Warm greetings to you all. We would like to update you on the latest developments regarding EASST. At our Council meeting in June we discussed several issues of great importance.
First of all, we are working towards holding a physical conference in 2022. We have decided that this will take place in Madrid. We are currently negotiating with a potential venue and setting up a local conference committee to be expertly chaired by Vincenzo Pavone.
Previously, we have run our conferences in a university setting. However, that will not be possible in 2022. Our conference has outgrown the capacity of most European universities. And many universities find themselves unable to commit to holding a conference next year given that we do not exactly know how the pandemic will develop.
Nevertheless, Council has decided to take a leap of faith and trust that we can have a physical conference next year. In particular, we really, really miss the face-to-face interaction and fun of our past conferences. However, the fact that we are opting for a professional venue means that organizing costs will increase. Our registration fees will therefore be higher compared to the Lancaster venue (20-30%). We regret this, but can see no other way to proceed. Once we have an overview of the entire budget we will consider support measures to keep the event as inclusive as possible. We hope that you, our community, will accept this and join us in making the Madrid conference next year a huge success.
Secondly, Council members had a good initial discussion about our responsibility as a scholarly community to support open science and the creation of FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) data around our scholarly activities – for instance our conference and publication work. We will not be able to lift this agenda singlehandedly, but we will try to collaborate with other actors who share in our beliefs about the importance of open availability of our (meta)data and publications (rather than having ownership reside with big publishing companies that are not working according to the same principles). We have formed a working group that will work with this theme and suggest ways forward.
We also discussed forming a group that will review our EASST awards (Amsterdamska, Freeman & Ziman awards) and the process by which these are decided. We would like to hear from you, our community, about this. What is it that you believe we should award as a community and how you think we should celebrate our scholarly achievements? If you have views, comments and questions regarding this, please send an email to Maja using majho(at)dtu.dk.
Finally, we discussed how to proceed with identifying a conference venue for what we hope will be a joint conference with 4S in 2024 (they seem as keen as we are). We also discussed how to manage our EASST fund for extra-conference activities, our prize committees and our own budget and admin.
We hope you all have/had a very happy Summer and a well-deserved holiday break.
On behalf of EASST Council,
Ulrike Felt and Maja Horst
President and President elect of EASST
Graz has a new heterotopia: the Constitutional Innovation Hub Graz (CIHG). Funded by the Faculty of Law of the University of Graz, the CIHG is a flexible platform to work on and think about the entanglements of law, technology, and society. We will present this platform in this short text using the concept of heterotopias. The CIHG consists of (currently) four different research areas: Co-Creative Tech Regulation, Critical Legal Tech, Innovative Constitutionalism, and Participative Legal Innovation. Through these research areas, we aim to bring together different scholars, disciplines, and perspectives, and also invite different formats of thinking, reflecting, and engaging with socio-legal topics with and around new technologies and innovation.
Graz has a new heterotopia. And we are building it. But let us start at the beginning: in 2020, Professor Iris Eisenberger became the new head of the Innovation Law Team at the University of Graz. Influenced by the experiences of her former professorship at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, she started to assemble a small but diverse group of scholars coming from law, sociology, science communication, criminology, environmental science, and engineering. The research group at the Institute of Public Law and Political Science (Faculty of Law) has now grown to 16 members and conducts international and interdisciplinary research focusing on technology law, public economic law, and the protection of fundamental and human rights. These studies are complemented (and sometimes irritated) by perspectives and arguments from classical sociology, engineering or philosophy. A key part of the new professorship is the Constitutional Innovation Hub Graz (CIHG), supported and funded by the Faculty of Law of the University of Graz. In this text, we seek to introduce the CIHG.
However, communicating the idea of a place like the CIHG is no easy task. Accordingly, we use the concept of heterotopia to describe the CIHG and its purpose. Michel Foucault described heterotopias as places in a society that are different, that are ‘quite other sites’, unbound from the rules of normalized space. In these spaces all other places are represented, contested, and inverted. They are very abstract and very real at the same time – and they are defined by their relations with the normality from which they deviate. One could say that heterotopias are places to be differently, to act differently, and to think differently. During 2020, where the whole world felt like a heterotopia, we aimed to build a special and deliberate one. A place for thinking about the manifold relations and entanglements of law, technology, and society.
As Foucault laid out in the first principle of heterotopias, every society creates heterotopias to enable practices that are supposed to take place ‘elsewhere’. We conceptualize the CIHG as a site that enables and fosters projects, research, and relationships at the intersection of law, society, and technology that are differently institutionalized. While the CIHG seeks to enable work outside classical structures, its existence simultaneously depends on those structures. Being part of Iris Eisenberger’s professorship, the CIHG is institutionally and financially founded on structures and resources provided by the University of Graz. In this special position, the CIHG complements and extends the classical academic institution as an experimental (non-)place, in which one can develop new perspectives on law, technology and society.
The second principle of Foucault’s heterotopias defines them as places with a specific function. The hub’s current function is realized through different research areas, each of which has specific goals and mimics and reaches beyond classical legal studies. To varying degrees, the work within the research groups is classically academic, theoretical, practical, activist, or artistic, but always experimental. However, the areas are not set in stone. They are fluid, enabling the CIHG to adapt to new topics that are yet to emerge. Currently, the hub covers four different research areas:
Co-Creative Tech Regulation, led by Sebastian Scholz and Thomas Buocz, analyses and compares a range of different legal instruments used to facilitate real-world testing of new technologies. Experimental clauses and regulatory sandboxes can for example be useful instruments of tech regulation, provided their use complies with the rule of law, the distribution of legislative competence, and affected fundamental rights. In this context, co-creation is a way to innovate not only technology but also the legal instruments that apply to it.
Critical Legal Tech, led by Nikolaus Poechhacker, investigates how the legal system and its inner logic are changed through what is known as legal tech. Here we explore how new technologies are changing the mechanisms of knowing, decoding, and legitimizing within the legal domain. Critically investigating these new technologies is as important as the technological shift itself. The applied technologies are not neutral, but convey specific visions of the law and society they address. This is especially important as the material and technological ways of making law (Latour, 2009) are becoming co-constitutive of the legal system itself (Jasanoff, 2011).
Innovative Constitutionalism, led by Professor Iris Eisenberger, addresses both the framework that the constitution provides for (technological) innovations, as well as the effect of (technological) innovations on the constitution itself. Innovative Constitutionalism highlights “that science and technology are tied to the state and its citizens in relationships that are properly characterized as constitutional” (Hurlbut et al., 2020: 982). Researching the constitution and (technological) innovation as co-constitutive reflects the democratic role of innovation in our contemporary societies.
Participative Legal Innovation, led by Annemarie Hofer, aims to change the one-sided communication of law, to foster participation in legal decision-making and to investigate how society experiences regulations regarding innovative technologies. Focusing on a bottom-up approach towards innovative collaborative regulation and design of technology, we want to provide the public with a more accessible view of the legal process by making it more approachable and understandable.
