3:1— Post-Disciplinarity or “Committing Sociology” — Post 2 of 3

Fields of Illusion

It happened to me just a few months ago. I’d had the experience last year too; an engaged second year undergraduate had been the source of my discomfort some time ago. I am certain it happens in introductory classes on a recurrent basis at the start of each academic year. It probably happened to you at some point as well. “What do sociologists do?” A simple question. An honest question. The problem lies in the repertoire of possible responses to such an inquiry. On the spot and in the eager gaze of a hundred students, I relied on how I’d seen other profs approach this prickly question lately. The students let me speak of the supposed instrumental value of sociology, things like landing a job in government or at a not-for-profit. I highlighted transferable skills that they could put to use outside of academia like reading, writing and critical thinking. They leaned back and forth as I spoke of the importance of research, the link to policy, the virtue of knowledge, the importance of understanding root causes and historical ties between academia and activism. I may have overplayed my hand by the time I was interrupted. “But what do you do?” I had completely misunderstood the question. Collective pause. The emphasis was on doing. What sociologists do?

Lately there has been somewhat of a disjointed set of claims to be doing something: doing/undoing gender; doing/undoing race; doing/undoing ethics; doing/undoing culture; constructing/deconstructing; even one of STS’s ‘sacred cows’, Latour, has famously engaged in reassembling, a moniker for doing. What can all this doing do? Ventures of this kind, particularly when focused on categories of classification or taken-for-granted concepts, can be fruitful and (perhaps this is a page from the ‘social-sciences-as-reflexivity’ playbook) we ought to be engaged as reflexive researchers. But, as H.S. Becker reminds us: sometimes it’s a matter of context.

While departments are increasingly under measurement pressures imported from public administration and business models, the esteemed entrepreneur is said to be capable of harvesting external funding, albeit increasingly from non-traditional sources, to make-up for purloined research money. Alongside dwindling funding is a call to increase research outputs. Here, the traditional types of ‘products’- publications- are most praise worthy, while there exists a hardened reluctance from the administrative vantage point that alternative forms of dissemination, such as zines or social media, can have just as much, if not more, impact and readership. This atmosphere of doing more with less breeds a risk adverse culture towards inquiry where one is hesitant to spend the necessary amounts of time devoted to a single large project or undertake creative forms of research. So it isn’t all that surprising that there has been a rush to doing, a rush to claim importance through tangibles. However, more and more simply calling whatever it is doing isn’t enough. When some of us say we are doing, we are thinking, analyzing, debating, critiquing or challenging. Most often, rightly so. Harper’s comments on committing sociology point to this sensibility, I think.

What this culminates to, from where I sit, is that the university is being positioned as the de facto institution to train its members, its community and its students in how to be resilient. The aspired resilient subject accepts conditions of existence and internalizes strategies and tactics to navigate a given field. Rather than an impetus to change one’s environment, the resilient subject ideally copes and seeks-out contingency plans. The resilient subject is envisioned as capable of withstanding shocks and rebounding from catastrophe amidst uncertainty. The resilient subject is resourceful and instrumental in her perceived daily actions. It is this instrumentalist story that I was led to recite to a classroom of students. It is this focus on instrumentalism that Harper was recalling: don’t think too hard or ask intangible questions. Don’t be political. I remain unsure exactly what it means to commit sociology, but if I had to guess I’d say it’s something like a vocation, a commitment. That commitment is a political one. Maybe it needs to be recognized as such?

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”?

New Journal coming: Big Data & Society

Our friend Evelyn Ruppert at Goldsmiths is editor and founding editor of a new open access peer reviewed journal that is in the making. We have met Evelyn the last time at 4S in San Diego where she contributed to our “State Multiplicity, Performativity and Materiality: Current STS Research on State and Stateness” sessions with a great talk on “Peopling Europe”. She is also known to many for her co-lead on the Social Life of Methods theme at CRESC.

Big Data & Society (BD&S) is an open access peer-reviewed scholarly journal that publishes interdisciplinary work principally in the social sciences, humanities and computing and their intersections with the arts and natural sciences about the implications of Big Data for societies.


The Journal´s key purpose is to provide a space for connecting debates about the emerging field of Big Data practices and how they are reconfiguring academic, social, industry, business and government relations, expertise, methods, concepts and knowledge.


BD&S moves beyond usual notions of Big Data and treats it as an emerging field of practices that is not defined by but generative of (sometimes) novel data qualities such as high volume and granularity and complex analytics such as data linking and mining. It thus attends to digital content generated through online and offline practices in social, commercial, scientific, and government domains. This includes, for instance, content generated on the Internet through social media and search engines but also that which is generated in closed networks (commercial or government transactions) and open networks such as digital archives, open government and crowdsourced data.  Critically, rather than settling on a definition the Journal makes this an object of interdisciplinary inquiries and debates explored through studies of a variety of topics and themes.


BD&S seeks contributions that analyse Big Data practices and/or involve empirical engagements and experiments with innovative methods while also reflecting on the consequences for how societies are represented (epistemologies), realised (ontologies) and governed (politics).

viaBig Data & Society: About the Journal.

Is that really what is “wrong” with STS? Is there anything wrong?


