A Conversation on the STSNext20 Provocations

Tolu Odumosu | 2 November 2012 | Respond

A Conversation on the STS Next20 Provocations with Shobita Parthasarathy (UMich), David Winickoff (Berkeley), Chris Jones (Harvard) & Tolu Odumosu (Harvard)


Tolu Odumosu: First question, the provocation document places institutional autonomy as the central challenge for STS. Is that an appropriate frame for the central challenge for STS over the next 20 years, or is there a different frame that is more appropriate for STS’s central challenge?


David Winickoff: The institutional piece is a central issue for STS. However the issue of intellectual content is also central, and for me, maybe more central. By institutionalization the document seems to imply the need for a spread of STS departments and I am not sure if that is the best or only way of institutionalizing. This came out in the meeting as well. There is a variety of ways in which STS develops a presence on campuses and there may be an ecosystem of approaches across universities that trains and enables STS kinds of research. I do think the problem is important, how do you institutionalize is a great question, I don’t necessarily agree with the implicit answer in the article. Just as important is the question of content. For example, what are the core methods of STS, are there such things? I would like to advance what I see as the importance of science and democracy type approaches, i.e. approaches to STS that are explicitly engaging with politics.

Shobita Parthasarathy
: I agree with some of what David and don’t agree with the rest of it, which could probably be linked to our training and backgrounds. I think institutional autonomy is an important concern but I am not sure if it is the central concern. STS is currently in a very interesting place. There is wider acceptance of its utility in the broader world. Arizona State University has done a great job in brining STS perspectives into US policy conversations. Over in Europe, they have STS scholars in the European Commission and in other places and they are pushing STS frameworks. We have moved past the science wars, but we are currently dealing with a different challenge which is related to the institutionalization problem, which is, institutionalization in what form? Do you train in a discipline or do you train in STS? My position is that while I endorse all the various flavors of STS that have evolved around the world, I think that we need many more STS programs and departments inside academia and also outside academia in the form of think tanks, etc. I am constantly being asked, “where can I go and study STS?” This question comes from a lot of people, but the ones I am most sympathetic with are the ones with scientific and engineering backgrounds who want to study science and society. Given the increasing interest in STS, I think this is an opportune time to push this agenda. Like a tree, one needs a strong trunk with multiple roots, same with STS it needs to have many manifestations, but the strong trunk is the need for STS programs and departments.

Tolu Odumosu
: So you both agree that institutionalization is not the central concern? You both think that departments are not the only institutional form that STS should pursue? In other words, you think it is important to gain departmental stability and funding, but STS should be institutionalized in other ways?

Shobita Parthasarathy
: I actually do think it is a central concern. I think it’s one of two or three, maybe it’s not the only one, but it is a central concern. I actually think we should be spending capital on institutionalizing STS as a field, because it has not been institutionalized enough. There should be greater attention paid to the institutionalizing of the field.
Tolu Odumosu: What do you think about the individual provocations? Which is the most important and which would you change if you could?


Shobita Parthasarathy
: I actually like them all and agree with these as important provocations. There isn’t anything glaring that is missing. Which are the most important? Perhaps provocations three and four i.e. “STS is more than simply the sum of a variety of disciplinary perspectives” and “STS scholars are responsible for the field’s institutional standing.” The others are important, but the first and the last two probably enjoy wide acceptance, but the middle two are problematic in their implementation. We need to continue defining the field but to do so requires an understanding of the field as a “field”. So much of the richest scholarship in STS, the stuff that is paradigm shifting and has implications beyond the field, are the studies that engage with a variety of approaches and draw upon multiple fields but are also connected to the core of STS. The fourth provocation could be seen as problematic because scholars are not necessarily leaders, managers or administrators. I have seen my share of amazing scholars who can’t make the right arguments in the right places, which has enormous implications for enrolling institutional resources. So this provocation is useful if it forces discussion, creates solidarity and encourages everyone to develop strategies so that scholars who are not comfortable being social activists can engage in some of this.

The other point I want to make is that as STS scholars, one of the main challenges we face is how we should engage in public policy. What role should we play, how should we be active, because unlike a number of fields in the social sciences, a lot of STS scholars are explicitly interested in creating social change so I would hope that we would continue to have that conversation.

David Winickoff
: Who are we provoking? Ourselves or the world? I assume that we are provoking ourselves and at the same breath working to create an identity. Any guidance on who is the intended audience of the provocation?

Chris Jones
: It is mostly written as an internally directed document with some ideas about how to frame some of the issues for external parties. It is meant for internal consumption.

