Tag Archives: STS Multiple

From the Collaboratory Social Anthropology & Life Sciences to the Laboratory: Anthropology of Environment | Human Relations

The laboratory started in 2004, when Stefan Beck and Michi Knecht together with Jörg Niewöhner initiated the “Collaboratory Social Anthropology & Life Sciences” at the Institute of European Ethnology1 at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. The notion of the Collaboratory was adopted from a group of anthropologists around Paul Rabinow in Berkeley (Stavrianakis 2009), with whom Stefan Beck had stayed as an assistant professor in 2000. The term is meant to signal a more epistemically focused relationship between ethnography and its interlocutors. “Damn, I also want to save lives!” Stefan Beck quipped back then and so we started to look for ways to elaborate the intersection of critical medical anthropology and science and technology studies beyond its established mode of deconstruction. This effort rested on three commitments: thinking and working across individual projects for the sake of developing empirically grounded middle-range concepts and methodologies; placing knowledge making practices of science and technology centre-stage in anthropological inquiry; and collaborating with members of the fields we explore. When the Collaboratory started, science and technology studies (STS) – though of course well established internationally – had arrived neither in the discipline(s) at large2 nor in our department in particular.

One of the first efforts to establish a different relationship with biomedicine and the life sciences took shape through the research cluster “Preventive Self” funded by the German government. Here, social inquiry including history worked in close connection with general medicine to better understand cardiovascular risk, obesity and prevention efforts as a set of practices giving rise to a new form of self-care and self-management. Inspired by recent thinking on the multiplicity of the body (Mol 2002), we built on Foucauldian analyses of biopower and technologies of the self. Moving ethnographic analyses right into the heart of medical practices emphasized their ambivalences and contingencies and allowed us to address another politics of life as such (Fassin 2009). In this first phase (2004-2010), we tried to better understand the intricate entanglement of nature and culture as well as technology and ‘the social’, which led us to explore ‘practice theory’ and material semiotics. Building on Pierre Bourdieu, Sally Falk Moore, Anthony Giddens, and Tim Ingold, among others, we grappled in our ethnographic encounters and research puzzles with the insights feminist science studies and (post) actor-network theory had to offer. Connecting ethnographic research, practice theories and collaboration was our way of translating the shift from matters of critique to matters of concern (Latour 2004) into actual research practice (Environment and Relations 2019a, b). By that time, the lab was beginning to develop its format, which it retains until today: weekly meetings during term time to discuss our own ethnographic material, read about and debate theoretical concepts, write together, invite guests and host visitors.

Heike Zappe. Published in Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. May 2011. HU Wissen: Humboldts Forschungsmagazin / Humboldts Research Magazin.

This format quickly began to attract masters and graduate students as well as postdocs and staff from the Institute of European Ethnology as well as from other Berlin-based institutions and beyond. It began to succeed in bringing together researchers from different stages in their careers working on an increasingly wide range of topics in a work-in-progress format. In 2007, this formatwas adopted for the entire institute in order to create an institutional structure based less on professorships and status hierarchies. Laboratories became open and experimental workspaces along particular perspectives, within which students, postdocs and staff engaged in order to develop a shared set of intellectual practices. The Collaboratory became the “Laboratory: Social Anthropology of Science and Technology”.

In its second phase (2008-2015), the Laboratory shaped its profile through a number of research projects that continued collaboration with the life sciences: particularly with molecular biology and the social and cultural neurosciences. In 2010, the lab implemented a specialization in Science and Technology Studies in our department’s Master program and published an edited introductory volume to the social anthropology of science and technology in German (Beck, Niewöhner, and Sørensen 2012). It also launched a very productive and extensive research collaboration with social psychiatry that continues until today shaped first and foremost by Stefan Beck, Martina Klausner, Milena Bister, Patrick Bieler, Christine Schmid, and Jörg Niewöhner as well as Sebastian von Peter and Manfred Zaumseil on the psychiatric / psychological side. It started off with the ethnographic project “The Production of Chronicity in Mental Healthcare and Research in Berlin” that was funded by the German research foundation despite having co-applicants from psychiatry on the proposal and thus breaking with the tradition of disciplinary social inquiry and critical distance. This research context quickly produced new collaborative formats that inspired conceptual work (choreography, doing presence, niching) and expanded ethnographic methods (longitudinal ethnographic work and mobile methods such as go-alongs). We started to discuss the specificities of collaboration with social psychiatry: How does it differ from general medicine, molecular biology and the neurosciences? Within social psychiatry, we did not exclusively collaborate with academic colleagues that had their own research interests and agendas, but additionally with professionals and practitioners who aimed at reflecting upon and intervening into existing treatment practices. Our research was constantly put to the test of whether or not it offered meaningful results to the places we explored (clinical wards, a day hospital, community care facilities). Hence our interpretations were incessantly challenged by established epistemic practices within the field. Without necessarily sharing goals and moral values with our collaboration partners, our anthropological analysis and ethnographic theorizing substantially benefited from the tensions that arose from engaging with (not appealing to!) different audiences and epistemic cultures. This research trajectory has culminated in conceptualizing our work as co-laborative (with the hyphen), i.e. “temporary, non-teleological, joint epistemic work aimed at producing disciplinary reflexivities, not interdisciplinary shared outcomes.” (Niewöhner 2016, 3) By doing so, we foreground that co-laboration differs from interdisciplinarity in significant ways: Co-laboration includes joint work with experts from various fields without limiting itself to collaboration with scientists or academics. It enables the partners to work jointly on the basis of shared objects of concern without necessarily aiming for a common goal. In a nutshell, co-laboration acknowledges the heterogeneity of existing knowledge practices. It draws on the generative potential that arises from reading different communities of practice through each other (diffraction), rather than reflecting on one from the standpoint of the other. Today, we are still enrolled in inventing formats of laboring together with partners in our current projects, which include participants within (mental) health care settings, but also reach beyond the medical field into areas of (urban) policy making, agricultural production, or business organizations, to give but a few examples. Involving respective community members in ethnographic inquiry while it is still unfolding significantly impacts the ways in which we approach and craft anthropological concepts and problematizations.

Heike Zappe. Published in Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. May 2011. HU Wissen: Humboldts Forschungsmagazin / Humboldts Research Magazin.

In spring 2015, the lab was forced to enter its current third phase under tragic circumstances. The unexpected and sudden death of Stefan Beck shook our group to the core. He left us in the midst of a number of projects, plans and ideas. In getting to grips with this loss, it became clear to us how deeply our thinking has been informed and challenged by Stefan’s way of doing ethnography – not in the sense of an academic ‘school’, but in the way he constantly confronted thought styles, which were at risk of becoming (too) settled, through making unorthodox connections. It took us a long time to find our way into a new rhythm and we continue to miss his most ‘irritating’ presence every day. 

For the lab, this meant that Jörg Niewöhner stepped in as head and a handful of postdocs and PhD-students assisted in organizing our meetings and ensuring a continuity in discussion and planning. Continuing Stefan’s approach of a relational anthropology (Beck 2008), our group tied the last discussions with Stefan together to develop the notion of “phenomenography”, i.e. the ethnographic inquiry into ecologies of experience and expertise in relation to the material-semiotic practices that bring them about. (Niewöhner et al. 2016) We define phenomenography as an inherently co-laborative research practice, which aims at curating concepts jointly and by doing so re-articulating reflexivity within anthropology. The fact that Jörg took over the chair in Social Anthropology of Human-Environment relations at the Institute of European Ethnology and became director of the Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, affirmed our group’s ecological approach on anthropological, political, and geographical issues. Over time, the Lab also became home to scholars eager to explore the entanglements of social practices and material worlds in the Anthropocene. In these last three years, our department also attracted new staff with an explicit expertise in STS (e. g. Tahani Nadim, Ignacio Farias). This happy proliferation of STS inspired ethnographic research widened our scope beyond a single STS umbrella.

Hence in 2018, we marked the beginning of this new phase by giving our group its current name “Laboratory: Anthropology of Environment | Human Relations”. Why such an awkward name, you may ask: Human-Environment relations or interactions is a term largely occupied with ecological and systemic thinking in the biological and human sciences. While we co-laborate with these thought styles, we are keen to explore ethnographically how these relations are enacted rather than assuming them within a particular epistemological position. We also want to emphasize the environment to avoid its reduction to symbol or metaphor. (Niewöhner and Lock 2018) The vertical bar ‘|’ marks our inquiry into an open, dynamic as well as often ambivalent and excessive relationship. We take our cue here from Stefan Beck’s inaugural lecture entitled “Nature | Culture: Thoughts on a relational anthropology” (Beck 2008). ‘Relations’ summons elective affinities including Gregory Bateson, Marilyn Strathern, Stefan Beck, Annemarie Mol, to name but a few with a lifelong interest in relentlessly relational research and thought. We see our approach within the broad and multi-facetted tradition of social and cultural anthropology, including its German-speaking strand of European Ethnology. We have dropped the ‘social and cultural’ to reference our background in science and technology studies, the material turn and our understanding of ‘the social’ as always already entangled with environments, artefacts, infrastructures and bodies.

Somewhat ironically for a contribution to the EASST review, ‘science and technology studies’ has disappeared from our group’s name. This is not accidental and only partly explained through the institutional developments described above. While we remain deeply committed to the last 40 years of excellent scholarship in STS, we note that the success and growth of the inter-discipline also raises some important questions. Most importantly, perhaps, the question how STS can rekindle the productive friction with its disciplinary kin that has been key to its development.



1 For further discussions of the divided histories of an ‘anthropology at home’ (Volkskunde) and an ‘anthropology abroad’ (Völkerkunde) and subsequent institutional divides between ‘European Ethnology’ and ‘Ethnology’ in German academia see (Bierschenk, Krings, and Lentz 2016, Welz 2013) 

2 In Germany, neither European Ethnology nor its sister discipline of Social and Cultural Anthropology had really taken note of the first two waves of STS with the notable exception of Richard Rottenburg and his group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle.  



Beck, Stefan. 2008. „Natur | Kultur. Überlegungen zu einer relationalen Anthropologie.“  Zeitschrift für Volkskunde 104 (2):166-199.

Beck, Stefan, Jörg Niewöhner, and Estrid Sørensen, eds. 2012. Science and Technology Studies. Eine sozialanthropologische Einführung Bielefeld Transcript.

Bierschenk, Thomas, Matthias Krings, and Carola Lentz. 2016. „World Anthropology with an Accent: The Discipline in Germany since the 1970s.“  American Anthropologist:n/a-n/a. doi: 10.1111/aman.12535.

Fassin, Didier. 2009. “Another Politics of Life is Possible.”  Theory, Culture & Society 26 (5):44-60.

Laboratory: Anthropology of Environment|Human Relations, eds. 2019a. After Practice. Thinking through Matter(s) and Meaning Relationally. Volume I. Berlin: Panama.

Laboratory: Anthropology of Environment|Human Relations, eds. 2019b. After Practice. Thinking through Matter(s) and Meaning Relationally. Volume II. Berlin: Panama.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.”  Critical Inquiry 30 (2):225-248.

Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice: Duke University Press.

Niewöhner, Jörg. 2016. “Co-laborative Anthropology. Crafting Reflexivities Experimentally.” In Etnologinen tulkinta ja analyysi. Kohti avoimempaa tutkimusprosessia, edited by Jukka Joukhi and Tytti Steel, 81-125. Tallinn: Ethnos.

Niewöhner, Jörg, and Margaret Lock. 2018. “Situating local biologies: Anthropological perspectives on environment/human entanglements.”  BioSocieties. doi: 10.1057/s41292-017-0089-5.

Stavrianakis, Anthony. 2009. What is an Anthropology of the Contemporary? Field Statement (Concept Labor), no. 1, April 2009.

Welz, Gisela. 2013. “Europa: Ein Kontinent—zwei Ethnologien? [Europe: One Continent—Two Anthropologies?].” In Ethnologie im 21. Jahrhundert [Anthropology in the 21st century], edited by Thomas Bierschenk, Matthias  Krings and Carola Lentz, 211–228. Berlin: Reimer.

Controversies or public problems? Open questions and research proposals

Figure 1: “Traffic Accident Statistical Form (Observatoire National Interministériel de la Sécurité Routière (2015) La sécurité routière en France. Bilan de l’accidentalité de l’année 2014. Paris: La Documentation française, p. 118).”

Controversies or public problems? Open questions and research proposals

Public problems and controversies usually refer to two traditions of social sciences. The first one focuses on processes through which private issues transform into collective concerns and raise interest among politicians. Its most classical case studies include civil rights or environmental issues. The second tradition refers to conflicts related to science and technology in society. It underlines the role of scientific reasoning on highly debated topics such as nuclear waste or big data. I argue that the two research perspectives, as different as they are, could gain in analytical depth and precision from one another. My paper is an attempt to illustrate this through some research projects developed over the past ten years on traffic safety and smart cities in France and the United States. 

From controversy to public problem: a struggle for political order 

What is wrong with traffic safety statistics? The question seems legitimate for anyone who reads for the first time the statistical form used by state officials to report accidents in France. Indeed, every possible characteristic of the crash appears recordable and accessible in a standardized format, from age and sex of the driver to profession and blood alcohol concentration, date, time and place of the accident, light conditions, road design or vehicle type. Physicians, however, expressed criticism in the early years of the new millennium. More precisely, they opposed engineers in a growing dispute on data collection. Borrowing from Dorothy Nelkin (1979), I studied this controversy as a lens to reveal some hidden assumptions of scientists in the field of traffic safety. I realized that physicians asked for data on injuries, as they wanted to prevent first and foremost the most severe crashes, rather than accidents in general. State engineers, in turn, focused on roadway design to cope with what they perceived as the core structure of the problem. That was how the two groups expressed and reaffirmed some core values of their professional communities.

The study went on with a sociological analysis of the media, to understand how journalists selected their sources to write about the debate. It helped to go beyond some naïve appreciations of science and its diffusion, to emphasize precisely some specific norms and practices related to science communication (Lewenstein, 1992). More specifically, the study showed that journalists were active players in the controversy, not only as obligatory passage points for the debate, but also as tacit promoters of another viewpoint on the issue, different from that of physicians and engineers. Indeed, they draw on their day-to-day experience with the news to underline a matter of drivers’ behaviors and discipline. The words used in the press articles, as a consequence, reflected a problem of individuals, rather than of roads or vehicles, with people actually not injured or dead, but deliberately “maimed” and “killed.” Such a disciplinary stance relied on the testimony of police officers presented as the experts on the issue. This analysis helped to reveal another professional community involved in the debate, besides those of engineers and physicians, with spokespersons from state police asking for data on cell phone use or drug abuse, for instance. This contributed to set the stage for a typical study of a scientific controversy, with competing groups and professional values made visible through a public dispute. 