Yesterday Nicholas posted a comment from org-theory that tries to grasp what might be wrong with STS. And although the discussion below that post is fascinating and thought-provocing, I am not so sure in more than two ways if the diagnosis is correct. First I do not agree that the focus on “authorial” concepts (the A->x structure) is really the way STS ticks. That “Latour -> actant” or “Callon -> Agencement” or “Mol -> Multiplicity” schema might work for attribution from the outside, but I am pretty sure Bruno, Michel and Annemarie do not really care. In fact: most prominent concepts have their “one-hit” appearance…for example “hybrids” in WHNBM, the “nonhuman” in the book on Pasteur. What is really at stake is the phenomena these terms try to capture: we have more than one concept to capture heterogeneity, more than one to capture instability, more than one to capture arrangements, more than one to capture translation.

And second I really do not agree that outside of STS the so called “Mertonian Model” is the model we find in practice of, lets say, organizational theory. One should take a deeper look – maybe an STS project on practice in org theory – to really make that point, but the latest prominence of “fields” -> Fligstein/McAdam, “networks” -> White or the classic ones like “garbage can” -> CMO, “embeddedness” -> Granovetter look pretty much like the A->x structure to me. That is no critique, but I doubt that the distinction between two modes (two cultures …hahaha) of scholarly practice really makes sense. I would prefer asking what role both modes (and maybe a few more) play in the production of science and technology and how one shifts from one to the other in practice.

Another take on the issue would play the old tune of reflexivity: As we are scientifically looking at science we cannot simply hammer variables down (as this is, as we have seen, not really what other scientists are doing anyway); nor can we just play the post-modern relativist (as this is disrespects the craft of science on so many levels). So what should we do? One way is to build up our own labs, our own inventory of used and not used inscription devices, some highly tinkered, some dusty, some in the center of the lab, some in the garage. Misunderstanding “concepts” (like agencement, actant, inscription device, lab, etc.) or styles (like the fictional observer in Lab Life or the “Voice of Aramis”) either as mertonian or as authorial is like treating a chromatograph as a scientific paper. They are devices, tools, workbenches to produce reflexive phenomena. Like the wonderful machines in biotech labs our devices might look strange to those not used to working with them on a day to day basis. Ours are cheap, at last…that is why we can dump them so easily and come up with another.

Why are we using case studies?

One of the troubling features of STS for those in the “traditional” disciplines (in my case: sociology) is not so much its theoretical movements towards multiplicity, heterogeneity, symmetry and the like, but the fact that STS is doing theory not in specialized texts or on specialized conferences, but in the form of case studies. This is not my observation alone. John Law in his “On Sociology and STS” felt the urge to tell his fellow sociologists:

STS writing is not only highly theorised, but also works on and in theory. Its core concerns often have to do with epistemology (the theory of knowledge), and (more recently) ontology, the character of the real (I will come to the latter below). In theory it might make its arguments in an abstract manner (and there are some signs of movement in this direction), but its major mode of self-expression, discovery and exegesis has usually been through case-studies. (629)

John gives two reasons for this: It is because in STS theory and data are created simultaneously  and, more importantly, it is because STS works basically on the assumption that “abstraction is only possible by working through the concrete” (630). I am not sure if I agree: the masses of more illustrative than really empirical cases (for example: Portuguese vessels, keys in Berlin and keychains in Hotels in Paris, “Grooms” on strike or sleeping policemen) suggest that it might be the other way round sometimes and that in STS sometimes theory comes before there is data and sometimes data comes before theory.

But maybe there are other reasons for our love for case studies and I wonder if they are both the reason for STS´s success and for its incommensurability with traditional sociology:

  1. Case studies are hybrids: they allow the blend of empirical detail, conceptual work and methodological experiments in a single text. Take Aramis: a story about innovation in public transport (empirically), an argument for the temporal and relational coalescence of sociotechnical projects (conceputally) and a search (literally, remember, it is a mystery story) for interdisciplinary forms of reflexivity. Or take Aircraft Stories: a story about a failed military aircraft, about “fractional coherence” and about the impossibility to capture this with one method.
  2. Case studies are boundary objects: they allow heterogeneous cooperation between different disciplines and therefore interdisciplinary projects in STS because they are “weakly structured in common use, and becoming strongly structured in individual use” (Star & Griesemer 1989: 393). Cases allow a conversation about something very concrete (although it might be interesting for different reasons in different disciplines) while they are open enough to also allow very specific theoretical arguments (hidden in the empirical details and therefore not that bothersome for those not interested in them)
  3. Case studies are partial: their incompleteness (because one can always find out more about the case and tell its story differently) is a refexive argument. When science is a practice of turning matters of concern into matters of fact, there is no use of presenting ones own work as if it is part of a repertoire of STS-matters-of-fact.

Still I wonder: Can we find other ways? Do we have to stick with cases? What if we have a theoretical point to make — are we supposed to “make a case” then? Or are there other ways?

