Friday, Day Two.

Hard to pick out themes from today’s papers, but a thread running through all but the roundtable was that of ‘governance’. I must have heard it used in so many different ways, relating to so many different contexts, that while it was rarely the explicit focus of the panels I attended, it was relied upon as a variously interrogated explanatory tool, rather than an analytical concept, or phenomenon to be studied itself. The way in which Woolgar interrogated the mundane aspects of governance in the closing plenary talk made me wonder whether, like speed cameras or recycling in our everyday lives, it runs the risk of becoming implicit in our analyses too?

  • 2.2.13         Life Sciences in Asia
  • Lunch:     Roundtable- A Turn to ontology in STS
  • 2.3.15         Science and Regulation Co-constructed
  • 2.4         Plenary
  • 2.2.13 Life Sciences in Asia

1) Temporalization of Risk Society; social science perspectives
Margaret Sleebolm-Falkner spoke against inclinations to project other societies ‘back in time’, using the term ‘temporalization’. She drew attention to suggestions that countries, such as china where she works, were ‘running behind on ethics or norms’, and went on to show how China has copied international regulations and in relation to oocyte and embryo donation. Her research involved visits to laboratories and interviews with around 40 people who do stem cell research, including regulators.

Her approach was based on what she called ‘co-eval’, meaning being in the sme time. It is a matter of perspective that observes risk as something that is discussed in the same framework of time but experienced from different histories.

Sleebolm-Falkner then took her audience through four different framings of what ‘risk’ might look like, from the technoscientific to the symbolic and post structural. Each telling of the tale was accompanied by examples from fieldwork, which illuminated the way in which different castings could be seen to operate, or not, in the Chinese context.

From China the panel moved to Singapore, with

2) Singapore Biopolitics: Bare life in the City-State

a paper given by Catherine Waldby. The focus of her presentation was the recently built life sciences knowledge park known as ‘biopolis’.Waldby claimed that this new building crumbles big analytic platforms with biotech companies, governance bodies, advisory HQs and research laboratories beign in the same place. Thus, it brings together basic research and analytic expertise. According to Waldby, Biopolis is indicative of the general investment in life sciences, and, following Thrift, she argued that it is also representative of an experimental post Fordist knowledge economy. Based on a relentless search, these economies manipulate and valorize the body in modes termed ‘experimentality’.

Waldby went on to look a Biopolis as three kinds of experiment, an experimental space, an experiment iwht citizenship and an experiment with the invitrio life of the nation.
Dealing firstly with the site as a ‘space’ of science, Waldby suggested that it was not just an accumulation of expertise on behalf of the Singaporean state- to act as a magnet for international research, but it is also a site of innovation. Drawing on Ong’s analysis in Neoliberalism as Exception she also suggested that this site as an example of the ordering of the Singaporean population through the marketing of citizenship. Not only are citizenship packages being offered as though on a market, but the citizenship  Singaporean population is also shifted in that it is offered up as a target for research, being made up of a broad spectrum of south Asian peoples. Finally, following on from the point about citizenship and population, experi-mentality with the life of the nation was addressed through the issue of the materials that a nation marketing itself as a good biomedical research destination will require. These bodies become subjects with a value, to be banked in biobanks, exemplary of the ‘ethnic surrogate for Asia’.

3) Cracking the Code: The Rice Sequence(s) and the Taming of Food

The final paper in the panel took a slightly different approach to the theme of life sciences, charting the development of the project to sequence the rice genome.
Lyndal Halliday examined globalization, innovation and networks in the publication record and geopolitical machinations of this research. Her argument traversed the interesting public/private divides, spatialities of globalization, local/global engagements, and politics in and of a place.

  • Lunchtime Roundtable: A turn to Ontology in STS? Ambivalence, Multiplicity and Deferral

This session over lunch followed on from an Oxford meeting in June 2008. Held in a horseshoe round, with the panel up front, the format allowed for members of the audience to put questions and responses to the panelists. The session would probably have made a lot more sense had I first read the papers here

which are a fascinating exploration of the terms ‘ontology’ and ‘turn’, with papers taking quite different approaches (sometimes productively, sometimes not) to the question of what ‘ontology’ was doing, resurfacing as it is, in the literature. A similar divergence of threads and opinions was discernable in the all-too-brief roundtable, centering primarily on whether we ought consider ‘ontology’ or ‘ontologies’, a question that has already been thoroughly explored in Philosophy.  ‘Turn’ was also interrogated, since it suggests something before and something new. It was suggested that we were turning from epistemology to ontology, and Mol commented that “turns should be used and cast away”. Sterling also observed that to ‘turn’ one must rotate or navigate according to an internal geography, or geometery, whereas a move was placed the axis of change outside.

