rich, seemingly (but not really) unorthodox example, in this case, the official opening of Mettray, a location where “disciplinary form at its most extreme” was born. Utilizing nearly every form of traditional organizational forms — the family, the army, the workshop, the classroom, and juridical ordering techniques —  such that those “young delinquents condemned by the courts” (as well as, I will note, boys charged, but acquitted, and yet were imprisoned as an alternative to “parental correction”) were to be overseen by “technicians of behavior; engineers of conduct, orthopaedists of individuality.”

As you can see from the quotes, Foucault’s language holds nicely to this day, even if post-foucauldians in governmentality studies have “cleaned-up” the ideas so much so that now we rattle-off “voluntary self-regulation through myriad disciplinary techniques,” it is worth remembering that, earlier on, we used to have to learn what Foucault meant from writing that did not give way to bullet-point-like writing or textbook-like bold terms sitting like warts in our prose. That said, some of the prose does not really hold over time as well as his language choices. When I first read Foucault, I recall his work being mind-blowing and yet, at some level, impenetrable. My colleagues would say something like “this is not sociology as usual,” and while I agreed with them back then (perhaps out of fear — Foucault readers often loved him dearly and not “getting it” was something you would not normally want to reveal in public, which I think now Foucault would have laughed about), now that I have some distance from my initial readings, it is easy to see why Foucault was not sociology as usual: it is not sociology. I do not mean it does not belong among the sociology canons; I mean that it was never “just” sociology; his work always struck me as historical, political, social, etc. but that it was simply not possible to reduce it to any of them. At any rate, I return to the retrospective.

Of course, the penal systems were famous for meticulous notes; “a body of knowledge was being constantly built up from the everyday behaviour of the inmates,” such that in the toughest of prisons, at the hardest of times, surveillance always implied: “I shall note the slightest irregularity in your conduct.” These two quotes, juxtaposed in the above sentence, give you also a sense of Foucault that I only notice now. I used to think that he was a dynamic writer, for a historian (I used to think of him this way); however, now, having done some professional writing, I see that Foucault is a master of shifting registers. He switches effortlessly between gigantic abstractions that seem to swallow-up the entire carceral world, for example with a quote like, “a body of knowledge was being constantly built up from the everyday behaviour of the inmates”; however, moments later, he reduces his voice to a nearly personal tone, as if whispering to the reader (without breaking eye contact, I imagine in my mind’s eye) shifts registers to tell you, the reader, what an person might have heard, as a prisoner, and in these moments, you are both, for example, “I shall note the slightest irregularity in your conduct.” You get the feeling Foucault might have, upon uttering this line, paused for effect. As a matter of style, I will take this form of writing over the bullet-points and bolded-terms, but the executive summarizing of texts into carefully constructed abstracts and sound blurbs (like those that post-foucauldian governmentality studies scholars have reduced Foucault to) seem to win the day in our times.

While all the discussion of discipline, training, and then self-discipline is positively lovely to read, I was stopped dead in my book at this line: in a discussion of supervision and being supervised, “[a] subtle, graduated carceral net,” Foucault writes, “with compact institutions, but also separate and diffused methods, assumed responsibility for the arbitrary, widespread, badly integrated confinement of the classical age.” I have no recollection of reading that line before; however, reading it now, its like a curio box of how the work has been up-taken into contemporary sociology: the emphasis on “[a] subtle, graduated carceral net” feels like the precursor for discussions of networked stateness; having the net replete “with compact institutions, but also separate and diffused methods” serves to underscore that Foucault was not an anti-institutionalist, but that institutions were “separate” (or distanced both practically and analytically) from the “diffused methods” upon which much (if not most) discipline is rendered; from there, we get a feel for jurisdiction as a key mechanism for control and knowledge production (which, for example, Andy Abbott’s work is a cool off-shoot as well as Tom Gieryn’s) when we read the net of institutions carefully divorced from the methods of everyday discipline, “assumed responsibility for the arbitrary, widespread, badly integrated confinement of the classical age.” The sentence, as it were, and for me only in retrospect, twinkles like a curio box of Foucault’s lasting legacy.

Another matter warranting some re-consideration is how sloppy Foucault is and how this general sloppiness is neatly pasted-over by his vivid word choices. For example, in an incredibly sloppy historical gloss of the origins of the prison, we get a paint-by-numbers tour of yesteryear, seeing “colonies of poor, abandoned vagrant children,” those boarded-up “almshouses for young female offenders” whose mothers exposed them one too many perversities, backbreaking “penal colonies” for young men often acquitted but condemned to reform through labor, “the institutions for abandoned or indigent children” as well as “orphanages,” what was left of the institution of “apprentices,” or those “factory-convents” where young girls would tally-away under circumstances of voluntary confinement, and if all of those beautiful and tragic pictures of yesteryear were not yet enough to bully the reader into agreeing not to disagree with the fine points raised by Foucault, we now get bombarded by “charitable societies, moral improvement associations, organizations that handed out assistance and also practised surveillance,” and now I am too exhausted to continue this German machine-gun of corollaric  examples. Still, a point is to be made here, because we have all seen this technique before (some of us, in our own writing), this “exhaust the reader with colorful examples” technique (I am, myself, routinely guilty of this); however, until reviewing Foucault again for my students in social theory today, I had no idea that I was doing this, as if a scholarly mimeograph machine, in the tradition laid-out by Foucault (although, and it would be fitting, perhaps Foucault was copying somebody else that either I don’t know about or whom has been lost in time).

Those are just a few thoughts, having returned to Foucault’s D&P after a number of years.

<image from: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/copy-cropped-dreamstime_WEB_70689362.jpg&gt;


Presentation and Roundtable: Jan-Hendrik Passoth and Nicholas Rowland on “The Possibility & Contours of State Multiplicity: Preliminary Findings”


Jan and I recently gave a talk at the School for International Affairs in the Law School at The Pennsylvania State University, which is available HERE.

The presentation, “The Possibilities and Contours of State Multiplicity: Preliminary Findings”, featured Jan-Hendrik Passoth (Technische Universität Berlin), Nicholas Rowland (Penn State University) presenting their latest research work on state theory, and Larry Catá Backer (Penn State) as discussant.  The conference was recorded and all are welcome to watch and comment, engage.

Description of the talk:

For at least 100 years, scholars in law, political science, philosophy, international relations, and various branches of sociology have asked: What is the state? And, for at least as long, answers to that question have commonly taken the form of a petty and seemingly endless game of conceptual one-upsmanship. An alternative direction exists from the small world of science and technology studies. State multiplicity. The shift toward seeing “the state” as multiple implies that we understand the state to be, convincingly, both one thing and many things simultaneously. In this talk we draw on more than 100 years of research on the state to document the possibility state multiplicity and then we hazard a few tentative and counter-intuitive conclusions based on our preliminary findings.


The Passoth-Rowland Presentation and Roundtable may be viewed HERE (via mediasite) or on Penn State Law’s Multimedia Page.  It may also be accessed through the Coalition for Peace & Ethics Website: HERE.