The analysis gained depth when confronted with some classic works in sociology of public problems. In that scientific domain, traffic safety is not a minor topic of interest. It rather stands as a major theme of investigation after the publication of Joseph Gusfield’s Culture of Public Problems (1981). In his book, the sociologist investigated how a private practice, that of drinking before driving, became a public problem in the United States. His research proved seminal in many ways, as he proposed to consider as “public” an issue not only made “visible” or transformed as a matter of “collective” concern, but also developed as an “institutional” theme of interest. The approach led him to highlight the processes through which political responsibility was distributed for the cause and the treatment of problems. Indeed, even if actors may not be aware of their own conceptual biases as regard to the definition of accident, toward a question of vehicles, of roads or individuals, they all enter into a competition for some scarce public resources, to see their priorities become political (Neveu, 2015). Through that process, a plurality of possible realities tends to disappear, as only one definition of the legitimate question and its realistic answer remains in the end (Best, 1995 [1989]). To Gusfield, as a result, public problems are powerful sources of legitimization or de-legitimization of the existing political order.

This brings new light on the study of controversies related to science and technology in society. In the case of traffic safety, it helps to uncover some political programs beyond competing claims for objectivity. Physicians, for instance, had been advocating for years, long before I started fieldwork, for a reallocation of public funding to injury control, through meetings and talks in academic arenas and professional societies. Their proposal, however, faced opposition from state engineers, as they struggled to save resources for road maintenance at a time when public budgets began to shrink. They also confronted indifference, not to say resistance, from journalists intimately convinced that safety was a matter of individual discipline, to be dealt with police officers rather than physicians. The controversy on accident statistics, then, became a struggle for political visibility, to end up either with the recognition of the existing order, or with a profound reordering of traffic safety policies. Some similar processes seem to prevail in other domains of interest for science and technology scholars. As regard to nanotechnologies, for instance, Brice Laurent argues that political order is necessarily at stake, when scientific objects become a problem to be debated beyond laboratories and universities (2017). It is a sign, to me, that scholars interested in science and technology in society could find great interest in developing an in-depth dialogue with sociologists working on public problems.

Figure 2: “Parking in DC (Photograph by the author, 28 July 2018).”

From public problem to controversy: the social production of credibility

Sociologists interested in public problems, in turn, might also want to build bridges with science and technology scholars. To make it clear, I will use a case study related to so-called smart cities, on which I have had the opportunity to work on at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées and the Université Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, together with sociologists and historians of the Laboratoire Techniques, Territoires et Sociétés (LATTS, UMR 8134). “Smart cities” usually refer to the development of connected cities, where the dissemination of numerical technologies brings a series of new public and private services to enhance the citizens’ experience of urban life. Their promoters often present them as the solution to a wide variety of problems in the United States. The spread of numerical technologies, to them, would help to treat environmental issues, for instance, through real-time energy management. It could also bring security to the most insecure places, with police officers likely to access new sensors and monitoring devices. These arguments tend to draw political attention on smart cities as the solution to some highly debated issues, which, to me, make them an interesting case study for the analysis of public problems.

Who are the promoters of the smart city, and how do they manage to make it a solution to public problems? Scientists and engineers may have their word to say in the process, as science and technology seem at heart of the topic. Indeed, they could provide academic authority and legitimacy to the development of smart cities, most notably through scientific writing, to depersonalize claims and universalize projects that would otherwise be difficult to disseminate (Henry, 2017). It would seem easy to them, for instance, to play on the apparent complexity of sensors or data mining, deliberately or not, to create a hyper-technical and obscure discourse on the topic. That would be a perfect way to raise the entry cost for new comers in the debate, and make sure no strong criticism from non-scientists could develop easily, as show in other cases (Comby, 2015). I could not find any such practices, however, as regard to smart cities, which led me to search for alternative options to study scientific involvement in the field.

Back to the academic literature on controversies, I realized that scientific authority was not even central, most often, in the processes through which scientists get approval or credit from non-scientists. Scholars interested in science and technology rather emphasize a need for the engineers, for instance, to translate their claims, to rephrase and to problematize them to make them appealing outside of laboratories and universities. Scientific demonstrations, in that sense, become political, as they develop to convince a public and to attract allies for the scientists (Barry, 1999). Even in the Silicon Valley, where science and technology may seem most legitimate and unquestionable, researchers and engineers engage very frequently into public “demos” of their work and projects, not only to secure funding or get recognition, but also to coordinate and create routines to interact with non-scientists (Rosental, 2002). Scientists do not always encourage these practices. They can even resist them, depending on their academic positions and social trajectories. Most often, however, they end up adapting to the targeted public and modifying some pieces of their initial research project. Such a result is a reminder that, in many cases, scientists and non-scientists have to “co-produce” science and technology to gain technical credibility and social legitimacy (Jasanoff, 2004). 

This is an interesting point to keep in mind, while investigating the interactions between scientists and city officials working on smart cities in the United States. Through interviews and field observations, indeed, I could realize that information specialists tried first, a few years ago, to impose their projects to municipal bureaucrats. As they faced resistance, however, they decided then to adapt to some of the needs of their counterparts within city councils. It led them to define a new discourse and to develop new practices on smart cities, as the solution to some specific public problems (Bernardin, 2018). The analysis echoes that of scholars interested in a broader history of urban technologies and their relation to municipal governments. To me, it comes as a confirmation that sociologists working on public problems could learn a lot from science and technology studies, to better understand the processes through which experts can gain or lose social legitimacy over time. 




Barry A (1999) Demonstrations: sites and sights of direct action. Economy and Society 28 (1): 75-94. 

Bernardin S (2018) De l’audace technique à la conformation politique ? Quelques hypothèses de retour de la Silicon Valley. Quaderni. Communication, technologies, pouvoir 96: 43-57.

Best J (ed) (1995 [1989]) Images of Issues. Typifying Contemporary Social Problems. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Comby J-B (2015) La Question climatique. Genèse et dépolitisation d’un problème public. Paris: Raisons d’Agir. 

Gusfield J (1981) The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking Driving and the Symbolic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Henry E (2017) Ignorance scientifique et inaction publique. Les politiques de santé au travail. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po.

Jasanoff S (ed) (2004) States of Knowledge. The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. London: Routledge.

Laurent B (2017) Democratic experiments: Problematizing nanotechnology and democracy in Europe and the United States, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lewenstein B (ed) (1992) When Science Meets the Public. Washington: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Nelkin D (ed) (1979) Controversy: The Politics of Technical Decisions. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Neveu E (2015) Sociologie politique des problèmes publics. Paris: Armand Colin. 

Rosental C (2002) De la démo-cratie en Amérique. Formes actuelles de la démonstration en intelligence artificielle. Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 141-142(1-2): 110-120.

Assembling artificial natures for new socio-technical worlds?

Making snow on indoor ski slopes, growing cherry tomatoes in western Iceland, recreating tropical rainforests in central Paris… The capacity to create and control strategically useful and productive microclimatic conditions within indoor enclosed ecologies may well be a significant key shift in human – environment relations. As the planet’s climate experts cast doubt yet again on our collective ability to urgently and appropriately respond to clear signals that global warming is happening and its deleterious effects are becoming ever more widespread1, there seems to be a somewhat paradoxical focus on fashioning artificial environments for leisure, food production and botanical display that bear little or no resemblance to either the setting in which they are developed or the original milieu from which they take their inspiration. These ‘arks’ thus constitute a new, highly selective form of urban environment in which boundaries between inside and outside come to represent nothing less than priorities and choices about the types of species, spaces and activities of humanity worth saving and those which can be discarded in an already emerging, uncertain and turbulent future.

Tracing the processes and practices through which these emerging environments are constituted is thus at once crucial, fascinating and, as is habitual in STS, worthy of close attention for understanding how inherently socio-technical worlds come to be. In this short article, I explore two brief examples of emerging enclosed ecologies which are reliant on technology deployment to create, what are claimed as, efficient conditions for the activities they sustain.

Creating new and improved nature

With climate change creating uncertainty over future land availability and agricultural productivity, there are increasing attempts to transfer the rationales and practices of precision agriculture into urban areas in a variety of ways to provide control and greater efficiency of the growing environment. AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey is, for example, using “a completely controlled environment… [to] take indoor vertical farming to a new level of precision and productivity with minimal environmental impact and virtually zero risk”.2 Taking over a former industrial building it has almost 70,000 square feet of space for growing salad greens and other plants on twelve stacked layers each eighty feet long.3 This is ‘closed loop’ aeroponic farming which provides plants with water, nutrients and oxygen by spraying a mist over their roots, thus using 70% less water than hydroponic farming (which itself uses 70% less water than normal farming), and substituting a patented and reusable artificial fabric cloth for soil: “If crops can be raised without soil and with a much reduced weight of water, you can move their beds more easily and stack them high”.4 AeroFarms balances the place specificity of being based in Newark with a desire to replicate its model to fit other urban contexts using algorithms, sensing devices, CO2 enriching and bespoke LED lighting technology that totally controls the environment it is configuring: “The technology it uses derives partly from systems designed to grow crops on the moon. The interior space is its own sealed-off world; nothing inside the vertical-farm buildings is uncontrolled… In short, each plant grows at the pinnacle of a trembling heap of tightly focused and hypersensitive data”.5 The advantages for AeroFarms are multiple: “We have optimized our patented aeroponic growing system for faster harvest cycles, predictable results, superior food safety and less environmental impact”.6 Given the high-tech process, the result is indeed a product unlike anything in ‘nature’ whereby “plants create themselves partly out of thin air”,7 and there is production of “more crops in less space while minimizing environmental damage, even if it means completely divorcing food production from the natural ecosystem” . As AeroFarms chief marketing officer argues: “Out there, in nature, we don’t have control over sunlight, rainfall, here, we are giving plants what they need to thrive”. 8

Figure 1: Precision indoor farming, Reykjavik, September 2017 (photo: Jonathan Rutherford)

Driven by the need to save land and resources and reduce pollution, such as from agricultural runoff, for future environmental planetary sustainability, but also feed a rapidly growing global urban population, many variants of this initiative – reducing the amounts needed of one or more of sun, soil and water – are seeing the light of day in cities around the world (see figure 1). And the logics, practices and techniques are becoming ever more diffuse and democratized beyond experiment and scientific expertise into the lay domestic realm. For example, having teamed up with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Ikea now sells a range of hydroponic indoor gardening technology kits complete with seeds, nutrients and LED lights. These kits are deliberately aimed at apartment dwelling citizens across the world who do not have direct access to outside gardens.9 Through these initiatives, large-scale farming previously done beyond the city is being brought or rescaled into urban areas and into the home, creating new ‘insides’ that aim to alleviate the problems of, and therefore improve on, increasingly turbulent unsustainable ‘outsides’.

Snow as infrastructure: making the perfect piste every day

Indoor ski centres are becoming ever more popular across the UK, Europe and North America as skiers of different ages and abilities seek exact, guaranteed, all year long and locationally convenient conditions in which to practice on the piste.

But the novelty and diffusion of these centres shrouds the sheer complexity of the infrastructure systems required to reproduce Alpine conditions in an urban indoors in Manchester or Hemel Hempstead. The snow has to be actually produced on a daily basis with precise physical qualities as well as in sufficient quantities, while there is a constant struggle to keep the ambient temperature at the right level (-2C during the day and -8C at night). The scale of the enterprise is astounding – this is a veritable industrial ecology of leisure with a series of inputs and circulations of material flows (water, ammonia, glycol, cooling, condensers and so on) to allow skiing to take place in a manufactured and controlled setting which transcends the climatic, seasonal and topographic limits of the immediate environment.

Much of the preparation and maintenance of the whole system is done at night, and involves a surprisingly substantial amount of actual human labour. It takes 8 people to move equipment and décor to get the machines and ploughs in. “Every night, our snow machines pump out 10 tonnes of snow to keep it fresh”.10 But the slope then has to be ‘groomed’ and the computer monitored control of the snow on the slope is backed up by somebody double checking every square meter for depth and quality. Then the snow has to rest to harden up for 7 hours before ‘use’. As the facilities manager for the Manchester centre summarises: “My primary objective is to maintain the snow conditions. It’s a very fine balancing act, but we maintain a level of 400mm of snow, and a lot of work goes into that”.11 The complex maintenance procedure was foregrounded when the facility was forced to close temporarily in February 2017 due to poor snow conditions.12

These centres resemble ‘boxes’ as their protected, controlled settings become crucial to create the precise conditions for snow making: an insulated structure, air conditioning to circulate cold air, chilled water supply, a slope with a glycol antifreeze cooling system underlay, liquid ammonia storage tank. The process resembles the natural process of snowfall (‘clouds’, ‘tiny particles’, ‘snow crystal formation’)13 but filters out extraneous elements and the unreliability of not knowing when it is going to snow. There are considerable environmental externalities to these centres which consume huge amounts of energy and other resources on a daily basis, often requiring their own electricity substations and water provision. This is a new form of closed loop industrial ecology bringing into being a synthetic leisure space which resembles the conventional outdoor activity but actually constitutes something else and new, as demonstrated by the increasing number of people who now regularly ski indoors without ever skiing outdoors. The remarkable thing about this process is that there are now a number of ski resorts in the Alps and elsewhere actually using similar systems to produce artificial snow for their slopes when there is a natural shortfall.14 The recreation of outdoors indoors is now being taken back outdoors, the simulacrum is reality.

Figure 2: Indoor ski centre with artificial snow, Manchester, March 2018 (photo: Jonathan Rutherford)

Urban anthropogenic futures?

These two brief examples demonstrate a close focus on what can be called the infrastructuralisation of new enclosed ecologies. A set of intertwined socio-technical processes underpin enclosed spaces by introducing and reinforcing logics of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control through technology. What an urban STS perspective foregrounds is how this infrastructuralisation is materially (concretely and politically) done in and across a wide range of cities to allow the work of enclosure to take place for particular productive purposes, while excluding that which is not required or is less desirable. It thus begins to uncover some of the contradictions and consequences of this development, which will demand further critical interrogation.

If this appears to be something out of space age experimentation or science fiction, then that’s because it is. The knowledge, techniques and practices of enclosure, experiment, manipulation and improvement behind these new ecologies have circulated and transmuted into the urban arena from other domains including biospheric engineering, the technoscience of space exploration and precision agriculture. In critically exploring both the hybridization of insides and outsides and technology and ecology, and the crossovers between distinct domains of expertise, knowledge production and life support, developing an understanding of these controlled environments is crucial for navigating and forging possible urban and human futures in the anthropocene.15 This area of research pushes at and looks beyond the traditional boundaries and settings of the city in order to develop new ways of understanding human-technology relations on a turbulent planet.