A stream on STS engagement with philosophy also emerged, which could do with a more thorough airing. This it may get, because it is hoped that the conversation will carry on online – see

  • 2.3.15: Science and Regulation Co-constructed

1) Opening up the Epistemology of Judicial Gatekeeping: Newman vs. Motorolla Inc (2003)  David Mercer

The first paper was given by David Mercer, a case study of the legal case Newman v Motorolla. It is a potentially massive case, because it again posits a link between brain cancer and mobile phone use. However, as Mercer pointed out, nobody has heard of it. The thrust of the paper was directed towards the linkages between science and legal proceedings, through public knowledge. Questions suc as the role of law in informing the public, and also of keeping issues out of public view were implicit. What was accepted as evidence, and how to research a case such were raised as problems. Mercer suggested that unless a researcher accesses the transcripts as well as the judgements, they are leaving themselves open to being accused of methodological weakness.  Overall, though I enjoyed the quickfire presentation, I could have done with a little more context – something which would have also helped the presentation. For example, while references were made to the longer term modulations of concern/panic over the health risks of mobile phones, it would have been useful to have these drawn out, and the example of Newman and Motorolla placed in that timescale. This would have been particularly relevant given the comments which followed the paper, revealing that Mercer thought that the issue, and case itself, had the ‘capacity for a Lazarus’, by which he meant it was his suspicion that the health/phone link was about to be raised again. This feeds directly to questions surrounding the timing of research. Mercer said he had been treating this as an almost dead issue, so he could ‘get in there’ and ‘unpack’ the case. He had sent out his questionnaire following positive verbal responses, but has had no responses. This made me wonder about the terming of such topics ‘dead’ and ‘alive’, and the access issues that come with each. How, and whom considers an issue live? At what point does access become easier, and upon what criteria?

2) Can a Weapon be Immortal? Hugh Gusterson

We moved from phones to bombs with Hugh Gusterson’s paper provocatively entitled ‘Are weapons Immortal?’ Reporting on interviews and ethnographic research among employees of the los Alamos and ? nuclear weapons plants in the USA, Gusterson went on to answer this question in the negative. So, why aren’t weapons immortal? The main theme of the paper was the transfer of knowledge. The feeling amongst the nuclear weapons researcher he worked with was that unless junior researchers had first hand experience of making and testing bombs, the knowledge of how to do so would be lost. Gusterson alluded to the special-ness of this knowledge, but didn’t, in this presentation, explore the nature of how it is thought to be transmitted, the details. Perhaps he isn’t allowed to.  But he moved the paper on to the fascinating logics at work among the engineers. Nuclear weapons come in to a strange category of ultra quality work which will never (we all hope) be used. So, the engineers who work on nuclear weapons consider themselves on a higher moral plane than those who work on conventional weapons. Indeed, they think it would be immoral to work on weapons designed to kill people. It is better, in this logic, to design those which exist to deter.
However, in 1992, the ‘lives’ of these nuclear weapons designers changed radically, as George Bush senior ended nuclear weapons testing. The paper revealed the impact of this as ‘traumatic’ for bomb designers, since without the ability to test, they can not be ‘sure’ of their bombs, or make more. So the researchers have become gerontologists – they study the decay of the weapons they built, and had trust in. As parts decay, the ability to replace them lessens, due to factors such as new manufacture regulations, different materials etc. The fear of the designers is that with their 92 generation will die the knowledge of how to make bombs, as it has already been proven (through shuttles) that it is possible to lose the plans, and also be incapable of reverse engineering a device.
From his voice, it is evident that Gusterson has lived in the US for some time, but there is an English base to his vowels. He didn’t speak about the challenges of gaining access to  such a potentially sensitive plant, or the time period over which this work has been conducted – to pick up on the theme of timing of research.
It was a strongly ethnographic paper, showing the uses of (presumably) long term involvement with informants, following their lives.

