Re:Constructs | Exchanges between STS and Sociology

Michael Guggenheim, Tara Mahfoud and Noortje Marres
11/06/2024 
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What are the key concepts at the intersection of STS and sociology today, and what can we learn from their interdisciplinary histories? During the last 30 years, STS has developed a range of distinctive concepts and theoretical sensibilities. These concepts have traveled outside of STS and found new applications and meanings in neighboring fields including sociology, media studies and anthropology. Concepts have not just traveled in one direction: sociological traditions have played an important role in informing the very development of what we now think of as STS concepts. In a recent workshop hosted by the Universities of Essex and Warwick, we investigated how the development of specific concepts has been enabled by exchanges between STS and sociology. Below we provide a report on the workshop contributions and offer some wider reflections on the significance of conceptual exchange for the aspirations of STS as a transformative research field.

The workshop was held at the University of Essex, 7-8 December 2023
The workshop was held at the University of Essex, 7-8 December 2023 [Image credit: Tara Mahfoud]
 

Background and guiding questions

A notable feature of early conceptual exchanges between sociology and STS from the 1980s onwards is that STS defined itself against narrow framings of the sociology of science as a subfield of sociology (Sismondo, 2010). The social study of scientific knowledge (SSK) was developed in dialogue with philosophy and history. Core SSK scholars argued that the empirical study of scientific work highlighted specificities that required new and different concepts. Think of the notion of trading zone (Galison, 1996), actant (Akrich, 2023; Latour & Callon, 1981), the right tool for the job (Clarke & Fujimura, 1992) etc. There are clear and significant influences of sociological theories on the development of STS, from Karl Mannhem’s situational sociology of knowledge to the Marxist influence on SSK and symbolic interactionism. But many of the STS concepts developed in the 1980s and 1990s also borrowed from other disciplines, such as linguistics in the case of both actant and trading zone.                                                       

Arguably, STS scholars have historically downplayed the continuities between STS concepts and sociological theory, perhaps partly because of the challenges they experienced in the institutionalization of their field. Whatever the historical reasons, it is probably fair to say that STS today exists first and foremost as an inter-discipline, with STS concepts in use in several different fields. We therefore ask: How have STS and sociology benefited from interdisciplinary thinking at the intersections between their fields and cognate disciplines?

At this juncture, we find ourselves especially concerned with the re-constructive aspirations of STS thinking. We are interested in understanding how the attention of STS to science, technology, and materiality has reshaped theorizing. We focus on concepts here as these allow us to both span different theoretical traditions, and also tease out specifically how they, through their relation to issues of science and technology, have (re-)shaped social theory across fields. The interest in specific concepts helps to move away from focusing on disciplinary boundaries to examine the capacity of concepts to reshape theory and open up fresh perspectives on empirical worlds.  

With this in mind, we sent out a call for papers in Spring 2023 asking colleagues across STS, sociology and related fields to propose contributions reflecting on the changing landscape of conceptual exchange between sociology and STS. We asked each contributor to select one specific concept, and to explore it from one of the following three angles: 

The resulting collection of concepts that was presented and discussed at our workshop at the University of Essex is at least partly a result of self-selection; a reflection of what respondents to our call consider relevant concepts, rather than an intentional curation. We can observe that these chosen concepts tend towards the field of science and technology widely defined, rather than concepts related to specific disciplines that underwent complex conceptual changes through interaction with STS. The collection of concepts presented during the workshop thus cannot be taken as a definitive catalogue of all relevant concepts, but as a first attempt to think through the issues with a number of examples.  

Durability

Anne Pollock (King’s College London) opened the workshop with a keynote talk on the notion of ‘durability’. Having worked on the concept in relation to race and inequality in medicine, Pollock examined whether and how the notion of durability enables us to engage with the fact that society is less available to intervention than liberalism makes us believe. She began by distinguishing between durability and hardness. While “durus” means ‘hardness’ in Latin, Anne argued that it is actually contrary to the concept of durability. In sociology, she observed, durability is often used to define the endurance of institutions - which also entails flexibility even as they resist change. Durability, in sociology, is also relevant to understanding entrenched gender, race and class inequalities. In STS, durability emerges in relation to science as an institution, and the enduring trust in the reliability of scientific knowledge. Pollock argued that Bruno Latour’s classic article “Technology is Society Made Durable” (Latour, 1990), is concerned with relatively ‘low-stakes’ examples when referring to the role of power and domination in making particular entities durable. The strength of STS interpretations of durability, for Pollock, is that they point to the process of making things durable rather than treating durability as an essential feature of institutions. Concluding her talk, Anne argued for a reconceptualization of durability, not as hardness, but as flexibility and resilience in change. 