New paper on crowdsourcing

An interesting paper on crowdsourcing just came out in the “Computational & Mathematical Organization Theory” journal. “Maximizing benefits from crowdsourced data” by Geoffrey Barbier et al. explores how crowdsourcing can be used for purposes of collective action and problem-solving, for example, in disaster response and by relief organizations.
Here’s the abstract:

Crowds of people can solve some problems faster than individuals or small groups. A crowd can also rapidly generate data about circumstances affecting the crowd itself. This crowdsourced data can be leveraged to benefit the crowd by providing information or solutions faster than traditional means. However, the crowdsourced data can hardly be used directly to yield usable information. Intelligently analyzing and processing crowdsourced information can help prepare data to maximize the usable information, thus returning the benefit to the crowd. This article highlights challenges and investigates opportunities associated with mining crowdsourced data to yield useful information, as well as details how crowdsource information and technologies can be used for response-coordination when needed, and finally suggests related areas for future research.

Besides being a very useful reference piece by providing a state of coverage with respect to crowdsourced data – like where to find it and what to make of it -, the paper is also a nice illustration of how social scientists become more and more involved in leveraging “big data” from informational infrastructures and from web activity in general. Crowdsourced data but also initially a lot less directed, if not accidental, information flows appear to increasingly be data-mined for a variety of purposes, not at least by – oops – us.
Check out the paper here.

Job offers: Post Doc and Visiting Fellowships in Darmstadt

The interdisciplinary graduate program “Topology of Technology” at the Darmstadt University of Technology, Germany, announces 1 postdoctoral fellowship and 4 visiting fellowships. The postdoc stipend runs for two years, preferably starting Jan. 1, 2012; the guest stipends are offered for three-month periods throughout 2012.

The program is organized by teachers from the subjects of history, sociology, philosophy, literary criticism, mechanical engineering, informatics, and the planning sciences. It focuses on the relationship between technology and space-at present, in history, and in a possible future. It has four thematic foci:

  • The Persistence and Routinization of Daily Life in Technical Surroundings
  • The Formation and Limitations of Action in Spatial-Technological Settings
  • The Planning and Design of Technologies in Spatial Contexts
  • The Modeling and Simulation of Spatial Relations by Technological Means 

The program is primarily financed by the German Research Council (DFG); see www.dfg.de.

Monthly stipends range between 1,468 and 1,570 euros (parents receive additional child allowances). There are no tax reductions; however, fellows have to finance their own health insurance.

Applicants for the postdoc fellowship need to have a doctoral degree (or at least to have submitted their dissertation). Since course work and seminars are carried out in both German and English, it is expected that applicants are able to read and understand German.

The visiting fellowships are offered to graduate candidates or recent PhDs interested in intensifying their own work on the relationship between technology and space during a three-month stay in Darmstadt. Applicants are asked to indicate in what way they expect to profit from intensified contacts with our graduate program.

Fellows are expected to work together in our beautifully situated villa downtown Darmstadt and thus need to take up their residence in the city or the vicinity.

Applications are only accepted in electronic form. They should include (1) a CV,

(2) copies of academic diplomas,

(3) a short description (max. 5 pages) of the planned postdoc project and doctoral dissertation, respectively, as well as

(4) the names and addresses of two university professors who are willing to act as reference persons. Please send your application no later than

15 November, 2011

to topologie@ifs.tu-darmstadt.de. Please make sure that it includes a personally formulated explanation why you are particularly interested in the topic of the program and to which thematic focus your research will, in the first instance, contribute. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact one of the directors: Petra Gehring (gehring@phil.tu-darmstadt.de) or Mikael Hård (hard@ifs.tu-darmstadt.de).

More information about the research and teaching program of the post-graduate college / graduate school may be found under http://www.ifs.tu-darmstadt.de/index.php?id=1921&L=2


Science and Technology Studies: Opening the Black Box

Somatosphere just posted a link to a set of video recordings from the STS – The Next Twenty Years conference in Harvard last April. I would have loved to go there, but unfortunately poor european scholars only have money to travel abroad when they are participating actively. But, luckily, the whole conference was on live-stream back then. I was not able to watch all of it so I am so very happy to be able to watch them now. Trevor Pinch´s “provocations” are STS at its rhetorical best – so watch, laugh and think.

What does the "knowledge myth" mean for SKAT/STS?

A colleague of mine wrote recently about the “myth of knowledge” in a nice blog post. Perhaps one of the most interesting and controversial (and most [overly] generalized) points was about Akido:

Because I am a behaviorist-leaning kind of guy, I would additionally point out that when behavior, talking, and thinking come into conflict, behavior wins. In my article trying to connect ecological and social psychology, I used an example out of Aikido, the martial art that prefers not to hurt people unnecessarily. Indulging in horrible generalizations: In the Western cultures – steeped in dualism and the myth of knowledge – we thinking that ‘knowing’ is about ‘thinking’, but in Eastern cultures this is not so. In Aikido, one of your goals is to blend with your opponent’s movements so you inflict minimal harm. Your goal is not to think about blending, not be able to explain how to blend, nor to be able to accurately imagine blending, rather your goal is to actually blend when the time comes. A person ‘knows’ how to blend when they do it without thinking, and regardless of whether they can teach how to blend or explain what they did after the fact. (By the way, that article is part of a 7 article discussion, including my latest addition now available online.)