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Kyle McGee’s ‘Bruno Latour: The Normativity of Networks’

Thanks a lot to Philip for pointing us to Klye McGee´s new book, and especially to the three pieces on the AIME website:

There are three extracts from the book on the AIME website (registration required):
The co-presence of [pol] and [law]
The ontology of lawyer jokes
Legal reasoning as de-stratification

I am so looking forward to checking the book out. Or maybe i just wait for a review on: Circling Squares: Kyle McGee’s ‘Bruno Latour: The Normativity of Networks’.

Bruno and (Star)bucks


Teaching ANT to students at the undergraduate level can be a difficult endeavor; however, I have come across a viable solution.


But not to keep students awake during boring lectures about Bruno so much as a case study. The rise of gourmet-style coffee in the United States via the mass producer and distributor Starbucks.

The lecture is here; if you’ll use it, drop me a line (njr12 <at> psu.edu).

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Surveillance Infrastructure Novel


As weird as it sounds, that’s what “The Watchers” is, but it is also written by Shane Harris who has something of an academic/journalistic background, which the subtitle “The rise of the American surveillance state” clarifies.

The concept developed, the surveillance state, is not really developed for use in theory, but it does seem to have applications for the general public as a (new) way to think about these issues (that Foucault cued us to long ago). Likewise, the book is written in a novelistic style even though it is based largely (if not entirely) on first-hand accounts from people Harris has interviewed. Makes for an interesting discussion: is it worth using the novel format to learn empirical truths about the state, or does the style/format reduce the “weight” of the argument?

I don’t know, but the more our ideas here get in congress with dmfant’s, I wonder if “more useful” is not always better provided “still true” is the baseline.

Non-human persons are among us


The dodo-community has a blog that utilizes some concepts we are generally interested in on the blog, for example, non-human. Check it out.

Some of the links are pretty incredible, like dolphin stampedes and so on. At any rate, it is an interesting source that I was not aware of. Might be more exciting or interesting if there was a more academic focus (that is, specifically interesting to me as an academic), but some of these issues, like the protection of animals, would suffer from a pedantic streak …

Legos Shutting-Down Gender Criticism?


Girls, Blox, Bricks, and “Childhood Engineering”: We’ve written about the new craze for Goldiblox a bunch of times recently (here, here, and here), now that that young engineer from Stanford has formally “launched” the product. Legos appear to be joining the battle-cry … or they also might have started it (well, they seem to claim as much).

Here is some recent text I’ve been seeing all-over discussions about gender and, let’s say, “childhood engineering” (its a WYSK EXCLUSIVE — but seems to be difficult to load the stuff right now … not sure why). Here is the text, and above is the original picture:

“In 1981,” explains Giordano, “LEGOs were ‘Universal Building Sets’ and that’s exactly what they were…for boys and girls. Toys are supposed to foster creativity. But nowadays, it seems that a lot more toys already have messages built into them before a child even opens the pink or blue package. In 1981, LEGOs were simple and gender-neutral, and the creativity of the child produced the message. In 2014, it’s the reverse: the toy delivers a message to the child, and this message is weirdly about gender.”

Not sure if Legos has seized this little tid-bit trying to shut it down, and that explains why it is down, or perhaps the traffic to it is too high (though that seems unlikely, at best). Here is the piece, at least as I can see it from my facebook:


If you can find it, check out the commentary. You could save this and write a modest piece in STS or even have students analyze the responses in an activity about gender and engineering…


Teaching the Public Understanding of Science with Ancient Aliens


I have had unprecedented success with a new lesson in STS and I thought I’d share it with you all on the blog. NOTE: I’ve also got a sheet that can be used for students to follow along and it provides some questions to orient discussion after viewing (if you’d like it, it is like some others I’ve shared, for example, related to the “King of Kong” as an easy way to teach students about the scientific community and philosophy of science or a handout used to teach students about controversies in science through a documentary on intelligent design). So, every semester, the chapters on the “public understanding of science” in Sismondo’s introductory text end-up being sort of boring to students.

However, working with a student over the last year, we found another way to “get at” the information. Instead of dealing directly with some of the issues associated with the public and science through the typical lens of “understanding,” we look for the public and science through another lens, that of “misunderstanding,” in this case about what is and is not science.

Enter: Ancient Alien Theorists!


Ancient Aliens” is a series on the History Channel, self-described as:

Ancient Aliens explores the controversial theory that extraterrestrials have visited Earth for millions of years. From the age of the dinosaurs to ancient Egypt, from early cave drawings to continued mass sightings in the US, each episode in this hit H2 series gives historic depth to the questions, speculations, provocative controversies, first-hand accounts and grounded theories surrounding this age old debate.

In class, we just watch one episode, and it has been an incredible source of discussion ever since. During Season One, the fourth episode (which is just perfect for this lesson) is called “The Visitors.” Here is the summary:

If ancient aliens visited Earth, who were they, and where did they come from? Possible historic evidence and beliefs are examined around the world. The Dogon people possess knowledge of a galaxy they claim was given to them by a star god named Amma. The Hopi and Zuni people celebrate Kachinas, gods from the sky, whose headdresses and costumes appear to resemble modern helmets and protective clothing. Halfway around the world, Chinese legends tell of the Han leader, Huangdi, arriving on Earth on a flying, yellow dragon. Was this dragon more likely a spacecraft? Ancient astronaut theorists believe that these are far from chance encounters and that extraterrestrials not only interacted with us, but changed the course of human history.

The key is to ask questions after viewing like:

1. How do these “theorists” use the tools, rhetoric, and, thus, credibility of science to launch their claims?

2. What statements might be made or what portrayals do you see that link ancient aliens to the scientific enterprise? 

After we watched this, understanding how the presentation of scientific ideas (in this case, non-science), the students have literally no trouble dealing with Sismondo’s chapter, which features the deficit model of public understanding and the presentation of science and the scientific enterprise by journalists. The real joy, though, comes when Sismondo starts to discuss how some scientists short-cut the journalism process and go to the public directly — often, out of desperation (enter, again: Ancient Alien Theorists!)

Again, write me if you’d like a copy of the sheet or to discuss the teaching idea.

Images from: http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Aliens-Season-One/dp/B0038M2AWI

Actually doing something with sociology


Making New York a better place through sociology? Apparently, it can be done. In 1975, Fred Kent (a former student of the wonderful W. Whyte) created Project for Public Spaces. His job? Take time-lapse films of public urban spaces with an eye to improve them. Better than any theory would be massive amounts of data. After all, rather than over-generalize Putnam’s “bowling alone” or agree too hastily with Turkle’s “alone together” thesis, he might be able to just study a spot and improve it with data and experimentation.

Kent challenges Turkle, in particular, stating that her sometimes casual observations about connection are simply no replacement for time-stamped, time-lapse data on human interaction. What’s missing, he says, is historical perspective. To avoid nostalgia for the past and the inevitable retrospective bias and attribution errors as we “remember” the past, we just need data and rigor.