David Winickoff
: If that is the case, then, I don’t think we live up to provocations 1 and 2. I think we need to be pushing STS work towards the grand challenges. There are politically minded STS folks who do that to be sure. However I think we all need to be relevant and become experts. We need to think about our training programs as not only training researchers but also training experts. This is hard as we are trained to deconstruct expertise. Provocation six is also a very good one, as the quality of STS scholarship is immensely variable. There is a lot of poor scholarship and there are not many standards for what is good scholarship. Developing standards would help in improving graduate education and also improve STS scholarship. We can be better as a field.

Shobita Parthasarathy
: I am sympathetic to much of what David said, but I have a real concern about becoming too instrumental in our approach. If everyone works on the world’s grand challenges and insights as they relate to public policy, it raises two concerns. One, if we are only doing work that feeds into the policy making process then we could lose sight of what policy makers should know and instead focus on what they want to know. The second concern is that you don’t always know what is useful when you are producing it. Take for example, the utility of Leviathan and the Air Pump which has had such an effect on scholarship on science and democracy even though at first glance does not seem to be concerned with the world’s grand challenges.

David Winickoff
: That is well taken; my sense though is that STS work tends to err on the side of the arcane. I believe that part of our claim to being expert is the kind of cutting edge research on all kinds of topics that help us generalize how society and science fit together in complex ways. We should be willing and able to bring a co-productionist lens to the questions of how and whether we should reform the patent system or whether and in what form research governance should take place for geo-engineering.

Tolu Odumosu
: So I have a personal connection here to some of what the provocations are encouraging us to do. A few weeks ago I gave a very interesting talk on Sustainability and Telecommunications in the Developing World, and though I drew liberally on STS insights I did not explicitly self-identify as an STS scholar. Perhaps this is one way that we can move the STS project forward, by taking the time to show how our views are situated within the field and thereby making the argument that the field has interesting and useful things to say, especially when we are addressing none-STS audiences.

David Winickoff
: I agree with that sentiment. We certainly hear Sheila Jasanoff doing all the time. She often says “…and what STS scholars say…” standing by the designation of an STS scholar. It does get to have legs in the world on account of that. So I agree that we need to do more of this. I also think that building institutions is an important part of building the field. I think these should be in the ethical manual of the STS scholar. I think we could do some of this starting with SDN. At SDN we could do more of codifying approaches and questions.

Shobita Parthasarathy
: I agree with everything David said. Conversations within and outside of the field on this issues are important and we should continue to undertake them. As someone who does comparative research and as an STS scholar, I think we should think in strategic ways about other fields that have the characteristics that we admire. How where they built, what lessons (both positive and negative) do we want to learn? We are experts in how knowledge is produced after all. What is envisioned in this article is a very interesting combination of a robust scholarly enterprise that is also responsive and engaged in the world. The sciences are often trying to do this. We tend to think about the humanities and the social sciences as being the natural comparative case for us, but perhaps we should look to the evolution of the natural sciences, as they might be very helpful in evolving practical strategies for developing the field.

David Winickof
f: I want to add something that has not yet been addressed. I see STS knowledge and expertise as being very useful for leading and translating across disciplines. Again, we are uniquely situated to see the problems of disciplines and different frames. This comes up a lot around environmental issues that are tackled in my department as we move away from disciplinarity towards problem solving. It has become clear to me that STS scholars are uniquely positioned to lead groups of scientists and social scientists who don’t understand science and who may feel constitutionally suspicious of science. I am worried that the focus on institutionalizing within silos would mean that we would lose out on institutionalization in mixed expertise environments. Having departments of STS is very good, but also having programs that train STS methods within a problem solving framework would also be excellent training. Building an interdisciplinary team is not just 10 scientists and one social scientist (that’s a bad model), imagine rather, teams of five scientists and five social scientists of different stripes including one or two STS scholars, specifically because the approach to the problem is going to be at the science-policy interface, or a risk or regulatory question, and it is the STS person that in theory could be the most valuable team member. I feel that vision is wide open and is something that we could talk about more.

Tolu Odumosu
: Well, thank you all very much for this fascinating conversation. Many things to think about and possibly, even a few practical ideas to implement!

The Next 20 and Beyond: Provocations From Within the Field

Tolu Odumosu | 29 June 2011 | 1 response

STS.Next.20 is an extension of the spirit, energy, and goals of the conference of the same name held at Harvard University in April 2011. The primary purpose of Perspectives@STS.Next.20 is to promote engaged and critical reflection on issues of wide concern to scholars in the field. It is therefore appropriate to begin this discussion with one of the major documents that came from the 2011 conference: “The Next 20 and Beyond: Provocations From Within the Field,” co-authored by Christopher Jones, Krishanu Saha, Samuel Evans, and Thomas Pfister.