The third principle of heterotopias is especially important to the CIHG. Foucault painted heterotopias as places that relate and connect different spaces, even potentially incompatible ones, in a single site. The CIHG tries to do exactly that: go beyond institutional, geographical, and disciplinary boundaries by bringing together researchers, practitioners, artists, and activists from within and outside academia, with different backgrounds, different nationalities and different personalities. We put this concept to the test through our Design Sprint last autumn, where we brought together law students and designers to imagine problems and solutions alike for data protection in interdisciplinary projects. Although the pandemic situation made it quite a challenge to host this event, the participants succeeded in imagining data protection in innovative and sometimes even subversive ways.
Although still in the fledgling stage, the CIHG already connects scholars from different places and disciplines, ranging from law, sociology, science communication, computer science, criminology, environmental science and engineering. It connects, complements, but also inverts many different places and will (hopefully) constitute its very own transnational and transdisciplinary order. An order that is not static but has to be achieved always anew – and is therefore fluid and creative.
Which brings us to the fourth principle: heterotopias are also linked to temporal regimes. Foucault describes two different modes. The archive, in which time is accumulated, and the festival, a fluid and singular event that is always precarious. The CIHG is not a museum or an archive. Its aim is not to preserve time, but to provide opportunities to follow different time regimes in events or ephemeral interventions. Apart from classic research projects, the CIHG hosts talks, workshops, and installations. We also have a newsletter, which surely mirrors a more conventional academic habitus and time regime. However, since the CIHG is a fluid construct, these temporal flashlights are also bottom-up initiatives that everyone involved can host under the roof of the CIHG. Even, or especially, in a heterotopia, the projects form the core of what we do.
One example of our current projects is DIGrenz, where we focus on the question of how digitization changes asylum procedures. We examine issues and challenges from a (socio-)legal perspective, including fundamental human rights, data protection rights, and digital infrastructures. Another key project is Responsible Robotics (RR-AI), a cooperation with the Technical University of Munich. The project empirically studies the social, ethical and legal dimensions of a service robot named GARMI and a smart arm exo-prosthesis – both novel AI-based technologies. These are only two examples of current projects at the CIHG.
The fifth principle of heterotopias revolves around the actants involved in CIHG. According to Foucault’s definition, heterotopias are characterized by an interplay of opening and closing, inclusion and exclusion. The CIHG is imagined as a space with different forms of inclusion: you can drop by at our events or informally come to discuss, exchange ideas and have a drink at our Open Space Cafés, where we invite people from in- and outside academia to think and discuss with us. Or you can become more involved as an associated researcher in common projects, or as a fellow through our in-development fellowship program.
With the sixth principle, Foucault argues that every heterotopia is placed between two poles: illusion and concreteness. A heterotopia can create an illusion to deconstruct related real places as illusions themselves, or create a real space to compensate for a missing function in society. Locating the CIHG in this spectrum is not an easy task. As we imagine the CIHG right now, the space is about deconstructing and reconstructing imaginaries about law, technology and society as much as it is a concrete space to assemble people interested in related topics and projects. Thus, through the doing and making that takes place in the CIHG, it accommodates illusions while also performing a very real function.
Here we leave the structuralist thinking of Foucault. We turn to phenomenology and materialist notions into a world where illusions and concreteness are not opposing poles. As Mol (2002) has shown, the ontology of the world is not a given, but is enacted in practices, in the doings and makings of actors involved in the situation. The CIHG is an illusion and a manifest space at the same time. Accommodating very different practices and perspectives leaves space for parallel enactments of the CIHG. The hub does not exist as one entity, as one heterotopia, but as multiple instances of a different place. And such a place can accommodate rather different illusions that are also very real – if we realize them.
Hurlbut, J. B., Jasanoff, S., & Saha, K. (2020). Constitutionalism at the Nexus of Life and Law. Science, Technology, & Human Values 45(6): 979–1000.
Jasanoff, S. (2011). Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Knight, K. T. (2017). Placeless places: Resolving the paradox of Foucault’s heterotopia. Textual Practice 31(1): 141–158
Latour, B. (2009). The Making of Law: An Ethnography of the Conseil d’Etat. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity.
Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham; London: Duke University Press.
Foucault M. (n.d.). Of Other Spaces (1967), Heterotopias. Translated by Jay Miskowiec from Foucualt (1984). Des Espace Autres. Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5: 46-49. Retrieved 19 May 2021, from https://foucault.info/documents/heterotopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en/
 As with many concepts, Foucault never gave a single definition of the concept, but used it more as a fluid thinking device (Knight, 2017). However, the definition used in this short text is based on the translated version of the text ‘Des Espace Autres’ provided by the Foucault Archive (Of Other Spaces (1967), Heterotopias., n.d.).
The joys of research and writing – of pursuing a line of inquiry, finding an exciting vignette – can too often turn to frustration. However pleased you are with that carefully crafted couple of paragraphs, they just have to be removed. They really do not advance the argument enough to stay in, given the word count and the additional suggestions of the reviewers. As a result, it gets cut, and maybe lives on dormant in a document located somewhere in a labyrinthine file system.
So, when historian of biology Michel Morange suggested as a spin-off of the European Research Council funded ‘TRANSGENE: Medical translation in the history of modern genomics’ project that we develop a web resource showcasing our research, I immediately grasped its potential. Such a resource could make use of the research and writing that does not make it into a paper. It could allow us to develop these elements, or other research findings that cannot achieve full bloom in the cramped confines of a peer-reviewed article. It could also provide us with the platform to summarise our research for non-specialist audiences. I felt this was needed, as public resources specifically on genomics that are deeply informed by humanities and social science scholarship tend to be scattered, when present at all.
The idea was born for ‘Genomics in Context’. A successful application for a Beltane Public Engagement Fellowship gave me the room and impetus to explore this idea. I discussed it with colleagues with experience in public engagement, other academics teaching genomics to undergraduates, and professional writers. The website – www.genomicsincontext.com – includes articles of three to five-thousand words, with an accompanying blog for shorter pieces. The intention ultimately is to use blog posts as seeds for longer articles. For now, it serves as a valued venue to allow selected students on courses here in the Science, Technology and Innovation Studies subject group to develop high quality assignments into public posts, with my guidance as editor.
For the articles, upon advice I have shaped a review process that provides a rigour to ensure high-quality outcomes worthy of inclusion on a CV, while making it as painless and constructive for contributors as possible. A small group of researchers here at the University of Edinburgh have participated, attending review meetings at which we discussed draft articles, with the author present if they wished to be. An assigned lead reviewer was tasked with collating and synthesising the views discussed in the meeting, and producing a report for the author to aid them in their revising ahead of publication. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, I have been less able to secure new writers and the review process has necessarily become more virtual and distant. Soon, I hope to be able to be out there securing commitments and holding review meetings similar to the pre-pandemic model.
The resource is intended to be a long-term project, with articles and blog posts steadily added, and additional resources for further exploration included and contextualised. I have plans to add some video content, and also to include an ‘ontology’, an information resource modelled on ontologies in the natural sciences, in which entities – such as individuals, institutions and projects – and the relations between them, can be accessed by users. This would be useful as a reference, as well as a research tool for discerning connections and patterns across genomic research.