Kent found some of Whyte’s old footage with an eye to recreate the research to achieve a time-place-specific reproduction for sake of comparison. Here is what he found:

… mobile-phone use, which Hampton defined to include texting and using apps, was much lower than he expected. On the steps of the Met, only 3 percent of adults captured in all the samples were on their phones.

People may decry human disconnect, but, according to Kent, 3% does not make sense as a rough count for the social armageddon that we are supposedly heading toward thanks to too much texting. Instead, he research reveals that people are more public, that is, they hang-out in public more than they did during the previously captured time period that Whyte recorded. Kent also noticed one big change: more women, many more of them. As he (nicely) puts it:

Across the board, Hampton found that the story of public spaces in the last 30 years has not been aloneness, or digital distraction, but gender equity. “I mean, who would’ve thought that, in America, 30 years ago, women were not in public the same way they are now?” Hampton said. “We don’t think about that.”

See NYT story about all this here.

Politics of the naked body vs. the Body Politic


In this fascinating post, Andrzej Nowak, our friend and guest blogger for Installing Order, tackles a fascinating case of last resort for marginalized populations — the nakedness of their own bodies as a form of personal suffering and political protest. –Nicholas

Western feminism, especially connected liberal view is often quite paternalistic, when is speaking about women from Third World. Africa nations are our best example where colonial and post-colonial myths are still quite strong.

In particular, I would like to propose a short trip to West Africa. I am interest in very particular phenomenon – when naked body can be used as a tool of political action.

This phenomenon is sometimes called Anasyrma with reference to antic Greeks. But for me here more interesting is political use of so called “curse of nakedness”. Exposing of women naked body is, in West Africa, a strong political weapon, which can be used as a way to change course of politics.

It is interesting how body politic can literally be created out of naked bodies. Let’s look a little closer, what is this phenomenon:

We all come into the world through the vagina. By exposing the vagina, the women are saying: ‘We are hereby taking back the life we gave you,'” Turner says. “It’s about bringing forth life and denying life through social ostracism, which is a kind of social execution. Men who are exposed are viewed as dead. No one will cook for them, marry them, enter into any kind of contract with them or buy anything from them.

Very traditional cultural custom “Curse of nakedness” is often used as a  tool for political and economic  emancipation.

One of the best know example is a mobilization of women against Charles Taylor dictator of Nigeria. More details about this, You can find in this movie:

Other example is protest of Nigerian women against petrol companies in delta of Niger: 

And another example from Ivory Coast, when political women bodies meet body politic with deadly result:

Easing Sociology into the Non-Modern World?

In a recent post on “Understanding Society”, Daniel Little discussed some recent development in the philosophy of social science: Analytic Sociology, Critical Realism and Actor-Network Theory. Here is how it goes:

Understanding Society: How do the poles of current PSS interact?

Start with a few resonances between ANT and CR. Both are grounded in a philosophical system (Deleuze, Kant), and they both make use of philosophical arguments to arrive at substantive conclusions. (…) But a point of contrast is pervasive: CR is realist, and ANT is constructionist.

(…) The anti-philosophical bent of AS makes it difficult for AS scholars to read and benefit from the writings of ANT scholars (witness, for example, Hedstrom’s dismissal of Bourdieu). The model of explanation that is presupposed by AS — demonstration of how higher-level entities are given their properties by the intentional actions of individuals — is explicitly rejected by ANT. (…)

Finally, what about the relation between AS and CR? On the issue of causation there is a degree of separation — AS favors causal mechanisms, preferably grounded in the level of individuals, whereas CR favors causal powers at all levels. (…) But here there is perhaps room for a degree of accommodation, if CR scholars can be persuaded of the idea of relative explanatory autonomy advocated elsewhere here.

via Understanding Society: How do the poles of current PSS interact?.

Somehow I felt a bit like I was suddenly in an academic version of an episode of Doctor Who, jumping back in time, stranded in 1992. In a paper that came out in parallel to the well know “Chicken Debate” (Collins/Yearly 1992; Latour/Callon 1992), but that was burried in a edited volume (McMullin 1992), Latour moved ANT explicitly away from what until then was called the “Social Studies of Science” and towards a framework to deal with the moderns. He wrote:

“A radical is someone who claims that scientific knowledge is entirely constructed ‘out of’ social relations; a progressist is someone who would say that it is ‘partially’ constructed out of social relations but that nature somehow ‘leaks in’ at the end. (…) a reactionary is someone who would claim science becomes really scientific only when it finally sheds any trace of social construction; while a conservative would say that although science escapes from society there are still factors from society that ‘leak in’ and influence its developmentIn the middle, would be the marsh of wishy-washy scholars who add a little bit of nature to a little bit of society and shun the two extremes.(…)” (Latour 1992: 277)

And then concludes:

“If one goes from left to right then one has to be a social constructivist; if, on the contrary, one goes from right to left, then one has to be a closet realist.  (…) It is fun to play but after twenty years of it we might shift to other games (…)”

Hmmm. Maybe it is not Doctor Who, maybe it is Groundhog Day and we are just waking up again at 6:00 to the voices of Sonny and Cher. Do we really have to have the same debate again, now not in the philosophy of science but the philosophy of social science? Maybe there is a reason to do that – after all, Phil Connors has to repeat his morning routine over and over again until he starts making himself a better man and finally finds a way to love and happiness. After all, Little does indeed think it is important to add “ANT to the menu for the philosophy of social science, at least as a condiment if not the main course” and there are others in that field today that share his opinion. Maybe if we don´t discuss those issues again and try to work diplomatically with the moderns (in this case: AS and CR…) on what they value most, we are selfish and grumpy fools – like the character that Bill Murray played so beautifully. But it is not tempting to know that the sound of “I got you babe” will be with us for a while. Is there a way out? A shortcut? A “shift to other games”?

Abandoned Places


Abandoned places. Stunning visuals.

I am of the mind that abandoned places have something, analytically, to contribute to infrastructure studies. Once you click the link, you’ll see that the producers of this compilation (not sure how many pictures are truly “there’s”) suggest with the opening lines that this is something about what the entire world would like without people, which is sort of a pseudo-apocalyptic comment on global warming, the end of days, and curiosity about “a world without people” (anymore — or this documentary about life after people). The first lines read:

These real life ruins offer an eerie glimpse into a world without humans. Their dark walls inspire a sense of wonder like I’ve never felt before.

This should surprise no one. Perhaps the thought experiment is a good one for students, but generally thoughtful people don’t have to let their minds wander/wonder too far to know what a world without people would look like as our infrastructures remain slowly giving way to the elements.