One of the main points was the link between “knowing” and “doing” and from a behaviorist perspective in psychology, this is an interesting position to take on such matters. He provides a number of examples such as “how can a legless football coach know how to kick a football?”

Knowledge — beit tacit or explicit, fact-searching or its role in training scientists and engineers — plays a central role in SKAT and STS; however, I’m not entirely sure we’ve jumped on the behaviorist bandwagon just yet.

The ending question: what would STS look like without “knowledge” as a crutch during analysis?

Belgian STS network kick-off event * Sept 30th, 2011

For those of you in Europe this might be an interesting opportunity to travel, meet great people and strengthen the international network of STS: Scholars in Belgium are gathering to have a first meeting of the Belgian Science, Technology and Society (BSTS) – a network that started

“… in 2008 as an ad-hoc academic platform, the BSTS network enables STS researchers in Belgium to share with one another their research interests and disciplinary perspectives and to foster collaboration across different fields and locales. The network now extends its hand beyond academia and beyond Belgium to engage an international community consisting of people from research centres, industry, policy making and other professionals with an interest in cross-disciplinary learning and knowledge sharing.”

Here is some more information on the Belgian STS Network.




Howard Silver, COSSA, and protecting NSF’s SBE

Recently, lobbyist and former chair of the National Science Foundation Funding Howard Silver commented on a post regarding the potential closure of the US-based National Science Foundation’s Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences branch.

Silver is part of COSSA (Consortium of Social Science Associations):

The Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) began in the late 1960s as an informal group of social science associations that met to exchange information and discuss common problems. In May 1981, the disciplinary associations, responding to disproportionately large budget cuts proposed by the new Reagan Administration for the social and behavioral sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF), used the informal COSSA collaboration to establish a Washington-based advocacy effort.

Their website provides a number of interesting topics, but for me the consistent updates about the fate of science fuding in Washington on the homepage is probably what I’ll be checking each morning — a good place for updates on a fash changing subject.

Keep fighting the good fight, Howard!

Is there such thing as a good introductory book to STS?

A couple of introductory STS texts are listed below — what’s missing? What do you use?

Bauchspies, Wenda, Jennifer Croissant, and Sal Restivo (2005). Science, Technology, and Society: A Sociological Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005).

Fuller, Steve (1993). Philosophy, rhetoric, and the end of knowledge: The coming of science and technology studies. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. (2nd edition, with James H. Collier, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004)

Kleinmann, Daniel (1991). Science and Technology Stidies. Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (January 16, 1991)

Sismondo, Sergio. (2009). An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies. Wiley-Blackwell; 2 edition (October 20, 2009)

Volti, Rudi (2001). Society and technological change. New York: Worth.

Is anyone satisfied with Wikipedia’s STS page?

Last semester, while teaching STS 200 “Topics in Science and Technology Studies,” to primarily engineering students at Penn State, I found something peculiar. Students complained — some a little, some a lot — that I was asking them test questions whose answers were not to be found on-line and, in particular, on Wikipedia’s STS page.

Is anyone satisfied with Wikipedia’s STS page? I don’t even see the terms “ICT” or “infrastructure.” What is to be done with this Wikipedia page?

Now, I realize that the “core” of STS is a running problem in the field, as there is no center to speak of or fully shared history. This is obvious in many ways, but there is one that I have routinely found of interest: upper-level undergraduate and lower-level graduate texts which introduce “history and philosophy of science,” “Science, Technology, and Society,” and “Science and Technology Studies.” Such texts rarely cover the same material in a way that sociology introductory texts contain a good deal of similar information.

I use Sismondo’s and Volti’s introductory texts and their books contain concerns not reflected in Wikipedia site such as “ghost publishing” or the “political economy of knowledge.”

NSF may be forced to close the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (this includes STS)

Just heard this:

“…the House Commerce, Justice & Science Committee is considering eliminating or severely cutting back the directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF).”

David Brooks wrote this opinion piece on this topic called “The Unexamined Society” which details the need for the social sciences and laments the potential loss. Here is an excerpt and closing remark:

People are complicated. We each have multiple selves, which emerge or don’t depending on context. If we’re going to address problems, we need to understand the contexts and how these tendencies emerge or don’t emerge. We need to design policies around that knowledge. Cutting off financing for this sort of research now is like cutting off navigation financing just as Christopher Columbus hit the shoreline of the New World.

E-mails are spreading quickly now and here is one that I got from STSgrad:

From Laurel Smith-Doerr:

Dear Colleagues,

The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice & Science (CJS) is considering changing the 2012 appropriation to eliminate the Social,
Behavioral & Economic Sciences (SBE) directorate at the NSF, which includes the STS Program.  The Consortium of Social Science
Associations (COSSA), a coalition to which the ASA belongs supporting Federal funding for the social sciences, is encouraging its members to write to their House Representatives and Senators, urging the House to continue to support the human sciences at NSF.  Having had the privilege of serving recently as one of the Program Officers at the NSF in the SBE directorate, I want to endorse COSSA’s request, believing that eliminating SBE would be disastrous for the social sciences in the US and for sociology in particular.

So I encourage you to write to your House Representatives and US Senators, ideally before the CJS Subcommittee meeting on 7 July, or
before the full House Appropriations Committee meeting on  13 July, and at least before the floor discussion scheduled for the week of 25 July.

