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 Winickoff: 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!