3) Tropical Medicine Research Practices in Brazil Encounter the Animal Rights and the Animal Welfare Groups: the Articulation of Science and Society in Oswaldo Cruz Foundation
The third paper was by Pinto Filipecki, Saldanha Machado, Klein and de Oliveria Teixeira, and addressed disparities of legal control over scientific research across Brazil with specific focus on the health ministry’s ‘Fiocruz’ medical research centers. The presenter pointed out new collaborations, partnerships and committees that were opening up across the country, as its laws developed inspired by the US and UK. It was pointed out that practice often does not relate to legislation, rather comes from the detailed guidelines that are issued, along with publication networks. Sheila Jasanoff asked whether a good way to test these questions was to see whether there were any cases of testing that could have been done elsewhere being transferred to Brazil, and if so, for what reasons? What were the issues around cost, informed consent in theory and in practice? Is there in effect, a sort of rendition in place?

  • Plenary Session : “Acting” with “Innovative Technologies”

Full lecture theatre, the ‘human flag’ of the diversity and vitality of STS. It’s a good thing she didn’t know how tired some of us were, or how ‘diversity’ was about to be raised in the following STS moves South sessions.

Christine Hine opened the session with an example of “acting” through publishing. The innovative technologies she had studied, system biologists taxonomizing and digitizing their results, there is reference to the past. Her book examined the politics of this process (digital versus physical archives) and revealed through publication the depth of reflexivity in the community she studied, referencing ‘when they read what we write’. One of her points was that our actions are always in concert with others, so making strange the session title of ‘acting with’ – we always have. Acting alone is an illusion.

Nelly Oudshoorn followed, with her own work on ‘innovative’ telemonitoring technologies, which enable diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of illness at a distance. They challenge existing modes of interaction between health care professionals and patience, since both parties are made ‘invisible’ to one another. “A co-presence replaced  by a tele-co-presence” , which Oudshoorn described as a changing mode of interaction affecting how we observe, discipline and know bodies. Her paper focused on comparison between users and non users, in order to extract narratives of self care, compliance, resistance and compulsion involved in the integration of this new technology into the lives of patients. She also focused on the different relations ewteen body, technology and self which emerge, suggesting that this repacement, or replication of self-care through an ‘innovative technology’ was not a neutral move. For users, bodies became objects for technology, experts and themselves, and were always accessible to the experts through the monitoring systems. For those who did not ‘use’, their bodies remained objects for themselves and medical experts but in a different time frame, without technology as mediator.

Lucy Suchman, in her paper Subject Objects, entertained the masses with Mertz, an MIT robot designed for social interaction, or a ‘worldly robot’. The video is available here
Suchman explained how those interacting with the robot reframe it as object for their shared confusion, as they are robotically subjectified by Mertz. She also played a video of the creator of Mertz, and asked how this relationship, and the relationship between Mertz and those from whom [it] learns can be cast as a process of ‘becoming with’. Considering the robot’s capacity to ‘learn’ from those it interacted with, as well as questions of what the robot is doing as it recruits huamns to model socially situated learning, Suchman explored the limits and ontological implications of this perception of world making. Who is “acting with” whom here?

The panel finished off with Steve Woolgar, who turned the title of the panel on its head. Rather than looking at ‘acting’ ‘with’ ‘innovative’ ‘technologies’, Woolgar chose to consider what it might mean to ‘act with’ the mundane technologies that permeate our everday lives. Through examples in which disruption acted as a revelatory tool, Woolgar examined what he called mundane forms of governance, from traffic lights to airport security checks. The project, with Dan Neyland, examines increasing regulation and control in relation to everyday objects and ordinary tasks, in order to lay out possible implications in relation to regulation of behaviour.

He first addressed the mundane/innovative divide, and suggested that what he was doing was a typically STS move – turning categories upside down, ensuring they are not revered  by cutting them down. The mundane, he argued, is much more pervasive than the innovative, and therefore more consequential. One model of governance which occurs by holding persons, and things, accountable. However, this, argued Woolgar, retains certain assumptions about agency which through his project he sought to disrupt, interrogating at each stage “who, which and what is governed by what, which and whom”.
The examples of disruption, experimentally set up to explore the above research question, included the liquids rule on aircraft, an example of traffic lights failure in Oxford, and a website purporting to be a portal to a speeding database.

