Why Pursue Science and Technology Studies?

By Chris Mooney | April 4, 2011 12:19 pm

This week, Harvard’s Science, Technology, and Society program, headed by Sheila Jasanoff, is hosting a provocative conference:

This meeting is the product of a year of conversations across several continents and dozens of institutions. It weaves together the hopes, aspirations, and—yes—frustrations of STS scholars from around the world who have committed their careers to studying the central role of science and technology in our social, political, and moral lives.

The meeting is in part a stock-taking. After two decades of increased public funding for STS, what can we say about our achievements as a “thought collective”? What have we learned from speaking the truths of our field to the power of established disciplines? Which areas of work do we recognize as displaying the greatest theoretical depth and creativity? What do we impart to STS scholars-in-the-making, and what can we do to ensure that their ideas are heard more widely and that they find appropriate academic homes? The three-day program addresses these questions: first, STS and the disciplines; second, STS and its theories; third, STS’s institutional challenges and opportunities.

In part, too, the meeting is a provocation: an invitation to reflect on the conditions needed for this field to thrive and grow—in keeping with the importance of its mission. As with any provocation, the questions we hope to explore may have conflicting answers. Ideas will be generated throughout the meeting from both our physical and virtual audiences. This website, managed by a local team of scholars, is part of an effort to make the meeting as inclusive and participatory as possible, both during the event and after it.

Overall, this is a meeting to rethink questions that all STS scholars have grappled with at some point in their intellectual lives. Why do STS? What makes it interesting, distinctive, coherent, relevant, and deserving of stronger institutionalization?

If I was an academic, I would be an STS scholar (or, a science historian). But I’m a journalist instead–and I certainly have found ready audiences for my STS-oriented analyses, books, and articles. There is no question to me that this stuff is relevant to our broader society and that it can make its way into the mass media.

So if STS is struggling right now (and I detect that undertone here), that bears explaining. I could hazard my own answer–my instinct is to say that much like science itself does, STS has a communication problem. STS scholars of course go through an academic imprinting and conditioning process, by the end of which they often use a fair amount of jargon, and theory. That inherently makes it hard to cross disciplines or to reach the broader public.

Of course, theory can be very valuable and STS has given us important concepts like “agnotology” or “co-production.” But I have also read a lot of science and technology scholarship that’s just hard to access. So I hope that’s one topic the conference will address.

Comments (1)

  1. Hi Chris: I think you’re right to highlight the communication issue, and I’m glad to see you drawing out the parallels with science.

    Part of the polemical nature of the event is an ongoing dispute (of sorts) between those who self-identity as “historians of science” and those who own the STS moniker. I wrote about this a little before (http://bit.ly/fo7K1W), and it can help answer questions similar to yours being asked elsewhere (http://www.corporeality.net/museion/2011/04/02/why-do-sts/).

    In short, the struggle you’re detecting is a *mix* of communicative issues (STS has long been described as too jargon-heavy to be of general interest in the way it should be) and disciplinary ones (historians and STS-scholars defining themselves against one another or disowning certain parts of their shared heritage).

    Anyway, I’ll be there (as well as at the David Brooks event next week, which should offer a whole different take on the science-/public-literacy question), and I’ll let you know how they pan out.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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