What else might infrastructural relics like these tell us? Surely, it is fair to say that they would teach us something new every time we returned to them. However, one of the points that these might tell us, which archeologists and anthropologists have claimed for more than a century (and quite longer, I would guess), is that infrastructural remains indicate more than just “people” were here. Many of these remains (pictured above) are not ancient, either, so we don’t need to impose meanings on where these structures came from or how they were used in antiquity. These are contemporary ruins that sit precariously alongside “life as we know it” now. The point? Some, but not all, are state projects, meaning, of course, real people on the ground ultimately produced the structures that “remain,” but the attributional source of the work is a non-human entity called “the state” … these are pieces of evidence that the state exists somewhere, somehow. How to harness that insight for state theory would be a great bridge to infrastructure studies (and infrastructural relics might also be a nice play on literature for infrastructure studies that would sort of be like the relationship between STS and disaster studies, although, there is something really nice about a slow decay as compared to a momentary boom found in most disaster studies — exceptions, of course, exist).

Teaching STS: Teaching that time does not exist


Times does not exist. At least, we think time does not exist.

According to Ferenc Krausz at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, time is unlikely real.

Efforts to understand time below the Planck scale have led to an exceedingly strange juncture in physics. The problem, in brief, is that time may not exist at the most fundamental level of physical reality.

Check out the original Discovery reading here. It is an easy read and would do well if presented students in-class to read on-the-spot and then immediately discuss it. It has worked well for me to get at issues of “reality” in a surprisingly concrete way. Admittedly, this might seem like a no-brainer for long-time friends of social constructivism. Still, time is generally a great concept for an STS class, especially issues of “standards” and so on. We’ve discussed it once before on the blog here.

One of the comments is particularly nice for students to chew on:

This article was written in 2007, and I am responding to it and commenting on it in 2013. Why? Because “time” doesnt exist.

Also, of interest: notice that you have to raise time as real to tear it down as not real, signifying the significance of real-time for understanding the un-realness of time.

Fixing Peer Review


This post is about fixing peer review. dmfant, who some of you might know from synthetic_zero, commented on a recent post on the state of STS scholarship, asking:

have you been following: http://www.cplong.org/2013/11/the-peer-review-coordinator-and-the-collegiality-index/ ?

Which is a discussion about making reviewers and reviews public (rather than granting reviewers anonymity). The idea is that we could improve reviewing scholarly work through a process of making it public and creating, in the process, a “reviewer score” for reviewers that would be known, esteemed, and productive. My response was so long, I will post it here for further consideration.

My response was (also, I write as a faculty member and about faculty issues, so it is a bit myopic in that way):

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 with an editor, but that editor will be replaced eventually, so the influence of “being a good researcher” over “being a good reviewer” was primary.

Second, 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.”

Third, 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”).

Fourth, 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. When I consider the work of my peers, I am able to keep this in mind. 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.

Fifth, all of this would not work even if, by some magical coincidence it 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 upending 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.

NOTE: the picture is from http://kennyjonesradio.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/broken_window.jpg

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: http://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&docid=7p2FFa9Eveh4JM&tbnid=oxupV4E35lZsLM:&ved=0CAQQjB0&url=http%3A%2F%2Fparismarket.blogspot.com%2F2011%2F09%2Fcabinets-of-curiosities-and-pretties.html&ei=pFuFUoT6NPHC4APa3ICABg&bvm=bv.56343320,d.dmg&psig=AFQjCNFDvgagsuepOr4mm7V0rPzbL4qZCQ&ust=1384557853106096

Research at Cornell


Just last week, I visited Cornell University to visit Trever Pinch, a well-known STSers from the early days. Trever has been an active member of the two most important professional association in STS, the Society for the Social Studies of Science and the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology.

With outstanding luck for me, turns out Trever is something of a pack-rat too, and has original conference proceedings for every single event in the history of both organizations. I’m in the process of using them to chart how different topics have been used in the history of the organizations. After my initial run, they will be donated to their respective professional organization.

While studies of 4S seem relatively rare, there was a recent (and interesting) project reviewing EASST, which is here: EASST_conf_summary. Still, a couple of older 4S programs are available on-line. In what appears to be Sal Restivo’s personal program from the first meeting at Cornell University in 1976, available here: 1976 4S at Cornell, we can see into STS’s past.

During the 1976 meeting, Bruno LaTour (sic!), for example, was still a member of the Salk Laboratories presenting on citation analysis, which would later be the groundwork for Laboratory Life (which, in the 1986 edition, as a great postscript). S. W. Woolgar was present to, at the time hailing from Brunel University, discussing sociological analyses of scientific accounts. H. M. Collins attended, speaking about replication in science, which, as many of you know, would be the work that Woolgar, along with his student Malcolm Ashmore, would later bring Collins to task on in Ashmore’s incredible (and incredibly playful) The Reflexivity Thesis (read the preface for a hilarious letter from Woolgar to the editor). R. K. Merton gave the lunch talk. Karen Knorr gave two talks and John Law gave one on Anomie(? Anybody know what happened to that paper? Maybe it’s sitting in an edited book nobody reads anymore…).

At any rate, as these are completed by my assistant, I’ll occasionally a comment or two.

Latour’s honor being protested (update)


Latour’s honor being protested … annually?

So, I just spoke with Dr. Ann Rudinow Sætnan (Department of Sociology and Political Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology) who wrote that article about how Latour’s recent Ludvig Holberg International Memorial Prize and how Latour’s honor has been protested.

Here is the update on the Latourian protester. I asked “Has the redux fizzled out on a new-ish science wars or have there been any notable developments?”

She responded:

As for what happened to the Science  War flare-up … yes, it fizzled. I just googled the theme to check whether anything new had been published in the debate since the pieces I cited. There was one more. This one was not so much a critique of Latour as a critique of giving prizes in general as a means of gaining public recognition for (social) science. The author of this last piece claims that giving away large sums of money to already famous social scientists doesn’t do much to advance the reputation of the social sciences, as evidenced by the small number of people who have even heard of the prize. He writes that the prize is almost most famous for Jon Elster’s annual protests of it and that if Elster had not existed then someone would have had to invent him in order to publicize the prize. … and there the whole debate seems to have ended. At least until next year when Elster protests whoever wins in 2014

If you are interested in the piece (and have a reading-knowledge of Norwegian), check it out here. The title translated (thanks, Ann) is “What price the Holberg prize?”

Here is the old post:

In an interesting essay from our friends at EASST (European Association for the Study of Science and Technology), documents a possible resurgence of the ‘science wars’ of yesteryear … at sitting in the cross-hairs is good old Bruno Latour, protested recipient of this year’s (2013′s) The Ludvig Holberg International Memorial Prize, or as some of you might know it, just the Holberg Prize. Check out the article; its free and interesting.

Latour’s book scoffed


Clever public reviews of products on Amazon has become something of a pass-time for more individuals that I would have thought. For example, reviews of this banana slicer, for which there are 4,530 reviews, are quite entertaining, or for this excellent book How to avoid huge ships we find terrific (and humorous) reviews by members of the public. On How to avoid huge ships, for example, we see this review titled “Reads like a whodunnit“:

I bought How to Avoid Huge Ships as a companion to Captain Trimmer’s other excellent titles: How to Avoid a Train, and How to Avoid the Empire State Building. These books are fast paced, well written and the hard won knowledge found in them is as inspirational as it is informational. After reading them I haven’t been hit by anything bigger than a diesel bus. Thanks captain!