You may want to copy Subcommittee Chair Frank Wolf R-VA and Ranking Member Chakah Fattah D-PA and perhaps other members of the Subcommittee (http://www.appropriations.house.gov/Subcommittees/Subcommittee/?IssueID=34794) and Appropriations Committee Chair Harold Rogers (R-KY) and Ranking Member Norm Dicks (D-WA) (http://www.appropriations.house.gov).  You can find contact information for your representative using the ?Write Your Representative? feature athttps://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml, and you will find a list of Senators, sortable by state, at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm! a>.

We all lead busy lives and if you prefer to send something more or less ready made I suggest something along the lines of the letter made available by the previous Assistant Director of SBE (a linguist) athttp://www.lsadc.org/info/NSFSBEletter.pdf.  You may copy and paste the text from this letter (make sure the formatting has copied appropriately) and if you have the opportunity, elaborate and tell your representatives something about our field. Furthermore, you might strengthen your argument by pointing to NSF-supported work being conducted at a university in the representative’s area.

Support will be particularly valuable from the Republican party. I wrote to Scott Brown, using the AD’s letter as a starting point. My letter is pasted below (unformatted).

Please feel free to forward this request to colleagues, I have taken parts of it from the linguists but obviously it is important for representatives to hear from all of the social sciences.

Laurel Smith-Doerr

July 1, 2011
Scott Brown
US Senator
2400 JFK Federal Building
15 New Sudbury St.
Boston, MA 02203

Dear Senator Brown,
I am alarmed to hear that the House Commerce, Justice & Science Committee is considering eliminating or severely cutting back the directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In the US, basic research in the social sciences is funded alongside the natural sciences and engineering, through the same agency. This is unusual from an international perspective and means that the social sciences are done better here, by being more closely integrated with work
in the other sciences. Having the full range of basic science funded within one agency has led to more collaborative, interdisciplinary work, with better results on all sides.

One major example of this integration is our study of scientific innovation itself, one of the most important drivers of a strong economy (as acknowledged in the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which was led by the Bush Administration but supported across parties). Somehow basic
science conducted at lab benches and engineering projects started in garages produce new knowledge products that spark new industries like biotechnology and information technology which give the United States a real competitive edge in the global marketplace. This innovation
process is not yet well understood but is a central concern across social sciences including sociology, economics, psychology, and science policy studies. The importance of better understanding the innovation process (in order to facilitate it) has generated the new interdisciplinary area called the science of science and innovation policy (SciSIP). This program at NSF is funding research to scientifically understand the innovation process and which policies are more effective at producing beneficial outcomes in science and technology.

NSF is unique in combining experts from the social sciences with experts in natural sciences and engineering. For example, social scientists and chemists in Massachusetts (and other states) have received grants in a collaborative initiative at NSF between SciSIP (in Social/Behavioral/ Economic Sciences directorate) and Chemistry (in Math/Physical Sciences directorate). An article in this week?s Chemical
and Engineering News (‘Measuring Chemistry’s Impact’) announces the initiative and its importance to understanding the chemical sciences. This initiative ‘Pathways to Innovation in the Chemical Sciences’ would not have been possible if social sciences were not part of NSF. More
information about this initiative and others in the study of innovation and science policy can be found at the following website: (http://www.scienceofsciencepolicy.net/page/about-sosp).

The integration of all the basic sciences at the NSF represents one of the national treasures of the US, which has yielded much competitive advantage. Massachusetts has been at the forefront of this kind of interdisciplinary research, as it has led innovation and science in general.
I urge you to oppose any efforts to weaken that integration, which will be detrimental to our state
and our nation.

Laurel Smith-Doerr
Associate Professor of Sociology
Boston University

How flat exactly is (social) infrastructure?

Still toying with ideas about approaching management information systems from a lateral perspective, I am wondering how ‘flat’ an approach to regulation can/should become. With ‘flatness’ I am referring to the counter-scheme against ‘transcendent’ sociological approaches to the regulation of social life expressed by Latour and others (most beautifully and briefly, I think, Latour has expressed it here). What I am asking myself is how far the analytical levelling – thinking about governing, regulation, power, and so on in a lateral rather than hierarchical-levels-of-order manner – can be radicalized without, if you will, collateral damage to the empirical questions under study which in the case of management information systems (or ERP) clearly has something to do with power, hierarchies, and so on. In other words, how much can hierarchies be conceptually flattened without ceasing to be hiearchies?
This may be a general question when analyzing infrastructures. Do we need to be careful to translate every supposedly top-down relationship into a sequential ordering of steps, or into a route through a network of nodes? Or, conversely, is there a sense in which we should retain some role for hierarchies and levels of (social, technological, biological etc.) order?

An ANT Paper in Sociological Theory!

Just a short note: The recent issue of “Sociological Theory” features a paper not only based on STS thoughts but one that even has “Actor-Network” in its title. As I am not on the university VPN right now I cannot download it to review it, but judging from other papers I know from Hiro Saito it should be a good one.