Feedback, suggestions for content (including new kinds of content) and submissions of draft blog posts and articles are always welcome. Please fill out the contact form on the website to do this.
How could it take four years? When the first general assembly of stsing will take place on 10 September 2021, four years will have passed since the first ideas of (re)organising STS in Germany emerged over two cappuccinos and an Americano. Covid-19 is a good excuse, as is German bureaucracy. But they are not the only reasons. Once, when one of us first told him about STS, a math professor and research-collaborator exclaimed “you seem to complexify things; isn’t science about making problems simple and easy to solve”? He had gotten a good sense of STS.
The STS community in Germany does not make it easy for itself to create an association. As is often the case in STS, we seem not just to want to provide innovative results; we also want to intervene into the mode of producing results. In Germany, a part of the STS community wants to organise itself differently from how academic societies traditionally organise. It wants more of a dynamic platform that empowers young scholars and less of a society safeguarded by established colleagues. It desires more facilitation of new ideas and less emphasis on tradition. It urges for more decentralized and unpredictable activities and less ceremonial events. It seeks to embrace linguistic cosmopolitanism while also supporting local forms of communication. It wishes to be inclusive while also having norms about how (not) to treat each other. It aspires for co-laboration with non-academics, while sticking to high intellectual standards. It is critical of scholastic conventions but insists on engaging with the socio-material constraints of universities as workplaces.
In view of these ambitious intentions the device chosen for infrastructuring the community may seem hopelessly antiquated: the “Verein” organisational form. This German association entails among others a statute, clearly defined (non-)members, general assemblies with fixed agendas, and a board. The task at hand was to mobilise these rigid structures for our visions of fluid, caring, and co-laborative processes. We (obviously many more than the authors of this text) studied how activist organisations had solved this problem before us, and agreed on the observation that the flexibility and care we sought to nurture would flourish best in smaller autonomous groups. We envisioned independent workgroups to be the core organs of the associations: project groups sharing research on particular topics, event groups planning conferences or workshops, interest groups discussing STS teaching, peer-support groups helping each other with research applications and publications, etc.
However, such a decentralized structure is likely at risk of fragmentation, and thus integrative devices had to be invented. Four devices were conceived that should provide this:
a shared communication platform, which would allow all members a window into what happened in the other workgroups, and also ease access for newcomers,
a reporting system which would require of workgroups to regularly sum up and inform about their activities,
an organ that would collect the workgroups’ reports and communicate them back to the community and to external observers, and
informal regional groups in which members across the specialised workgroups would meet and mingle.
Members of the workgroups would be likely to come from all over the country (and probably from abroad as well), and maybe even primarily meet online. This could make it difficult for newcomers to join and it could easily end up formalising interaction, which was thought to likely obstruct creativity, and indeed care. The regional groups should enable members to meet up across the workgroup and to exchange their activities, experiences and ideas more informally than through reporting.
Each of the four devices turned out to be controversial. Very much so the question of the collectors workgroup reports. These were originally thought of a foresters or caretakers who should consider themselves as servants of the workgroups rather than their editors or regulators. The formal organ that was available for this task in the “Verein” organisational form was the board. Voices critiqued naming the board “foresters” or “caretakers”, as this would conceal the power granted to them. What a dilemma! How do you redefine, and disempower a formally powerful organ, when renaming it at the same time conceals its power? How strong or how weak is the performativity of a name? The question will have to be answered in another context, since we reacted to the critique by refraining from renaming the board.
This infrastructure was a “Kopfgeburt” (head birth) that still is in the process of being turned into real bodies, relations and events. On 27 October 2020 ten people gathered in the central Berlin part Tiergarten to found the association; with distance and outside to avoid Sars-Cov2 contagion. A board of seven people was elected, and the work of turning the conceived infrastructure into lived reality began. A seemingly endless number of trivial formal decisions were to be made, which in the interaction among STS scholars all become political: from the question of which data to collect on the membership form to how to store membership data securely, which lawyer to choose for the registering of the association, whether and in what form to add an anti-discrimination statement in the statute, how to address workgroups in order to perform the desired role of the board, how to secure that not only men are working on the technical infrastructure, etc., etc.
Parallel to the board busy infrastructing stsing, another group is working on the inaugural conference, which due to the SARS-Cov2 pandemic had to be postponed and hopefully will take place on 20-21 May 2022 in Paderborn, with and exciting experimental programme. Yet other people have taken contact to the German Research Foundation to initiate a discussion of how STS research applications are best handled in a highly disciplinary funding landscape. Some scholars gather to develop a concept of how to ensure stsing engagements to be anti-discriminative. Other colleagues organise the technical infrastructure and the online elections for the next board, etc.
STS beyond stsing
While stsing is currently quite occupied with its own internal infrastructuring, its founding has also had effects on the larger landscape of STS in Germany. The Gesellschaft für Wissenschafts- und Technikforschung (GWTF) has existed since the EASST conference in Bielefeld in 1987, just as many other organisations and networks exist that are concerned with technology assessment, politics of technology, philosophy of science and philosophy of technology, the needs of young STS scholars, etc. Due to the abundance and well-established scholarly organisations in Germany dealing with science and technology, voices arose inquiring if what we need is really yet another association? This led to intense debates, but the shared wish to embrace diversity and abundance of STS in Germany has resulted in an initiative to bring all these heterogeneous networks and organisations together, many of whom had prior not been aware of each other’s existence. Both in 2019 and in 2020 meetings were organised for all the STS groups in Germany, and at the moment a group is organising a larger joint conference in the autumn of 2022 for all the German STS networks.
Writing this short report, we realize that a lot has happened over the past four years. Much has unfolded in smaller groups, such as the board convening online every other week. With the view to the upcoming first general assembly on 10 September, we expect stsing activities to be more publicly visible and engaging. The first general assembly will have public online keynotes and take place as a distributed event in smaller local “hubs” all over the country. We are looking forward to seeing STS colleagues gathering locally while sharing this collective event. It is exciting to be part of organising a community that does not shy away from neither complexity nor trouble and where there always seems to be someone, who has yet a better idea, or who point to yet another problematic implication of the latest decision. We feel confident that by cultivating response-ability to these many voices, stsing will indeed keep mobilising the German STS community in a lively, productive and nicely troubling way.
Anyone is warmly invited to join the infrastructuring endeavour; the discussions, complications, transformations, and indeed the celebrations that make stsing happen. Membership is open to all. It starts here: https://stsing.org/
Every society needs a cosmology to explain itself to itself. Where do we come from? What are we all about? Where are we going? Without such a foundational narrative, socioecological cohesion cannot be achieved, purpose cannot be agreed upon, decisions cannot be made.