Or, this classic:

it didn’t work for me. i still got hit by a huge ship. i can’t recommend this book at all.

While these are entertaining … what about this one about Latour?


One reviewer of Latour’s We have never been modern raised a point that I had not heard before that the book was “a postmodern joke”:

Anglophone readers probably don’t realise that Latour meant this book as a tongue-in-cheek exercise to capture the postmodern social theory market in his own country by using a postmodern style to show what an illusion postmodernism has always been. But, as fate would have it, when someone sneezes in Paris, an Anglophone is felled with pneumonia. It’s hard to believe that anyone with a firm grasp of the history of the last 250 years of Western culture would find this book anything more than a diversion worthy of maybe a couple of arguments in the pub. It’s telling that historians of science, who are really the people who are in a position to hold Latour accountable to anything he says here, have given the book a chilly reception. Classify this one under ‘Pseud’s Corner’.

Does anyone know if that is true, that WHNBM was just a semi-clever joke?

Goldiblocks: Gender and engineering meet


Anybody interested in gender, engineering, or infrastructure, especially, meta-issues, like training students in the sciences and engineering and all the related gender issues:

Check out this promotional video.

Golidblocks! This is a smart idea. There is a ton of literature about how women select out of the sciences and engineering, some of which is good work and some of which borders on the sexism it supposedly only describes; however, this angle, related to children’s toys and parenting strategies … just might be one of the smartest thing “done” in that line of thinking/concern.

If you’re teaching STS and you cover gender issues, a discussion of this might be useful.

It also reminded me, hauntingly, of this: when Barbi used to say “Math class is tough” … ugh.

Teaching STS: Controversies


This is an extension of a previous post about teaching STS. So, teaching controversies is a mainstay of STS; if you need a good film to show, check out “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial” replete with Steve Fuller weighing-in on intelligent design … and their are courtroom re-enactments and even a decent biology lesson for students that don’t have a strong background in basic genetics and/or evolution.

Of great interest for us is this: the film underscores the utility of theory in face of lame counter-factuals (which uninformed students tend to accept or privilege during discussion). Additionally, there is an incredible discussion, especially for high school or undergraduate students, about the difference between science and non-science. But, better than all of that, there is an implicit display of “truth” in three different forms — which makes for excellent discussion post-film — between “law truth,” “science truth,” and “religious truth,” which is great to show how truth is context-specific and what constitutes truth in law, science, and religion is only rarely overlapping.

Also, I have a handout already made to help students to navigate the documentary. Write me if you you’d like a copy or if you’ve used this clip for your own courses (send to: njr12 at psu.edu).

Lastly, if you’re already teaching Sismondo’s Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, the chapter on “Controversies” can be used with the film because midway through the chapter, Sismondo describes a set of 5 circumstances under which controversies can be “closed up” and those map onto the film wonderfully, making the bridge between in-class reading and an out-of-class film easy.

Lowercasing “sts” and “ant” – What comes next?

On various occasions during the last few months I noticed that we in STS (and we as ANTers especially) have a tendency to talk small when talking big. Some examples needed? Small ones of course? Here they are:

  1. not a theory, not a method”: A classic! Despite its beginnings – does someone still remember the Sociology of Translation or the great methodological subtitle of Science in Action? – nearly every account given of the status of ANT “today” resonates on the “oh, it is not a theory” (starting in 1999 with Latour’s “Recalling ANT”) and the “oh, it is not a method” theme. And while this looks like a withdrawl from “big debates” on theory and method and as a way of saying “we have nothing to offer if you are looking for that”, the answer of what it is, if not a theory and not a method, is: an approach, an attitude. That sounds modest, but has, when takken seriously, massive effects.
  2. “Thin concepts, modest methods, weak explanations”: Now if that is not at the center of the approach…in theory, methods and even in respect to what really is at stake we love to be modest — although we of course are not. Thin concepts are regarded as the strongest possible for thick narratives, modest methods are in fact really demanding and hard to “use” and weak explanations of local, situated and limited phenomena are valuated as far more solid than those with bigger pretense.
  3. “don’t try to get it right!”: ok, we (Nicholas and I) are to blame for that… but reflexivity in STS demands that whenever we studiy epistemic processes and knowledge creation we should not try to know better as our voice is just one more that adds to controversities we study. That was easy when studying technoscience – knowing better than someone working in particle physics or biotech is just too hard. But once we study ourselves or our relatives in economics, population science or political theory it is tempting to know better…but it is better not to try.

It is not just a matter of style: we actually like our concepts, our cases and our methodological rigor to be tiny and gigantic at the very same time. That has a lot of reasons, of course, the history of science studies, the science wars and our, well, not so great experiences with Bruno’s (and Michel’s and John’s) big gestures in the mid 90s being just the least important. After lowercasing science we are lowercasing ourselves. And then? What will follow? Will we stop there? Thoughts?

Latour’s honor being protested


(from: http://www.holbergprisen.no/en/holberg-international-memorial-prize/holberg-prize-symposium-2013.html)

In an interesting essay from our friends at EASST (European Association for the Study of Science and Technology), documents a possible resurgence of the ‘science wars’ of yesteryear … at sitting in the cross-hairs is good old Bruno Latour, protested recipient of this year’s (2013’s) The Ludvig Holberg International Memorial Prize, or as some of you might know it, just the Holberg Prize. Check out the article; its free and interesting.

Biotech for the Academy

My research mainly involves trying to think us out of the conundrum of state-based violence using re-figurations of the body politic.  Actual, structural (since all violence stems from actual violence on actual bodies—the threat of hurt and harm), gendered, normalized, terroristic.

If not out of violence per se, as I suspect it is constitutive of the human experience, into a form of knowledge/power that strives to care for the most vulnerable and nurture the multiple forms of being and becoming that emerge and will emerge…a form of political subjectivity that “judges not as the judge judges,” but, as Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass “as the sun falling around a helpless thing.”

A tall order, perhaps but one that is crucial to any political project. How do we, as humans, citizens, neighbors, mammals, etc, tend to our world? How is dialogical space made to open creative re-thinking, -figuring, -imagining about how local, state, and global politics function?

More broadly, what I am wrestling with is life.  How is life included in politics? In our institutions, discourses, or urban planning projects? How do state politics understand life, or to ask the more traditional philosophical question: What is a life worth living? How do we create the conditions needed for realizing the good life? Turns out that life is really complex and messy.  It eludes definition and control.

In earlier posts, I have shown how I chose microbiotic communities and co-evolved parasites in the human gut. Walt Whitman was a sometime poetic counsel for these Uexküllian forays in the worlds of animals and humans.  Technology can also be a part of making choices that privilege certain social configurations over others. In this post, I want to talk about art, biotechnology, and critique. Art is another way to imagine different political configurations and futures.  (Detournement can work, too.)