1 See IPCC (2018) Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/ 

2 http://aerofarms.com/

3 “The willingness of a certain kind of customer to pay a lot for salad justifies the investment, and after the greens get the business up and running its technology will be adapted for other crops, eventually feeding the world or a major fraction of it. That is the vision”, Frazier, I. (2017) “The vertical farm.” The New Yorker (9 January 2017).

4  Op.cit.

5  Op.cit.

6  See http://aerofarms.com/technology/ 

7  Frazier, op.cit.

8  Vyawahare, M. (2016) “World’s largest vertical farm grows without soil, sunlight or water in Newark.” The Guardian (14 August 2016).

9  See http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/products/indoor-gardening/

10  https://www.chillfactore.com/10th-anniversary/

11  https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/business/ever-wondered-how-snow-made-13021752 

12 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/ski/news/uk-longest-indoor-ski-slope-chill-factore-closes-due-to-poor-snow/

13 “Just like on the mountains, indoor snow is made using a cold environment, water and air… In the mountains, crystals are found in the clouds before they turn to snowflakes, these pure crystals are also what falls on The Snow Centre’s Slopes at night”: https://www.thesnowcentre.com/snowsure/news/how-snow-is-made-indoors 

14 See https://www.economist.com/news/business/21716659-some-italian-ski-resorts-now-get-complete-coverage-snow-guns-snow-making-companies

15 See Marvin, S. & Rutherford, J., 2018, ‘Controlled environments: an urban research agenda on microclimatic enclosure’, Urban Studies 55(6), 1143-1162.

LATTS’s stories: Exploring the infrastructuration of organizations, cities and societies

LATTS is a multidisciplinary research centre exploring the emergence and evolution of the complex sociotechnical systems that support, or “infrastructure”, modern societies, with a particular interest in networked infrastructures: the systems handling the material and informational flows upon which societies increasingly rest. For doing so, LATTS researchers have privileged a mesoscopic approach centred on relevant organizations: the sociotechnical organizations operating these systems and the productive, territorial or political organizations dependent upon these systems. Collectively, they have cultivated a spatial orientation; i.e. a specific interest for the organization of space and the management of spatialized organizations. Over the years, LATTS developed distinctive sociotechnical understandings of the processes at play, through ad hoc combinations of science and technology studies (STS), sociology of organizations, political science, human geography and history.

Technical systems, infrastructures, territorialities: from the production of space to a sociotechnical perspective on contemporary societies

Created in 1985, LATTS (Laboratoire Techniques, Territoires et Sociétés; or, Technologies, Territories and Societies) is a multidisciplinary humanities and social science research centre, which brings together sociologists, political scientists, historians and « spatialists » (geographers, planners, architects…) studying the complex sociotechnical systems upon which the large productive, territorial or political organizations in current (and past) societies rest. LATTS results from the integration of two groups: one group based in the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (ENPC, allegedly one of the oldest civil engineering schools in the world, created in 1747) studying engineers and their role in organizations (firms, public administrations, public utilities) and the other based in Université Paris 12 (now Université Paris-Est Créteil) studying urban management with a particular emphasis on networked infrastructure systems (water, energy, transport, telecommunications…).

The initial ambition of LATTS was to provide novel understandings of both the spatialization of productive activities (through a combination of economic geography and sociology of firms) and the production of (especially urban) spaces. The centre’s founders (Henri Coing, Gabriel Dupuy and Pierre Veltz) aimed at moving beyond, or beside, the then still largely prevailing neomarxist approach (Lefebvre, Castells, Godard). A foundational choice was to research these processes through the study of relevant organizations. It allowed to develop, so to speak, a mesoscopic perspective on spatial and urban change, distinct both from “macroscopic”, structuralist approaches just mentioned and from “microscopic”, interactionist approaches centred on the actions of, and relations between, individual actors. This choice was indeed fully consistent with LATTS’s strong connection to an engineering school. And indeed, since its inception, LATTS has been interested in the deeds and the (changing) worlds of engineers and engineering, in particular networked infrastructures: the complex sociotechnical systems handling the material and informational flows upon which modern societies increasingly rest. 

This interest for the organizations operating the sociotechnical mediations essential in and for modern societies fuelled from the start the attraction of LATTS researchers toward the then emerging STS community. Indeed they shared, and still share, with other STS scholars a number of convictions: they take technology seriously, but they do not consider that society is determined by allegedly autonomous scientific and technological progress; they believe that technologies are socially shaped, and at the same time they are convinced that technologies in use (Edgerton 2006) produce social effects (much) beyond the particular contexts in which they were initially developed, and they agree that « the material world is not a simple reflection of human will, and (…) one cannot make sense of the history of technology if the material world is seen as infinitely plastic and tractable. » (MacKenzie et Wajcman, 1999, p. 24). In short, they believe that society and technology coevolve; they can be regarded as soft technological determinists. 

The relevance of this sociotechnical positioning was comforted over the years by the increasingly complex forms of technicization at play within contemporary societies. In fact, as a result of these evolutions, humanities and social sciences have demonstrated a growing interest in the technological, the material and, relatedly, the ecological dimension(s) of the world.

In this context, STS research and debates within the STS community offered, and still offer today, valuable intellectual resources, epistemologically, theoretically, methodologically, and even politically. In particular, along with many other STS scholars, LATTS researchers have:

  • Postulated that, in order to account for the social significance of complex sociotechnical systems beyond generally oversimplifying conventional understandings (and even ideological discourses), it was necessary to “open the black box” of technologies and analyse in detail the practices associated with them. Even though it is obviously not a necessary condition to study technology, it is worth noting here that a majority of LATTS researchers were initially trained as engineers, and some as architects, hence possessing an early acquired familiarity with the internal working of (some) technology;
  • Challenged prevailing conceptions that technological change, especially pertaining to large technological systems, should result in unmediated, systematic and uniform effects on social activities, societies and space. In particular, they have documented the variegated configurations of the dynamic relations between infrastructure systems and the territories they serve, emphasizing the crucial mediating role played by stakeholder organizations (state or local administrations, public or private utility companies, etc.) in shaping these relations;
  • Been particularly concerned with the political dimension of technologies and technological change, by examining, for example: which social interest support which technological options; who are the winners and losers of a specific “technological choice”; what the attention to the politics of technological choices helps us understand about society (as well as about technology); how the “effects” of a technological choice are produced and what are the political implications of the mediation processes at play; and, from a more reflexive perspective, what possibilities of action and intervention are made possible by the type of “sociotechnical knowledge” produced. 

This meso sociotechnical perspective has been preserved until today. LATTS researchers are convinced that the study of the emergence and evolution of the complex sociotechnical systems that support, or “infrastructure”, our increasingly interconnected but uncertain, unequal and informalized world remains highly relevant. And they are convinced that this study requires evidence-based and comparative research aimed at revealing the combined influence of institutional arrangements, tools and instruments, and variegated forms of knowledges on effective practices. 

This sociotechnical perspective has been applied to the study of the changes that affect the functioning of urbanized areas, public administrations or manufacturing or service-oriented organizations, and it is gradually extended to the study of evolutions in everyday practices. In the remainder of this short piece, we would like to illustrate how this perspective has allowed LATTS researchers to develop specific approaches and to produce novel insights on the organization of space and the management of spatialized organizations. Indeed, this “spatial concern” is probably what is most characteristic in LATTS’s contribution to the STS community.


Residential Seminar in June 2017, Buttes de Chaumont, Paris. Photo Valery Barré

The spatialities of large technical systems

LATTS has a long tradition of research on large technical systems (LTSs) and a large number of LATTS researchers and doctoral students have been involved in this undertaking. LATTS’s specific take on LTSs has been to explore the mutual relations between the development and management of LTSs on the one hand and the organization and functioning of territories, as well as processes of spatialization, on the other. 

Early work on these issues within LATTS emphasized the dialectical and dynamic relation between the institutional spaces defined and delimited by political bodies (states, local governments) and the living spaces largely produced by technical networks or infrastructures; in what variegated ways this relation affects modern forms of territoriality (a term by which we mean, broadly speaking, how societies are organizing in space); and how variations in this relation could be accounted for by studying the work of the organizations concerned. In doing so, LATTS researchers have early on reconceptualized “local” contexts as, in fact, cross-scalar (“from local to global”) and at the same time shaping and shaped by the development of networked infrastructure systems. On a more generic level, they have emphasized the mutual reinforcement over time (since the early nineteenth century) between the development of networked infrastructures and the growing importance of networked forms of territoriality, i.e. forms of spatial organization increasingly resting on relations in space based on (distant) connections rather than, or in combination with, relations based on spatial proximity. They have criticized still influential discourses emphasizing (spatially) structuring effects of transport infrastructures, which assume that improved accessibility necessarily results in enhanced economic development, and discourses emphasizing despatialization effects of telecommunications networks. 

LATTS researchers have also sought to account for the diverse forms of development, governance and management of infrastructure systems, showing that they result from national or local community-specific combinations of knowledge, history, institutions, and forms of economic development and sociopolitical organization. They have challenged “endogenous” models or understandings of the development of these infrastructure networks, which assumed the overarching influence of a drive for ever-increasing interconnection and the systematic prevalence of the “most efficient” technologies. 

More specifically, LATTS researchers have contributed to studies of the networked city and networked urbanism; and to the understanding of the contemporary urban as having to do with the size, density and diversity of connections rather than solely with the size, density and diversity of population and activities as the conventional wisdom held. This in turn has important implications on the conceptualization of urban powers, inequalities, and on the understanding of the urban condition more generally. LATTS researchers and doctoral students have contributed to the debate raised by the very influential splintering urbanism thesis (Graham and Marvin 2001), challenging its over-generalizing character, and discussing the methodological causes and the debatable normative implications of this over-generalization. They have explored the urban “beyond” the networked city. And they are actively exploring, more generally, the urban politics of the contemporary transformations of infrastructures, the rise (or rebirth) of small-scale networks or facilities, the resulting hybridization of incumbent sociotechnical systems, and the growing influence of forms of urbanization alternative to the modernist networked city. 


Residential Seminar in June 2017, Buttes de Chaumont, Paris. Photo Valery Barré

Urban risks and infrastructures: a multi-scale, multi-risk approach 

Risk and crisis studies have been developed within LATTS relatively early on, but they have gained momentum since the early 2010s with the start of several collective research projects and the hiring of several postdocs and doctoral students. Together, these projects aim to revisit urban and environmental issues through risks and vice versa. Studying the technical worlds generated by risks and crises and the tools and mechanisms implemented by relevant actors to measure risks and manage crises allow us to think about these questions in novel ways. ‘STS glasses’ allow to capture risks beyond the conventional categories applied to them (natural, technological, social, environmental), to take into account their diverse spatiotemporal dynamics, to explore the role played by dedicated sociotechnical devices in risk and crisis management, and finally to account for the involvement and influence of heterogeneous actors (public authorities, inhabitants, private actors, etc.) involved in capturing and objectifying risks (Daston and Galison 2007). It also allows to think about risks and crisis as infrastructuring, i.e. shaping materialities, technologies and societies.

The EURIDICE project (Équipe de recherche sur les risques, dispositifs de gestion de crise et des événements majeurs; or, Research group on risks, crisis management and major events), for example, developed in collaboration with the Paris police department (préfecture de police) aimed at the observation and analysis of the management of both planned events (COP21, the EU Sequana exercise, Euro 2016) and unplanned events (the Paris attacks of 13th November 2015, Seine flood damage, oil crisis). The research crucially depended on building a lasting relationship of trust with police authorities in order to be able to observe in situ and in real time the work involved in coordinating all stakeholders in crisis management situations. The observation of a crisis management exercise (EU Sequana) about the Seine’s rising and receding floodwaters over two weeks, which brought together 87 private and public stakeholders, became the subject of a book (November & Creton-Cazanave, 2017). It shows the long process of producing a common world. The book’s originality lies in the fact that each chapter was co-written with crisis management professionals who had taken part in the exercise. 

More generally speaking, risk studies within LATTS can be grouped under three main themes:  

  • Researching the spatial footprint of risks. Although it may appear obvious that most risks have spatial effects and that they affect areas (in their political, economic as well as social dimensions), it is less often acknowledged that (urban) spaces also generate risks. And the performativity of risks, their capacity to transform spaces, is also often overlooked. These issues and their interrelations are explored under this theme.
  • Understanding risks as public problems. Analysing the measures taken to assess, monitor or manage risks and crises reveals the details of the tensions and frictions that occur within and between the concerned organisations and stakeholders. A research on the monitoring devices in safety and security systems in the railway sector showed that the main problem is not one of the (dangerous) accumulation of information but rather the processes of knowledge selection and data segregation effectuated by these systems. In other projects, crisis management exercises are analysed as a specific device of governmentality, and researchers examine the capacity of these exercises to transform over time the organisations or institutions that carry them out or stage them. Still other projects are focused on the governmental organisation of major crises and are analysing the French interministerial crisis unit. 
  • Exploring and codeveloping risk and crisis management tools. Some projects are focused more closely on the coordination tools set up in certain organisations in order to help elucidate the tensions/limitations/solutions these organizations try to resolve. For instance, LATTS researchers collaborate with actors to establish dynamic mapping tools responding to the requirements of the various public and private partnerships.
  • Within these different themes, some researchers are researching risk and crisis issues by studying the activity of professionals affected (architects, safety engineers, insurance companies experts, crisis management professionals…), while others focus on the perspectives of citizens, users or residents. 


Community Life 

LATTS has around 80 members, 30 of whom are permanent researchers. Community life here takes several forms: once a year, LATTS organises a 1-2 day residential seminar (off-campus) aimed at both team building and group work on a common theme (cf. photo of a recent residential seminar in Buttes-Chaumont, Paris). The most recent theme addressed collectively concerned infrastructure and resulted in an edited book (Chatzis et al. 2017) covering sectors as diverse as bridges, airports, water and electricity grids, submarine communication cables or IT server farms. Authors navigate between ‘smart’ infrastructure systems and longer-established ones (those originating in the first and second industrial revolutions), and some chapters study what happens to traditional infrastructure in the digital age. This diversity allows the authors to explore in greater depth what different infrastructure systems have in common and to discuss the relevance of extending the notion of infrastructure to other fields (e.g., telemedicine, architectural projects or crisis management organizations). It also allows to highlight some more generic developments, particularly with regard to the assertion of individuals within modern infrastructural landscapes, and the intrinsically political dimension of infrastructure that usually tends to remain overshadowed, in the same way that infrastructures generally tend to be buried and kept out of sight. 

A one-day conference was recently organized to celebrate LATTS’s 30th anniversary, based on a dialogue between former and current researchers of the centre. The conference was a great success with over one hundred participants. LATTS PhD students and recently arrived researchers were able to present their ideas to the laboratory’s founders and old members. Over time, empirical objects have shifted, research questions have evolved, and the relationships between technologies, territories and societies components are explored anew… but the original blend appears robust. 