A major problem with the emerging sociological literature on cosmopolitanism is that it has not adequately theorized mechanisms that mediate the presumed causal relationship between globalization and the development of cosmopolitan orientations. To solve this problem, I draw on Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT) to theorize the development of three key elements of cosmopolitanism: cultural omnivorousness, ethnic tolerance, and cosmopolitics. ANT illuminates how humans and nonhumans of multiple nationalities develop attachments with one another to create network structures that sustain cosmopolitanism. ANT also helps the sociology of cosmopolitanism become more reflexive and critical of its implicit normative claims.

An Actor-Network Theory of Cosmopolitanism* – Saito – 2011 – Sociological Theory – Wiley Online Library:

The role of venture capitalists in infrastructure?

A decent and relatively new blog about being a venture capitalist by Fred Wilson got me thinking about how venture capitalist firms are a different type of “organizational entity” as compared to universities or industrial manufacturing firms, in particular, their role in the development, repair, and replacement of infrastructure. While large entities with monopolistic control over primary infrastructure (e.g., roads, water systems, etc.) are usually these odd things called “states,” increasingly venture capitalists are playing a role in the development of all sorts of “modern” infrastructures that are everybit as significant (i.e., bio-engineering, IT, etc.). The difference being, perhaps, in their underlying motivations.

Venture capitalists are looking for high-potential and high risk investment opportunities with early stage startup companies that show signs of future growth and who are in need of seed money. I assume/guess that these sorts of companies produce different types of infrastructure as compaed to monolithic and monopolistic state endeavors. While it is conceptually sloppy to refer to a state as an actor, I must; I assume that states are motivated to invest in precisely the opposite — they want low-risk investment opportunities with foreseeable benefits and prefer to work with established or “prooven” companies to get the infrastructure they want.

Now, that might mean that while venture capitalists and states are both investing in infrastructural innovations (in fact, venture capital investments are sometimes a proxy for or indicator of innovation in a given nation or sector of the economy) are they investing in the same things?

I think not, given their motivations for investment, and some theoretical and empirical comparisons to states would make venture capitalists potentially exciting for STS.

What’s next in the study of management information systems?

After we deliberated a bit about what’s next for STS, I find myself wondering some more about where to take the analysis of management information systems. I have to decide pretty soon whether to commit to an empirical project in this area, and I would of course very much like to avoid focusing on questions which have already been explored at great length by others.
My impression is that when it comes to exploring management information systems, the elementary questions about technology associated with the original program of STS are pretty much in the books. This may be particularly true – or, at least, that’s my impression – with respect the “big” questions of social construction, interrelation (if not identity) of social and technological structure, and so on. But then again, I do still need a general theme with which to associate my research initially in order to establish where I would generally like to take it.
As of now, I have primarily been thinking of pushing the envelope with respect to the analysis of regulatory regimes in terms of a still more micro analysis of how regulation is really brought about and sustained in social situations (in which participants mobilize information systems or particular inscriptions provided by these systems). The general idea would be to unpack regulatory regimes laterally into sets of distinct regulatory situations and look at the respective role(s) of management information systems.
I know some of you are pretty well informed about this field, so might I have a little opinion poll about this?
And where do you think the study of management information systems should more generally be headed? Are there, possibly, current trends which you are (or would be) genuinely excited about?

Winston Churchill was right, according to "American" automaker Jeep??

When discussing the notion of “mutual shaping” in the classroom, I discuss a paper by my mentor, Tom Gieryn about buildings (“what buildings do” in Soc Theory). I open lecture/discussion with the famous quote from Winston Churchill “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” (from a speech in 1944 when the House of Commons was completed), which has recently been transformed and used in a rather “tough” commercial from Jeep brand (sprinkled with some blatant patriotism) here that claims:

“The things we make, make us”

Seems like “mutual shaping” makes for good advertising …

How many (STS) waves does it take to create a (disciplinary) Tsunami?

The last two posts on a third wave of STS and on waves outside of STS made me wonder: How many “waves” of STS are there? And why? And how many will come? More that one group of scholars inside the STS community started labeling themselves as riding on a third wave, starting with Collins and Evans paper on “The Third Wave of Science Studies. Studies of Expertise and Experience” , published already in 2002. Collins and Evans argued that after a first wave (Kuhn and the like), a second wave (SSK), the study of experts, professions and the like should be the focus of what comes next.

That is nearly 10 years ago now. If we look at the landscape of contemporary STS today, there is the kind of research that Collins and Evans wrote about, for example in the contents of the PUS papers. There is also post/neo-phenomenology, Post-ANT, studies that agree to be After Method and there are a lot of papers published each year that try to sell you ten or twenty year old Ideas anew. I am not sure the Agora concept mentioned in Nicks post ist one of these, I cannot get the resprective papers from my university VPN. But it seem to me that after a third wave of STS has so often been acclaimed (see for example Hines “Not another case study” that links thirdwaveness with a turn away from case studies as the prefered approach) being sceptical of approaches that argue they are part of a third wave seems reasonable.

