The program unfolded over two days, with a keynote and plenary discussion to open the event, followed by a series of short presentations and discussions and longer written papers that were pre-circulated before the conference to provide an opportunity for in-depth feedback on written drafts. The conference also included a fieldtrip to the Sydney Observatory on the evening of Day 1. At the end of Day 2, conference attendees came together for a final plenary, with discussant comments given by the four scholars contributing to this recap.
The following conference recap provided further opportunities for dialogue among the participants. We chose dialogue as our genre to echo both the format and the substance of the conference. This dialogic form mirrored the keynote, which took place as a conversation between Thao Phan and Celia Roberts, as well as the opening and final plenaries. The dialogue also reflected the conference theme, which drew on an editorial in Science, Technology & Human Values written by its current editorial board and established members of the AusSTS leadership committee: Timothy Neale, Kari Lancaster, Courtney Addison and Matthew Kearnes. In the editorial they ask how to think about an intervention into an ‘assemblage’ like STS, suggesting that “we might reframe a contribution to STS – which perhaps suggests a static understanding of an established discipline – to a contribution with STS” (Neale et al., 2023). In her comments during the conference plenary, Courtney Addison remarked that this contributing ‘with’ is meant as a collaborative mode of ‘being in cahoots’. We felt that the dialogue format honoured this spirit of AusSTS – as something open-ended rather than fixed, as something emergent rather than already defined, and as something that is community-built by people joined together ‘in cahoots’ rather than hierarchically organised.
Dialogue requires channels and infrastructures to be made possible, and as scholars geographically dispersed across Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, we sometimes struggled to meet over Zoom to have our own conversations in shaping this piece. One theme we address in what follows is the conference provocation of what a ‘place-based’ STS looks like from the vantage point of this part of the world. In her keynote conversation, Thao Phan pointed out that STS in Australasia is less like a defined field and more like a network. AusSTS provides a channel through which dialogues move through this network. While we provide no final answers as to what ‘Australasian STS’ is, we end this piece with a nod towards the future, the next AusSTS meeting, and the next opening in this unfolding dialogue.
Dear Jianni, Dan, and Ella,
I’m writing from unceded Wurundjeri land in Melbourne. For our international readers, acknowledging that we are on stolen land is a common regional practice for event openings. The places where we live and work are always already political.
To kick off AusSTS 2023, attendees arrived in the foyer of a fancy corporate inner-city Sydney building. The room was so full that we had to pull in more chairs. After a recognition of the owners of stolen Gadigul land, we heard an unusual keynote: a dialogue asking ‘What is feminist STS?’ Thao Phan and Celia Roberts, two stellar feminist technoscience scholars on different ends of the career stage spectrum, sought to think together, and with us. Their use of a dialogue format was a deliberate, structural choice, drawing inspiration from Eve Tuck.
As Thao and Celia passed the microphone between themselves and the audience, a thorny problem around delineating ‘feminist STS’ emerged: Do boundaries help or hinder an emerging field? Can definitions or parameters negate the strengths of STS as a field that has no entry barriers (i.e. anyone can be an STS scholar, no invitation or qualification is required)? A number of helpful metaphors to describe STS were proposed. Phan and Roberts proposed that STS is an “undisciplined arrangement” of “people doing things together” and that AusSTS might be a “dispersed, loose network of mycelium.” It might also be a river with shifting banks, a dynamic flow and open possibility for tributaries.
Thao and Celia emphasised that feminist STS brings particular attention to practices, notably to invisibilized labour. Whilst studying knowledge production itself, feminist STS wrangles with prohibitive structural conventions (such as grant funding processes) that are oriented to traditional, siloed disciplines. The dialogue produced the question: What makes feminist STS particular? One crucial response to this was that its view of labour expands beyond the human and that its constituent knowledge traditions (feminism and STS) are both reflexive – another facet this recap seeks to emulate. One further important provocation for feminist STS to reflect on in 2024 (and beyond) asked: How does ‘queer’ fit into feminist STS?
The papers in stream A (back to back panels on ‘Sensing in Practice’ and ‘Knowing Ecologies’) asked attendees to think with space in a deliberately embodied way, challenging the epistemic conventions of many conference presentations. For example, Jessica Loyer’s paper on the ambiguity of superfoods was paired with paper cups of chia pudding for the room to share, ‘thickening’ our responses. Nikolai Siimes held us rapt with a recording of fizzing bacteria. A special moment occurred at the end of this session– a testament to the result of practices informed by a feminist sensibility of care. The audience had mostly stayed in the room for both sessions, and the format of extended discussion time and the labour of mindful chairs facilitated a conversation that spanned both panels and both keynotes. Audience members began to draw parallels between concepts like massification, scale, epistemic techniques and spatialised belonging, and the stakes of feminist and Australasian STS. One audience member pointed out that it was precisely the careful curation of panels–an invisible type of labour that is seldom recognised– that allowed a roomful of people to think ‘with’ each other so meaningfully. This caring sensibility was echoed in the supportive afternoon workshops, where the work of scholars who shared their pre-submitted papers was taken very seriously by an engaged, attentive audience.