Finally, let us note that LATTS members lecture in several Master programmes, mainly in urbanism, sociology, political science and geography. Among these courses, a typically STS-oriented masters course has been organised by LATTS since 2013 for the ENPC engineering students; entitled Mapping controversies in science and technology, it was developed in relation with the FORCCAST project launched by Bruno Latour a few years ago, which brings together teaching experience in controversies from around the world. 




Daston L and Galison P. (2007) Objectivity. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Edgerton D (2006) The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900. London: Profile Books.

Graham S and Marvin S 2001. Splintering urbanism: networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition. London : Routledge.

MacKenzie D and Wajcman J (1999) The social shaping of technology. 2nd ed. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Chatzis K, Jeannot G, November V and Ughetto P (Eds.) (2017). Les métamorphoses des infrastructures, entre béton et numérique. Bern: Peter Lang

Forccast (Formation par la cartographie des controverses à l’analyse des sciences et des techniques) https://medialab.sciencespo.fr/fr/projets/forccast/

November V. and Créton-Cazanave L. (Eds.) (2017). La gestion de crise à l’épreuve de l’exercice EU SEQUANA, Paris: La documentation française.

In Search of the Geopolitical and Epistemic Relocation of Czech Social Sciences

How to avoid the ‘catching up’ framework and participate in contemporary scholarly and political debates as they happen? This is a key issue for the social sciences and societies today in Central and Eastern Europe. Now that the myth about the West being a source of ready-made solutions has been shattered, CEE scholars need to work towards making conceptual and theoretical contributions that draw on the specificity but avoid the essentialisation of the Eastern geopolitical and epistemic location.

After the transformation of the political and economic regime started in November 1989, the country – Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic – was searching for a way to articulate its own geopolitical, as well as its epistemic, location. While ‘capitalism’ was not the preferred option of the majority of the population (people favoured more a ‘mixed economy’, as was revealed in a rare public opinion poll on this issue in the early 1990s), the consensus about heading ‘West’ and ‘back to Europe’ prevailed as the desired geopolitical direction. Importantly, this consensus was shared across social classes and regions in the country.

This new situation was of course reflected in and by the social sciences, which have played an important role in this relocation process of the country. Some social scientists and philosophers – who had been part of official research institutions or active in political dissent – became new MPs or even members of government (these were in most cases economists), others worked (part time) contributing commentary to major newspapers, and yet others obtained expert positions in various public bodies. In academia, an influential stream of ‘transition research’ was established, concerned with issues of the country’s ‘distance’ and ‘delay’ behind the developed West and with what was the best course of action to ‘catch up’.

The ‘lagging behind/catching up’ framing was interesting for and supported by a number of Western scholars and foundations and opened up opportunities to publish work or take up research fellowships abroad (i.e. at Western universities and academic centres). The interest in this ‘country in transition’ from some Western scholars drew to some extent on their pre-1989 connections in socialist Czechoslovakia, which they had viewed as a laboratory in which to test the (failings of) socialism (Bockman and Eyal 2002). Conversely, many Czech scholars who had emigrated from socialist Czechoslovakia to the West made their careers in part by providing testimony directly from that ‘lab’. In post-1989 collaborations, the Czech social sciences were then to deliver the data that were to be incorporated into conceptualisations and theories developed in Western academia. And in the wider field of public policy-making and debates, many existing policies were dismissed as socialist and abandoned, with the help of international experts and local ones, newly trained in the West. Interestingly, as Jehlicka and Smith (2012), for example, have argued with respect to practices of self-subsistence and community agriculture, some of the policies and practices dismissed as supposedly “socialist” in the Czech Republic have meanwhile come to be viewed and supported as largely innovative in the West.

The catching-up framing was not without criticism. Feminist researchers and activists in particular had been uncomfortable since the early 1990s with being ‘lectured’ on women’s emancipation and gender equality. They highlighted genuine local histories of women’s rights (the implementation of which in many respects preceded developments in the post-WWII West). However, catching-up framing embraced by the Czech social sciences remained ascendant. In some respects, this was convenient for local scholars, who could use this framing, for example, to position themselves legibly within EU research consortia. While the place of Czech members of these consortia may have varied, it was definitely difficult for a Czech participant to get out of the position of being a kind of pupil whose role is to supply data on a ‘backward/underdeveloped’ country and who herself is supposed to learn the standards of good social research (Stöckelová 2016).

This is not to say there was not much to learn from our Western colleagues. European ideas, initiatives, and resources supported and drove many useful domestic developments, including the support for critical and activist streams of social research. However, the unquestioned equating of quality with the ‘West’, as was witnessed with respect to the criteria used in research assessment, had negative consequences, such as a drift away from locally relevant social research (Stöckelová 2012; for evidence of similar phenomena in Spain, see López Piñeiro and Hicks 2015). In wider social contexts, the uncritical promotion of the West promulgated in the mainstream media and political debates, along with the unequal distribution of opportunities across the country’s regions and social and professional groups to benefit from EU funds surely contributed to the currently very high level of Euroscepticism in the Czech population (CVVM 2018).

No contribution without convolution

As female researchers who entered academia in the new millennia, we definitely belong to a class, generation, and gender that hugely benefitted from the alignment with the West. We have participated in a number of EU projects where we have learnt a lot; and by publishing in impact factor (Western) journals we have managed to secure relatively stable jobs and recognition for what mainstream Czech social sciences would deem our slightly ‘weird’ research agendas. This author is indeed writing this essay during a research fellowship at the Copenhagen Business School, supported by an international mobility grant provided under the EU Operational Programme Research, Development and Education. We feel at home in Europe, as citizens and researchers. However, for us this primarily means that we want to contribute something original and valuable to international debates, which are still largely centred in the West, but are hopefully moving towards becoming more provincialized (Lin, Law 2014; Law, Lin 2017; Stöckelová, Klepal 2018), with less clear-cut borders, centres, and peripheries. To achieve this, we need to appreciate the unique localised experiences that exist in the society we live in, without, on the one hand, seeing the difference as indicative of backwardness in relation to Western Europe or, on the other hand, essentialising it as something incommensurable with the West. This is, of course, more easily said than done.

We have taken two steps in this respect. The easier one, at least conceptually though not necessarily politically, was to reshape the way we relate to the West in domestic discussions. This is what we have been striving for ever since the KNOWING project.[1] The internationalisation (i.e. Westernisation) of research has been seen as a desirable aim for science since the 1990s – first by a group of, mainly, natural scientists (many of whom had experience abroad in the 1990s or even before 1989) and later by policy-makers and in research policies. This largely manifested itself in the imperative of IF publication as an unquestioned proxy for quality. Western academia tended to be idealised as a utopian place where quality science is produced and research policies work smoothly to support excellence. These policies were referred to as a model to be imitated, and were imagined as a source of ready-made solutions to adopt. With this image paving the way, quantitative, IF-centred research evaluation started to be implemented in the 2000s. When, a little later, players in local industry succeeded in influencing research policies and evaluation frameworks in favour of ‘applied research’ and ‘innovation’, to the detriment of more fundamental research projects in universities and public research institutions, the academic community protested by pointing to local parochial interests and, again, citing Western standards (Linková, Stöckelová 2012). All sides in this dispute, however, kept referring to the West as a model, and international actors, such as Technopolis Group, were invited to serve as supposedly disinterested and most competent arbiters. The dispute then was basically over different interpretations of Western research policies, which were imagined by all as unproblematic.

We set out to elaborate a different position. Based on our research experience from the KNOWING project and current STS literature, we have been well aware of many problems, tensions, and struggles that exist in Western academia and we looked for and experimented with various ways in which to make these a part of the Czech debate. Our book, published in as outcome from the KNOWING project, titled Czech science in flux: the ethnography of making, administering and enterprising knowledge in the academy (Stöckelová 2009), is intended to do just this: to situate Czech developments and disputes over research policy within the context of wider international questions and struggles. In 2009 we also organised a half-day conference in the Senate of the Parliament, where we invited our British colleague from the KNOWING project, Lisa Garforth, to give a keynote – not on the ideal British model but on the problems and tensions surrounding research assessment! However, we were (then) regarded as too junior and perhaps too (female) gender-marked to attract serious attention from senior policy-makers and research managers. Even today our mission is an ongoing exercise, and, somewhat paradoxically, the biggest impact is still made by ‘importing’ senior Western scholars to talk about problems (we have hosted, for example, Paul Wouters and Sarah de Rijcke, Alan Irwin and Maja Horst or Barbara Adam). It is only recently that the Czech academic community started to acknowledge (with the help of such initiatives as the San Francisco declaration and the Leiden Manifesto) that the West is not a source of ready-made solutions or salvation but is a dynamic space of experimentations and struggles that we have no other option but to join.

The second, more difficult step has to do with developing analytical languages and research strategies that can actively engage with (Western) social theory and conceptualisations in critical terms, while avoiding the traps of the supposed incommensurability and essentialisation of our location (which, in our view, to some extent happened to Law and Lin (2014) when they tried to draw ‘lessons from a Chinese Medical Practice’ for STS; for more on this, see Stöckelová and Klepal 2018). This requires steering clear of grand explanatory schemes (about Socialism, Postsocialism or even Totalitarianism, as well as Democracy and Capitalism) and meticulously attending to the empirical specifics of and similarities and differences between various socio-material, political, and discursive terrains. Applying symmetrical analytical vocabularies to supposedly incommensurable realities is a classic strategy of actor network theory (and after), and this strategy definitely proved useful in our studies.

But this is not enough. Our aspiration has been to derail and rephrase some of the social sciences’ established concepts in the light of our empirical material and also to perhaps come up with new ones, which would not, however, thereby lose their potential to speak to international audiences. Speaking from one of the ‘other epistemic places’ (Garforth and Stöckelová 2012), we tried to critically reappraise the notion of immutable mobiles (Stöckelová 2012). We argued that science policies and science studies largely share an understanding of scientific knowledge and objects as immutable mobiles, and an analysis of research assessment in a non-Anglophone country and its effects on the social sciences can shed new light on this shared notion. The preference for immutable mobiles in assessment regimes pushes social scientists to publish in specialised, usually Anglophone journals, which can have the effect of diminishing the local relevance of the knowledge they produce and contributing to the global convergence of societies (Stöckelová 2012).

We also sought to relate a conversation about the phenomenon of ‘predatory publishing’ in so-called ‘developing research systems’ to the ongoing debates about and concerns with the research assessment, publication productivity, and audit culture that currently preoccupies Western academia, and argued for the need for translocal and inclusive open-access collaborations and initiatives extending beyond the West (Stöckelová and Vostal 2017). Most recently, based on our study of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in the Czech lands in the 20th and 21st centuries, we also reconsidered the notion of biomedicalisation. We argue that the CAM practices we examined can play a pioneering role in advancing some of the processes described as ‘biomedicalisation’ by Clarke and colleagues (2003, 2010) and that the concept of biomedicalisation may thus be misleading in how it explicitly links significant transformations in current health-care practices to biomedicine alone (Klepal, Stöckelová, forthcoming).

It is interesting to observe that such efforts resonate in some ways with wider political developments in the country. After years of a deadlock between two rather extreme, though in fact passive positions of either preaching for or rejecting the EU (with the rejection side receiving a huge boost from the recent ‘immigration crisis’), the current Prime Minister set out to articulate a different position and relationship to the EU – one of actively engaging in and shaping the EU’s agendas. Such an active stance and sustained efforts aimed at the sensible use of incoming EU funds, which would clearly benefit a wide share of the population, are the only long-term and robust ways of getting away from Czech Euroscepticism. We indeed believe that articulating a location outside the dichotomy of either ‘catching up with the West’ or essentialising ‘our’ Post/Socialist (Czech or Central European) difference and claiming exceptionalism is crucial not only for intellectual reasons but also in wider political terms.


This essay was written with the support of a grant for the project ‘The international mobility of researchers of the Institute of Sociology, Czech Academy of Sciences’ (no. CZ.02.2.69/0.0/0.0/16_027/0008471) awarded by the EU Operational Programme Research, Development and Education.

[1] KNOWING was a project conducted within the 6th Framework Programme with partners from the AT, CZ, FI, SK, UK (project no. 17617). For more information, see the preceding text in this section.

Centre for Gender & Science

The Centre for Gender & Science was established as a research department at the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences in the middle of 2016, after fifteen years of building its research, policy, and advocacy engagements at the EU and country levels. Its research profile focuses on 1) research careers from a gender perspective; 2) the impacts of neoliberal transformations in the public sector, especially in research, healthcare and social work; and 3) history and current multiplicity of medical practices.

The Centre for Gender & Science became an independent research department at the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, a non-university institution, in the middle of 2016, after fifteen years of building its research, policy, and advocacy engagements at the EU and country levels. While our research profile has expanded in recent years, we continue to focus on the various ways in which the research system and research careers are gendered, against the backdrop of changes in research governance and the organisation of research.

Science and Technology Studies was viewed with misunderstanding and perhaps even some disregard during our university studies in the late 1900s and 2000s, and although the number of scholars in this research area has slightly increased, we remain a small lot. Similarly, until recently the Centre was the only body concerned with gender in research and higher education. This means that we started off with an amazing opportunity to create something new in 2001, when Marcela—then not yet even enrolled in a doctoral programme—was assigned to lead the Centre. But it also presented the amazing challenge of having to work without direct intellectual guidance and leadership.

The Centre was established in 2001 in direct response to European actions aimed at advancing gender equality in research. The European Commission set up the Helsinki Group on Women and Science (later Gender and Science) in 1999 to receive advice from member states and associated countries, and in 2000 the Czech representatives at the Ministry of Education decided that they needed a support facility to tackle the issue. Grant funding for support and coordination actions from the Ministry has continued to be instrumental to the Centre’s existence over the years, as has important funding from successive European Framework Programme projects.

From the start the Centre profiled itself as a site of research, support, and advocacy, an infrastructure of sorts, before infrastructures became recognised and funded. Over the years, we have accomplished real changes. Soon after the Centre was established we recognised that the eligibility rules of the grant schemes for early-career researchers at the two major funding agencies in the country, the Czech Science Foundation and the Grant Agency of the Czech Academy of Sciences, were problematic, as applicants had to be under 35 years of age. The customary three-year parental leave on top of a 28-week maternity leave meant that this age limit prevented many women researchers from applying. There was not much resistance to replacing the age limit with maximum 4 years since PhD completion (and the four years did not include the time spent on maternity leave). Other issues, however, were more difficult to change, such as the possibility to interrupt a postdoctoral grant for maternity/parental leave if the grant has just a PI and no team. Because negotiations with the president of the Czech Science Foundation did not yield any results, we submitted a complaint to the Ombudsman in April 2012, who confirmed all our claims in his report published in January 2013 and raised additional ones. We have continued to work with the Czech Science Foundation and have negotiated other changes. Today, PIs returning from parental leave automatically regain their status as PI after having transferred it to another person for the duration of the leave.

