STS as a parasite

Let me begin with some general clarifications before going deeper into the idea of the parasite. There is no such thing as STS discipline, neither in general terms nor related to urban studies. I will lean on Tight’s work about higher education (2020) to support the statement I am proposing here. In an attempt to resolve whether higher education is a discipline or a field of study, Malcolm Tight presented a decomposition of what is understood as a discipline.

His decomposition of this concept started with an etymological definition provided by the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1993: 685): Discipline is “a branch of learning or scholarly instruction.” (Tight, 2020: 417). Next, he drew upon a perspective from Lawn and Kenner (2006: 158) about “academic disciplines [that] can be seen as multi-dimensional socio-communicative networks of knowledge production.” (Tight, 2020: 417). Then, paraphrasing Krishnan (2009: 9) and further complicating the situation, Tight (2020: 417) displayed six features a discipline should have, whilst recognizing that disciplines do not necessarily have to fulfill these criteria:

(1) disciplines have a particular object of research (e.g. law, society, politics), though the object of research may be shared with another discipline; (2) disciplines have a body of accumulated specialist knowledge referring to their object of research, which is specific to them and not generally shared with another discipline; (3) disciplines have theories and concepts that can organize the accumulated specialist knowledge effectively; (4) disciplines use specific terminologies or a specific technical language adjusted to their research object; (5) disciplines have developed specific research methods according to their specific research requirements; and maybe most crucially (6), disciplines must have some institutional manifestation in the form of subjects taught at universities or collages, respective academic departments and professional associations connected to it.”

From my perspective, the first characteristic presented above validates the other five. The situation regarding STS is that the ontologies of science and technology, as well as society, are multiple and are continually being mixed with other domains. These elements are also context-dependent. I will rely upon Susan Cozzens’s (1990:1) definition that STS, rather than being “a discipline, field, or area […] is a movement.” Her proposal is simple. We should abandon a disciplinary study of science and technology as the practice of STS transcends disciplinary perspectives.

The metaphor of movement as both a collective of diverse elements and a flow has implications for conceiving the, as yet unknown, set of aggregates which go beyond just science and technology as organized behind the acronym STS. However, leaving aside the disciplinary study of these aggregates and understanding STS as a movement results in a more complicated situation than just opting for a multidisciplinary approach. A multidisciplinary perspective is not doing anything different here.

Considering I cannot talk abstractly about STS right now because all my thoughts are tied (i) to a specific perspective based on empirical work about a particular urban place, as well as (ii) to a set of epistemologies constructed [with and] for exploring that place (STS needs to be contextualized), I will try to use this piece of research as an empirical resource for exploring and expanding this proposal of abandoning discipline as a way of conceiving and organizing my academic efforts.

There is a complex world outside, a world where different temporalities and spatialities are happening simultaneously, a flowing world composed of effervescences and instabilities and there is a study object, in the case of this dissertation, Times Square. That study object has been framed, among other structures, as an urban element/scenario that belongs to urban studies and a socio-technical construction that belongs to the domain of STS. So far, so good. Nevertheless, some issues appear once one tries to situate that study object inside a flowing and multiple world.

We are dealing here with a broad set of ontological and epistemological problems. Due to their nature these problems cannot be fixed, either by using theory or by locating them inside a particular discipline. Throughout my doctoral process I have been using different tools and strategies provided by other academic traditions in order to decompose and represent Times Square. Thinking about my study object and the cognitive elements for both grasping and displaying that element has been an exercise of mixing and matching whatever might help me decompose and describe Times Square as a sociotechnical stabilization without concern for disciplinary purism.

Throughout this research I have been thinking and acting from the domains of science, as well as from the lands of philosophy on Times Square, trying to learn from this [multiple and effervescent] subject/location about different [possible] ways of relating and being with a bounded urban location, all from an STS perspective. This entails a particular way of looking at the world outside, paying special attention to the sociotechnical entanglements between dissimilar elements which can be used and transported as a sort of movement into other domains, fields and disciplines.

As a way of producing embodied and situated knowledges (Haraway, 1988) and as an imaginative and inventive approach (Lury and Wakeford, 2012) designed to follow and trace heterogeneous associations and aggregates, as well as mixing history and biography with intellectual analysis (Wright-Mills 1999[1959]), I have been using and experimenting with STS, combining it with other strategies and resources coming from various parts of the spectrum of human knowledge such as journalism, literature, semiotics and design.

The idea behind these experiments is to produce richer combinatory epistemologies capable of grasping and reproducing in a more diverse and detailed way those effervescent sociotechnical moments, situations, elements, and connections that, I believe, compose what we used to call urban life.

After almost four years experimenting with various sources, mostly approaching them from the disciplines of journalism, literature, semiotics and design, I decided to construct an open and extremely unstable academic program, a field that could serve as a host to my interest in following, describing and projecting, in a multimodal and interactive way, the different sociotechnical associations composing urban life. That field is a melting pot of epistemological tools and strategies mixed with that which will be defined in the second part of Chapter 6, the urban-something.

A field, paraphrasing Bourdieu, is a space of differences, it is also the dynamic location of multiple and heterogeneous encounters. A field will be also understood here as “the place where the distinctive work of ‘fieldwork’ may be done, (Gupta and Ferguson, 1997:2). This means that a field is both a virtual and an actual spatiality that needs to be continually composed and signified. One of the goals I plan to achieve with the field I am presenting at the end of this dissertation (see P17) is to propose a way of doing STS without STS, outside of any disciplinary, normative, or structured academic program.

Instead, STS will be conceived as a movement, a perspective that can be hosted inside any academic program that can be constructed by mixing biography with intellectual inquiry. In the case of this piece of research, the selection of the sources and sides [design, literature, journalism, and semiotics] I chose for constructing the host academic program were, as already indicated, due to my intellectual interests, as well my previous academic explorations, as evinced by my biography.

I believe that (urban) STS, as a parasite, as a way of conceiving life in the streets using (other) multiple epistemologies, becomes stronger inside experimental hybrid and plural fields that go beyond disciplinary boundaries and pre-made academic structures. I am also convinced that the commitment to this epistemological exploration of multiplicity will lead to a academic/personal position without methodological or ontological borders at the moment of doing urban-STS-ethnography, which is no more than an elaborate label for the practice of going outside to grasp and represent a sociotechnical world.

The academic/personal position I am talking about is related to what Cozzens (1990: 5) proposes as a possible future state of those working inside (with) STS. Basically, “[t]o see ourselves, not as sociologists or philosophers, teachers, lobbyists, researchers, or policymakers but rather as part of STS, [in this way,] we will be better able to achieve STS Thought and eventually make the disciplines, and even the contradiction between thought and action in STS, disappear.” Accomplishing this goal requires a great deal of work as it is more than a cosmetic transition, a matter of simply calling oneself an STS whatever (scholar, academic, researcher) and more an epistemological attitude.

References

Cozzens, S. (1990). The disappearing disciplines of STS. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 10(1), 1–5.

Gupta, A. Ferguson, J. (eds.). (19997). Anthropological Locations. Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges. The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 577-599. 

Krishnan, A (2009) What are Academic Disciplines? Some observations on the disciplinarity vs. interdisciplinarity debate. Southampton, University of Southampton, National Centre for Research Methods.

Lawn, M., & Keiner, E. (2006). Editorial. European Journal of Education, 41(2), 155–167.

Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (Eds.). (2012). Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social. New York: Routledge.

Tight, M. (2020). Higher education: discipline or field of study? Tertiary Education Manager, 26, 415–428.

Wright-Mills, C. (2000[1959]). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.