Concomitance and dissimilarity

What can STS learn from Times Square for doing ethnography?

Let us begin this section by exploring an ontological complication[1] (OC). This OC was stated in the noun of the sentence above, the main question this research adresses: STS. Is STS a valid subject? That question becomes relevant when brought in line with a couple of related issues: Can we talk about a solid, well delimited and stable element when referring to STS? What is STS anyhow? Is it a framework, a background, an additive, a set of either theories or programs?

For this section’s purposes, let us suppose that STS is a valid subject. But what kind of STS am I talking with and about? and what does STS do? Is STS also interested in doing ethnography? Let us hope so! Coming back to the common thread of these questions and complications, perhaps the most essential question to answer first should be: what is behind the acronym “STS”? Well, it depends. Some scholars use it for “Science, Technology and Society,” others for “Science and Technology Studies.” Even though it seems like a subtle one, that variation displays two different epistemological visions and matters of concern of the supposedly same ontological entity.

Steve Fuller (1997) takes care of the distinction between both terms using what he called “High Church” and “Lower Church”, naming both approaches respectively: “There is probably a broad political consensus between the High and Low Churches regarding a generally critical attitude toward the role of science and technology in society today. However, the High Church stresses the need for more research to understand the complexities of that role. In contrast, the Low Church wishes to reduce some of those complexities by reorienting science and engineering education.” (Ibid: 181).

We can say that, among other aspects, the distinction between “Science and Technology Studies” and “Science, Technology, and Society” as proposed by Fuller could be considered as a matter of public. Drawing a comparison between these two concepts and the terminology of science journalism, the High Church focuses on the production and distribution of scientific knowledge among scientific communities which are small and well-defined. Its language, methods and format are complex and highly specialized. Meanwhile, the Low Church is concerned with the dissemination of scientific knowledge among larger groups. Its language is less elaborated but more didactic and generalist.

We have, on the one hand, “Science and Technology Studies” (Sismodo, 2004; Lynch, 2012) as a sort of territory where the meanings, issues, relations, applications and challenges between science and technology (as indicated by the name) are discussed and studied from different disciplines. This version of STS is “an intellectually dynamic interdisciplinary arena [that] [f]rom its origins in philosophical and political debates about the creation and use of scientific knowledge […] has become a wide and deep space for consideration of the place of science and technology in the world, past and present.” (Kleinman & Moore, 2014:1).

On the other hand, and offering a different perspective than Fuller’s churches, the inclusion of the term “Society” (Kranzberg, 1991; May, 1992; Bauschpies et al., 2006) implies an emphasis on a cause-effect relationship between science-and-technology and some kind of entity called society. The mutual shaping of technology and society (MSTS) (Lievrowu, 2002; Boczkowski, 2004) is an academic approach that takes care of the constant interferences and feedbacks between science-technology —mostly technology— and that society thing, as a bidirectional imbrication of affection that links technological innovation to societal issues/experiences.

MSTS aims to go further than other approaches[2] that have conceived, in a linear way, the relationships between science-technology and society. It means that MSTS overcomes any kind of determinism, either social or technological, recognizing a permanent imbrication, a mutual shaping process of affecting and transforming each other, though not always in a positive way. This imbrication is what Sheila Jasanoff (2004: 3) understands as the “interconnectivity of nature and society.” Thus, at first sight, Society in STS is an abstract and blurred construction, a sort of actant, that is in a constant exchange with science and technology. But what are we referring to when we talk about society?

There are two ways to understand society: (I) using a generalist perspective, (II) following a particularistic one. Each one of those possible paths is linked to a sociological tradition. It means it is supported by a previous set of theoretical and methodological discussions and by a corpus of empirical publications in the shape of books and papers. However, to present and relate both ways, I will rely on Latour’s (2005) discussion about the “social.” Below, there is a brief presentation of the proposed discussion:

“[W]hen social scientists add the adjective ‘social’ to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is already assembled together, without making any superfluous assumption about the nature of what is assembled. Problems arise, however, when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden’, ‘steely’, ‘biological’, ‘economical’, ‘mental’, ‘organizational’, or ‘linguistic’. At that point, the meaning of the word breaks down since it now designates two entirely different things: first, a movement during a process of assembling; and second, a specific type of ingredient that is supposed to differ from other materials.” (1)

The first way of addressing the meaning of society assumes that the concept is somewhat solidified but at the same time blurred. A generalist perspective implies the conception of society as a supposedly amorphous conceptual thing used as a homogenizing element for invigorating any type of exchange between science-and-technology and other realms. In other words, society is:

“[A] specific domain of reality; [that] can be used as a specific type of causality to account for the residual aspects that other domains (psychology, law, economics, etc.) cannot completely deal with; it is studied by specialized scholars called sociologists or socio-(x)—‘x’ being the placeholder for the various disciplines. (Latour, 2005:4).