“Doing STS in and through Germany” – or stsing for short – is not really a people in an anthropological sense, nor is it a society in a sociological or institutional sense. More an emergent community of practice, perhaps. Yet, communities of practice also need a cosmology. So, here is one version of a founding myth: It is the 4th of October 2017, early afternoon. Picture a grey overcast coldish day in Berlin. Typical autumn weather. In a small bustling café on Friedrichstraße, three still young(ish) scholars from three different German universities huddle in a quiet corner around a small table drinking cappuccinos and an Americano. I’d like to think the scene and the mood were conspirative, but, realistically, no-one in the café that day could have cared less about what the three were concocting in their corner. The three are seriously overworked and mainly glad to share a coffee with long-time friends before heading back to work. All three of them consider themselves scholars in/of/with science and technology studies and over the years have had their conversations about the state of this weird inter-discipline worldwide and in the German academic landscape that is still so strongly shaped by disciplines – for better or worse.
That autumn afternoon, the conversation once more turns to STS in Germany. The three agree that a lot has been happening lately: new posts, new centres and new people; mainly in places where you wouldn’t expect it, rarely connected to the established landscape of philosophy, sociology and history of science. Interesting. What seems to be missing, though, is a sense of shared ownership of STS, is an institutional base, and are possibilities to get together as STSers, and to systematically contribute our expertise to society, and learn from societal actors. It’s not too bad in Berlin, because there is always already lots of everything in Berlin so you find your people, have coffee and engage in exciting discussions. Yet in many other cities and at many other universities, many STS-minded scholars – especially early career scholars – are sitting in disciplined departments and struggle to find interlocutors for those matters of concern that exceed the established thought styles that surround them.
Is this not the right time, the three surmise trying to ignore the hissing of the coffee machine, to set up some sort of society for STS scholars in Germany? The idea sits on the table like a joke or at least matter out of place. Yet, the ideas flourish: A platform for societal actors meeting up with STS scholars, discuss current issues, learn from each other and share their expertise, create connections across disciplines and across the boundaries of academia. Make STS a visible actor in German academia society. They have emptied their coffee. How would that work? No tenure, no future, no idea where to even start. Then there is the intellectual issue: Is the spirit of STS not diametrically opposed to the idea of a ‘society’ – board meetings, rules of procedure, membership fees…? And then there is the institutional issue: Germany already has a Society for the Study of Science and Technology, the GWTF, with its small but beautiful annual meetings of largely sociologists of science and technology.
In all its absurdity, the idea still seems right. Maybe ‘society’ is not the right framing. Maybe it needs something more rhizomatic, something more platform-like. Not in the start-up economy, exploitative sense, but in the sense of providing a platform to early career scholars to network, to develop collective formats of learning, to generate new ideas. Also: Representation is an issue. STS is institutionally weak and underrepresented in the core funding agencies. For a moment, there is a sense of something exciting coming together. Diffuse yet and too big to grasp. But time is up and the three need to return to work. Two things are agreed: It is worth a try. They need help.
A few months later, help has arrived: Tanja Bogusz, Endre Dányi, Jörg Niewöhner, Martin Reinhart, Martina Schlünder, Estrid Sørensen and Tahani Nadim gather in Berlin to prepare a lunchtime meeting at the EASST conference in Lancaster in 2018 of what has now received the working title: STS Germany. The purpose is clear: Get a sense of numbers and interest for STS in Germany. Bring the existing organisational forms together. Listen. Network. Plan. A rough sketch for the meeting is quickly drawn up, Estrid is elected frontwoman for the day, post-its and white boards are organised. Ready to go.
What if we have STS Germany and no-one shows up? Preparing the room that day in amazingly sunny and warm Lancaster on the university campus, there is doubt in the air. So much STS, so many brilliant sessions: Who were we to think that STS needs another grouping in Europe? Then its lunchtime and they come: More than 110 people cram into the room listening to Estrid’s kick off, to representatives from GWTF, the Science & Democracy Network run in Germany by MCTS in Munich, and INSIST – the young scholars network organised out of Bielefeld. Who would have thought? The group is heterogeneous, dominated by early career scholars, and it is enthusiastic. All sorts of things are suggested but agreement is reached on the following:
None of the existing networks represent a significant majority of the people who attend the meeting.
The majority of people who speak articulate the need for exchange, cooperation and support within this emerging community.
The relationship of a potential new body with existing networks needs to be clarified. In any case, anything new needs to respect and work together with existing forms.
Most people favour a decentralised, rhizomatic structure (network) strongly building on and caring for early career scholars from MA/Sc students to senior research associates.
The network ought to support knowledge, mentoring and exchange on the inside, function as a port of call for people abroad, over time represent STS in Germany to the outside world, and improve STS’s standing with funders.
The network should facilitate online collaborative support, for instance through an online platform/database (projects, people, degrees, syllabi …), foster possibilities to link and exchange, organise meetings and prepare joint grant applications.
Modes of co(l)laboration among academic STS scholars and experts developing, governing, administrating and using science and technology should be developed.
An annual meeting and smaller workshops (e.g. around methods) seemed desirable. Perhaps a new journal?
What a frenzy. The meeting is over quickly and the crowd disperses into further sessions. What remains is a newsletter to sign up for and a strong sense of enthusiasm and possibility. Not much to go on, but it is enough for people to start meeting in the following weeks and months in groups to specify tasks in organisation, communication, infrastructure and administration. A follow-up meeting in Kassel begins to emerge with a much more specific agenda focused on how this can actually be done: when, by whom and in what way so as to respect the interests of everyone involved. The momentum carries.
There is a foundational myth for you. As if STS could ever handle a singular cosmology.
Nuclear disasters do not end – they fade away. Radioactive isotopes decay to stable ones. Clean-up efforts progress. Evacuees return to their homes, or settle into new lives, as legal challenges meander from one court to the next. Yet this process takes decades and finds itself outpaced by the half-life of political attention. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is no exception to this trend. I began to work on this topic as an undergraduate, conducting my dissertation fieldwork in the summer of 2012, when Japan’s anti-nuclear protests were reaching their height. Two-hundred thousand protestors would flood the streets of Tokyo’s political district, Kasumigaseki every Friday evening in a kaleidoscope of colour: the largest demonstrations Japan had seen for 50 years. By the time I graduated in July 2013, their numbers had dwindled to the thousands. And when I returned to Tokyo as a PhD candidate in 2016 and 2017, the protestors only numbered in their hundreds. The disaster, once splashed across every newspaper, now garnered only sporadic coverage and evacuees expressed concerns of being forgotten. In numerous settings, I found my interlocutors looking forward to March 2021, mentioning the 10-year anniversary as both a milestone and a moment to reflect. It is in this spirit that I would like to (briefly) examine the first decade of social scientific work on the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, celebrating what has been achieved and diagnosing what is yet to be done.
By a happy coincidence, I find myself writing between two anniversaries – one political and one academic – and convinced that the latter might speak to the former. It will shortly be 50 years since Laura Nader called upon anthropologists to ‘study up’ in her seminal essay, Up the Anthropologist (1972). Nader observed a tendency among anthropologists to study social problems from the margins, focusing their empirical work on the poor and disadvantaged, rather than the powerful and established. Her proposal for reinvigorating anthropology was to re-focus attention on the ‘most powerful strata of society’, examining the ‘culture of the powerful’ with the same care that researchers had traditionally detailed the ‘culture of the powerless’ (ibid.: 289).