On Monday night at Hobart William Smith, I attended a lecture by Dr. Steve Kurtz, a professor at SUNY-Buffalo and founding member of the Critical Art Ensemble. Since the late 1990’s CAE’s founding concern shifted from the digital revolution to the biotech revolution. As Kurtz explained, the digital revolution was a difference in degree rather than kind–it increased the level of intensity of communication, but was more a revolution of scale that intensified the bombardment of the sign rather than internalizing that sign.  The biotech revolution, Kurtz argued, was more than a revolution.  Previous to this, the body was sacred and humans could always find some relative freedom inside their body, if no where else.  Biotechnology, on the other hand, is coding the body from the inside out. Life and potentiality is understood through the genetic code.

The posthuman, the cyborg, became a reality in a different way than it had been previous to this biotech revolution.  This could be a utopian future or a nightmare.  What, argued Kurtz, was needed to nudge it toward the utopian?

biotech for the people

People must participate and know the political stakes of biotechnology or it will not be democratic, but controlled by policy makers or corporate interests.  The role of the CAE, and of artists more broadly, is to deliver messages, show the stakes, and the possibilities of these revolutions.


This, as I see it, is the same project as critical social and cultural theory in academia.  Academics also show the stakes of the policies and norms that are, more than likely, controlled by the elite, the corporate, and the tyranny of the minority in the US Congress.

To return to Kurtz’s talk and its resonances with the research I have presented on this blog, what does it mean that the body can be understood, manipulated, enhanced, improved, with technology as an extension of the actual body?

Aimee Mullins, Photo Credit: Howard Schatz

Aimee Mullins

These shifted understandings of the body must deliver emancipatory messages, show the political stakes involved, and bare the possibilities the biotech body for reinvigorating democracy and other forms of participatory governance. Importantly for academic disciplines, as Nicholas and Jan highlight in the “When in doubt, de-Center humans” post, how does this shift affect our disciplines?

Writing Reflexively: Lessons from ANT

Qualitative Sociology is producing a special issue about using ANT to write-up qualitative results.


Original from “Acting Man” at http://www.acting-man.com/?p=24647

One of the papers in now available on-line first, which is our paper about writing reflexive accounts from an actor-network approach (not actor-network theory). We had fun writing it, and, once you get toward the end, you’ll see that this paper is somewhat unorthodox …

Our title:

Beware of Allies! Notes on Analytical Hygiene in Actor-Network Account-making

Our abstract:

In science and technology studies (STS), reflexivity is not the foremost political or ethical concern that it is for some postmodernists, feminists, anthropologists, or those earnest students of Bourdieu. For us, reflexivity is a practical methodological concern. When reflexivity is raised in our scholarly communications it is, without irony, about crafting scientific communication (i.e., scholarly accounts like articles or books) reflexively. This paper therefore is an actor-network account of making reflexive actor-network accounts, specifically, in the process of writing-up qualitative research findings. It is a paper about research. It is a paper about the research process. As our empirical contribution, we report on research we previously conducted and about the subsequent steps we took toward a (publishable) way of reporting it. We are trying to honestly disclose how the process of preparing a reflexive account is more than merely a matter of cleaning upthe messiness of data, but also, and perhaps foremost, a process of finding, aligning, and occasionally distancing our accounts from our allies – in our case, actor-network theory (ANT) and reflexivity.

One paragraph with something of a hook:

As we transformed a presentation from the microcosm of professional conferences into a working manuscript for academic, peer-reviewed publishing, we encountered remarks about how reflexive we needed to be during our account-making, in particular, in our methods section. After delving into the reflexivity literature, we concluded that no “amount” of reflexivity could have made our account more reflexive because, in addition to reflexivity being part of the intransigent character of all forms of account-making, overt pleas for the epistemic virtue of adding or subtracting any form of reflexivity is an immediate dead-end for the analysts and a long-term dead-end for whatever (inter)disciplinary homes they inhabit (Ashmore 1989; Latour 1988; Lynch 2000). Our empirical analysis confirmed each of these insights.

Still, the question, “how much reflexivity was enough?” seemed all too real as we accepted critiques of our presentation(s) and received reviews of our paper. For us,
the practical problem was, how do we settle this obviously irresolvable suggestion-turned-

Thus, the oddity that we poke-at in our paper is this: in theory, we know that nothing can be added to a paper to make it qualitatively more reflexive (no additional forms of looping-back or self-referential claims); however, that is precisely what we learn when we review our own experience: it is precisely because, in theory, nothing can make a paper more reflexive that critiques claiming that we are too reflexive or not reflexive enough are so difficult to overcome. These comments are, in theory, incomprehensible, but, in a practical sense, unavoidable if you want to present or publish your work in these academic circles where reflexivity lives…

What Would Wallace Write? (if he were an ethnographer)

David Foster Wallace and Installing (Social) Order on ‘Being Reflexive’ … we wrote this after blogging about these issues for a while regarding excessive hygiene, actor-network attitudes and ethnography, and about style in STS.

Ethnography Matters

Editor’s Note: Jan-Hendrik Passoth ( @janpassoth) is a Post Doc at the Technische Universität Berlin interested in Sociological Theory and Science and Technology Studies. His fellow writer, Nicholas J. Rowland, is an associate professor of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, as well as a visiting scholar at Technische Universität Berlin. Both work on the sociology of infrastructures, about which they blog at installing (social) order, exploring the sociotechnical nerves of contemporary society.

In this other piece of our “ethnography and fiction” edition, these two researchers give an interesting follow-up to the contribution by Anne Galloway by focusing on a well-known fiction writer: David Foster-Wallace. They compare his work with ethnographic field report and use that as a starting point for a discussion about the importance of reflexivity.


Comparing David Foster Wallace and an average ethnographic field report seems unfair at first. And, it does not get better…

View original post 2,206 more words

Reflections on Health Infrastructure


Screen capture from NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/pages/health/index.html

The role of infrastructure in the current controversy about the Affordable Care Act.

As is well documented in national newspapers, America is finally trying to create a national health care insurance program. However, the bill is being hotly contested on the hill and some are even calling resistance to the program blackmail on a national level because every effort to fund the government for another year has been made contingent on defunding the national health care program that some call “Obama Care.”

The twin issues of policy battle and the introduction of national health insurance are further complicated by infrastructural concerns. They are two fold:

1. The race by tech companies and the government to use information technology infrastructure to support one of the bill’s primary objectives: offering citizens a platform for researching, selecting, and then purchasing health care insurance programs. The goal is to reduce cost and make program costs competitive, all of which will hypothetically benefit the citizen. However, support — in this case, the support of information technology infrastructure, not political support — has been slow to come into existence.

The Affordable Care Act has been contentious, confusing and abstract, but that might change on October 1 when states are required to launch websites where people can chose among different health plans.

In addition to the basic support of the program other technologies are being added to this melange of health technologies such as biometric bracelets to let your employer know how you’re doing at any given moment.

2. The prototype for the online support of the health exchange network mentioned in 1 is not friendly to non-English speakers. Apparently, the government is so worried about rolling-out the website on-time that they have not been able to offer the service in Spanish.