The first point raised in relation to liquids on aircraft was that it is the relationship between objects and their persons which is increasingly under tighter and tighter control. Monitoring operates to ensure that relation is constantly assessed – is your bag in the right place, did you pack it, is it close to you etc.

Woolgar et al chose to test the detailed rules on liquids which airports carry a copy of, everyone abides by, but nobody actually knows or reads (let alone remains connected to the reasoning behin the rules now in place). One is only a ‘responsible traveler’ if one complies, with ‘nothing to hide’. Compliance here is overturned, and what lies beneath is not an interest in the rationale for the law, since nobody can explain why it exists. Provocative, brave even, conversations with  security officials over why 120 ml was different from 100 ml, and repeated attempts to get at the why resulted in failure.

The second example came from a morning in Oxford when one of the team was on their way in to work. Coming across a city center intersection, he found that the traffic lights were out (not working) but noted that curiously, flow of traffic was greatly improved. He went up to the roof of the department building and videoed the traffic for a few minutes, returning later in the day to repeat the exercise once the traffic lights were working again. Woolgar played both videos, suggesting that redistribution of accountability was behind the difference.

The third was a website which appeared as an image databank for photos taken by speed cameras. It claimed that if you typed in your car numberplate you would find out if there were any records for your vehicle. Woolgar put his wife’s number plate in. It said there was one violation, in Cambridgeshire, and offered the picture. When you clicked on the picture, there was a cartoon, pulling a face, telling you you’d been ‘got’. Woolgar reported that this website had made the rounds in the UK and been very popular, based on a fear about what you know and what others know about you – the implicit belief that all this information (about you and your objects) is out there. Feedback pages on the website were overwhelmingly positive, amused, appreciative of the ‘joke’.
As such, governance in his words, becomes the ‘continuous recursive intertwining of ontologies and accountability’. His experiments, he said, were not primarily motivated by a desire to bring about change, indeed, he did not consider them a very successful way to do that. The point was rather to emphasize our own thinking around these matters, and the reliance on categories that allows such patterns of governance to operate successfully.

Day 1

So what were the themes of my first day? I’ll deal with them in three sections.
I followed two main paired sessions –
1) ethics as practice in health and medicine,
2) science, technology and national policy imaginations.

And I also dipped in to
3) Bijker lunchtime talk on how to make sense writing your dissertation.

1) Ethics as practice. How to draw together papers which take ethics to mean so many different things? Not only were the issues radically different, but the contexts were too. For me, the paper that acted to draw them together was one that raised most explicitly this problem of what counts as an ‘ethical moment’, and how the process of expanding ‘ethics’ through implication can be recorded and managed by both those studied and those studying. Called Ethical Timing, the paper given by Simone van der Burg explained to us her role as ‘on the spot’ ethicist, or ‘parallel’ worker. Finding herself in a new profession without an established methodology, trained as a journalist, she cast herself as the ‘naïve question asker’, who, with access at the stage of experimental development, was to ask both herself and the researchers about the ethical implications of the work they were doing. Her paper documented the uncovering of certain ‘moments’ which, at different times (and in different places) came to have what could be considered ethical significance.

A lot of the issues raised seemed point to the ways in which existing legal structures were used and found wanting when asked to step in to either mediate or make decisions. This fed directly in to questions over the role of the state, and on the more abstract level responsibilities framed in logics of care versus those framed in logics of choice. The reflexive comment was made that even as we go about framing our analyses, even as we study ethics as a practice going on, we live it. How we manage relationships with collaborators and informants as we write about their ethical practices, how (and on what grounds) we choose to cast their actions, is in itself a way of guarding interests in our research. So while the session itself was about the study of ethics in practice, we were also discussing the ethics of our own practices.

2) science, technology and national policy imaginations.

This panel presented its audience with case studies, one from the UK, one from South Korea and one from Austria. With Sheila Jasanoff as lively discussant, and a full audience, the papers were brought into dialogue with one another, and themes relating to the challenges of comparison emerged. How can we as researchers handle the problems pertaining to the complexities of individual cases, and manage to say something about differences between the behaviour or states and statelike actors without the disclaimer of ‘well I don’t know what it’s like in x but…’Or to put it more succinctly, as Jasanoff did, what happens when we tink abot this as both a methodological challenge and a theoretical one, in order to develop questions that should be being asked in a comparative field.