Uncertainty and Fact

The following session engaged with the concepts of “uncertainty and fact” - an intentional pairing to draw out the tensions between them. Emma Garnett (University of Exeter) drew on her interdisciplinary and collaborative research on air pollution science to identify three conceptualizations of uncertainty which demonstrate exchanges between STS and sociology: the misuses of epistemic uncertainty; the ontological indeterminacy of scientific objects; and organizational and institutional uncertainty. Bringing together STS and sociology, Emma argued, can help to further elaborate  these different forms of uncertainty in scientific work and to find ways of accommodating - instead of trying to eliminate - uncertainty in science and science governance. 

Fernando Domínguez Rubio (University of California, San Diego) pointed out the irony that while the social sciences and humanities, informed by STS, have tended to reject positivism and the certainty of facts, sociology’s history is defined by the field positioning itself as a science - exemplified, not least, by Durkheim’s concept of the ‘social fact’. Rubio discussed the political promise of facts - as bridging divides and settling disagreements - and how this promise may help build a common world. But scholars have, of course, shown how facts can be used to oppress and marginalize people, and in so doing, point to the limits of facts’ political promise. While some believe in a ‘third way’ that recognizes that facts are both real and socially constructed, the boundaries between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ facts continue to be policed. Rubio also offered a way forward - a return to the Latin definition of facts as facere, ‘to do’ or ‘to make’ entailing a focus on ‘what happens’. Regardless of their epistemological value, we can ask: what world(s) do facts build?

Frame and Situation

Matías Valderrama Barragán (University of Warwick) offered an overview of the concept of ‘frame’ in sociology and STS – from Gregory Bateson’s psychological frames, to Erving Goffman’s frame analysis, to Michel Callon and Wiebe E. Bijker’s technological frames. Barragán argued that situational framing is an important conceptual tool for understanding the technological mediation of social life. Insofar as this concept is a candidate for re-construction, a key concern should be with the politics of online media platforms. In applying the concept of the frame to platforms, Valderrama Barragán highlighted what he calls the highly asymmetric conditions for monitoring - and framing - between users and data systems and platform engineers; one example of the many different kinds of ‘platform harm’ that he explores in his PhD thesis.

Susann Wagenknecht & Richard Groß (Technische Universität Dresden) proposed that while “situation” is a foundational concept in micro-sociology and situatedness a core concept in feminist STS, these related concepts have developed with little cross-over. They drew on Erving Goffman’s situation and Lucy Suchman’s situated action to ask what Artificial Intelligence can or cannot do ‘for society’. Both the situation and situatedness, they suggest, enable us to focus on the interaction between humans and machines – highlighting that these interactions are dynamic, circumstantial, and to some extent, structured. For Goffman, human-machine interactions will always be ‘reduced versions’ of human-human interactions; while for Suchman, situated machines are both beyond reach and desire.  

During the discussion, we reflected on the very different intellectual investments that the concept of situation has carried in STS and sociology. While in the Mannheimian sociology of knowledge, the adoption of a situational perspective served to highlight the interconnectedness between knowledge propositions and entrenched group interests; in the post-war period, situationalism in STS was valued as a way to highlight radical contingency (“it could be otherwise”). In the sociological traditions channeled by Wagenknecht and Groß, uptake of the twin concepts of frame and situation are more intimately connected with a commitment to understanding the routine reproduction of everyday life, and how frames are mobilized by everyday actors to "create a working understanding".  Finally, Fernando Rubio reminded us to attend to what the frame obfuscates. Take the infamous fatal Tesla accident in Florida in 2016, in which the sky proved unframeable by the machine. 

Field and Experiment

In the next session, Kornelia Engert (Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz) reflected on the dual identity of “the field” in social studies: it presents not only a site, which renders structural phenomena available for empirical analysis, but also a social structure as such. She discussed the ways in which this dual meaning may be considered intentional in the case of Bourdieusian sociology, while in STS the focus is more strongly on the differentiation among different types of sites and what they enable. Here, the field is historically opposed to the lab, and it is the latter which is accorded exceptional capacities in terms of the power to transform society as well as the world. Referring back to this legacy of 1980s laboratory studies in STS, Engelbert made the case for the valuation of the field sciences in STS. 

