STS and the Bernalian nightmare

blue corners

Steve Fuller gave a seminar on philosophy of science to our MSc students last week. Always good for a provocative one-liner, at one point Steve described 21st century science and technology studies (STS) as “the poster child for neoliberal knowledge production”.

These words haunted me for the following two days, as I attended an STS conference on “Neurosociety“. It was held at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, where much of STS at Oxford is based. Many other STS scholars across Europe similarly work in business schools, or at the very least have some sort of reference to “innovation” in the branding of their degrees, something Fuller made a slight dig about.

Saying STS has simply sold out by hanging-out with business types is both unfair and simplistic. However, there are questions to be asked here, especially about who STS serves, and how. I remembered a seminar I attended last year given by Jane Gregory (linked to this paper) where she argued much of the STS influenced “Public Engagement” movement had ended up being used as a way to sell novel products to the UK public (which wasn’t necessarily its initial aim). There are also ongoing questions about the ways in which STS ideas are used by climate change deniers, alternative medicine advocates or proponents of intelligent design.

One of the most entertaining papers at the Neurosociety conference was from Andy Balmer. His PhD looked at contemporary lie detection technologies. He suggested that in some respects, his work could amount to a form of market research; he wasn’t doing history and sociology as much as checking out competitors. Could he, armed with such knowlege, use STS to build the perfect lie detector? His paper’s joke, for those who are familiar with the work of Bruno Latour, suggested the commodification of the black box, complete with a range of attachments: headphones, a timer and, for the “deluxe model” a webcam and wifi. Everyone chuckled and someone suggested the black box might seem insulting, or at least limiting, to  consumers: why not sell them in a range of colours? Still I don’t think STS scholars should just laugh off the ways in which their ideas might be used. Maybe the commercialisation of STS is a good thing. Perhaps it is an important way in which it can have “impact”, as the people most interested in how technologies succeed or fail to sell are those who want to sell  technology. However, there are other ways STS might make their work meaningful to others (and find new meaning through such interactions) and other ways to funding such work too.

There was also a fair amount of talk at the conference about the ways in which neuroscience serves neoliberalism, with some debate over whether neuroscience itself critiques such a link sufficiently. I found quite a bit of this discussion a bit loose. As Will Davies asked in a question, is it neoliberalism people are talking about here, or just  liberalism, or even simply “that which happens to be around in the west today”. This debate could do with a bit more precision. There was also, I felt, slight smugness (and short-sightedness?) over STS’s ability to provide such a critique and an apparent inability of neuroscience to do such work itself. As Nikolas Rose argued at the end of the conference, the idea that neuroscientists are not critical about their field does not hold true at all.

I still think STS-ers can still provide some service here; I’m not arguing that science is simply “self-correcting”. Indeed, I think precisely because neuroscience is such a self-critical area, they would be interested in any (productive) critiques STS had to offer, and have much to offer STS in return.

One of Fuller’s other lines to our MSc students was the image of contemporary science as a sort of “Bernalian nightmare” (as in a nightmare for JD Bernal) where science had become fragmented to serve the various interests of the tobacco industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the agricultural industry, etc. In doing so, it has perhaps lost a coherent sense of what it means to be scientific. A Bernalian dream, rather than nightmare, would see scientists working together to develop a sense of global sense of science, to keep it ‘pure’ in some way. We could, perhaps, say similar things of science studies which is increasingly located, or at least funded alongside scientific research, with scholars embedded in large-scale projects (e.g. at the LHC, or in genomics).

As I wrote a couple of months ago, I’m quite happy with the idea of science communication studies having a rather fragmented existence. It doesn’t mean scholars can’t hold an independent position, or that people within science communication studies can’t come together to share and argue about the things they study. I’m just not sure they need a coherent sense of self. Moreover, I think they work best when they work with a diverse set of stakeholders. This is something I’ve said about science for years, and I’m happy to apply it to STS too (indeed, it was studying STS that convinced me of this, along with the importance of reflexivity).

Maybe I read too much Dorothy Nelkin at a formative age, I just prefer the “critical friend” model.

The picture at the top of this p0st, in case you are wondering, is of an administration building at Imperial College, taken from a walkway underneath it, looking up.

15 thoughts on “STS and the Bernalian nightmare

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  2. alice Post author

    Via Antoine Blanchard on twitter – I’ve been directed to this paper on the various uses and transformations of STS by Steve Woolgar of the Saïd Business School, Catelijne Coopmans, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore (but formally of Imperial College Business School) and Daniel Neyland, Lancaster University Management School. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but I’ve had a glance through and it seems very relevant. I’ll have a look at it tomorrow.

  3. Bill Cooke

    A management school Prof writes.

    The line between many Business (or indeed, management, which is different) schools and Warwick University per se is fine.

    Ideally, academics in management schools should be no more engaged in promoting neo-liberalist managerialism (NLM), than philosophers of science mess around with bunsen burners or operate the large hadron collider.

    They’re all the objects of study, stupid. Saying business academics are by definition neoliberal is like saying sociologists are by definition socialists.

    For sure we have NLM-ists among us. But so do the humanities and social sciences more broadly, IMHO.

    1. alice Post author

      Ha! The bunsen burner comparison was partly what I was getting at with “STS has simply sold out by hanging-out with business types is both unfair and simplistic”.