On Thursday, the Obama administration announced two new delays in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, saying small business and Spanish-language online enrollment services in federally run exchanges would not begin on Oct. 1 as planned, Reuters reports (Morgan, Reuters, 9/26).

This has happened even though, as is even posted on the White House website:

Today, an op-ed from President Obama is running in major Spanish-language newspapers across the country. The op-ed discusses the benefits of the Affordable Care Act for Latinos and announces the release of a new Spanish-language version of HealthCare.gov – www.CuidadoDeSalud.gov.

The op-ed is running in ImpreMedia’s print publications (including La Opinión in Los Angeles and El Diario La Prensa in New York) and online properties, all of which have a monthly reach of 9.3 million adults and monthly distribution of nearly 11 million.

Obama’s op-ed is, in contrast, available en español.

These two issues remind students of infrastructure that Law and Latour were correct all those years ago in saying that technology is “politics by other means,” although in a slightly different light. Routinely, the implementation of political aims is contingent on technological infrastructure, its development, and maintenance over time.

Cataloguing our microbial roommates

On the NYT site this morning I ran across an interesting video entitled “The Jungle Indoors” and a companion article “Mapping the Great Indoors.” Subtitled “Getting to Know Our Microbial Roommates,” the article and video discuss the ecology of our homes.  Humans are an indoor species spending as much as 90% of our time indoors, and ecologists have become interested in learning about these intimate relationships that have gone unnoticed thus far.  How do humans “colonize” the places we live and how can understanding these relationships lead to better health are the main questions behind this study.  What I find infinitely intriguing is that this study (and studies on the microbiome in our guts and skin) are generally reported with a sense of wonder and even awe at the magic of these relationships:

“But as humdrum as a home might first appear, it is a veritable wonderland. Ecology does not stop at the front door; a home to you is also home to an incredible array of wildlife.”

If, as Weber wrote, we have lost our sense of enchantment with the modern world, these morsels remind us that this may not be entirely the case.  Plus, it opens up discussions about our built environments and structures, along with what it might mean to live together with all kinds of “roommates.”

Homeopathic Infrastructure: Machiavelli on Infrastructure

Recently, an old dissertation fell into my lap and I’d like to tell you about it. I asked my work study to find basically anything about the state and state theory for Jan and I’s book “The State Multiple,” which we are writing now. Well, the dissertation was from 1988 by Michael Soupios, now a storied professor at Long Island University here in the states, where he’s being teaching for three decades and more. His 1988 dissertation from Fordham *(he has multiple PhDs) is titled “Human Nature and Machiavelli’s Homeopathic Theory of State” wherein he tackles the basic quandary set forth by Machiavelli.


Quoting the dissertation:

The terms “homopathic” or “homeotherapy” are of medical origin and refer to a form of treatment in which an element similar to the causative agent of a disease is itself used in attempting a cure. It is precisely this approach that we find offered in Machiavelli’s political formula.

The dissertation goes on to explain how Machiavelli’s vision of humans was basically that we are a bunch of decrepit liars and thieves and, thus, deserved to be treated with as much manipulation and self-service as we would impart on others. Call this, let’s say, a Hobbsian antidote to the crisis of the commons and the natural order of man, although Michael Soupios refrains from the comment (good to stay on topic in a dissertation!). We are not to be ruled and governed by a force that helps us to repress our baser instincts and then choose to be together non-violently as a form of supra-self-interest (sort of like a dynamic where we cooperate just long enough to compete, like children playing nearly any game), and, instead, we see Machiavelli’s view that you treat like with like, or his homeopathic view of states. Michael Soupios tackles fear and force, fraud as an instrument of the state, and creative conflict within the state before setting his sights on how this approach could even be instantiated as a model for International Relations.

The dissertation is fascinating and essentially well-written. Now, this view of politics is politics by political means, if you will. Since this writing, STS has entered the discussion of the state, perhaps foremost by my friend and ally in state theory, Patrick Carroll, who, in his many written works, shows how the state, as we know it (i.e., as an actor, a macro entity capable of action, etc.) is a falsehood of sorts and instead the state is made-up of all things stately such as people, bogs, trees, and all the measurement techniques used to make the state’s ‘self’ register in formal documents of statehood and statecraft. For Patrick, the state is constructed and environmental rather than iconic and abstract; material rather than conceptual.

So, with enough force, could Michael Soupios and Patrick Carroll be collided with enough force to make the argument: if one model for the state is homeopathic (i.e., Mach’s), and if one model for the state is material, then could we have a hybrid theory, a homeopathic-material theory of the state?

If that is the case: what would the infrastructural equivalent of homeopathic statecraft look like? I don’t yet know, as I’ve only just completed the dissertation read, but it seems like a viable option forward if one wants to engage the cocktail of normative and empirical claims-making that is contemporary political theory.

The Bodies Politic


Political theory and philosophy often speak of the body politic as multiple, or as a composite being.  Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is, for IR, our most familiar image and idea of how multiple bodies form into larger bodies.  As Latour points out in the introduction to Making Things Public,  Hobbes Leviathan always included more than human bodies:

But in addition to the visual puzzle of assembling composite bodies, another puzzle should strike us in those engravings. A simple look at them clearly proves that the “Body Politik” is not only made of people! They are thick with things: clothes, a huge sword, immense castles, large cultivated fields, crowns, ships, cities and an immensely complex technology of gathering, meeting, cohabiting, enlarging, reducing, and focusing. In addition to the throng of little people summed up in the crowned head of the Leviathan, there are objects everywhere.

As Latour stresses, this political body is filled with actants (Latour’s word that blends and loses the so-called modern distinction between a subject and object).  Actants have varying degrees of “agency,”  but more importantly, it is the connections, or translations between actants and what assemblages these connections form, that shows the unfolding story of communal life.

To add to this busy and complex assemblages of actants, I throw in the human body itself as a microcosm of these same connections and entanglements.  The human microbiome, studied and understood anew through metagenomics, systems biology, and epigenetics, becomes a body multiple, too.

By way of example, bacteroides are commonly found in the human intestine where they have a symbiotic, or commensal, relationship with humans.  They aid in breaking down polysaccharides that the human body would not otherwise be able to process.  Fifteen to twenty percent of our daily caloric intake is absorbed in this manner.   There are new studies that suggest that gut microbiota both cause and can be the cure for autoimmune disorders like allergies and irritable bowel syndrome and, according to the Committee on Metagenomics,   “[T]hese functions are conducted within complex communities—intricate, balanced, and integrated entities that adapt swiftly and flexibly to environmental change.”.

Consider, again,  that the DNA of other life forms in our body outnumber us 10 to 1–many of these invisible to us up until recently. To take metagenomics and the microbiomes of the human body seriously means the human body becomes a community, not only a container–a “mutualistic human-microbial”  series of interactions.  Not only are we embedded in our environment, but our bodies are home to our own communities of micro flora and fauna.