Nader’s call to study up has enjoyed considerable acclaim, especially in STS, where early laboratory studies established elite ethnography as a core disciplinary method. Nonetheless, an imbalance between the number of scholars who ‘study up’ and ‘study down’ persists. This imbalance is evident in the explosion of ethnographic interest in Japan over the last decade. There is now a wealth of work detailing everyday encounters with “3.11”. From Brigitte Steger’s (2012) memorable account of day-to-day life in an evacuation shelter – with its focus on the role of cleaning in ‘rescuing normality’ – to accounts of farming in the affected territories or the stigmatisation of nuclear evacuees, one can find a range of works that examine the experience of the disaster ‘from below’. The question of how citizens negotiate radiation risks is a central theme in this corpus and one that STS scholars have played a pivotal part in exploring, offering considered accounts of the grassroots citizen science projects that have emerged to monitor civilian radiation exposure (see, for example: Kimura, 2016; Polleri, 2019). In taking seriously the lay knowledges and ‘counter expertise’ of such organisations, these works have collectively answered the author and Nobel Laureate in Literature, Kenzaburo Oe’s call to ‘look at things through the eyes of the victims of nuclear power’.
By contrast, our picture of how the disaster looks ‘from above’ remains hazy. Though the impact of the disaster – on both domestic (see, for example: Samuels, 2013; Koppenborg, 2020) and foreign policy bodies (see, for example: Kinsella, 2013) – has received concerted attention, most of this work has been penned from a distance. To the best of my knowledge, there are no accounts of daily life in one of the Japanese ministries involved in the reconstruction (fukko) of the Tohoku region. Nor do I know of an ethnography of the Reconstruction Agency, established in 2012 to co-ordinate their efforts, or any of the local governments in the Tohoku region. Participant observation of projects run in Fukushima by international policy bodies, such as the International Commission on Radiological Protection (Takahashi, 2020: 121-145; Takahashi, forthcoming) and OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (Takahashi, 2020: 98-120), has been conducted but remains rare. Consequently, our insight into how knowledge circulates through the Japanese state and relevant international organisations, as well as whose expertise counts in which policy settings, remains limited. Given that the organisational culture of the Japanese state is often cited as the root cause of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the need for scrutiny is clear. Moreover, analysis that moves beyond a monolithic presentation of Japan’s nuclear industrial complex – or ‘nuclear village’ – might inform strategic intervention. Certainly, one can glean some insight into the internal workings of the state through the diaries and memoires of those who have trodden the halls of power. This genre has proven popular with Prime Ministers, scientific advisors, and local mayors in the last decade; each eager to defend their actions and offer their own perspective. Yet their focus often falls on moments of drama, rather than on the more quotidian negotiations of credibility that STS scholars might wish to examine. Faced with this clear empirical lacuna, there is good reason to echo Nader and cry, “up the STS scholar!”.
One might counter that it is easier to advocate ‘studying up’ than to do it. Those who attempt to get ‘up close and personal with elites’ frequently find themselves hitting a ‘glass ceiling’ (Kuus, 2013; Rhodes, 2011). Though I was forewarned of this difficulty, I only came to viscerally appreciate it at 19, when interviewing a politician for the first time. Having (optimistically) agreed to take the interview at short notice, despite being 500km away, I sped across Japan in a Bullet Train (shinkansen), sprinting across Kasumigaseki to the House of Councilors in 30-degree heat. Slipping a jacket and tie over my sweat-soaked shirt, I entered the air-conditioned building with ten minutes to spare, only to find myself facing airport-style security. Guards. Metal detectors. And a line, inching forwards. I arrived at my interviewee’s office three minutes late. As I received a lecture on my punctuality, bowed deep to 90 degrees, I reflected on how ill-suited traditional anthropological techniques seemed in this environment. Traditional ethnographic methods assume that the researcher is a privileged subject, whose gaze will be welcomed or at least tolerated. Yet the ministry building is a fortress, designed to control access to information. Even the welcome guest, who is ushered through security, finds that the building is organised around the principle of defense in depth (Thomas, 1995). Her path is restricted by passwords and key-cards and she is rarely left unattended. Obtaining the right to be a ‘fly on the wall’ in such settings is not impossible but is exceptionally difficult (see: Rhodes, 2011). Noting that ethnography is not synonymous with observation, some researchers have side-stepped the issue of access to a place of work by socializing with their research informants outside of it (Gusterson, 1997). Yet I could not imagine that the Councilor would agree to ‘hang out’ after hours. Nonetheless, there are avenues forward. Rich ethnographic accounts of senior policymakers’ practices have been produced on the basis of repeat interviews (Kuus, 2013). Moreover, many research sites are not as closely guarded as ministries are – local government offices, international organisations, and laboratories involved in the management of the disaster present themselves as promising and plausible field sites.
Of course, the relative dearth of elite ethnographies may not just be a function of access but also a matter of taste. Ethnography is an inherently intimate process. To detail how others make sense of the world demands both empathy and extended contact. It is therefore understandable that in deciding who we would like to study, we often gravitate to those whom we like. Outside our professional lives, we might marvel at Louis Theroux’s ability to spend time with members of the Westboro Baptist Church or the Neo-Nazi White Aryan Resistance (WAR). But we do not envy the experience. By contrast, watching Michael Palin interact with peoples of the Sahara or Himalayas is a source of vicarious pleasure, even yearning. Given the choice of being a Theroux or Palin in our work, many of us choose to conduct our fieldwork in the company of those that we are not only fascinated by but also feel an affinity for – collectively ensuring that the bulk of anthropological work continues to reflect our underlying ‘taste for the marginal and the exotic’ (Gusterson, 1997: 114). In the domain of nuclear politics, this is to suggest that the concentration of ethnographic attention on citizen scientists, nuclear evacuees, and anti-nuclear groups may reflect the dominant political dispositions of our intellectual community: namely, a critical stance on nuclear power and the Japanese state’s project of reconstruction. In some cases, researchers foreground their political persuasions by adopting an explicitly activist stance. But it is commonly assumed that our choice of research subjects bears some relation to our politics, even in the absence of such declarations. In explaining that I was working on the ICRP Dialogues to a colleague at an academic conference, I found myself being interrupted. “Wait. You’re not pro-nuclear, are you?” The notion that I might embed myself in the work of a policy organisation in order to study it, without necessarily endorsing its positions, seemed peculiar to them. To their mind, the place of a social scientist was at the margins, “punching up” at the centres of power, not immersing themselves in them. Only on hearing that I was also conducting participant observation of seminars held by the Takagi School of Citizen Science and the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes’ weekly demonstrations did my interlocutor soften: “so, you are spending time with some decent (matomo) people.”