I missed most of the first paper, on the UK Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, given by Robert Doubleday due to the sheer quantity of people in the room. Sang-Hyun Kim presented a commentary on the south Korean public and state reaction to th Hwang Woo-Suk controversy. He managed to present an alternative reading to the conventional assumption that ‘the public’ were supportive of him because they were either blinded by nationalism or ignorant of science. He re-framed the issue, and pointed out assumptions implicit in western press coverage of the controversy. Already, in this, we see the two threads of nation and public knowledge, which Kim went on to develop  in to a model of sociotechical imaginaries. In the question session which ensued, links were drawn between Doubleday’s UK ‘sociotechical imaginaries’, and the way in which the UK government draws in its public, and the work of the south Korean state to maintain its authority to imagine on behalf (and for the good of) its publics.

Prainsack’s paper was itself a comparative study, drawing on the debates around stem cell research in Italy and Austrisa, using the data to interrogate a ‘common sense’ belief that it was Catholicism which caused strict governance, or explained the behaviour of publics on these matters. She also considered the role of a nations past in shaping its debates about the scientific future – in a way that started to go beyond a straightforward ‘german exceptionalism’.

In her summary, commentary and opening of discussion, Sheila Jasanoff played the role of comparativist. In reflecting on where we might go on to do comparative work, she also acknowledged the difficulties inherent in the project, while providing thoughts on how these might be overcome. All three ppers looked at the nexus of the science to the state, ands maps on to legal ideas on what the right relation is. She offered three suggestions on how we might do comparison. Firstly, we could read deeply about countries and their traditions, in order to see to what extent things like, for example, British empiricism as described by Yaron Ezrahi, are re-voiced in different contexts. Secondly, we could use law itself as  standpoint for comparisons. Thirdly, the megapolitical question- how is power flowing, and how are questions of accountability being raised. This is an issue of the points at which a state is being held to account, leading on to what counts as proof, a right experiment, and evidence in these contexts.

The second part of this panel, 1.3.13 continued after lunch.

The first paper was explicitly comparative, considering what ‘the person’ is in order to get access to healthcare in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, and the author Erik Arden looke at this through the concept of ‘health citizenship’. The comments that arose out of this paper in the discussion afterwards spoke to the theme of what we do with our analysis, what it is that terms and alternative perspectives can open up. In this case, Jasanoff asked that when we bring in a concept like citizenship, might we not also ask how the large debates around citizenship (eg ex/in – clusion, rights vis a vis others, representation, choice, right to appeal etc) are played out in this situation. And what happens when you apply the same analytical framework across the cases as a tool of comparison?
The following paper, Parthasarathy on the role of patent offices in the US and Europe also echoed discussions of the morning, namely the imaginaries discussions – imagining a public. To make her point, Parthasarathy did have to expose her audience ot a good deal of detail. However, she said she was choosing to go for depth rather than breadth, making me wonder whether we had to think in these terms, what kinds of alternative castings of comparative there might be, and how we can do comparison without losing the subtleties which make up the differences of interest?
The third paper, by Kurath, looked at the governance of risk, relating specifically nanomaterial regulation in Europe and the US. Kurath drew comparisons between the countires by looking at legal responses and framings of the perceived risk that nanomaterial might cause. Two questions challenged this analytical framing, one asking how one compares the US with the Europe (at the same time implicitly challenging the nation state as a unit of comparative analysis) and the second asking how, if one just looks at the law, one can account for the complexity of governance in nanotechnology. Again, a question of scales of analysis that demand attention as much on the micro as the macro level. Flexible minds required?!

In the wrap up discussion, led by Prof. Arie Rip, methodology was raised again, alongside the place of ‘culture’ in these comparative analyses. Discussion moved between apparently considering culture as a static variable to be factored in/ used as an explanatory tool, to perspectives that recognized the dynamism and interaction of factors that prevent ‘culture’ as a notion from assuming a place as a variable or explanatory principle. This line of argument suggested that we try to  show that apparent differences are worth investigating in and of themselves, the convergences and divergences becoming avenues through which we can ‘think things’ across different contexts. The session unfortunately came to an end before this crucial point (crucial, at least, to an observing anthropologist!) could be fleshed out or more grounded by either proponent.