      I’m not sure saying “stupid” quite captures the debate here, which I admit is simplified above. For example, there is a rather developed set of thinking in STS about the need for distance between researchers and the people they study, which draws on a (some would say old fashioned and very outdated) ideas of ethnography. Again to simplify, this assumes if you make friends with the people you are studying you loose your ability to critique them.

      As someone trained in sociology of education as well as sociology of science, where at lot of students and, to some extent, researchers are teachers, I’d argue there can be real benefits to a feeling of connection and commitment to what you study. You can still be critical, and take a step back to consider things in a broader context, without playing games of chasing objectivity.

      Agree there are NML-ists in humanities and social sciences more broadly (as well as many who don’t know what that term means) I’m inclined to say that’s ok, or at least that having a range of political ideologies within publicly funded research is appropriate.

  4. Steve Fuller

    Since it may not be clear from Antoine’s post what article he’s talking about, it’s Steve Woolgar et al., ‘Does STS Mean Business?’ Organization (January 2009) vol. 16 no. 1 5-30. The answer, in so many words, turns out to yes — at least, insofar as STS is willing to do business with anyone (and do it well), especially if what’s needed is a bit of troubleshooting and counter-intuitive thought. The article is a very matter-of-fact acceptance/justification of the Bernalian nightmare, since it concedes from the outset that there is no STS mindset, either on the ground or on the horizon. When I published my big Kuhn book ten years, I spoke about STS as ‘tertius gaudens’, the Latin phrase Georg Simmel used to speak of those who benefit from other people’s miseries. This is basically the moral economy in which STS exists. Perhaps it’s not surprising that when faced with this portrayal, the STS response is indifference/relativism, rather than outright disavowal (see Bill Cooke above).

    1. alice Post author

      Ok, but what about the option that it might be a good thing? That STS can, through its involvement, improve business (for society at large, not just to make money).

      So, to take the point from the Gregory seminar mentioned above – we might argue PEST has been ‘captured’ in some way to help very rich people make money, possibly in ways that are actually quite detrimental to various people around the world and/ or the environment. But another consequence of PEST/ business connections is for the former to have some impact on the latter – to use it to open up the various institutions of the governance of science, many of which are not publicly funded (e.g. Open Innovation projects).

      If science is in a Bernalian nightmare, maybe STS can do its best work in the body of the beast?

      This would also mean not taking, as you say “an approach of indifference/relativism”. It also means trusting at least some people in business and, perhaps most of all, being strident enough to convince them to listen to you (not sure how much of that is possible/ desirable… I admit I’m playing with ideas a bit).

      I do think you’d have enjoyed Andy Balmer’s presentation – he needs to develop it to get people talking about the politics of it though. Not just laughing. However you take this, I don’t think it’s a joke.

  5. Will Davies

    Very interesting. Although I’m intrigued as to why my name is now associated with Wellcome Trust Public Engagement funding schemes. This will screw up my google ranking no end.

    1. alice Post author

      Ooops, wrong link. Consequence of a cut and paste related failure to type properly. Fixed.

      (sadly, I didn’t send everyone following the link connected to the word “funding” to your blog).

  6. Steve Fuller

    The ‘belly of the beast’ image is a good one because ultimately it depends on what STS wishes to accomplish in this context: simple self-preservation as the foreign agent or a permanent transformation of the host organism? The latter is what I’m alluding to, but of course it’s quite easy for the STSer to ‘nudge’ the host in ways that might assuage the STSer’s own conscience (at least for the narrative purposes of the final grant report) without feeling any obligation to see whether the nudge has led to a permanent transformation.

    I realize that Bruno Latour has made ‘criticism’ unfashionable in STS but I beg to differ. ‘Criticism’ has generally presupposed that the critic and the criticised share common goals. Thus, to ‘criticise’ a piece of art is to say that the artist could have done it better (and that it would have been worth doing it better). This is exactly the sensibility that STS needs to cultivate vis-à-vis science if it is to be something other than the funky end of science’s default PR machine. It means, among other things, that STSers need to have a clear sense in their own minds about why – and to what extent and in what sense — they wish to promote science, even when they are not thinking about where their next paycheque is coming from.

    1. alice Post author

      You ever heard Steve Rayner’s on the topic of scientific connoisseurship as a model for science communication…?

      (I’m not really a fan, though I would say it’s an interesting way of thinking about it)

  7. Steve Fuller

    Yes, the image of the ‘connoisseur’ is a good one because it combines the critical and consumer functions. In fact that was the term that Harvard President JB Conant used to justify ‘General Education in Science’, the programme where TS Kuhn had his first job. Conant imagined that it was more important that there be citizens (especially highly placed ones, like Harvard grads) who can judge the value of scientific projects than simply an endless supply of scientists. (Keep in mind this was ten years before the launching of Sputnik triggered a ‘science race’ between the US and USSR.) I don’t think Rayner himself is plugged into this history — rather he’s probably drawing on his own background in theatre and the arts.

    1. alice Post author

      The Conant stuff is fascinating. Read them for my UG dissertation.

      The problem I have with the connoisseur idea is the class/ snobbery associations. I think it’s interesting though. One of the reasons I want to develop application of Bourdieu’s stuff on taste to popular science.

  8. Pingback: The brain: the new weather? « through the looking glass

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