But then as someone interested in heterogenous coordination and in the onto-politics involved in buildung prism-like, opalacent objects I asked myself: There could be a another reason for the multiple faces of thirdwaveness. And I suspect it could as well have to do with STS as a(n) (inter-)discipline. Like Nick said in a post a bit ago: STS has accomplished many of its primary goals. It seems to me that it was able to do this by stabilizing itself as a hybrid, a quasi-discipline (to borrow Serres’ term) that gained stability without much coherence. One way of doing that was to focus on internal struggles, internal progress and internal waves. The waves of STS play an imporant role in doing exactly this. What is missing, at least to me, is a wave that manages to spill over: there is so much inside STS that is fruitful for a world ouside of STS, and so much outside that is fruitful for STS, too.  

Third wave of STS studies and "Agora" concept

As many of you know, I study the spread and localization of packaged software such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) in institutions of  higher education. In this line of literature, a new concept has emerged to discuss linkages between organizations called the “agora.” ERP, as a product, is specific enough for higher education as a sector, but generic enough that the systems need to be localized to some extent during implementation (Cornford & Pollock 2003:111; Pollock et al. 2007).

Software modules in ERP for higher education mainly include human resources, student information services, and financial operations, which handle tasks essential for running a university (like payroll and promotions) but have little to do with a university‘s public image (like professors and promotional websites). ERP’s primary advantages are related. First, data storage is centralized. Rather than having numerous databases, an ERP centralizes data storage into a single grid (Davenport 1998). ERPs provide “real-time” data to university officials. As a result, their decisions can be made with the best possible information, which improves upon previous systems where data were commonly outdated (Pollock 1999). Third, data are authoritative. With ERPs, data storage is centralized so that data can be accessed by any functional area with permission to access them. This eliminates the problem of “competing” data (Swartz & Orgill 2001:21). Lastly, students, faculty, and staff are turned into “self-service” users who monitor their own relationship to the university (in the form of scheduling, pay, payments, insurance, grades, etc.) rather than having those tasks administered by support staff (Pollock 2003).

Now, I first read about the ‘agora’ concept in Pollock and Williams’ (2008) newish book Software and Organisations on the “biography” of contemporary ERP. Their analysis, which spanned decades, multiple sectors of the economy, numerous suppliers and adopters of packaged software, which itself took on many forms, their respective support and implementation experiences, and countless additional actors — and all this happened in what they are calling an “agora.” Now even their broad analysis was conducted in segments and episodes, inter-related as they may be, from particular vantage points; each analysis adding another slice of the “agora,” a term borrowed from Kaniakakis (2006; 2008), which is:

an extensive, seamless web of social (or rather, socio-technical) relations over time; there are no walls or gullies that allow what is ‘outside’ to be reliably fenced out/factored out of the analytic picture … [which draws] attention not only to the heterogeneity of players but also the intricate and heterogeneous pattern of linkages that exist between these players (Pollock & Williams 2008:292).

Such dynamics cannot be captured by standard-fair STS concepts like “network builder” (Hughes 1993) or “heterogeneous engineering” (Latour 1987; Law 1987 [ch 6]) because agoras are of no one’s making and instead materialize from multiple linkages constituted by coordinated and uncoordinated events and actions over time. They are not really “just” networks or communities. They are not “just” markets or fields either. Instead, this model of organization contains and is constituted by organizations whose forms are not necessarily suboptimal and their behaviors are not necessarily strategic. Instead, the assumption is that they are all relationally defined and operate relationally. As such, their heterogeneous contents — machines, software, office buildings, offices, analysts, their publications, their publications in use, vendors, their support desks, their users, etc. — are held together by shifting “linkages,” which is not to say networks or communities because what binds them is not merely interest or commonality. The task then, is to search for “cues” Pollock and Williams (2008) say, cues for where to study these linkages (and when, given that they also theorize the significance of temporal aspects of design and organization in a non-trivial way). The emphasis on inter-organizational consequences and processes is appealing to me, given my commitments to new institutional theory, which appears to have finally arrived to STS.

This is a third-wave of theory for STS, and it is related intensely to the role of organizations and places their operations central to the field of STS. On the one hand, it is a beautiful view — multiple vantage points collected in differing locations at multiple times. However, is it a view of the kitchen sink? I am cautious to criticize this approach as I to believe it to be a significantly novel approach to STS that outside scholars could also take-up. Still, the concept was designed to overcome such naive notions as “actor-network,” in part, because the term has been used in so many competing (and often clumsy) ways, but also to get away from the idea that “anything” can be included so long as we follow the actors.

The “agora” is a somewhat novel way to rethink the linkages that bind groups, people, places, and things over times and in multiple sites through variously coordinated and uncoordinated ways … and it may one day find its way to org theory, if it has not (to some extent) already arrived.

Teaching and "The Doing of STS"

In 1992, Phil Heath wrote “Organizing for STS teaching and learning: The doing of STS” in the education and policy journal Theory into Practice, and while an abstract for this article is not available, it is about teaching students STS, specifically those students whom are not STSers (like us).

Really not like us…

The article is about children and infusing STS concepts, perspectives, etc. into the American K-12 educational landscape. The justification being that

“many educators are concerned that the existing curriculum in most schools is too narrowly focused, too historically bound, and too compartmentalized to deal adequately with these new challenges” (52).

Those “new challenges” mainly being the improvement of citizenship in a technological age. The authors make a number of thought-provoking points (and they state a lot of junk that I don’t care for from education types), but above all, I thought this might have some valuable cache for us:

“The formationof multidisciplinary and multigrade teams within the school system is fundamental to our successful infusion of STS and for sustained success” (57).