3) Dissertations over lunch: words from the wise to the lost

Bijker’s session over lunch was fun. Quite the performer, honest and entertaining, his presentation ‘Designing your Research Project, Structuring your dissertation’ took the form of a summer school WTMC workshop in condensed form.
If anyone is interested in knowing more about the summer schools for graduate students, there are more details on, or you can contact Karin Bijsterveld.

Bijker also suggested that anyone who would like a copy of the slides should email him and just ask.

The dislaimer came first: Your supervisor is always right!
This was not only to save his own skin from irate supervisors fed up of the supervisees coming back saying ‘but W. Bijker said I could do it like this…’. More seriously he was highlighting the fact that different institutions and different disciplines do have different expectations and requirements of their doctoral students. The guidelines of your institution are the ones that you must follow, and it is these which judge your work and pass it.

Basic setup: book or a series of articles?
Bijker laid out the pros and cons of each style of PhD. He said that majority of STS dissertations were written with a book in mind, encouraging students in to a longer line of argument, but with fewer publications along the way. The alternative was a series of interconnected papers, submitted for publication, which though easier to manage and write, produces less of a coherent theoretical argument.

Theory and Case studies : how to I make them relate, and in what order should I tell my story?

In preparing for the session, Bijker had asked students to write to him with their main problems, and tailored some of his responses to address those. The theory/data conundrum was one of these, and he set out three possible ways of approaching the issue. Firstly, you could outline the theory and concepts you are going to use, before going on to consider the data. This is the most common approach. Secondly, you could reverse this suggestion, and present your cases first. If you do this, you can the discuss them theoretically. He argued that this makes sense, because those reading your dissertation/book are going to be interested in the topic, and the cases. So, ‘why maket hem go trough the tedious review of theoretical concepts?’ If you do it later, you can use the concepts to reflect on what you have presented and elaborate ont hem.

However this is not an innocent switch. In the reversed scenario, you must stop yourself using jargon when telling your tale, since in the first scenario the reader will have gone to the trouble of redign through your theoretical arguments, worked to understand the concepts, so will want to see you use them! Also in the second model, you can engage with the authors you are using because you have already shown the reader the cases.

His final suggestion was attempting to write in a real mix. You do away with the problems of asking the reader to read lots of stuff they don’t yet see the point of, and present story, concept, story, concept, introducing theory along the way. Bijker argued that this was ideal for readers, but a challenge for writers, especially those embarking on their first piece of extended writing.

In the following section on the role of Theory, Bijker made it clear that we have to make choices. There is no getting around it. These choices relate to the kind of thesis you wat to write, they are not innocent either, and you have to live with them.
Do you want to tell a story about a particular empirical domain, or are you more interested in engaging a theoretical debate? How many theories should you draw upon- pick and mix or one theoretical framework? Who is your audience?

This led on to a brief discussion on how one goes about explaining one’s project in naïve terms. This explanation has to come near the beginning, but it is not always obvious if you should do it first, or after framing your problems. He suggests you start in plain terms, then point out the difference between that explanation and the one you come to at the end of your thesis as part of your analysis.

If you are interested in how Bijker himself put this, ask him for the slides. He said he was happy to be emailed asking for the slides by students.

Busy, busy!

Halfway through day two, and I’ve yet to post thoughts on day one. I’m getting there, but with so many interesting sessions, and even events running through lunch, I have barely had time to breathe. But my contribution so far has been to upload a few photos…

As the guys have already said, day one was pretty intense. It was an early start too –
the  0751 number 7 tram was packed with 4s/EASST delegates as it came in to Woldstein campus. If only I’d had my camera out – there were the superkeen reading printed copies of the abstract booklet, the early-registrees leafing through the pocketsized conference program, and the tardy polishing powerpoint presentations (!)

So, as well as being generally snaphappy, I’ll be following themes relating to my own work – bioethics, governance, cross cultural comparison and intersections of STS with social anthropology. There are already some very interesting themes emerging along these lines. But the choice is sometimes so broad, and the panels so interesting, that doubtless I’ll find myself commenting on random stuff.

Banging on about STS and International Development, again

So the conference is over for another year (or two in the case of EASST), and it has been a vintage edition, for me at any rate.

Reflecting on the conference I have had an insight into the challenge of bringing STS and Development Studies into closer engagement with one another – or, to put it another way, opening the eyes of DS people to the insights of STS and getting STSers to engage with the problems of development/the ‘global South’.