We have cooperated on and negotiated with the Czech Ministry of Education on various issues, most notably on the collection and publication of statistics disaggregated by sex. In 2009, at our suggestion, the Ministry instituted a life-time achievement prize for women researchers, which comes with a financial award. The idea for the Milada Paulova Award arose after we reviewed the awards and prizes conferred in the Czech Republic and found there were no women laureates by the country’s most prestigious awards. The aim was to show that there are women in many disciplines who clearly bear scholarly comparison with their award-winning male peers. We recognize that this approach does not address the core problem of men continuing to receive prestigious prizes but it was one that the Ministry was willing to entertain as less controversial than practically all the other proposals we were making.

Apart from gender, science and research policies, we have also been engaged in providing expertise and doing policy-relevant research on other topics of social relevance. Since 2014, we have been the Czech partner in FRAnet, providing expertise on human rights issues to the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). In 2017 we started collaborating with two NGOs and a number of Czech municipalities with the aim of designing, testing, and gradually implementing an integrated system for providing quality housing for everyone and minimising homelessness, a growing problem in the country. We consider such activities to be an integral and refreshing part of academic work, especially for a non-university research institution that is always at risk of falling into the trap of having an isolated scholarly agenda.

Even some colleagues at our home institution, the Institute of Sociology, have received some of our actions as somewhat controversial. For example, when we filed the complaint with the Ombudsman against the Czech Science Foundation, some colleagues at the Institute were concerned that this would damage the Institute in the competition for grants. Needless to say, this did not happen. In 2016, we vocally opposed an exhibit of photographs of nude and semi-clad women, some with racialized undertones, in the Library of the Academy of Sciences during a Science and Technology Week, the country’s largest science festival aimed at the general public and especially children and teenagers (Cidlinská, 2015). This turned into a huge controversy that stayed in the media for two weeks (for more, see Nyklová and Fárová, 2018). Again, the unwanted attention and our engagement in a public debate on a controversial issue created tension and resistance among some colleagues. Despite this we have never been forbidden to engage publicly and the controversies have served to advance a debate at the Institute about the role of researchers and, specifically, social scientists in society. It is also important to note that we have managed to embed our activities in European policies and actions, and in an international context, which has helped to justify the work we do.

Marcela protesting reforms – a photo from one of the protests organized by Veda zije! (Science is Alive), anassociation of researchers formed in 2009 in protest against the planned R&D reforms

Undoing the European ‘lagging behind/catching-up’ script for comparative research

If the European policy for gender equality in research was behind our inception, success in getting EU funding from Framework Programmes has buttressed our efforts to build our position at the Institute and more broadly in the Czech research community. It has also been crucial for our scholarly maturation and project management expertise.

As early as 2004 Marina Blagojevic Hughson (Blagojevic, 2005; Blagojević, 2009) developed a critical framework for analysing the position of Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries on the semi-periphery and its implications for knowledge-making processes and the epistemic authority of CEE scholars. This critical approach was supported by the work of the Commission’s Enwise Expert Group, which worked between October 2002 and December 2003 and delivered its final report in January 2004 (Blagojevic et al., 2004). This group looked specifically into the position of women in research in Central and Eastern Europe and provided some counter-intuitive explanations to the dominant frames of women’s discrimination in academia. The most notable was the link between public funding for research and the share of women in research, which complicated the assumption common at that time that higher proportions of women in research are indicative of greater gender equality. The so-called honeypot indicator showed that women are disproportionately more represented in fields and disciplines with the lowest investments in research and that women tend to be well represented in countries with low investments in research.

Despite Blagojevic’s and other voices, the EU policy script is to date one of lagging behind/catching up where less experienced/advanced countries are to catch up with the more experienced/advanced ones through various support mechanisms such as mutual learning, training, and exchanges of good practices. Despite the shortcomings of this explanatory framework, it is the one we strategically adopted when applying in 2016 for a Horizon 2020 project to build a policy forum to foster gender equality in the European research area.[1] In response to the call we had to explicitly adopt the less/more advanced framework, but we also wanted to challenge the assumption that ‘more advanced’ countries in the EU do not encounter resistances and obstacles in relation to gender equality policy. We therefore included actions where these countries can share their experiences of obstacles and resistances and their particular materialisations, and we will continue to focus on how both implementation and resistances get made, materially and discursively, in our partner countries. At a recent debate that was part of the conference ‘Gender and Neoliberalism in Academia’ organised by the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Milano, the panellists—Mieke Verloo, Marina Cacace and Marcela—discussed the need to develop a comprehensive comparative framework that would allow us to theorise the current situation, including the growing attacks on gender and feminist scholarship and scholars in EU countries.[2] A linear narrative of progress clearly is not very useful.

NKC + Falk – several members of the center with nuclear physicist Katerina Falk at a visit to ELI Beamlines with a mentoring programme for secondary school women students

KNOWING: building expertise and peer support for studying the gendered governance of science

On other occasions, we have focused our analytical attention on this framework of lagging behind/catching up. From 2006 to 2008 the Centre coordinated the FP6 project KNOWING (Knowledge, Institutions and Gender: An East-West Comparative Study). Here we could bring to fruition the evolving research questions and topics we had been working on since 2002. Thanks to KNOWING we could start to explore the timescapes and policyscapes of university and research reforms, interrogate some clichés, including the catching-up argument, and get nuanced insights into the myriad ways in which research work and careers are gendered. It also gave us vital intellectual sustenance and the foundation for our long-standing collaborations, especially with the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Vienna University and particularly with Ulrike Felt.

International collaboration and particularly the KNOWING project were thus unsurprisingly very important for our further development, as we had a highly supportive and collaborative consortium that included Ulrike Felt in Vienna, Anne Kerr, and Lisa Garforth (at the University of York at that time), Susan Molyneux-Hodgson (then at the University of Sheffield), and Helen Longino (from Stanford University). International engagements continue to be crucial for our scientific development and we were very excited to be invited to become a member of RINGS, the International Research Association of Institutions of Advanced Gender Studies.

The KNOWING project was essential in yet another way for steering the course of our research agenda. The research design involved an ethnographic study of two research sites in each of the participating countries, one in the biosciences and the other in the social sciences. The biosciences institute to which we managed to negotiate access was undergoing a transformation when we approached it. This was perfect timing for our study! Although a new law had entered into force shortly before that, which changed the status of institutes of the Academy of Sciences and necessitated changes in practices and procedures, this was completely overshadowed by the internal transformation that the institute had embarked upon with a vision of global excellence, both in terms of academic aspirations and collaboration with industry. This opportunity to study up close the process of transformation and its impacts, intended and unintended, allowed us to develop some of the theoretical framings we continued to explore later. One of these was the shift from a dynastic to a dynamic research organisation (Linková, 2014). Another was the modes of organising research and the gradual shift from science as knowledge-making to science as enterprising and their co-existence (Stöckelová, 2009; Stöckelová and Linková, 2006). However, we also always sought to look, with symmetrical lenses, at developments and transformation in the social sciences (Stöckelová 2012; 2014) that usually get much less attention in STS and are left to introspection.

 Current research profile

Our research focus today is spread across three strands: First, we study research careers from a gender perspective with a focus on early-career researchers, academic mobility, dropping out of the academic research path, work-life balance and family policy, and sexual harassment in higher education. Second, we examine the impacts of neoliberal transformations in the public sector and the ways managerialism, quality control, assessments and marketization play out in research and innovation, healthcare and social work. Third, we study the history and current multiplicity of medical practices in their material, economic, embodied, and geo- and bio-political dimensions.

In our study of research careers, we employ both quantitative and qualitative approaches. In 2018 we are in the process of completing a large-scale study on working conditions and job satisfaction among researchers in different disciplines at public research institutions, the Czech Academy of Sciences, and universities. This includes the first representative survey of more than 2,000 researchers. Over the years we have examined the different professional and family trajectories of senior and junior women researchers and discovered that while parenting and family commitments are today a crucial bottleneck in career advancement, before 1989 the impact of motherhood was much smaller and was overshadowed by the impact of political developments (the invasion of Warsaw Pact armies in 1968, the subsequent political purges in the universities in 1971-1972) (Vohlídalová, 2018). We have studied international mobility and discovered that, contrary to the common assumption, international mobility existed before 1989, in periods of political thaws, and it was more common in the natural sciences. We have also studied academic couples in the context of linked lives and showed that Czech women researchers are often in the position of tied stayers and tied movers, which negatively impacts their careers (Vohlídalová, 2017). Another line of research looks into the reasons people abandon an academic career. The job precarity related to grant funding and a points-based research assessment system, which pushes researchers to do things for the sake of themselves, not to develop field knowledge, are the two most important reasons for this; even among women researchers, the obstacles to combining work and family is only the third most important reason cited for leaving academia (Cidlinská and Vohlídalová, 2015). Our research into sexual harassment in universities, which included a representative survey and qualitative interview-based study, revealed a 67% incidence of gender harassment and an extremely high degree of uncertainty among students in terms of what constitutes sexual harassment and what action they can take to protect themselves (Vohlídalová, 2011).

Our second strand of research examines processes of managerialism, quality control, and assessment in three public domains: research and, newly, healthcare and social services. Contrary to some findings abroad we have established that the introduction of managerialist principles and quality control have not been imposed top down by state administration, but, at least initially, were supported and endorsed by researchers themselves, in particular in the natural sciences (Linková and Stöckelová, 2012). We have also looked into the coping strategies that researchers develop to manage research assessment (Linkova, 2014) and explored the moral and geopolitical interconnections between predatory publishing and established publishers (Stöckelová and Vostal, 2017). Important for our considerations were the geopolitical and disciplinary aspects of publishing (Garforth and Stöckelová, 2012; Stöckelová, 2012). We also looked into the transformation of the research system (the gradual shift from dynastic to dynamic organising), the coexistence of different modes of organising, and the ways researchers deal with these changes and manage incoherences in the system (Linková, 2014). Related to our concern with research assessment is how excellence is defined (Linková, 2009). We discovered that researchers and research managers have highly gendered notions of excellence and what constitutes an excellent researcher (Linková, 2017). In their opinion, the two main exclusionary mechanisms are the parenting commitments of women and women’s lack of vision compared to men. A related research interest lies in the ways in which gender equality policies are enacted in Czech and European research. Using the concept of the ‘policy of inactivity’ (Veselý and Nekola, 2007), we looked into how research managers, policymakers, and politicians exempt themselves from any responsibility for addressing gender equality concerns (Tenglerová, 2014). Examining material and discursive practices, we charted the expansions and contractions in the making of gender equality in Europe and the strategies used to steer gender equality towards the business case (where gender equality is made to matter by paying off) and what consequences this has (Linková 2013; Linkova and Cervinkova, 2011; Linková, 2011). We recently compiled all our research interests into a single book with the goal of setting the local developments in the international context (Vohlídalová and Linková, 2017).

Our third and latest strand of research is concerned with medicine, healthcare, and related technologies of the self. More specifically, since 2015 we have investigated the interfaces between biomedicine and complementary and alternative medicine (or CAM) in the Czech Republic, most notably Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), homeopathy, and various bioresonance therapies. Using ethnographic and archive materials, we look into the ways in which these alternative notions and enactments of body, health, and disease have, since the 1960s, coexisted with biomedicine in diagnostic and therapeutic practices, everyday self-care routines, and in research, development, and innovation (e.g., of various CAM electrical devices). Contrary to usual media depictions, more interesting processes are taking place (around CAM) than simply conflicts, ignorance, or the one-directional subjugation of CAM to biomedicine. The reality of medical pluralism is much messier. We studied various translations and integrations of CAM into official conventional medicine – e.g. ‘medical acupuncture’ (Stöckelová and Klepal 2018a; Stöckelová and Klepal 2018b) – and also documented how the development of CAM after 1988 actually contributed actively to the biomedicalisation of post-communist healthcare (Klepal and Stöckelová, forthcoming). We are now working further on the blurry boundaries between biomedicine and CAM to show how CAM can and does actually re-shape conventional biomedicine.

[1] We received funding for the project, GENDERACTION. For more, see www.genderaction.eu.

[2] A workshop was organised recently on ‘Perilous Knowledge: Gender and Sexuality Scholars at Risk in Europe’ to address the threats. Also see Verloo (2018).

Entangling @ Satsu

Entangling is one of the interdisciplinary cross-cutting themes being used as a centre of gravity and focal point for our work @ Satsu. These theme based programmes take a central concept and use this to organise collaborations, events and activities. Like Threshold (Latimer 2018), we will be launching entangling as its own rhizomatous web presence.

The work included in this theme explores how world-making is connected, woven and knotted in revealing and powerful ways.  Activities examine how humans and non-humans become entangled and entangle, illuminating the political, social and existential affects of how these processes unfold.

So far we have two shoots to this theme – Metrics, Algorithms and Big Data exemplified by Dave Beer’s work around the politics of data and metrics, and the work of some of his Phd students on, for example, data visualization. And a project called Intimate Entanglements that Joanna Latimer works on with Daniel Lopez at CareNet, The Open University of Catalonia, in Barcelona.

Dave Beer

Metrics, Algorithms and Big Data

One of our ambitions at Satsu is to wrest the power away from big data by making it our own. Dave Beer’s work opens up how transformations in technology and media – such as social media, mobile devices and algorithms – have reshaped culture and society.

His book Metric Power (2016) examines the powerful and intensifying role that metrics play in ordering and shaping our everyday lives. Focusing upon the interconnections between measurement, circulation and possibility, Dave explores the interwoven relations between power and metrics. He draws upon a wide-range of interdisciplinary resources to place these metrics within their broader historical, political and social contexts. More specifically, he illuminates the various ways that metrics implicate our lives – from our work, to our consumption and our leisure, through to our bodily routines and the financial and organisational structures that surround us. Unravelling the power dynamics that underpin and reside within the so-called big data revolution, he develops the central concept of Metric Power along with a set of conceptual resources for thinking critically about the powerful role played by metrics in the social world today. Dave’s new project, The Data Gaze, will be published later in 2018 as part of Stuart Elden’s Society & Space book series.