Michael Guggenheim (Goldsmith’s College) offered reflections on “the experiment”, focusing on what he calls the “de-laboratorization” of the experiment in recent decades. Starting from the realization that not the lab, but public space and indeed society is increasingly the privileged environment for experimentation, Guggenheim investigated how social studies may wish to respond to this changed situation. Increasingly, logics of innovation seek to ground experimentation in social environments like the road, schools, and hospitals. Guggenheim asked the provocative question of whether STS scholars are able to follow suit, and investigated what it would take to effectuate a laboratization of STS. As part of this journey, STS would have to confront key questions anew, such as: Are experiments fact-making or entity making? Guggenheim argued we need to attend to both.

In the discussion, Monika Krause (London School of Economics) queried whether the laboratory really still qualifies as a privileged site in STS, noting work on field science, such as that by Lezaun and Calvillo on Kurt Lewin (Lezaun & Calvillo, 2014). Pollock noted that, for randomized control trials (RCTs), the lab is not the privileged location. Others flagged that there are wider issues at stake in the opposition between field and laboratory. Not only does it raise critical questions about the source of techno-science's capacities to transform society (is this really still “the lab” as 1980s STS claimed?), it also raises questions about the assumed naturalness of social life as somehow opposed to the artifice of the laboratory environment. Indeed, is the notion of the field fundamentally connected to the idea of social reality as given and, if so, is that a strength or a weakness?

Power

On Friday morning, Linsey McGoey introduced us to the concept of “oracular power” in her keynote lecture, which she defines as the ability to shape societal perceptions of the boundaries between knowledge and ignorance. Drawing on and challenging anthropological perspectives on oracles, sociological conceptions of prophecy and STS work in future studies, McGoey interrogated the functions of modern oracles (scientists, priests, economists, algorithms). While Weber saw prophetic power as waning with the rise of secularism, and Daston and Galison see scientific objectivity as a historically new phenomenon, McGoey argued that Oracular Power both precedes the modern age, and that oracles remain powerful today. 

Autonomy and Assemblage

Sacha Ferrari (Catholic University of Leuven) offered a brief overview of the values contained in the discourse of ‘new’ scientific practices that entail sharing and producing scientific knowledge outside of traditional institutions - from biohacking to the quantified self and online health forums. These values - democratic and participatory science free from the influence of authority - seem to echo the Mertonian ideal of an autonomous and disinterested science, argued Ferrari, but he asks whether these are actualised in practice. He suggests that the counter-hegemonic practices developed in the specific form they did due to a new conception of autonomy that emerged at the confluence of the counter-culture movements of the 1970s, the rise of neoliberalism and the uberized entrepreneurial economy. 

In their brief discussion of “assemblages”, Marres and Mahfoud began by noting the connection with sibling concepts such as entanglement, configuration and actor-network, each of which highlight the distributed and processual nature and heterogeneous composition of social phenomena. Within social theory, the notion of assemblages is connected with the privileging of process over result, change over structure, and with the challenge to the notion of relatively autonomous social domains, and indeed, functional differentiation. They noted that the concept has been useful to counter essentialism in understanding techno-scientific objects and their construction, but also noted the importance of two kinds of critiques: the ethics of exclusion - what is left out when things are entangled (Giraud, 2019) and how entanglement is not inevitable and our responsibility as scholars must also be how to think about disentanglement (Pinto Garcia, 2020). For STS, assemblage proved productive both as a method (“follow the actors”) and a philosophical orientation in the tradition of pragmatism and Whitehead. But a key debate at the current juncture concerns the degree of its scope and extend-ability: does it really make sense to account for say, societal inequality, in terms of assemblages? Of course, highlighting the mutual imbrication of a phenomenon and the infrastructure that supports its articulation retains its value, but surely we must also ask whether it also enables a disconnection from said social phenomenon?

Enactment and Symmetry

Saide Mobayed Vega and Jarrah O’Neill (University of Cambridge) used their research on feminicide and the measurement of body fat to provide a conceptual genealogy of enactment, focusing on its potential and limitations in STS and sociology. Drawing on Annemarie Mol’s ‘The Body Multiple’ (Mol, 2003), they asked: Does enactment imply coherence? Does enactment deflate politics? Mobayed and O’Neill emphasised that enactment reveals the multiplicity of entities and enables the articulation of alternative realities. O’Neill finds that in the case of fat measurement, enactment does not fully account for the doubt that is at the centre of research practices. Mobayed, on the other hand, finds that opening practices of enacting feminicide as data are crucial to understanding how numbers become globalised. 

Monika Krause took up the notion of “symmetry” from the strong programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) and resituated it in relation to an intellectual tradition in sociology, namely the sociology of culture. She argued that, far from presenting a break with entrenched sociological modes of explanation, the symmetry principle adopted a form of explanation that is similar to those of the sociology of culture in the sociology of science: to explain propositions in terms of the context of their production, and to adopt a reflexive mode of explanation, which adopts a second order normativity to evaluate first order normativity.