On the contrary, a particularist perspective —the perspective used for developing this work— “claims that there is nothing specific to social order; that there is no social dimension of any sort, no ‘social context,’ no distinct domain of reality to which the label ‘social’ or ‘society’ could be attributed; that no ‘social force’ is available to ‘explain’ the residual features other domains cannot account for.” (Ibid). What is understood as society is any temporal stabilization of any kind of elements rather than a particular domain. In this order of ideas, the usage of Society inside the acronym “STS” is unreliable and ambiguous since there is no a domain we can name as such.

Notwithstanding, it does not mean we should discard the term as well as all those derived from it. Not at all. What we should do instead is be more precise at the moment of using them. It means we need to be specific about distinguishing the signifier from the signified. For instance, Latour proposes the idea of association for talking about those kinds of temporal groups “made of ties which are themselves non-social. [the Sociologist of associations] should travel wherever new heterogeneous associations are made.” (Ibid: 8). Thus, to use the concept society implies a clarification of what kind of temporal association we are talking about here.

The idea of “Science, Technology, and Society” is reduced to a limited, unique and specific kind of group formation opened to any type of aggregates. Suppose we decompose that triad in a sort of unity of sense. In this case we have an open set of specific and linked components, what is here understood as a society, in which science and technology —two elements not yet defined— also participate. The shape and scope of this temporal formation will depend on the resources and the researcher’s empirical constructions in the field.

In the case of this piece of research, extrapolating “society” to my study object, to talk about Times Square is insufficient and completely ambiguous. One can be confused easily using that term as a wildcard without knowing to what it is pointing or replacing. There is an infinite number of virtual and actual elements and situations that can be labeled “Times Square.” As an illustrative exercise below you can find ten examples of different associations or situations having Times Square as a name:

  • The conjunction of Broadway and the 7th Avenue in New York City.
  • A touristic area in the middle of Manhattan composed of twenty blocks.
  • A point on a map.
  • An imaginary, in fact, many imaginaries.
  • A working place.
  • A zone to regulate.
  • A place to dispute.
  • The background of a photograph.
  • A tourist trap.
  • A piece of history of New York City.

This is why it is always essential to be clear about what association one is framing, decomposing and describing. I acknowledge that to be continually announcing what piece of fluid reality one is stabilizing is a reiterative and exhausting job. This activity will also slow everything down, not only for the writer but also for the reader-user. However, I am convinced that there is no other path that can be taken to encompass, exhaust and project an urban location, understanding that particular place as a temporal association of elements in which science and technology are participating.

Returning to the two distinct understandings of STS: (i) Science, Technology and Society, the low church, and (ii) Science and Technology Studies, the high church. If the first is concerned with particular, temporal and well-delimited spaces, the associations composed by heterogeneous elements including science and technology, the approach to and representation of those spaces is the concern of the second. In other words, these two churches are complementary elements rather than two different points of view or just a matter of different publics.

Science, Technology and Society refers to those effervescent associations we find outside which we bound and stabilize as our study objects while Science and Technology Studies points to the epistemological tactics and tools we deploy for bounding, stabilizing, describing and projecting our study objects: those temporal entanglements, controversies and situations where science and technology intervene — in this instance based on the interests of the writer— in (urban) public open places.

Having established an initial approach to the different meanings behind the acronym “STS,” it is possible for us to move forward in the conceptualization of STS. Rather than conceiving of it as an academic discipline, the first point of contact with STS in this piece of research is the understanding of it as a particular yet broad and heterogeneous field of knowledge, as a container gathering efforts, tools, publications, discussions and, in general terms, any elements around the systematic study and application of science and technology in particular, located and well-defined situations.

To understand STS as a field is to stress our academic efforts over particular —in this case urban— amalgams of aggregates simultaneously affecting and being affected by a specific location. To understand STS as a field means using any available tools we have, regardless of discipline, to encompass, relate and display those heterogeneous formations happening in a situated way. The purpose and primary characteristic of a field is its capacity to generate a sort of concomitance —not always in a reconciliatory way— between dissimilar elements:

 “The primary task of a field […] is to focus a variety of such analytic disciplines on one set of concrete phenomena (thus medicine is concerned with the human body, education with the institution of education, international relations with the relations among national states—and each of these fields consists, essentially, of a variety of the basic disciplines working together). (Popenoe, 1963:21).

If we agree that STS is a study field a further complication arises. How is it possible to add STS or to mix it with other study fields such as, for example, the urban one? What are we talking about when we are referring to Urban-STS? Is that new construction a more prominent field encompassing both (sub)fields? Or, on the contrary, are we still talking about STS just a different kind of STS? Is it ontologically possible to have different types of STS?

[1] See, for instance, MacKenzie & Wajcman (1985); Williams & Edge (1996) on the social shaping of technological approaches.

[2] For a definition of what an ontological complication is, please go to Reductions.


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