Dave Beer, Metric Power (Palgrave MacMillan)

Our work on the social and existential effects and affects of new media technologies, and algorithms is being extended through incorporating new members into SATSU. On the one hand, there is our new lab@satsu early career/pg forum – which incorporates all students and early career staff working on STS elated projects from across the University. Lab@Satsu will be launched in the summer with a talk by Louise Amoore (Durham University), who works on the ethics of the algorithm. On the other, there is extension of our membership beyond Sociology, to other departments, including Politics, History, History of Art, Health Sciences and Management. Phil Garnett’s work, for example, on business analytics combines aspects of modelling and simulation, along with the analysis of complex or difficult data. His research interests are focused around applying complex systems theory, and network analysis techniques to a wide range of problems, largely focused on the processing of information. Combined with modelling and simulation techniques (which he is able to do himself), he helps show what the analysis of information can tell us about how organisations work, exploring the power of information and its consequences for privacy and liberty.

One of the things that SATSU is committed to is finding ways to make our work publicly available and to keep it engaged with realpolitik and problems. We want to be a resource to think and act with. Dave Beer is leading this aspect of our work. He writes about the social and personal affects of metrics, algorithms and new digital technologies in Open Democracy, The GuardianThe Conversation, New Statesman, Big Issue NorthTimes Higher Education, Berfrois, Louder Than War and others (a selection of these pieces can be found here) as well as managing our twitter feed. Like Dave, Phil Garnett is also helping to make SATSU’s critical work on data metrics public, such as making a trump twitter word cloud – https://www.prgarnett.net/trump-words-update/:

Phil Garnett, trump twitter word cloud

Intimate Entanglements

 The second shoot of our entanglings theme started as a sub-plenary at EASST/4S in Barcelona in 2016, when Daniel Lopez and Nerea Calvillo asked Joanna to talk at their Sub-plenary panel Spaces of Intimacy. Isabelle Stengers took up the theme in her plenary panel. We were all excited by how dangerous ‘intimacy’ as a notion is in the context of science and technology, and what a great resource the notion of intimacy could be for doing STS by other means. Later Dani and Joanna started to work on the ideas behind that sub-plenary. These morphed into a book proposal to The Sociological Review and has continued to grow – including a panel at this year’s EASST conference in Lancaster as well as a workshop in York in February, kindly funded by The Sociological Review Foundation as well as Sociology at University of York, a link to the workshop can be found here: https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/events/intimate-entanglements.html. In what follows I outline the book project.

Intimate Entanglements: The Book (Joanna Latimer and Daniel Lopez)

Intimate Entanglements opens-up the value of intimacy as a quality of socio-material relations in knowledge-making and communities of practice. Ethnographers and ethnomethodologists have long held the value of first-hand experience of social worlds and immersion within them if their rationales and their social significance are to be understood. Yet the intimate nature and character of these knowledge practices have seldom been fully explored. Where intimacy has been mentioned it is usually in the context of distinguishing local and experiential knowledge from universal and scientific knowledge. In contrast, as Raffles (2002) points out, intimacy can be foregrounded as a site for the social production of knowledge across the social, human and life sciences, to help rework human/nature and socio/technical boundaries.

The aim of Intimate Entanglements, is thus to foreground what is so often made invisible in extant accounts of how knowledge is done. Our aim is to articulate how socio-material life gets assembled and reassembled. This is to say that we focus on the attachments and detachments that appear crucial to understanding affective relations and ecologies inside and beyond the sciences, including the social sciences.

The specific contributions press how the ‘affective turn’, across anthropology, sociology, social psychology and Science & Technology Studies, does more than represent a ‘turn to ontology’. Rather they explore how the foregrounding of affect restructures possibilities for ‘situated knowledges’ and non-anthropocentric (‘posthuman’) modes of relatedness in different areas. In so doing the various contributors each address different aspects of how and when intimacy becomes a quality of entanglements. Issues addressed include the politics of intimacy and its different characterizations: as ordinary and dangerous, a site of alterity and “contamination” but also of attachment, belonging and companionship.

Intimate Entanglements builds upon and presses earlier explorations of:

  • The agentic and intra-active materiality of things (e.g. Barad 2007; Bennett 2004);
  • Interspecies entanglements in science (e.g. Gisler and Michael 2011; Despret 2013; Haraway 2007);
  • The distributed agenciality and heterogeneous composition of bodies (e.g. Mol, 2002; Winance 2010);
  • Space-times of intimacy, including intimacy without proximity (e.g. Barad 2007);
  • The politics of intimacy and its different characterisations (e.g. Pratt & Rosner 2012; Stengers 2010);
  • Intimacy, crafting and knowledge (Sennett 2008);
  • Technologies and intimacy (Bataille, 1989; Ingold, 2008);
  • How world-making is more than human and always affective (e.g. Haraway 1991; Puig de la Bellacasa 2011, Latimer 2013).

The volume extends conversations and debates started at EASST/4S 2016 which offered the provocation to think about STS by other means, including the sub-plenary panel, ‘Spaces of Intimacy’. In this panel, we pressed how intimacy is dangerous, particularly for dominant modes of ordering. This includes looking at practices of resistance that organise intimacy back in as critical to understanding (e.g. Kraeftner & Kroell 2009) as well as examining how technologies of governing attempt to organise intimacy out in ways which are dysfunctional (e.g. Menzies Lyth 1960). The discussion explored how intimacy is an affect of particular material distributions, attachments and detachments, but also covered how the notion of intimacy is difficult to grasp if we only associate intimacy along public/private topographies (Latimer & Munro 2009; Pardo 2011). In this light, focus shifted towards spaces of affect which are deemed as “ordinary” (Stewart 2007) but which usually remain in time/spaces that are ‘in-between’, either concealed to public scrutiny or recalcitrant to private appropriation, including sites of alterity and resistance.

The object of the research volume is to develop the different notions of intimacy and entanglement that these earlier works pose.   As well as positing material heterogeneity, our approaches each press how ‘vitality’ is an emergent property of intra-action (Barad 2003), ‘becoming with’ (Haraway 2003) or ‘being alongside’ (Latimer 2013), rather than an attribute of specific, discrete beings in relationships. By vitality we refer to the life that animates the social, including knowledge-making itself (Fraser, Kember and Lury, 2005), and which makes social and personal transformation possible. Here, the notion of intimate entanglements (Stengers 2010), is very much connected to forms of immanent relatedness (Bataille 1989), including what animates possibilities for being enrolled, emplaced and positioned (i.e. entangled), as well as for transformations and shifts (what can be called ‘becoming entangled differently’).

Additionally, we explore how ‘intimate entanglements’ are core to heterogeneous identities and forms of belonging, including notions such as “actor-networks”, “cyborgs”, “companion species”. Our concern here is with how their processual, temporary, ongoing, partial and unstable character challenges the very idea of ‘identity’. In this regard, we press how intimate entanglements are not just those that constitute our identities but those that force us to ‘stay with the trouble’ (Haraway 2017).

We also explore the politics of intimacy. How and when intimacy is dangerous? When it becomes a site of connection through which a sense of belonging and alterity might arise? Here we are interested in transformations, not as ontological “givens” but rather as concrete achievements. Thus we press the notion of intimacy as an adjective to qualify relations and entanglements which are characterised by susceptibility, a sensibility of being open and vulnerable, for example as with the pragmatist notion of attachment (Gomart and Hennion 1998), or in the tensions and shiftings between ‘extensions’, as forms of detachment and attachment and partial connection (Latimer 2013; Strathern 1991).

Finally, we press how a focus on intimate entanglement is a way of unconcealing the ethics and politics of relations (Martin, Myers and Viseu 2015). We explore how intimate entanglements turning on vulnerability and openness as something inescapable, create questions about how we become attached and even responsible for entangled human and non-human others, and explore what a “good” response could be. This leads to the question of the methodological apparatuses we as social scientists envisage to cherish, or even produce, these intimate entanglements (see also Fraser and Purwar 2008). Since these concerns pose possible connections with discussions concerning knowing (Greenhough and Roe 2011; Raffles 2002; Shrader 2015; also, Stenger 2010 and Despret 2004), we are particularly interested in how the beings we encounter in our research come to matter to us, and how our questions and concerns become relevant for them.

Contributors to the monograph include:

  1. Florence Chiew, Macquarie University & Ashley Barnwell, University of Melbourne
  2. Stefana Broadbent, Polimi Scuola di Design Politecnico di Milano & Centre for Digital Anthropology, UCL
  3. Blanca Callen, BAU Design College in Barcelona & Daniel López, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya
  4. Nerea Calvillo, University of Warwick
  5. Tomás Sánchez Criado, MCTS, TU Munich
  6. Mariam Motamedi-Fraser, Goldsmiths, University of London
  7. Carrie Friese, London School of Economics and Political Science
  8. Emma Garnett, Kings College, London.
  9. Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, University of Leicester
  10. Joanna Latimer, Department of Sociology, University of York
  11. Meritxell Ramírez-i-Ollé, Sociological Review Fellow, Keele University.
  12. Paula Reavey (London South Bank University), Ava Kanyeredzi (University of East London), Laura McGrath (University of East London), Ian Tucker (University of East London), Steven D. Brown (University of Leicester)
  13. Marilyn Strathern (Cambridge University) in Conversation with Joanna Latimer
  14. Myriam Winance, CR INSERM, CERMES3, Villejuif, Paris.

Responses to the call for papers for the workshop and the panel have been met with huge interest – helping to show that Intimacy and Entanglement in conversation with each other are wonderful and provocative concepts for STS to think with.

The ‘biotic politics’ of buildings – a SATSU research agenda

There’s a hospital in Skane, just outside Malmo Sweden. Some of you might know its distinctive spherical, doughnut shape. It’s one of a ‘new generation’ of hospitals commissioned and built for what’s described as the ‘post-antibiotic’ era. Its cylindrical ring-like shape is a little like that of an organic orbicular cell. Historically many hospitals have been modelled on a different kind of body. The cruciform or crucified shape. Limbs radiating from a central torso or spine. Or they have ‘wings’ that fan out from the body of the building. That’s why most hospitals have these improbably long central corridors, with wards and departments stretching out from the building’s central spine, or trunk.

But here at Skane, in this cellular or spheroid design, patients, visitors and waste occupy the outer ring of the building. The whole structure is wrapped in glazed open-air walkways from which its temporary residents and the public can enter individual isolation rooms directly from the outside. These external walkways operate a little like a semi-porous dermis or membrane. Gaps between each panel of glazed wall allows fresh air to enter the outer skin of the hospital. It’s like being both inside and outside at the same time. There are also external lifts, peripheral to the skin of the building. These lifts are reserved exclusively for patients, visitors and hospital waste. One doesn’t have to be an anthropologist to spot something interesting in an architecture that puts patients and dirty waste in the same classificatory space.

Then there’s the inner ring of the building. The central disc is designated for clean materials, clinical staff, offices and conference rooms. Internal lifts are designated for professionals, ancillary staff and supplies. A complex system of airlock doors and transitional spaces separate the outer ring of the infected from the inner sterile sphere of the disinfected. In this way, the whole building is bisected between thresholds of an inner purity and an outer danger. Skane is further evidence of the way microbial nonhuman life historically reshapes, ‘infects’ or ‘colonises’ our architectures and buildings.

My interest in buildings like that described above is linked to our new SATSU project exploring the biotic ecologies of buildings, the material relationships between infectivity and the built environment, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (PARC: Pathways, Practices and Architectures: Containing Antimicrobial Resistance in the Cystic Fibrosis Clinic, 2018-2020). The project brings together the interests of myself, Sarah Nettleton, Chrissy Buse and Daryl Martin at SATSU in antimicrobial resistance or AMR (Brown and Nettleton 2016, 2017) and healthcare buildings and the ‘materialities of care’ (Buse, Martin and Nettleton 2018; Martin et al 2015). We’re also working with other colleagues including Alan Lewis, an academic architect at the University of Manchester, Lynn Chapman who is a graphic artist, and two respiratory microbiologists, Mike Brockhurst and Craig Winstanley.

In the project and more widely, we’re interested in shifting understandings of biotic life and parallel changing architectural and material forms. How is it that we have historically come to envisage restructuring space for a ‘post-antibiotic age’? Some thirty years or so ago, in the ‘pre-post-antibiotic age’ we might say, the medical sociologist Lindsay Prior (1988) reflected on the relationships between medical discourse and hospital architecture. He focuses on the architectural drawing of a late C19th children’s ward. It’s a hexagonal pavilion shape with beds dotted around the edge. It reminds me of Skane somehow. Each bed has a window opening onto a surrounding veranda. The design is such that the beds can be wheeled outside during the daytime. It’s a variant on a number of designs for ‘fresh air wards’, a medical discourse influenced by a miasmic theory of contagion and infection. Illness here is conceived as a product of chemical processes, fermentation or putrefaction, resulting in airs, vapours and stagnating fumes. Torpid air must move if its not to fester.

Air then gives way to touch, as miasma gives way to germ theory. Antibiotics make way for the reshaping of clinical space, new efficiencies of scale, and densities of healthcare delivery that develop alongside the introduction of antimicrobial medicine throughout the latter half of the C20th (Bud 2006, 2007). The result is a much more recognisably ‘modern’ kind of hospital. The contemporary hospital rooms where we meet with medics in the course of our work on PARC are often windowless. The ceilings are quite low. They’re usually uncomfortably warm and well heated, crowded with AV and computer equipment. It’s in this way that colleagues like Clare Chandler (2016) of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine speak of antibiotics as ‘infrastructure’, having constituted healthcare spaces in deeply material and physical ways.

Most hospitals, of course, don’t look or feel like that at Skane. They don’t work like that either. But nor indeed does Skane work entirely in the way that was intended for the ‘post-antibiotic era’. That precarious threshold between the inner clean ring and the outer dirty sphere is inevitably leaky. It’s worth thinking carefully about the movement and interaction between people and the biotic as visitors, clinicians and others arrive and depart, board buses and public transport, pick their kids up from the same schools and nurseries, and live the inevitably mixed-up ecological lives expected of people who move, travel and work. It’s very difficult, and materially contingent, to completely maintain that pure threshold between the outer world of patients, their visitors, and the inner world of hospital staff.

Some of the story that follows recently appeared in Discover Society (Brown 2017) but it’s worth retelling here: I’m sat with a clinician. She’s a lung infection specialist. We’re talking windows. Whatever clinic I go to, the conversation always returns to the windows. Rooms without windows. Windows that don’t open. Windows that can’t be closed, or let in a draft. Windows that need replacing, or windows that were better before being replaced. Windows that were never installed. The irony isn’t lost on me. A respiratory specialist talking about the breath of the building. The breeze coming in. The hospital air moving out. In and out. Inhalation and exhalation. The clinic gasping for breath. All a reminder of the window’s early meaning, vindauga, the ‘wind-eyes’ of the building.