In the discussion, we reflected on the standpoint theory of knowledge with which SSK and the symmetry principle have been closely associated. Krause argued that the symmetry principle is entirely compatible with a politics of neutrality, in which science is defined by a hard-won relative autonomy of knowledge, where the pursuit of knowledge is freed from the obligation to constantly take sides. Marres noted there is a key difference between SSK and cultural sociology in that SSK deployed a strategy of contextualisation to challenge core assumptions regarding the relation between knowledge, truth and interests in the philosophy of science. McGoey noted that historically speaking we need to come to terms with the fact that the idea of symmetry has been mobilized against the sciences, and indeed, it has been weaponized against facts.
 

An organizer poses with the workshop agenda
An organizer poses with the workshop agenda [Image credit: Noortje Marres]
 

Conclusion

In the closing session, we discussed the moves made during the workshop to interrogate conceptual exchanges as a way to open up a space of inquiry across STS and sociology. We considered that the creation of concepts is historically connected with the attempt to create boundaries, in both sociology and STS. How might we pursue concept creation to more generative, connective ends across our respective fields and differing intellectual lineages? But the focus on concepts also has the effect of allowing us to see how specific ideas (re-)shape specifical theoretical concerns and bridges between different fields and disciplines. Concepts allow us to see the world differently, and because we see differently, we can act differently. This is not to discount what can often appear as the blinding power of concepts. Once you are into assemblages, for example, everything becomes one! In such cases, we don’t see differently; we think we already know what to do. Inquiry into concepts, then, comes with risks: that we distract ourselves from their role within a programme of thought, and as normative horizons. Or, more simply, from what concepts do in the world. 

We reflected on the range of concepts that we engaged with and found several important ones missing: inequality, ecology, environment, totality/multiplicity, ideology, latency, reflexivity, reality, performativity, non-human, agency, risk, society, nature. If we consider these concepts,  together with those discussed at the workshop, what observations might we make about the changing shape of the field?

In the early years of STS, core concepts were pitched as filling a void that had been left from sociology’s lack of attention to the natural sciences and technology: “truth” and “fact” (discussed  by Rubio) as produced, and science, with “materiality” as the famous “missing masses” (Latour, 1992). This logic was in turn met by an insistence by social theorists on the conceptual vocabulary of sociology, notably a focus on Bourdieusian fields, Mertonian norms and their shifts, and Marxist critiques of capitalist science (capitalism, totality, ideology). 

Against these concepts that developed through the antagonism of sociology and STS, we can place those that developed through specific situated work within STS and in close exchange with sociology, such as many of those covered in the workshop: symmetry, enactment, assemblage, frame, situation, but also actant and agency, performativity and translation. It was here that the workshop participants saw most potential for driving conceptual work.

Finally, there is a range of concepts that are given an added edge or complication through STS, because their origin or relevance in contact with science obliges theorists to consider them differently. This would include the experiment, but also missing concepts such as reflexivity, nature, race, ideology, ecology. These concepts all predate STS. They all had complex and often uneasy careers within sociology. They are far from conceptual novelties, but their role as concepts has necessarily undergone huge changes because of the empirical attention paid by STS studies to their performative effects and because of significant historical changes at the intersection of science, technology and society. While nature could be seen as the ‘other’ of society, race could be excluded as an invention, or ecology could be seen as a concept to be simply imported from biology. Once their complex scientific and societal careers had to be included, their conceptual careers shifted considerably. 

 


Michael Guggenheim is a Sociologist who works at the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-founder and convenor of the MA Visual Sociology at Goldsmiths. He has published widely on expertise, lay people, disasters, change of use of buildings, environmental research and food and social theory. He has developed numerous performative experiments, most recently together with Jan-Peter Voss the exhibition “Taste! Experiments for the Senses” at the Museum of Natural History Berlin. ​

Tara Mahfoud is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. She serves as Co-Convenor of the British Sociological Association’s Science and Technology Studies Study Group, and is Associate Editor of the journal Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. Trained in sociology and anthropology, Tara's research explores the cultural, social, and political contexts and implications of developments in neuroscience and neurotechnology.​

Noortje Marres is Professor of Science, Technology and Society in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick (UK). She is the project lead for AI in the street and a PI in the Media of Cooperation research centre at the University of Siegen. Noortje published two single-authored books, Material Participation (2012) and Digital Sociology (2017), and is currently writing a third about testing beyond the laboratory in compute-intensive societies.


 



Published: 06/11/2024