It strikes me that the biggest challenges in any kind of rapprochement between STS and DS as disciplines will be personal ones (natch). While the two disciplines have a lot to learn from one another, empirically, methodologically and politically, I wonder whether the different sets of people inhabiting the two fields are temperamentally mismatched. I come across different kinds of people at STS and DS conferences, 

Can STSers overcome their habitual ironical detachment, their endless deconstruction of this and that (of semiotics, of epistemologies, of terminology…), their wry humour, covering embarrassment, in the presence of normative commitment? Can they swallow their misgivings about whether STS can and should be ‘useful’?

On the other hand, can DSers step back from their passionate engagement, evangelical fervour, become less earnest and po-faced, a bit more playful? In their obsession with the political and economic, can they learn from STS the value of thinking a bit more about things and technologies and the way they structure human relationships?

Can both sides learn to be a bit more humble in their mutual encounter?

As a DS researcher and amateur STSer I feel the attempt is worth making. Those of us who have a foot in both camps – a considerable number nowadays – bear some responsibility for opening up a space in which both sides will feel welcome and comfortable.

Well that’s all from me. Thank you for reading. Until next time…


How to change a socio-technical system

What if you’re a policy advisor and your government wants to know how to transform a socio-technical system?

A panel session this morning on ‘The Search for Sustainability’ looked at just this question, through some fascinating empirical cases fresh from the real world of policy analysis and advice. I’ll mention just two of the papers.

The session opened with a great presentation by Cees Leeuwis and colleagues from Wageningen University (NL) on how transformation happens in socio-technical systems. Did you know that the acres of Dutch glasshouses are now making as much money from generating electricity as they are from growing tomatoes? The presentation helped to explained how this has come about, through an original analysis of how threats and opportunities can combine with technological and market niches to transform established regimes. Their analysis challenges the notion that we can distinguish easily between radical innovation and incremental change – a change process can cycle between incremental and more radical transformation over time.

Bernhard Truffer shared a fascinating case from his work in Swiss municipalities, on decision-making processes for the reform of sanitation infrastructure. How do you make effective decisions that will be entrenched in socio-technical systems for 40 years or more? Bernhard and his colleagues used a sophisticated method to combine the views of citizen and industry stakeholders with a technical sustainability assessment, collecting data which they were able to present in a series of clear and informative diagrams. The process led to significant changes in the ways sanitation problems and goals were perceived by all sides, helping to change the decision-making process. The presentation was also a model of clarity, and very easy to follow.

More later…


Storm breaks at 4S/EASST

Yep, the gloomy pre-conference forecast has come to pass, and we’ve had thunder, lightning and rain galore today. I’m sure the weather’s still better than the UK though. I’ve picked up today where I left off yesterday, although with a slightly less manic programme. In fact, I’ve even taken half a session off, after going to my second session of the day in which half of the presenters had pulled out, which was a bit disappointing.

All of the papers I have seen so far though have been well presented and interesting, whether from Phd students or some of STS’s ‘big names’ , which has been great. The day for me started with a session on public engagement, which picked up some of the themes that came up yesterday in sessions around national policy frameworks and imaginaries. Conceptualising the role of the public in science and governance remains a key concern of STS, but there seems to be more nuance developing both in the way we think about publics and increasing reflexivity about the way social science conceptualises scientists and policy makers knowledge of the social. What one questioner referred to as Deficit Model 2.0. I’ve also been drawn by the different ways biology and biologies are being discussed. There’s the obvious and continuing focus on biotech and genetics, in which one instance of the manipulation or application of biological knowledge is problematised. However, I also went to a paper on biosecurity, which described the rise of a regime of biosecurity as ‘risk management’ of the dangerous biologies of biological warfare. I’d be interested to hear from anybody here about the other ways problematic biologies are turning up.

If you’re reading this and are at the conference, why not contribute your thoughts on your 4S/EASST? if you’ve got something you’d like to post, either email me for login details, or send me whatever you’d like to go on the blog..

STSers are hip

Have you ever noticed how hip STSers are? Is it politically correct to mention it?

From the tips of their sharp hair-cuts* to the shoes on their feet, STSers are just, well, cool.