She recounts the story of a hot dry summer. In the outpatient clinic, staff and patients are wilting in the heat. Windows are open. It’s the older part of the hospital where it’s still possible to open them. Elsewhere the ability to open a window has been designed out of the more contemporary architecture. Open windows cause aircon chaos. Anyway, here the windows are open, despite the awful noise of construction work below. But at least there’s good clean ‘fresh air’.

Then months later the clinic is thrown into crisis. There’s a new strain of respiratory infection in the cystic fibrosis population. This could easily be fatal for patients already struggling with repeat infections, any one of which could be their last. The inpatient ward fills up with new admissions on high-dose intravenous antibiotics. The labs try to track down the source of the infection and where it could possibly have come from. After much head scratching, suspicion turns to that warm summer, the open windows, construction work going on outside, the digging of foundations below ground level, dust escaping into the air, spores drifting on the breeze. Inhaled by the clinic. Inhaled by its patients. Then coughed up in blood-stained sputum.

In Terror from the Air Peter Sloterdijk (2009) offers a meditation on the material technics of breathing and breath. Respiration is something to be technically accomplished, to be assisted by air conditioning, restrictions on smoking, surgical masks, air quality measures, carbon monoxide monitoring, ducting and ventilation, and so on. But such technics are not evenly deployed. They are striated, unequally offering protections to some that are not enjoyed by others. Respiration takes place, we might say, within economies of respirational scarcity. Breathing isn’t dangerous for everyone, but it is for lots of us.

The PARC project attempts to make sense of the experience of people with cystic fibrosis (PWCF) as they enter and make their way through clinical space. There are around eleven thousand people with CF in the UK, a ‘chronic degenerative’ condition that makes breathing perilous. Extending respiratory life for them hangs on all sorts of things, especially aggressive antibiotic treatment. They’re used to the daily routines of inhaling antibiotics in aerosol form, delivered by nebulisers. Antibiotics as vapour, atmosphere, mist. All this suppresses infections for a while at least, but without getting rid of them completely. Those residual colonies of infection, the biotic remnant, are left to evolve into to potentially fatal, resistant, and transmissible cross-infective pathogens. CF lungs become ‘reservoirs’ of infection, harbouring a constantly changing ‘resistiome’.

Biopolitical reflections on breath were at the forefront of our thinking in putting the project together. Sloterdijk draws attention to the material fracturing and divisibility of air, of atmospheres, the structuring of breath and respiration through spaces, places and architectures. We might call these ‘anatomospheres’ in which respiration is seen to retreat or withdraw from shared atmospheres, into airs that are increasingly private. A proliferation of personal respiratory chambers. Breathing is less likely to take place between and amongst shared and entangled airs, than it is to take place in more hermetically contained, secured and surveilled atmospheres.

It’s not at all uncommon to think of bodies and buildings overlaying and substituting for one another. For Mary Douglas (1966) the building is the body’s original surrogate: ‘Going through the door’ she writes, ‘… express[es] so many kinds of entrance… crossroads and arches… doorsteps and lintels… worked upon the human body’. Bodies and buildings are awkwardly duplicated within one another, both symbolically and materially. Heidegger (1971) thought of buildings as ‘dwelling’ or the embodied finitude of being. Architecture is techne. Buildings lend bodies metaphorical sturdiness (the ‘building blocks of life’). By contrast, bodies give buildings both their liveliness and frailty, their decay, their facades (faces), their permeabilities (vindauga). After the Grenfell tragedy, who could not be wary of architectural clothing, the cladding (cloak) of the body/building? ‘This contrast is at its most intense’, Steven Connor (2004) once wrote, ‘… when the physical processes in question are least material, which is to say those carried on or in the air’. Breath disassembles buildings.

Reflecting on Walter Benjamin, Böhme (1993) suggests that it is through respiration that one ‘breathes’ or absorbs the ‘atmosphere’ of a place. Respiration ‘allows this atmosphere to permeate the self’. He isn’t thinking about infections. Of course not. But he is possibly thinking about the way one might become infected by the atmosphere of a building, for both good or ill.

I have one final story. It’s about waiting. Or rather it’s about waiting rooms. The experience of most people with CF when they enter the architecture of clinical space is one of waiting. This is an acute source of anxiety for people who are told not to share one another’s breath. To sit, at least, ‘two or more chair widths’ from the next person. There must always be a space in which to breathe. A bubble of air around one’s chair. At one of the clinics, designers and architects were commissioned to make waiting more ‘comfortable’ and attractive. They were to give the experience of waiting the atmosphere of leisure, retail, hotel hospitality. Couches and sofas replaced the old 1970s plastic chairs. A new central open-plan plaza, or lobby area, replaced the specialist waiting rooms. Patients, visitors and staff could now move more freely amongst one another, all sharing the same atmosphere. All coming and going from treatment rooms to the communal space, the communitas of the lobby and then back again. That’s what the design of public space is supposed achieve, to optimise interaction, to foster networks, linkages, visibility. All, needless to say, known infection risks for people with CF.

Breath and breathing, together with the spaces that guarantee respiratory existence, become the basis for new forms of sociality. There are degrees of atmospheric entanglement and disentanglement. Timothy Campbell (2011) says of Sloterdijk that it is as if ‘… the former blood ties of family… had been turned outward from one’s person to now include the breathing space of those whose individual immunitary designs most closely match one’s own’ (97). Blood ties become breath ties. I’m thinking of people with CF when Sloterdijk recalls the devastating use of mustard gas at Ypes. We have to breathe. We have no choice but to breath. It’s the involuntary ambient nature of breathing that forces one to become complicit in one’s own destructibility. As Sloterdijk puts it ‘… unable to refrain from breathing, [they/we] are forced to participate in the obliteration of their own life’. The point is to ask, to whom does this respiratory obliteration most apply and under what kinds of lived material conditions? How are the technics of design and architecture tied into breath, breathing and even obliteration?

SATSU – The Science and Technology Studies Unit: 30 years in the making

When I was asked to write a short piece on the history of SATSU, I wondered how 30 years of activity since 1988 could be summarised. By pure coincidence, I had begun to go through and clear out 30 years of paperwork, generating 30 bags of confidential and other waste – one for each year. I took a picture of the bags, as you can see, but guess they don’t speak for themselves, so I should pen a few words here to tell you what is (now, I hope, was) inside them, without of course breaking any confidences!

Bags of confidential waste

I established the Unit at what is now Anglia Ruskin University, based in Cambridge, but then known as CCAT. From its early days the Unit was interested in developing research that could bridge between STS and science policy. I had already good links with a few other UK centres, notably the Institute for Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh (ISSTI) and the Science Policy Research Unit in Sussex (SPRU) (both celebrating their 50th anniversary last year) who were pursuing similar aims, and our work had a strong focus on understanding the relation between socio-economic innovation systems, policy contexts, and the promise of new technology. Studies on the privatisation of public science, on foresight (the FORMAKIN and FOREN projects), patenting and intellectual property within universities and knowledge sourcing across different public and private organisations, cycling cultures and various consultancies (such as one for Kodak who wanted to know if there was a future for digital cameras!) marked much of the work in our first ten years. The Unit collaborated closely too with the then Science Policy Support Group that Peter Healey and John Ziman established (and which also acted as the secretariat for EASST for a number of years). Peter, myself and Henry Etzkowitz set up an ‘Academic-Industry-Relations’ network, and it was that which led to the first ideas around the so-called ‘Triple Helix’, which Etzkowitz has since turned into a major international programme.

By 1998, we had grown in number and established a strong portfolio in both UK and EU-funded studies such that we decided to have a formal ‘public launch’ inviting both academic and policy contacts to see our work as a whole. We were delighted that Arie Rip came as our guest speaker, someone who works across the STS/policy divide with consummate skill.

The links to Europe, partly through EASST, meant we had a presence at important European Commission (then called ‘European Economic Community’) policy meetings: very different days, for then it was EEC officials, such as Riccardo Petrella, who took the initiative to foster STS research and training in its work programmes, and through which, for example,the postgraduate European Studies of Society, Science and Technology (ESST) was established. I was also involved in UK-based early policy debate in Westminster on genetics and biotechnology which led to our securing a number of consultancies from government to advise them on such issues, a focus which was to define much of our work in the next decade, after our move to York in 1999, where the Unit is still based. Of course, when going through the material from our time at Anglia, much of that was in the form of written letters (in ink!), the use of DOS to construct code for sending early versions of what was called ‘electronic mail’, Faxes by the score, and reams of paper-based data sets from fieldwork, hand-coded in pre-NVivo days. So the York move was at the threshold of a rapid expansion in academia of digital communication – yet there seems to have been just as much paper put on file!

Mike Mulkay and Andrew Webster in 2005

The move to York in part reflected ongoing links I had with the then colleagues here, such as Steve Yearley (now in Edinburgh), and Mike Mulkay (who had been my PhD supervisor, now retired). It also reflected the emerging impact of the UK’s national research evaluation exercise, and SATSU was recruited to help bolster the STS work being done in York. The move was not easy – transferring people and grants brings lots of professional, financial and personal/family challenges, such that sadly not all our members could move, though most did. Within a few months, the Unit hosted a major 5-year joint Economic and Social Research Council and Medical Research Council funded research programme on ‘Innovative Health Technologies’, involving 130 researchers across 32 projects, all of which is still available on the York website, and worth a visit. Paralleling this, we became a Marie Curie training site between 2001-5 which meant meeting, supervising and becoming long-standing friends and colleagues with a magnificent group of young European scholars most of whom are members of what became the Bio-objects network, funded via an EU Cooperation in Science and Technology Action: they too have gone on to secure their own careers making a major contribution to STS in their own countries and internationally. Work on bio-objects (which to members’ collective delight received the Amsterdamska award from EASST in 2012) continues and is used today way beyond the original network – a very mobile concept which will figure in the 2018 EASST Conference.

SATSU in earlier days, 2005

Over the next decade and more, three research themes framed our research: the sociology of the biosciences, social informatics, and the governance and regulation of new technologies. For example, within the area of health our work examined the influences shaping the clinical, regulatory and commercial development of the new biosciences, especially in the area of regenerative medicine/stem cells, cord blood banking, xenotransplantation, Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) , the new genetics and pharmacogenetics, and developed our interest in e-health (such as telemedicine) and its implementation in clinical and non-clinical settings. Our work on stem cells – focused on the construction and performativity of standards – led to major funding from the EC – the REMEDiE project – and from the ESRC, the much more recent REGenableMED project (see a complete set of results at https://www.eurostemcell.org/regenerative-medicine-special-report). The Unit also hosted another ESRC programme on Stem Cells, which helped to build momentum in this under-researched area. I think it was the Unit’s engagement across the social science/science boundaries that in 2007 led the ESRC to commission us to prepare – through many meetings at national and regional level over 18 months – its new Research Ethics Framework – which is now what underpins its ethical guidelines for all UK social science research.

This compendium of work sought to answer key questions such as how do biomedical technologies and the play of expert/lay boundaries shape the meaning of health, ‘life’ itself and healthcare practices, within a wider context shaped by the growing regulation, marketisation and informaticisation of health. The Unit’s wider work on social media has examined digital technologies and systems working with real-time, by-product data, mapping the use and meaning of such data, and developing insight into socio-technical cultures that are emerging today around informational systems, metrics and data infrastructures. This has fostered a strong interdisciplinary programme with colleagues in computer science within the Digital Creativity Hub. The digital also is the main focus of a more recent ‘Navigating Knowledge Landscapes’ network that spawned out of the former bio-objects group, and which explores how individuals and groups engage with and make sense of health information on the web. This now has 72 members across 24 countries. In 2009 we celebrated our ‘21st birthday’ with a series of invited public lectures from senior STS colleagues available as webcasts on the SATSU site.

Lecture at the 21st birthday conference

In the past few years, we have also begun to build a sustained programme of work in the (recent) history of science, with work on the meaning of evidence in primatology and on how late 19th to late 20th century science has been a source of ‘unsettling’ social change, opening up new possibilities, anticipations and hopes, at the same time as inspiring new conflicts, and fears with unintended consequences. The project explores this through various literatures, including popular science periodicals and science fiction.

This more temporal aspect of the Unit’s work is not only embodied in the sociology of expectations but in recent work on how time is performed/enacted through regulation, and how temporalities are sustained through regulatory practices and the ways in which legal and regulatory time(s) have material expression. Temporality has also featured as a cross-disciplinary theme in an ‘STS Roundtable’ established in York in 2016, with 8 other Departments; two other core themes of the Roundtable have been governance and innovation, providing an opportunity for colleagues outwith STS to define their own problematic in these key areas.

The Unit has enjoyed many visitors too, often contributing to our long-established ‘Brown Bag’ lunchtime series of fortnightly seminars, which at the last count was running at close to 200; I still have hand-written notes from all these discussions (my ‘lab books’ – I have always been struck by the way in which French and Italian STS groups talk about their ‘labs’ – maybe we should all frame our work in this way). Members have played an important role in national policy committees, national and international evaluation of research, postgraduate training and editorial roles on various journals and book series. One of these has been the very successful Health, Technology and Society Series which I co-edit with former EASST President Sally Wyatt, a series which has just published its 21st book, with more on the way. We have also, on a more regional front, been heavily involved in the STS collaborative doctoral training programme located in the ‘White Rose’ universities (of Leeds, Sheffield and York).

In 2014, a group of STS colleagues from across the UK helped to establish a new professional body that would bring together and mobilise the extensive STS and Innovation studies expertise across the UK. The Association for Studies in Innovation Science and Technology–UK (AsSIST-UK) was established and has since gone on to build strong communication channels with the UK parliament and other policy stakeholders. Robin Williams (Director ISSTI, Edinburgh) and I co-Chair the Association. Membership of the Association now numbers around 350 and is composed of social science and humanities scholars working in the science and technology and innovation studies field, as well as some natural scientists. The Association’s membership includes expertise in a diverse range of science policy fields (including biomedicine, energy, health/mental health, digital systems/social media, the economics of S&T, military and security systems, finance and transport), drawing members from over 30 universities and a range of key UK research centres. It has been great to see similar initiatives being taken this past few years in other countries across Europe and elsewhere.

In many ways, my personal view is that AsSIST-UK tries to engender what I called a few years ago in a paper in Social Studies of Science a ‘serviceable STS’, by which I meant one that offers a critical yet useable STS within the complex and ever-changing S&T policy world. That of course requires engaging closely with policy players, and not just by ‘electronic mail’: what’s required is ongoing engagement to try to reframe some of the assumptions underlying policy. Many members of EASST are doing this across Europe and elsewhere as we see in annual conferences and publications. SATSU will, I am sure, continue to do this in the future under its new Director, Joanna Latimer, who will now pick up the story to look forward to the programme of work that lies ahead. Meanwhile, I will continue with work on the new ‘biomodifying technologies project’ that began in 2017: a name that perhaps conjures up too the way running a Unit for 30 years does have a personal biomodifying effect – the result of sleepless nights worrying about something or other and very enjoyable SATSU BBQs we had each year worrying about the next beer!