Over the past twenty years, science, technology, and society (STS) scholars have made great intellectual advances in understanding the epistemic, normative, and social dimensions of a world profoundly shaped by our science and technology. However, the field’s institutional standing has not made comparable progress. One of the most central challenges facing STS over the next twenty years is to achieve a greater degree of institutional autonomy.

Institution building and intellectual activities are often conceived of as separate processes. They are not. Institutions provide essential functions for scholarly work including tenure track jobs that allow intellectual flexibility, training programs and curricula in which ideas can be passed on and refined by students, and departments or centers in which STS can grow as a discipline and garner external visibility. As a community we must work together to secure and develop the institutional foundations for our collective and individual intellectual efforts.

These considerations are particularly critical for STS at a time when programs are being cut, when federal funds are being directed away from research in the humanities and social sciences, and when promising young STS scholars are struggling to find tenure-track positions. Using the opportunity presented by the gathering of scholars at the “STS: The Next Twenty” conference to be held at Harvard University on April 7-9, 2011, we propose a broader discussion of central challenges facing the field from the perspective of a group of international STS scholars at the early stages of our careers.

To this end, we offer the following provocations about the discipline and the scholars who work within it as a starting point for reflection and debate:

1 :: STS works on the cutting edge of our world’s grand challenges.

STS tackles some of the most central problems of our contemporary world. In our age of information technology, global warming, and bioengineering, STS scholars are providing essential analytical and normative insights into the complex linkages between what we build, what we know, and who we are. As such, STS is one of the most vibrant fields of study and deserves to be funded by government agencies and universities.

2 :: STS offers several paths to policy-relevant scholarship.

In addressing fundamental questions facing our world, STS scholarship often tackles matters of contemporary policy relevance, such as the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of emerging and controversial fields of study. But these considerations of policy or ELSI relevance should not be the sole measure for evaluating the contribution of STS to public policy. Much STS work is powerful because it offers critical frameworks that can allow policy makers to rethink what constitutes fundamental concepts such as “science” “society” and “policy.” Therefore, we must promote and fund a spectrum of research projects including those that analyze the pressing questions of public policy as well as those that help us conceptualize which policy questions we should be asking in the first place. The links between STS and public policy should be understood broadly.

3 :: STS is more than simply the sum of a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

While history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, political science, and other disciplines have contributed immensely to our understanding of science and technology in society, STS is a distinct field of study that offers unique insights unattainable through the agglomeration of existing perspectives. STS, while drawing on other approaches, has a disciplinary standing of its own. It merits having its own departments, curricula, and standing. Universities cannot expect rigorous education of their students in the social and cultural dimensions of science and technology without dedicated programs and faculty members.

4 :: STS scholars are responsible for the field’s institutional standing.

STS scholars must take responsibility for the institutional security of the field. We cannot expect others to do it. Nor can we assume that once programs are created, they will be automatically sustained. As scholars, teachers, and members of universities, we must take the initiative to demonstrate the relevance and need for STS scholarship and push to secure lines of funding for its practitioners. Academic fields are not natural kinds. They are social constructs whose boundaries can be shaped by STS scholars and must be maintained through practice.

5 :: Funding agencies and STS scholars should work together.

The vast majority of scientific funding agencies recognize that it is important to support research into the societal dimensions of science and technology. In order to ensure that these funds promote cutting-edge scholarship, funding agencies should be willing to work with STS practitioners to make sure that their categories and grant structures are consistent with the research practices of the field. Similarly, STS scholars should be willing to work with funding agencies to help them identify promising research opportunities that can support the organizations’ missions. Collaborative dialogue can produce improved results for both funding agencies and STS scholars.

6 :: STS scholars should collaborate to provide consistent graduate education.

One of the hallmarks of conventional academic disciplines is a recognized canon of literature and set of methods. While different programs will likely emphasize different analytical approaches, STS scholars should work together to create a few broad frameworks for teaching our students the intellectual foundations of our field.

This document has been prepared by a group of international early-career STS scholars. Throughout the conference, this document will be available with extensive opportunities for discussion and comment. Out of these comments and debates, we will revise the document after the conference and distribute it once again to conference attendees for a final review. Based on the discussions and degree of support for these provocations, we will look for future opportunities for their dissemination. Moreover, we are organizing a workshop panel at the next 4S meeting where these issues can be discussed further.

While universal accord is perhaps too much to aspire to, we hope to create a statement that has broad support from within the field of STS, or at the very least highlights the salient areas of disagreement. Our goal is to create several opportunities for collaboration and open dialogue even in areas where some will no doubt disagree. Given the potential importance of our intellectual work, ongoing discussion of these issues is crucial to ensuring these valuable perspectives make a mark in the world.

Contributors: Christopher Jones, Thomas Pfister, Kris Saha, Samuel Evans