People attending this conference – this is not the first time I’ve noticed it – seem to have an understated sense of style that tramples all over stereotypes of academics as drab and dreary anoraks dressed in sandals and shabby, erm, anoraks. When these people wear anoraks (and yes, it is raining again), anoraks look cool.

Which is a way of saying: it’s not about fashion, this STS style. It’s about self-assured individuals expressing their personalities in they dress. More than that: it’s all about self-possession, poise, self confidence and the making of a discreet, refined, but powerful, statement.

I know I’m not alone in this observation. So where does it come from, this STS sense of style? What does it say about us?


* or their wild/bushy/shaggy/shaved heads…


So where are we? Erasmus University’s Woudestein campus has got to be among the ugliest university campuses I’ve been to.  The conference facilities this year are functional and austere, although the interior designers have done their best to brighten the windowless seminar rooms with multi-coloured seating and bright white lights.

But a windowless room is a windowless room – you want to get outside. Those who attended the EASST conference at the University of Lausanne two years ago will be disappointed though: where that conference had spectacular views across Lake Geneva to the French Alps (see below), Woudestein campus features blocky concrete architecture, uneven block paving and apologetic scraps of green.  It doesn’t help that the weather is living up to the forecast – grey and drizzly.

Better views in Lausanne...







Good news, then, that the conference is proving as rich and stimulating as ever – though for me, today will be about trying to catch individuals in the coffee breaks and checking out the book-stalls, as it is about the panel sessions.

But I am looking forward to a lunch-time session on publishing in STS (free lunch if I get there fast enough!) and this afternoon’s presidential plenary – when we will hear from Michael Lynch, Christine Hine, Nelly Oudshoorn, Lucy Suchman and Steve Woolgar.

More on that later.  Meanwhile – one more thing about the campus: bizarrely, there are life-sized cardboard effigies of Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende installed in some of the revolving doors here. With a name-badge on and a cheesy smile on his face, round and round he goes – backwards – each time you pass in or out of the buildings. I think most people here don’t know who he is.

Trivia moment: Balkenende’s nick-name in Dutch politics is ‘Harry Potter’.

As they say in Dutch, “tot ziens!”



The last gasp

Yow – that was a day and a half! Late, late in the evening, I finally find a few minutes to sit down and bash out some thoughts about the first day of the 4S/EASST Carnival 2008.

Let me start with: What does STS have to offer to Development Studies, and what can it learn? Development issues have gradually risen to greater prominence at 4S and EASST conferences over recent years. The two fields have more in common than is sometimes acknowledged, although there seems to be a cherished boundary between the two. Among the themes they both grapple with are: expertise, accountability, participation (sometimes instrumental, sometimes normative), and processes of inclusion and exclusion in elite decision-making processes.

Perhaps mainstream DS can learn from STS to be more critical of the concept of expertise that is intrinsic to most top-down development interventions. Perhaps STS can learn from DS’s dissident scientists and long track-record of grappling with development controversies in the global South – over pesticides, large dams, soils, desertification, for example – that have conflict over S&T at their centre.

The other major theme of my day has been on the nature of expectations and visions of technological futures – how they are created and sustained, and how they shape public perceptions of future utopias and dystopias, grounded in hopes and fears about the present. It turns out that there are important craft skills involved in generating and sustaining just the right degree of expectation – enough to sustain credible visions of the future – and raise funds – without gaining a reputation for failing to deliver.

Mostly, however, scientists are not penalised when promises fail to come to fruition: after all, we all understood that those promises were not to be taken literally, didn’t we?

At the end of the day my colleagues and I gate-crash the generous reception laid on by the editors and publishers of the new Journal of East Asian Science, Technology and Society (EASTS). I hear that STS is gaining strength in East Asia and the journal, already onto its second issue, looks great.

And so – as I make a mental note to repay the journal’s kind hospitality by submitting a paper in the near future – I tuck into the delicious buffet over conversation about forests, desertification, scientific ethics, e-social science, and who would want to be the director of a certain large, internationally renowned institute of science policy research…

More tomorrow…


6pm and its all go

Day 1 is coming to a close, and before I head off I thought I’d contribute a few first thoughts. What I’ve been astounded by today is the sheer scale and depth of research in STS. Today I’ve travelled from Austria, to Uganda, to South Korea and back to the Netherlands via the US, UK and Germany. I’ve heard about nanotechnology, GM and stem cells, but also about e-books and health services.

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