Epistemic pluralization and health activist groups

In this paper we present some of the main ideas and conclusions of our last two research projects, which have analysed in depth several case studies around the increasing implication of health activist groups in the production of biomedical knowledge. Using some examples from our own research, we argue that the incorporation of experiential and lay knowledges of patients is transforming biomedical sciences in different ways, producing what we term “epistemic pluralization”.

We are currently developing a research cluster focused on health activism and public participation, particularly on forms of generating knowledge and care practices from a feminist intersectional perspective. This work covers our previous project, Visions and Versions of Medical Biotechnologies (2012-2016), and the current one, Feminist Epistemologies and Health Activisms (2017-2019), both funded by the Spanish Public R+D Plan. Whereas the first aimed to map out networks and the circulation of knowledge among activist groups, the second one intends to emphasize how feminist knowledges and epistemologies transform biomedical practices. The current project has a more participatory approach both to promote forms of intervention and communication with health professionals and to walk side-by-side with collectives to generate co-operative synergies.

In the different activities and publications related to Visions and Versions of Medical Biotechnologies, we analysed the increasing importance and diversity of forms of social mobilisation around health issues by focusing on its epistemic implications: how do they transform the knowledge production and care practices in health and biomedicine? We faced that question by focusing on several case studies, primarily with trans and intersex activism in Spain, but also with other examples of how patients are increasingly intervening in the production of biomedical knowledge. In our research, we have also identified how traditional forms of scientific communication -top-down, from “experts” to “lay people”- are currently being reconfigured, through a new reappraisal of experiential knowledges which generate “hybrid” forms of knowledge that bring together personal experiences, activism and biomedical knowledge (Wehling, Viehöver and Koenen, 2015). It is in this sense that we speak of “epistemic pluralization”: as different actors and voices gain legitimacy as epistemic agents, the distinction of “expert vs. lay knowledge” blurs somewhat, or becomes more complex. Sometimes, indeed, forms of health activism become epistemic correctives identifying undone science (Hess, 2009).

Hybrid Lay-Expert Knowledges and Activist Groups 

As its very name implies, the figure of the patient was traditionally constructed in modern medicine as a passive epistemic element. But patients are increasingly becoming actors in the production of biomedical knowledge. Within the social sciences two main analytical frameworks have derived from this idea: lay knowledge and lay expertise. Lay knowledge (Caron-Flinterman, Broerse and Bunders, 2005; Prior, 2003) has been used to refer to experiences, perspectives or meanings patients offer about their own illness. It also refers to their knowledge of their own body, especially the kind of practical, caring knowledge they have. Finally, it makes reference to the knowledge specifically generated by associations and support groups, as they share their experiences as “communities of practice” or as “experts in the experience” (Akrich, 2010; Rabeharisoa, 2008). Lay expertise, on the other hand, refers to processes of expertification of patients, certain individuals or groups that, in the course of their condition or illness, seek information on causes, treatment, etc. becoming, thus, a specialist, one that can “legitimately speak[ing] in the language of medical science” (Epstein, 1996: 9).

In the case studies developed by our group, we have come across both types of knowledge. Experiential knowledge becomes part of care and self-care. For instance, the knowledges that caregivers for people with Alzheimer’s have -about the previous life of the cared person, but also about the current person’s need and tastes- function collectively as forms of sustaining the person living with Alzheimer’s (Ruiz, 2015). Another example are the oral knowledges that are passed on from mothers to daughters, between female friends or through offline or online recent mother self-support groups to respond to breastfeeding issues such as mastitis treatments (Santoro and Romero-Bachiller, 2017). But experiential knowledge also becomes part of mutual self-help processes in activist groups: for example, the stories that parents of trans minors and minors with an intersex condition share about how to communicate with their children in a positive manner about stigmatised or taboo issues. We have also analysed how online forums, blogs, social networks and collective webpages, and even mobile phone group chats, are recurring sites for sharing doubts and knowledges. These sites have contributed to the recognition of such knowledges, as some have provided material for support guides for parents, giving way to not only a medical, but instead a psychosocial turn in the treatment and care of these conditions (García-Dauder, Gregori and Hurtado, 2015).

Also, very often a process of expertification of patients and relatives occurs. Informational resources on association websites are a clear example of this, as they offer accessible and understandable information, adjusted to different levels of knowledge about the condition. Expertise becomes evident as well in conferences or association meetings where medical professionals are invited: questions from the public -made up of association members or relatives- show profound insight, sometimes even discussing recently published scientific articles by specialised professionals. Thus, many association members become expert patients, especially when they are affected by less frequent pathologies, rare diseases or stigmatised conditions. In the case of both intersex and trans individuals, sometimes the medical community itself will invite them to their professional meetings -yet with varying degrees of recognition and types of participation, from experiential testimony to expert knowledge- thereby recognizing the need to learn from and with them. Some of those “expert patients” even participate in scientific journals in collective authorship articles or as co-authors with medical professionals. In some cases, health activists and expert patients have even become instructors for medical professionals on psychosocial and gender issues -as has been the case with trans and intersex activists (Ortega et al., 2018). In some other cases, this has facilitated an inversion of the subject-object order of knowledge relationships: the very “objects of knowledge” -i.e. trans and intersex collectives or activists- have become real “experts” on the “subjects of knowledge” -doctors, scientists (García-Dauder and Romero-Bachiller, 2012). These “experts on experts” are groups with a deep understanding of the scientific literature, and they critically discuss and analyse the practices of the professionals treating them, sharing all this information with other people. Sometimes they even “experiment” with their own bodies, by regulating dosages or favouring certain prescriptions over others, for example, as in the case of male trans activists who reduce their  testosterone dosage or advocate for the re-incorporation of Reandron© 1000 ml -an injectable prescription dosage of testosterone- to the list of drugs that are publicly funded in Spain (Ortega et al., 2018).

A concrete experience of committed articulation and production of hybrid knowledge we recently developed was the organization of a workshop to train psychotherapists to work with intersex people. The workshop took place in September 2017 and  was organised along with a Spanish congenital adrenal hyperplasia association we have been working with for years. The training was given by two team researchers along with an adult with an intersex condition, and two mothers with girls with another condition and members of the association. The training aimed to give the participants an understanding of the specific characteristics and psychological needs of living with an intersex condition. Afterwards we participated with the trained psychotherapists in the First Psychosocial Meeting of CAH -Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia- by organising three workshops for girls, adults and mothers and fathers that addressed issues such as needs, emotions and communication. Boundaries between expert and experiential knowledge, and the premise that knowledge circulation is unidirectional and top-bottom, were both heavily questioned through these events.

Photographs taken by a team member of First Psychosocial Meeting of CAH, September 30th, 2017. Fig. 1 (top): final moment of the workshop.
Fig. 2: “Sculptures of the World of Hyperplasia”
Fig. 3: “Sculptures of the World of Hyperplasia”

Therefore, and as Wehling, Viehöver and Koenen (2015) have pointed out, we are increasingly confronted with hybrid forms of knowledge: scientific/biomedical knowledge is transformed and adapted to a patient’s own experience, a process which is both individual and collectivized through “communities of practice” (Akrich, 2010). In the collective learning process found in patient associations, shared advice and testimonies are inseparable from scientific knowledge -even in the most critically active collectives. In a similar fashion, the dissemination of accessible biomedical information to patients is increasingly impregnated with experiential knowledge -stories, testimonies and accounts from other patients. These are ultimately examples where experiential and academic knowledge work together, creating epistemic pluralised networks and developing new understandings of these conditions.

A larger porosity between scientific and “anti-scientific” knowledge can be found in some of our other research projects. In the context of childbirth, upbringing and breastfeeding, apart from the fact that there are different professional conflicts over unqualified practice -gynecologists, midwives, doulas- it is not easy to differentiate between medicalised knowledge and other “alternative”, “traditional” or “experience-based” knowledges. In focus groups of inquiry with recent mothers that we carried out in 2015, the mothers’ discourses showed there was not a unequivocal opposition between medically legitimised knowledge and “alternative” options. Mothers were involved in different forms of what we term activation of care with a multiple, juxtaposed and complex use of medical recommendations, alternative strategies, and experiences offered by friends, family, mobile phone group chats of recent mothers, or members of internet forums (Santoro and Romero-Bachiller, 2017).

Yet a hybridisation of knowledge is also produced on the “medical” side, as experiential knowledge is increasingly incorporated into scientific literature. The proliferation of qualitative methods in health research, for instance, gives renewed value to experiential narratives as evidence. Medical training given by patients is not an oddity, nor is their participation in medical conferences. Patients are not only listened to: sometimes their knowledge has been incorporated as an epistemic corrective, transforming medical practices, and helping to develop “undone science” (Hess, 2009). In the case of intersex activism, this has given way to a genuine paradigm shift, moving from a strictly biomedical paradigm to a psychosocial and human rights one, which has opened up bioethical and legal questions on medical practices (García-Dauder, Gregori and Hurtado, 2015).

On the other hand, there are also entrepreneurial actors turning their attention to the “experiential knowledge” of patients and family. Web platforms open social networks where patients and relatives can “share” their experience of “living with a condition” -such as the website Personas que [People that]. This altruistically shared information is formalised, quantified and organized by the companies managing these sites, and is then purchased by pharmaceutical companies and other bio-industries. This process introduces new agents, and the need to analyse the relationship between associations and these bioeconomic organizations (Lupton, 2013): patient experiential knowledge becomes here a commodifiable product in the bioeconomy (Pavone and Goven, 2017).

Finally, most of these knowledges are inseparable from care practices. Embodied, materialised and moving through the body, care practices are found in a concrete ensemble of relational practices: a “know-how”. For example, knowledges built, shared and mobilised by caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients become practices: practices of recognition, memory and care. Yet, from these very practices, hybrid knowledges also emerge. Knowledges that may help to provide better care (Ruiz Marcos, 2015).

Feminist health activism as epistemic corrective: Activism-based Evidence

A type of activity in activist health groups which we would like to consider in certain detail is the production of knowledge that questions medical science and dominant paradigms -their conceptualisation of etiology, prevention, diagnosis, treatments. This was specifically looked at in the project  Visions and Versions of Medical Biotechnologies, where we focused on opponent groups (Callon and Rabeharisoa, 2003), such as trans activist and some intersex collectives that aim to depathologize their conditions, generating epistemic “correctives” to dominant research and pressing science to act with greater social responsibility (Wehling, Viehöver and Koenen, 2015).

The role of this trans and intersex activism groups is especially relevant in promoting shifts in paradigms and in improving scientific practice. Yet, we are not talking about “evidence based activism” (Akrich, O’Donovan and Rabeharisoa, 2015), that is, those “hybrid” forms of biomedical/experiential knowledge from which activists defend the “evidence” of their demands. Rather, what we see here is “activism based evidence”: that is, a problematization of the very evidence itself and, with it, of the very biomedical paradigm -especially when the main objective is to depathologize certain conditions.

We have also analysed the knowledge generated in the International Network for Trans Depathologization -a collective that emerged in the context of Spain which later, through different mutations, become internationalised. We have specifically focused on their production of epistemic correctives, and mostly on their critiques of the DSM-5 and CIE-10, where transexuality is still  included in the catalogue of mental illnesses -although in the DSM-5 the term “disorder” has been eliminated. This critical task is complemented as well by concrete contributions, in the form of assistance protocols and alternative support procedures, such as the Best Practices Guide to Trans Health Care in the National Health System (2010) (Ortega, Romero-Bachiller and Ibáñez, 2014). A parallel process is occurring in the case of intersex organizing, where pressure from activists and support groups is causing not only a re-evaluation of the standards of care -to more patient centered ones that are based on informed consent- but also a shift to a psychosocial and human rights paradigm that is breaking down the exclusively biomedical paradigm that existed previously, which was more centered around surgeries and hormonal treatment for bodily “normalization” (García-Dauder, Gregori and Hurtado, 2015). Therefore, associations exert a mediating role between multidisciplinary approaches -biological, psychological and social ones- by pressuring science to act with greater social responsibility and by generating not only biomedical knowledges and practices, but also ethical and legal ones (Wehling, Viehöver and Koenen, 2015).

In our new project, Feminist Epistemologies and Health Activisms, which started in January 2017, we continue inquiring into this “scientific evidence” that emerges from health activism, by investigating recent cases where feminist social movements and collectives have been transforming practices and knowledges, thus contributing to more inclusive science (Epstein, 1996) and stronger objectivity (Harding, 2015). A new and interesting line of action has been seeking to recover the “lost history” of how the Women’s Health Movement -although never self-identifying itself under such name in Spain- and the LGBT movement in the 1970’s contributed to the improvement of knowledge on women’s health and bodies and on sexual diversity -thus, favouring the depenalisation of contraception (1978), homosexuality (1978), and abortion (1981) in Spanish society.

New researchers and new case studies have been incorporated into this project: the transfer of reproductive capacity through ova donation, human breast milk donation, participation in clinical trials and some other forms of what Cooper and Waldby (2015) have coined as “biolabour”. All these cases bring to the fore new questions, as they erode clear lines of demarcation between exploitative and depriving forms of participation in bioeconomies and empowering forms of participation in health associations (Santoro and Romero-Bachiller, 2017). These cases also move away from individuals acting in the bioeconomy through isolated decision-making and from empowered associations participating collectively in the production of health knowledge, to more informal and diffuse, yet also collective, spaces of interaction, knowledge production and participation. Spaces created by and generative of affects, bonds and reciprocity. Concrete attention to details in these cases becomes essential, as we find more entangled realities this way: sometimes forms of solidarity, belonging and obligation become strengthened by care bonds, some of which become articulated beyond traditional kin lines. Caring becomes enmeshed in chains of exchange which cannot be detached from bioeconomical interest, constructions of altruism, and emerging personal bonds. Affect, interest and obligation are all entangled in forms of “activating care” (Santoro and Romero-Bachiller, 2017), as we are illustrating in our current research on ova donation to fertility clinics (Lafuente, 2017) and on human breast milk donation (Romero-Bachiller and Santoro, in press). New questions are urgently emerging here about interactions of everyday life and the overflowing of strict definitions and clear cut perspectives, and they are being addressed by these cases.

They can all be considered examples of what Nancy Tuana (2006) identified as the move away from “epistemologies of ignorance” to “epistemologies of resistance”, stressing not only the role that health activism can play in making areas of ignorance visible, but also how it can produce paradigm shifts or “hidden innovations”. With this research we aim to reevaluate knowledges derived from embodied collective relational experience to open up to informal forms of sociality and solidarity as well as to the dense and complex bonds and relationship they provide.



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