Here, I want to acknowledge Mia Harrison and her stellar team of Ella Butler, Kari Lancaster, and Matt Kearnes, who did the challenging administrative and creative work of facilitating this special conference. Thank you.
I’m keen to hear your reflections on how space and place figured (or didn’t!) across the other sessions. I have a feeling more resonances across the diverse papers will offer further testament to the curatorial skill and labour of the organisers.
Thank you for your words, which I’m reading on unceded Gadigal land in Sydney. When I think about AusSTS, I think about the specificity of place, the ways in which we came together in one room from different locations across Australasia. It therefore feels fitting for us to be conversing in a collaborative document from different cities.
The panel discussion “What is an Australasian STS contribution” followed the opening keynote. Courtney Addison, Ash Watson, Thom van Dooren, and Michaela Spencer discussed the currents, exchanges, and voyaging that happens within STS, including the specificity of our place as researchers in Australasia, connections to Pasifika nations, and the need to decentre the global North for truly equitable scholarship. The panel also engaged with the different ways that STS scholarship slides and flows between disciplines acknowledging that many scholars at AusSTS discovered STS only after they had embarked upon scholarship in a different field, creating a fundamentally interdisciplinary conference environment.
The discussion following the panel focused on the importance of localizing STS research, developing a commitment to place as an epistemic ethic, a kind of sense-ability. Sense-ability grounds Haraway’s commitment to response-ability into the immediacy of our felt sensory environments. Being in Sydney, in one stuffy room, grounded us as conference attendees in the specifics of place - an acknowledgement of the sensory situatedness of our bodies. Knowledge making is always an onto-ethico-epistemological practice, and being attentive to such practices is an STS sense-ability.
I attended two panels on Day 1, titled ‘Potentiality’ and ‘Labour and Community’. These panels covered a diverse number of topics, ranging from emerging digital health infrastructures in India to a distinctly Western Sydney environmental humanities and human data in a post chat-GPT world.
Presenters in the ‘Potentiality’ panel spoke of the need for a shared language in STS, as we were speaking from a variety of different core disciplines. Another dominant theme that emerged here was the non-neutrality of technology, from digital health interventions to data and research design. In the ‘Labour and Community’ panel, discussions engaged with reorienting research with a possibility of resistance, whilst staying attuned to the ways technologies operationalise people away from resistance–that is to say, removing resistance in order to exert control, such as the ways that humanitarian labor is being compromised by the technosocial platforms it is forced to utilize.
All in all, a brilliant first day of AusSTS, one in which my sense-abilities for a specifically Australasian STS were strengthened.
I’m reflecting on the conference on unceded Ngunnawal land in Canberra, and it’s so great to hear about how the first day of the conference went! On Day 2, I attended one session with shorter presentations (exploring the theme ‘Thinking with Discipline’) and two sessions providing feedback on longer papers.
As a geographer, one of the unexpected, and delightful, surprises was the pervasiveness of sensibilities around place as an orienting concept through many of the presentations and papers discussed. In his short presentation, Matthew Campbell prompted us to grapple with teaching STS from within colonial institutions, highlighting the importance of treating knowledge practices seriously and acknowledging the efforts and insights from previous teachers who comprise a ‘distributed pedagogical network.’ And in his longer paper, Parikshith Shashikumar shared fascinating insights about the distinct norms around fact-checking that operate in the Indian context. So it appears that this foregrounding of place definitely ended up being a recurring pattern, as has been previously noted!
This emphasis on place also took on other guises throughout the other presentations. An especially prominent one was the ‘ontological’. Here, the theme around ‘place’ became an exploration of ‘emplacing’ - that is, of categorizing in particular ways, and the logics and consequences of such dynamics. Here, emphasis shifts from considering entities and processes in (locational) place, to considering how they are placed in relation to each other.
For example, through examining an ayahuasca plant patent controversy, Jocelyn Bosse highlighted the complicated stakes involved in trying to legally define ‘wild’ and ‘natural,’ their relations to human activities, and the consequences such decisions may have for Indigenous communities. Nevertheless, these two themes - of place and emplacing - are related, especially recognising the dynamics of emplacing as dependent upon the places in which they occur.
Two further overarching themes became apparent in the sessions I attended. Firstly, there was a notable emphasis on time and temporality. This included explorations of how to tell IVF histories (Nicola Marks), open banking and forward-looking speculative financial practices (Rachel Aalders), and developing an innovative app based on the Chinese Li fa calendar system (Rey Tiquia). And secondly, in the session on ‘Thinking with Discipline’, humility, hype and hubris emerged as recurring conceptual framings, especially with respect to considering emerging technoscientific possibilities in terms that maintain an eye towards critical engagement; Daniele Fulvi explored these concerns through his work on synthetic biology, and Jacinthe Flore and Jaya Keaney considered what pedagogical difference it makes to focus on more exciting, cutting edge technologies compared to more mundane ones.