A final thought – if our political dispositions sometimes influence who we study, might they also influence how we study them? On the basis of the rich work on Fukushima Daiichi to date, one might tentatively say, “yes”. This is not to suggest that accounts of citizen science, evacuees, or anti-nuclear groups have been hagiographic. (Polleri (2019), in particular, has convincingly complicated a common notion that citizen science is necessarily emancipatory.) Nonetheless, these accounts are often asymmetrical. In many cases, concern about exposure to low dosages of radiation is naturalized. When a citizen comes to measure their exposure and express concern, no further explanation is needed. They have come to recognize ‘the truth’ of their situation. But what of those who read the same measurements as proof of their safety? Here, analysts mobilise a range of sociological factors. Citizens are co-opted or otherwise subjects of (malign) social forces – most commonly, neoliberalism. Such work implicitly treats the state’s narrative of radiation risk as false and anti-nuclear groups’ accounts as true. In so doing, many accounts eschew Bloor’s programmatic notion that true and false beliefs be subject to the same forms of explanation. Consequently, we have myriad descriptions of nuclear normalisation and forgetting, yet scant few sociologies of nuclear fear. As we move forward into a new decade of scholarship on the Fukushima disaster, one hopes that we will ‘study up’ with the same care with which we will continue to ‘study down’ – producing accounts of elite practices and counter-expertise alike, with the Strong Program’s tenets of impartiality, symmetry, and reflexivity firmly in mind.
Gusterson, H. (1996.) Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.
– (1997.) Studying Up Revisted. PoLAR, 20(1): 114-119.
Kimura, A. (2016.) Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination After Fukushima. Durham and London: Duke University Press
Koppenberg, F. (2020.) Nuclear Restart Politics: How the ‘Nuclear Village’ Lost Policy Implementation Power. Social Science Japan Journal, 24(1): 115-135.
Polleri, M. (2019.) Conflictual Collaboration: Citizen science and the governance of radioactive contamination after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. American Ethnologist, 46(2): 214-226.
Nader, L. (1972.) Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up. In: Hymes, D. (ed.). Reinventing Anthropology. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 284–311.
Samuels, R.J. (2013.) 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Steger, B. (2012.) ‘We Were All in This Together’ – Challenges to and Practices of Cleanliness in Tsunami Evacuation Shelters in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, 2011. The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 10(38): 1–27.
Rhodes, R.A.W. (2011.) Everyday Life in British Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Takahashi, M. (2020.) The Improvised Expert: Performing authority after Fukushima (2011-18). Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Cambridge.
Takahashi, M. (Forthcoming.) “Dialogue as Therapy: The role of the expert in the ICRP Dialogues,” Annals of the ICRP.
Thomas, R.J. (1995.) Interviewing Important People in Big Companies. In Herz, R. and Imber, J. eds. Studying Elites Using Qualitative Methods. London: Sage.
Weart, S.R. (2012.) The Rise of Nuclear Fear. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 The characterisation of actors as either ‘pro-’ or ‘anti-nuclear’ speaks to the Manichean nature of nuclear debates.
 My decision to study organisations on different ends of Japan’s nuclear policy debates in parallel owes a debt to Gusterson’s (1996) Nuclear Rites, which drew on ethnographic engagement with both nuclear weapons engineers and anti-nuclear protestors.
 The work of Spencer Weart (2012) is a notable exception, though this analysis is global and largely predates the Fukushima disaster.
It was at the heart of a fierce debate not so many months ago. During the Easter week, with Europe locked down again in a variety of regimes of restrictions, the first pages of several European newspapers would talk of it as a scandal, as a surprise, as a monument to economic pressures or as a light in the darkness of Covid-19 repressed and depressed reality. We are obviously talking about Madrid, a city of contradictions, of dynamic intersections, and a laboratory of what our possible post-covid futures may hold for us. While the rest of Europe, including the Spanish regions bordering it, was locked down in a precautionary state to prevent the further spreading of the Pandemic, Madrid was open to its citizens and to tourists from all over Europe, with lively terraces, beers and wine, cinemas, theaters and museums. Pure anomaly in Europe, in those days you could hear French, Italian, English and German being spoken across its nineteenth century historical Centre. With the knowledge about outdoor infection rates we have today, it seems that it was not so risky to have people around, socializing around terraces. And yet, this was not at all clear, then. In a successful campaign of the right wing party, which won local elections in May 2021 by a landslide, Madrid was offered to the imaginary of Europe as the city of Liberty.
And yet, Madrid is intriguingly more than that. It is both the richest region in Spain and the one in which less resources are spent per capita in education and healthcare. It is such as successful neoliberal laboratory, that, during Filomena, the worst snowstorm for decades, Madrid citizens – deeply skeptical about the actual intervention of political authorities – bought shovels and went and cleaned the streets, the schools, and the sidewalks. Many took their SUVs and collected people in the street to take them to medical centers, hospitals and emergencies. Madrid today is the heart of a growing rightwing movement and the host of many of its resistances, of its alternatives and of inclusive cultural movements that think and act differently. It is a place where the internal contradictions of modernity, of the European project and of the future that is yet to be born, are dynamically at work. It is, we believe, a crucially symbolic place where the EASST Council has recently decided to hold its next, hopefully presential, bi-annual meeting.
This choice, which we welcome, is full of implications. It is a choice to start again from the South, not as a place to paternalistically involve or integrate, but as a place from where to think our future – the future of our STS community and the future of science, technology and politics – anew. It is a choice to meet each other again in a city that is traditionally very open and tolerant, which often welcomes foreigners as people of their own, without asking them too high a price for integration. It is a city where few people can actually claim to be born but where there is space and a “home” for many. It is a city that may cling on tradition and be restless at the same time; a city that never sleeps and changes continuously. Last but not least, it is a city where political power dwells but is constantly challenged.
In this issue, there is amongst others an interesting piece on Fukushima, which launches a more than ever necessary call for anthropology of the powerful, of the elites, of the winners. Reminding the STS scholars not only of the importance of studying the people at margins, the vulnerable, excluded, the voiceless but also the interactions, imaginaries, contradictions and initiatives of those who inhabit the rooms of power, wealth and decision-making. We find this call very poignant, not only for the growing need of gathering more knowledge about those who do not normally enjoy our solidarity, but also because only a closer and serious study of these will enable our critical work to be truly transformative. If we live in a world of constructed social reality, and we take part in it fully through our own research… if we truly contribute to construct the very world we engage with in our study, then an STS agenda on those who are constantly in the best position to shape our future is all the more necessary.
Critical studies on the ability of these elites – among which we can also count a number of epistemic communities – to shape not only the strategies of the future but also the very idea of what the future may look like are a top priority. More critical work on the kind of knowledge that is selected and legitimated in this powerful communities, on what kind of interactions and transactions are deemed acceptable and on what kind of imaginaries are generated and uphold to shape debates about the future (and what kind of future is conceivable and why) is of crucial importance to unlock and empower the potential of different framings, different knowledge or imaginaries and different collectivities for a new staircase to alternative futures. For whatever kind of future we would like to unlock and pursue, we need first to be able to think of it. A closer study of the social, economic and political dynamics that make the reframing of existing challenges and, thus, of new futures impossible is am urgent task for an STS community that claims to transform the world as it studies it.