Group work, which when done properly, draws from the group’s knowledge, might be a way to get non-STS students to appreciate the concepts.Likewise, the author correctly writes that “current issues” is also a pool from which great examples can be drawn for use in the STS or social theory classroom wherein not everyone is a major or even interested in the theoretical issues.

Still, getting back to the article, it makes me wonder: why is STS such a joke in American K-12 schools? Pointing the figure at an honest American debacle, “No Child Left Behind,” seems like a good, fun start, but there is something about STS being, dare I say, excluded during childhood education and “ghettoized” among colleges and universities. Certainly, Penn State’s STS program termination comes at a time where I wonder for the future of STS (although, Harvard actioning a program at the exact same time was encouraging).

Rousing debate over postmodernism

Occasionally repetitive in response, the question was raised “why include postmodern theory in sociological theory courses anymore?

The exchange is longer than any I’ve ever seen on a blog, and it made me wonder: In my courses on STS and sociological theory, what would they look like without postmodern theory?

Are the challenging and mind-bending concepts worthy of inclusion, or is the exploration into postmodernity over (such that, unless I was providing a “history of sociological theory” course, it is no longer necessary to include what few scholars appear to explicitly or actively engage in)?

Ending STS?

Although it might be poor career advice to (try to) follow in the footsteps of the great Bruno Latour — who has done so much to cultivate the narrow world of STS — I wonder if we might all benefit from taking a look at his recent playbook.

It has been a good while since Latour did some old fashioned, empirical STS. HIs books are now mainly about political ecology or attacking the “social” parts of sociology. I was reminded of this as I casually glanced at the history of STS on-line today — in particular, the section about history and the origins of STS. As I reviewed the rundown of founding questions, I got the feeling that the work is (in an odd way) done; that we have succeeded in our original aims, those being (in loose historical order):

1. putting scientific controversies in their social context; showing how facts are constructed — DONE.

2. challenging “technological determinism” by studying the spread and history of technology to show that technologies do not spread or shape history of their own volition — DONE.

3. bringing together historians and philosophers of science in recognition of Kuhn’s historic work about paradigm shifts wherein the appreciation that scholars in STS must have a dual-knowledge of both their subject matter and their home discipline — DONE.

4. generate inclusive STS community composed of anthropologists, historians, philosophers, political scientists, sociologists, to a lesser extent psychologists and linguists, etc. with some of those folks being of the “activistic” stripe, for example, those aiming to raise awareness for a particular issue or illness and those aiming for equality according to race, gender, or nationality — DONE? (and if not “done” then this aspirational goal will be ongoing for the foreseeable future).

5. examine science and technology policy and if they can be shaped by the public and to better serve the public — DONE (and if not “done” then this aspirational goal will go on forever as policy seems to forever change).

In STS, it appears that we might be suffering from some mission drift, as we say in organizaitonal studies, meaning that the reason we have STS in the first place have been to some extent “handled” and now our “mission” (if you can call it that) must become sufficiently ambiguous so that we can never know whether or not it has been completed/achieved (like the U.S.-based “March of Dimes”).

The implicaiton might also be, in a Latourian twist, should we end STS? Disperse its insights into other disciplines and try to find out where in the world STS is valuable outside of STS?

A Question of (STS) Style?

Many thanks to Fabio Rojas (whom I met for a sub for lunch in Bloomington back in 2005, but I don´t think he will remember) for letting the readers of orgtheory know about our little blog. We just started, they have tons of experience, so that is great!

The comment to that post made me think about our short discussion about STS, Latour and the uneasyness they seem to induce. Here is why: I always thought that this is due to a double characteristics of ANT (or STS in general) texts. They seem to fall in two basic categories: great conceptual ideas in an insider jargon on the one hand, great case studies that do not really care about theoretical purity on the other (I overemphasize, of course). You have to read both types to appreciate that.

But the comment made me think: wait, it is also a question of style? I could not believe that. But then I tested, the old normal science way: I fired up my reference manager, did a search on “(” in the title field and there it is. Really, nearly only STS papers use the parenthesis type title. These were the only non-STS papers I found:


Dandaneau, S. P. & Dodsworth, R. M. (2006). Being (george ritzer) and nothingness: An interview. The American Sociologist, 37(4), 84-96.

Hughey, M. (2008). Virtual (br)others and (re)sisters: Authentic black fraternity and sorority identity on the internet. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 37(5), 528-560.

Jessop, B. (2001). Bringing the state back in (yet again): Reviews, revisions, rejections, and redirections. International Review of Sociology, 11(2), 149-173

Why do we do that? We did it also, yes. Maybe for every single paranthesis we use, we have good reasons. The title of this blog for example is chosen due to the fact that we are not careless about terms, but in general quite carefull. What other sociological term could be more problematic that “social”? And once we start to ask how order in contemporary societies (again, a concept to be careful with) gets installed rather than “just” institutionalized, shouldn´t we be especially careful about calling it social order, then? But in sum it is true: STS texts are written in a certain style, a jargon maybe. Should we try to avoid it?