If we extrapolate this to the macro level and the idea of the body politic, what can these commensal, host-guest relations teach us about human communities?  Writ large: The State as Person (the body politic) based on these lively human containers becomes dynamic, pluralistic, permeable, heterogeneous. This idea of composite bodies is nothing new, as we spoke above about Hobbes’ Leviathan, humans have imagined, and tried to create societies that respect diversity while securing freedom, but these diverse bodies may need decidedly different security regimes. Regimes that flow, and understand complex systems–both emergence and other perturbations in the system (noise, as Serres, said)– differently. The body and the body politic as a hybrid forum, a nested sets of complex permeable, rather than autonomous bodies need different security assemblages.  It certainly puts a different spin on issues such as immigration (immigrants and diseases are often linked), for example.  We always already are immigrants and guests and aliens, necessarily.  This is health, not sickness, in a body as multiplicity. Purity and isolation will slowly poison this body from the center out, like a closed petri dish.

The preservation of the body and the body politic has had multiple figurations–the state and nation, of course, looming the largest in this horizon of politics, but these figurations have never quite worked because few have quite captured the extent to which we are blended and imbricated with each other–both between and across species boundaries.  These leakages, or how these problems exceed the capacity of the sovereign state and the system of sovereign states,  are the problems of modern politics.  We can see them reflected in current debates in international politics like immigration, refugees, predator states, and climate change, to name but a few.  These may be more aptly defined as symptoms of a larger misunderstandings about how relationships are formed with multiple bodies coexisting in a mutual biosphere.

I have tried, from the perspective of the human body as understood through metagenomics, to show the similarities between relationships in the internal relations between members of microbiotic communities in the human gut and the relations between members of a political society. If, through research like this, we can no longer uphold the fiction of autonomous selfhood–a hard shelled container body that collides with other bodies and has clearly defined and rational interests (bring up biology and physics); what must that mean for institutions we “create in our own image?”

STS Program at Penn State

As a member of the University Faculty Senate serving on the Faculty Affairs Committee here at Penn State during the 2011-2012 academic year, I got a first-row seat to witness the de-commissioning of the University’s STS program, which closed, formally, on July 01, 2012. This was a challenging thing to observe, given my commitments teaching STS courses to our engineering students; however, it seemed that no faculty push-back could reverse what was ultimately deemed an administrative dis-continuation of the program (which had considerable academic implications even if relatively little consultation with non-administrative faculty took place). A commonly heard comment was that Penn State was ending STS at the precise moment that Harvard initiated their program.

Be that as it may, I have often pondered why STS was de-institutionalized at Penn State … and so, when this landed on my desk, from a colleague and reformed STSer, Gary Weisel, I think I found a significant part of the story that I simply did not fully realize prior to reading it.


So, Lehigh University published a curricular newsletter for their STS program. This is the cover of this issue I am referring to, which documents (like a miniature case study) the history of the STS program at Penn State. Interestingly enough, the program was “low church”, and I think this contributed to its failure to fully embed in the University. Long time STSers, no doubt, you recognize that high-church/low-church distinction. For new comers, this harkens back to old discussion from 1992 by Juan Ilerbaig, which could be summarized nicely as the following:

… [programs] with a problem-centered, social activist bent (e.g., Penn State) and ones with a discipline-centered, scholarly bent [constitute] … as a Low Church-High Church distinction (see June 1992 Science Technology and Society Curriculum Newsletter “The Two STS Subcultures and the Sociological Revolution” pgs. 1-6)


The issue here reminds one of the contrast between high church (Roman Catholic) views of the religious life as a profession of it own versus the low church (Protestant) rejection of such religious specialization in the name of taking religion to the world, into all secular professions (see above image for source).

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the origins of the STS program at Penn State come from the fall of 1969 in the wake of student protest. The program has had, ever since, an enduring character of rebellion and resistance. At first, the program was going to have three components, a graduate minor, undergraduate course offerings, and “research and continuing education components” (see above). As it happens, then-President Walker granted only the course offerings to undergraduates, which constitutes the first step on a path toward the low church, or, put more plainly, a step toward advancing undergraduates and non-advanced degree seeking students and a step away from a department that produces top-quality research. During the 1978-1979 academic year, the program was evaluated and concluded that funding was too low, faculty typically volunteered to contribute the courses (and were not standing faculty), and that teaching and research were not well integrated (which, I assume, meant that the teaching mission took priority over the research mission of the program). However, Rustum Roy, who headed-up the program, pushed forward gaining some external funding (NSF) for the program and its educational initiatives. For Roy, the STS program was foremost about “technological literacy” which he saw as:

… a [1] good dose of science education, approach from the perspective of practical problems and technology, and some [2] critical awareness of the social interface.

This is somewhat perplexing for the university because the program aligned with pro-science and pro-engineering faculty, but also aligned with those faculty critical of science and engineering, which ultimately made of an uneasy relationship among faculty who generally taught STS voluntarily or as an overload. The STS newsletter called his program “bi-polar”, and loosely indicate that these unsettling relations did not bode well for the STS program in the historical context of the science wars. The program grew under Roy’s leadership, but, in 1989, when Roy retired, the STS program shifted its administrative home to the College of Engineering under the new direction of Carl Mitcham. External support for STS-oriented science education floundered (and this detail is unclear; either Mitcham did not pursue external funding, failed when he did pursue it, or whether or not the NSF grew tired of supporting STS educational endeavors.). Mitcham consolidated the program, and, upon external evaluation, the same set of concerns appears to have endured. The mission was:

… to broaden scientific and technological literacy outside the scientific and technical community, and … to deepen ethical, political, and social sensitivity within the scientific and technical community.

During the early 1990s, the program taught about 800 students per year, but “resisted creating an undergraduate major or graduate program.” At this time, the shift toward enhancing interdisciplinarity on many campuses across the U.S. was brewing, but interdiscipinarity and the joint-appointments they create for faculty did not embed well in the university setting (perhaps because of old entrenched reasons).

The entire analysis reminds me of Fabio Rojas‘s book about how black studies departments were similarly born of 1960s social/political protest. The programs that have sustained themselves over the years tended to be, to use the language we used above to describe STS programs, high church (i.e., academically-oriented research departments) rather than low church (i.e., student-oriented or community-oriented teaching departments).

The bottom-line: it appears that if you want to embed a department/program within the context of a large, research university, then even those departments born of radical social/political protest much make accommodations with the university in question by joining the research mission of the college. Whether or not universities are unresponsive to education-only or community-oriented programs is less clear to me, but in the case of STS, the programs that last may very well be the programs that publish.

Fabio writes for orgtheory.net, a great blog about organizational studies. Also, on black studies, one of my top undergraduate students looked into the historical roots of the Black Studies program here at Penn State and recently presented his findings at the Eastern Psychological Association’s annual meeting. He pretty much found the same things described above; if research is not the first priority of the department, then it seems that the department is destined to struggle over the long run, even if it satisfies important demands from the student body (like enhanced course offerings in black history, for example).