Holobiont in biology refers to “an organism plus its persistent communities of symbionts” (Gilbert 2017: M73) and was used for decades by scientists focusing on plants. As Scott F. Gilbert explains, animal-focused biologists have struggled to conceive of animals as holobionts, because the concept undermines the deeply rooted notion of an animal’s anatomical, genetic, developmental, immune, physiological, and evolutionary individuality (ibid: M74). The term highlights the never-ending processes and constant multispecies interactions in which a body is immersed, which make up the body and enact its bodily functions (or malfunctions) and needs. Our bodies don´t end at the skin; they contain a myriad microorganisms that flow from one body to the other, mostly inadvertently. This passage of tiny messmates (cf. Haraway 2008) from one body to the next has become suddenly noticeable and feared, with the spreading of COVID-19. Like a well functioning infrastructure, our microbiomes remain silent and invisible, until they are a disrupted, usually portrayed as an attack (cf Martin 1990).
COVID-19 is, of course, not considered to be a symbiont. The war narrative, accurately portrayed 30 years ago by Emily Martin in her work about narratives of the immune system (1990), has been prevalent in discourses about the novel coronavirus. We are all fighting together, as bodies and as humans, against this invisible invasion that puts our lives at risk and dramatically changes everyday existence. The material conditions of our relations, and of our bodies themselves, have changed. The virus transgresses the skin-boundedness of the self; we become increasingly alert to ways in which invisible entities get into us and damage our organs and immune systems.
In order to protect the health system and bio-socially vulnerable people , we have been asked to take responsibility for our microbial trails and to reduce them as much as possible. We have been asked to become skin bounded, to retain the flow and overflow of the microscopic entities comprising us. This is most effective if we stay home alone. But staying home alone has its own consequences. So, we have been bombarded with advice and instructions of how to avoid the spreading of COVID-19. How to properly wash hands; how to put on and remove a face mask; how to open a door without touching the handle; how to do home office; how to do sports indoor; how to stay healthy in quarantine; how to reorganize your kitchen, and so on. Human touch and physical relations with others have become a privilege, but they exist in confinement: big families living together, fearless teenagers, people recovered from COVID-19. The virus has highlighted ways by which we live in different bio-social conditions: for some, the threat of the virus to their immunosuppressed bodies is the biggest risk; for others, staying home with abusive cohabitants, or staying home alone, is a dangerous torment. For some, the home office is a dream come true; for others, it is a task impossible to master in the presence of children or in the absence of an appropriate infrastructure. Our biologies do not exist by themselves; they are entangled in social relations and material conditions (cf. Niewöhner and Lock 2018). A virus has many consequences, not all located within the human body.
As I sit at my dining table staring at the faces of my colleagues, frozen in weird gestures, on the screen of my laptop, probably missing crucial information because of my poor Internet connection, looking at my dry hands and greatly missing the bodily co-presence of my colleagues, I can´t help to wonder: Is this what it is like to be a good holobiont in times of a pandemic? Is this how I take care of my microbiome and all the other microbial compositions out there?
It is complicated enough to care for and participate in the complex choreography taking place with humans, animals and materials around us without acknowledging the vast amount of invisible life that flows inside and between us. But now we are collectively seeing the invisible and being asked to account for it. Perhaps, we should be wondering how to be a good holobiont, and acknowledging the diverse biosocial vulnerabilities inside and outside of us, not only in times of pandemic, but all the time. Remember that germophobic times bring upon massive death on another scale, that of the microbes. As we wash our hands again and again and disinfect surfaces, our little symbionts are dying in masses. Remember that antibiotic resistance is out there, threatening the future of animal health, including our own. Remember that we are always interconnected. Remember that contagion is always a problem for infants, the elderly and for immunosuppressed humans. Remember that microbial activity is crucial to life on earth. It is a hard balance to master, between exposure and protection, and it takes a lot of experimenting. And certainly as STS scholars we should be well equipped to look into these experiments and developments. As Salla Sariola said at the end of her contribution to the Nordic STS conference (2019), citing Scott Gilbert:
It is “the time of microbes”
Gilbert, Scott F. (2017) Holobiont by Birth. Multilineage Individuals as the Concretion of Cooperative Processes. . In: Arts of Living in a Damaged Planet. Ed: Tsing, Anna, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, Nils Bubandt. Minneapolis – London: University of Minnesota Press
Haraway, Donna (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Martin, Emily (1990) Toward an Anthropology of Immunology: The Body as Nation State. In: Medical Anthropology Quarterly.
Niewöhner, Jörg and Margaret Lock (2018) Situating Local Biologies. Anthropological Perspectives on Environment/Human Entanglements. BioSocieties. First Online: 05 April 2018
Sariola, Salla (2019) Bacterial vaccine development in Benin, West Africa: anticipating the post-antibiotic world. Nordic STS Conference 2019.
This short piece deals with our ability and need to be useful as STS researchers. In particularly it deals with a common dilemma about how to consider the utility of either our research, or the particular skills we develop. This dilemma is particularly relevant for early career researchers and thus reflects on the Pre Conference Doctoral Workshop – ‘Invent Your Job’, the Panel I organised – ‘What do we still not know about the IPCC?’, and also for me personally in my position as a PhD researcher working on the science-policy interface. It does this to consider my place both in the broader field of STS and society at large.
What follows is not a reflection on a specific event during the conference, but rather brings together some strains of thought and discussions that I had throughout the conference, to connect with an ongoing dilemma that I have as a PhD researcher. As my research deals with science-policy interactions, in international climate change politics, it does away with simplistic linkages between science and policy in line with STS approaches. It recognises that science is not ‘used’, simply ‘taken up’ and absorbed by policy. Indeed, where it has utility, this utility is based on social processes of validation, trust, and negotiation, rather than on scientific merits alone – in the words of Jasanoff (2004), it is co-produced. As a researcher therefore, I continually find myself in a dilemma about how to present the utility of my science, or my contribution, and its place in society – in particular how answerable we should be to the funders of our research. This question relates to our place as academics in society, and more specifically as a personal dilemma for me undertaking my PhD in environmental science, which means that I work in an environment where the utility of research is expected and encouraged. More generally as a doctoral student nearing the end of their PhD of course the question of utility also evolve around consideration of the future job market.
