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

» 1 response to “The Next 20 and Beyond: Provocations From Within the Field”:

  1. Christopher J. (Full names available only for logged-in users) says:

    A Place for Stories?
    STS scholars know that various types of evidence have different impact. Provocative assertions, as illustrated in the document above, can describe issues clearly and seek to galvanize action. But assertions sometimes lack the emotive force of personal stories. If we wish to help STS achieve greater institutional standing, then anecdotal examples may prove a powerful complement to this document.

    It is here that you come in: we would like to request stories about how your own career has been affected by the degree of institutionalization of STS. Has a strong training program benefited you or your students? Has a perceived lack of disciplinary standing by your university’s administrators cut off promising lines of intellectual inquiry? Do you recognize points from your own life in the points listed above? Please share your stories!

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