Overall, these sessions contained a range of fascinating and insightful presentations and papers. How were the other sessions on Day 2?
Hi Dan, Carina, and Jianni,
I’m working on this from Gadigal land. Thanks for all your interesting reflections on place! Two things that also struck me in this regard were the commentaries by senior and mid-career academics who had received their PhDs internationally, and who teach in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand with a commitment to building STS in this region. There is now a sense here that early career and PhD scholars do not have to feel they need to ‘move away’ to do substantial STS work, and concomitantly, as Courtney Addison pointed out in her plenary comments, that a field that has traditionally been largely located in the US and Europe can also learn from this part of the world. A second thing that struck me was the way that the emphasis on community-building that underlies the organisation and driving ethic of AusSTS is itself part of the ‘contribution’ to STS that comes out of Australasia.
On Day 2, I went to a morning written presentation panel that cohered around Artificial Intelligence. In terms of topical focus, AI really stood out as a dominant research object at the conference, and indeed one paper in this panel by Glen Berman, Ned Cooper, Angus Dowell and Libby Young asked why Australasia has recently seen the rise of so many university-based AI institutes. Their analysis put political economies of funding structures at the forefront of consideration. Thinking about the peculiarities of financing research is another aspect that could define a specifically Australasian STS.
In the afternoon, I was reminded of comments made during the plenary by both Thom van Dooren and Courtney Addison on their own situated knowledge-making and sensitivity to place as both an ethical and an epistemic commitment. In an oral panel on ‘Responsibility’ and a second written presentation session, papers were grounded in a regional ethic. Themes that stood out in this regard addressed issues of colonialism and de-colonising epistemologies (Benjamin Hegarty and co-author Scott Webster), the promise and violence of multispecies relations (Scott Webster, Jianni Tien, Roberta Pala), how new technologies like synthetic biology disturb public ideas about ‘nature’ (Henry Dixson) and climate change and associated disasters such as bushfires (Timothy Neale, Sophie Adams). Questions of reflexive methodology were also key, as Benjamin Hegarty suggested in his co-authored paper on global health, in which he argued for an understanding of the ‘global’ in global health as a stance in place and time. How would we think about the contributions of this AusSTS conference similarly, that is, as a form of situated stance-taking?
Speaking of place, I should mention that many of us spent the evening of Day 1 on a field trip to the Sydney Observatory, peering through telescopes at the stars in the night sky. Telescopes serve to make distant things visible. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with far-flung colleagues as we crammed into a large copper dome to take our turn squinting into the telescope eyepiece, I reflected on how the 2023 AusSTS conference had for the first time brought us all into the same orbit, and through this, brought some new light into view.
Reflecting back on the conference, we are left with the lingering impression that the conversations initiated at the conference will remain significant for the Australasian STS community going forward. But they are only the beginning. In writing this summary of the conference, the four of us have experimented with continuing these conversations in a more distributed fashion, and this summary should similarly be read as a creatively co-produced experimental output. We were nevertheless reminded of the conveniences and comforts of in-person conferences, and the difficulties of distanced dialogue.
Going forward, thinking in and with place will remain an important orienting theme. The 2024 AusSTS conference is in the initial stages of being planned and organized, but the theme has already been chosen: ‘Territorializing STS’. This is a reference both to the two institutions co-organizing the conference (Australian National University and Charles Darwin University) and their locations in the only two Australian territories (as opposed to states), and to the widespread recognition that issues around place, situatedness and location deserve ongoing reflection and discussion. We therefore see this reflective recap as one site of an emerging network of unfolding dialogues - one that we are looking forward to reporting back on following the next set of conversations to take place at the 2024 AusSTS conference in November.
Neale T, Lancaster K, Addison C, et al. (2023). "What is an STS contribution now?" Science, Technology, & Human Values 48(1): 3-8.
Carina Truyts established the anthropology department at Sol Plaatje University in South Africa. She is a social anthropologist and STS PhD candidate at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute where she researches genomic and postgenomic knowledge, nourishment, human-environment relations and plasticity in South Africa. She co-ordinates Deakin University’s Interdisciplinary Science and Society Network (SSN).
Email: email@example.com / Twitter/X: @foodanthrop
Jianni Tien is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Sydney Centre for Healthy Societies at the University of Sydney. Jianni works at the intersection of science and technology studies, feminist environmental humanities, and sociology of health. She researches the ontologies and epistemologies at work in our Anthropocene era and the power structures that underpin them, including questions of situated and enforced Western knowledges.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / Twitter/X: @JianniTien
Dan Santos is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University. Broadly, he is interested in the political economy and public engagement dimensions of emerging (bio)technologies. His current research is investigating stem cell research, synthetic biology, and the bioeconomy.
Email: email@example.com / Twitter/X: @biotechgeog
Ella Butler is a Visiting Fellow at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University. Her work examines the relationships between food and science, the anthropology of the senses, and discursive narratives around health crises.