Science, Technology & Society Studies in Action

This page is part of my STSS Portfolio.

STSS 591, Prof. Leah Ceccarelli, Autumn 2016

The STSS “microseminar” serves as a multidisciplinary introduction to the variety of scholarship that falls under the Science & Technology Studies umbrella. Each week was hosted by a different UW professor, who used their own work as an introduction to some foundational STS concept. For me, the class came after I had identified STS as a mode of engagement that would be essential for my own work, but before I had narrowed the scope of my inquiry. While other classes I took around this time helped me identify concepts like human-technological agency and the politics of digitality as most resonant with my work, the STSS microseminar was interesting to me for its survey of paths not taken. Here I’ll note a few of those that I hope to return to one day.

Much of the “science” wing of Science & Technology Studies engages with epistemological questions. How do we know what we know? Whose knowledge and what ways of knowing are recognized as valid? The answers to these questions are not natural or pre-given, but emerge from historically specific social circumstances. In their study of early HIV/AIDS research, for example, Fujimura and Chou (1994) describe what they call “styles of scientific practice”: different sets of evidence, methods, and disciplinary cultures, and the different types of hypotheses and conclusions they produce. Ceccarelli’s (2011) work in rhetoric shows how the language of science can be used to exclude certain types of non-scientific discourse, and by doing so avoid questions of values or belief. Urban planning too has its disciplinary methods and assumptions, and many within the field have highlighted the types of knowledge it excludes under cover of scientific rationality.

One tool of scientific knowledge production is categorization, which alternately erases and exaggerates difference in the messy relations of the world. For example, Lowe and Muenster’s (2016) study of humans, elephants, and viruses engages with a tension between our categories of wild and domesticated, and examines the virus’s ability to work across such categories. Urban planning knowledge has a suite of categories for land use, demographics, travel, and many more phenomena. Such frameworks are analytically useful, but are too easily taken to be ontologically true. STS-influenced work can help us to see a world in flux, with blurry boundaries and shifting relations.

Finally, the class also introduced ideas specific to questions of place and technology that resonate with my own project. O’Mara’s (2006) historical account of the development of Silicon Valley shows the particular configurations of people, institutions, investment, and landscape that necessary for the production of a technology-based regional economy. Amrute’s  (2016) ethnography of transnational computer programmers uses a post-colonial lens to contrast the ideal of friction-free software development with the geopolitical realities of work visas and immigration policies controlling the movement of software developers. Each of these helps us to ground ideas of immaterial code in specific social and geographical contexts.

Key Readings

  • Ceccarelli, L. (2011). Manufactured Scientific Controversy: Science, Rhetoric, and Public Debate, Rhetoric & Public Affairs 14(2), 195-228.
  • Daston, L. (2000). The coming into being of scientific objects. In Daston, L. (ed.) Biographies of  Scientific Objects. University of Chicago Press, pp. 1-14.
  • Lowe, C., & Münster, U. (2016). The Viral Creep: Elephants and Herpes in Times of Extinction. Environmental Humanities, 8(1), 118–142.
  • Fujimura, J.H., & Chou, D.Y., (1994). Dissent in Science: Styles of Scientific Practice and the Controversy Over the Cause of AIDS. Social Science & Medicine 38(8), 1017-1036.
  • O’Mara, M. (2006). Cold War Politics and Scientific Communities: The Case of Silicon Valley. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 31(2), 121–34.
  • Ribes, D. & Polk, J.B. (2015). Organizing for Ontological Change: The Kernel of a Research Infrastructure. Social Studies of Science 45(2), 214-241.
  • Amrute, S. (2016). Encoding Race, Encoding Class. Duke University Press.