I attended the Pre-Conference doctoral workshop, which encouraged us to think about how we could be creative about the jobs of the future. Thinking not just about what jobs we would like to do, but also how we could potentially create the ideal job for ourselves. Bringing many current doctoral students, and recent graduates into contact to talk about these questions was stimulating and interesting. For the first part of the workshop we partook in walking discussions, walking from Campus to Lancaster centre. The walking discussions involved both discussing STS concepts that we, and others, were using in our research, and what our plans for the future were. Walking in the fields, listening to the birds, and connecting with the land juxtaposed nicely with discussions about the stress of finishing your PhD, and the concerns and uncertainties of the future. The future is uncertain for many recent and future PhD graduates, most of us at the workshop were not yet sure if we wanted to stay in academia, or attempt to forge our paths outside. Is this a dilemma about our usefulness and utility in the so called ‘real world’? One theme that emerged was the conflict between academic accolades and those that are valued by society. As STS scholars, we are often engaged in very concrete and applied subjects and cases, but yet at the same time enjoy getting lost in concepts and theoretical terms, which disconnects us from the systems, groups, and individuals that we study. At this workshop it was easy to find ourselves again getting lost in idealistic and entirely hypothetical situations – for instance we created a new government department, entirely focused on doing things otherwise, and disruption from within. Whilst fun and creative this also highlights the challenges of thinking about our utility in the current way that society is set up. The verdict that I took away from the workshop is that while academic studies in STS prepare us very well for the weird and wonderful, they are challenging to translate to real world situations.
Despite this feeling of slight pessimism about the utility of my work, and the ability to connect and explain, particularly our theoretical approaches to those outside academia (or even my colleages in different fields), I think that as STS researchers we have many skills and attributes that connect us intrinsically to the unique challenges we are currently experiencing politically and socially, across the globe. This was highlighted very clearly in our panel – What do we still not know about the IPCC? – which dealt with how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is being approached as a research site 30 years on from its inception in 1988. Here discussions surrounding the role of expertise, of social inquiry into scientific processes, and understanding science-politics relationships were central. As the IPCC has been around for a long time, it has been subject to much critique, debate, and improvement over the years. In turn backlash against such critique is also common, particularly from those involved who believe in science’s ability to speak truth to power and see critical accounts as being detrimental to the authority that science has developed. As a result of this, the IPCC’s situation in a Post-truth world, is something that is worth considering, particularly from an STS perspective, and something that we as scholars of science and technology have something to contribute to. The role of experts of all sorts are under fire, and a debate over whether STS contributes to this climate of scepticism has ensued (Collins, Evans, & Weinel, 2017; Lynch, 2017; Sismondo, 2017). Thus, the ‘usefulness’ of knowledge – be that the knowledge produced by an international panel of climate change experts, or the knowledge produced in a doctoral dissertation which studies this – is once again at the centre of investigation.
This brings me back to the question of the utility of my PhD research, or how to consider the utility of our STS education outside of the academic field. My location within an environmental science department means making use of STS approaches are not easy, as my deconstructive approach is often taken as criticism without any suggestion of improvement. Following my time at EASST, and the discussions that I had with individuals at the pre-conference doctoral workshop, and our panel, I was inspired to hear about other environments where STS researchers and predominantly natural scientists work more closely together. I could see that these kind of environments require careful planning and thought, rather than taking the form of an add on, but if done right they really contribute to a feeling of utility on the part of the STS researcher. The dilemma I have presented is a personal one, but I also feel that there are implications for the field of STS particularly through a need to help and encourage young researchers to foster their sense of relevance in a broader field – both within academia and outside. In turn, this is a dilemma about the role of research in politics, and indeed society more broadly, and our place as researchers within this.
Inventing your job is a difficult but not an impossible task. There are ideas by others, that you can join or take the effort of shaping your own ideas to a degree that you can convince and motivate others to join you. There are role models who have successfully constructed their own unconventional job and could help as an inspiration. However, getting engaged in existing structures by communicating STS sensibilities outside of academia could be one first step.
„Invent Your Job!“ — I could not think of a more challenging calling to start into some conference days. Besides the last-minute preparation of my own talk and studying the conference’s program I started the EASST Conference days in Lancaster with the most pressing question — what am I doing after my PhD?
The organizers of this pre-conference doctoral workshop made it even more complicated by asking: how could STS knowledge, sensibilities and practices be translated into existing job qualifications outside of academia or — vice versa — how could we design the spaces ourselves that make place for these STS capacities.
Spoiler alert: These questions were not answered in the workshop nor am I presenting any results in my afterthoughts either. But I got — at least — some perspectives where one could keep on searching for answers.
The organizers offered a set of unconventional settings for exchanging „wild ideas“ about discovering or inventing jobs in unknown terrain: We visited a time-honoured castle with a panoramic view to the North Sea, had sandwiches in a theater, hiked along bumpy meadows and climbed over several fences. During this hike in the English countryside we were holding STS concepts like „invisible infrastructures“ (Star, 1999), „human-machine-interaction“ (Suchman, 2007) or „intra-actions“ (Barad, 2007) scribbled on small sheets of paper in our hands that should lead us in our discussions. The bumpy underground, the STS concepts and the personal stories of unknown researcher from different countries were inspiring ingredients to think about unconventional jobs in the future.
We all agreed that there are new societal challenges that urge for new solutions that cannot be found only within existing institutional structures: Hidden political perspectives become louder in European and American countries and the new technologies have unprecedented implications: Navigation apps, search engines and other algorithmic tools shape everyday practices and labour on a small scale but on a large scale technological innovation has become an imperative on political and economic level, shaping contemporary society as a whole. Algorithms make decisions and split up societies into filter bubbles where everyone can spread or follow distinct thoughts rhizome-like on the internet. Software establishes new structures of being instructed, controlled and governed.
Those new power and knowledge hierarchies have to be discussed publicly but there is still an enormous lack of communication strategies that explain opaque software processes to a democratic audience for a better understanding. But is it possible to turn an STS analysis of „invisible infrastructures“ into marketing or government strategies? Could product advertisement sound differently if it would be inspired by an STS understanding of „human-machine-interaction“? And: How much compromises are needed by getting engaged into economic and political structures with STS concepts in mind?
The projects that were developed in the workshop went from an STS driven circus to interdisciplinary translators for companies or constructing get-together apps. All of the ideas had in common that they would bring together spheres and groups of people who are split up by any boundaries. They would use new technology but also well-known analog ideas to inspire new thoughts between them.
Science and Technology Studies have largely elaborated analytical and conceptual tools for societal questions that could be transferred into the fields of software construction, data security, consumer protection and design of platforms for democratic participation. Regarding these ideas we found common role models or best practice projects like the city government of Barcelona who tries to implement new communication tools in politics, letting people participate by deciding online where to spend the public money first — restructuring public water infrastructures, a new swimming pool or computers for schools? In such a project new media becomes an experimental platform for a modern understanding of lived democracy.
STS is known for creating problems and using mess and arguments to arrange and display structures in a different way, constructively redefining terms that were taken for granted. Not only in academia but also on the job market STS knowledge could help investigating new emerging question of shaping society and daily interaction or finding unexpected connections between interdisciplinary spheres: Making infrastructures visible for a larger public, finding terms between disciplinary boundaries, analyzing thought-provoking but understandable phenomena that tell something about society.
Motivating people with your own ideas and searching for constructive structures that support your idea was one main recommendation that I took from the workshop. But „Join a union“ was another: There are already existing channels to make a change and look differently on society outside of academia. It seems to be a negotiation if oneself has to fit in a job description or if a job description has to fit in one’s own imagination. Jobs can be invented but they could also be discovered in unknown terrain by climbing over fences.