Tuesday, July 12, 2005

STS collaborators

I've finally had a chance to catch up on some blog reading, and was struck by Alex Pang's comments on the recent Does STS Mean Business 2? conference at Oxford's Sad Business School.

Building on last year's conference, the one-day event tackled "the uses and transformations of Science and Technology Studies (STS) in recent years, especially as STS is appropriated within new contexts, including management studies and business schools." Interesting.

I immediately recall an interview where I was asked how I would reconcile my politics with working for such a Big Company. After pausing to reflect, I could only answer "Actually, I'm not sure I can." Now that doesn't mean I'm not willing to try, but it's a hard question that I come back to often.

But what of Alex's comments? He wrote:

"First, it's clear to me that STS is the Samsung of the social sciences. For decades, it's been fighting for acceptance and legitimacy; it's seen itself as rebellious, trouble-making, crazy brave, and able to see things that the rest of the world can't. Bad, rad, and dangerous to know ... STS has long attracted people who see their work as politics by other means, and who assume that teaching kids STS is a radical act. Wrong. STS is apolitical. Time to deal with that fact ... What's required for STS-- the field, not the ideas; the ideas have escaped the academic gravity well-- to succeed is new institutions, and a generation of practitioners who don't see themselves as the academic equivalent of Les Miserables, forever on the barricades."

Man, this irks me. Alex also rightfully complains that STS discussions can create monolithic and homogeneous visions of business - ten years ago they were rightfully criticised for doing the same with science - and that lack of nuanced understanding doesn't help. But then he does a super job of lumping all STS scholars together, slapping cheesy Che Guevara t-shirts on them and mocking them for their clueless arrogance. Methinks the pot is calling the kettle black!

But mostly I'm just amazed that anyone would actually suggest that STS - or any research activity - is apolitical. And there's certainly no indication in Alex's conference paper (pdf) that this is actually how things work for STS scholars outside or inside business.

Steve Woolgar wrote a good provocation piece (pdf) for the event in which he describes relevant critiques of STS, including its preoccupation with emerging technologies instead of those already in wide-spread use. (I maintain that the primary advantage of studying emerging tech is to identity points of intervention before products are built and sold.) He also claims that scientific practice is always already business practice, and that "STS has always been engaged in a form of practical action." In any case, he asks some good questions and warns us that

"[A]nti-determinist sentiments [in STS studies] seem to fall away in considering the future. While the present (multiple) usages, understandings and identities related to any technology can be called on to hold to account any apparent determinist or essentialist rendition of a technology, renditions of the future appear to be held less accountable. This relative freedom from accountability through shifting attention toward future orientation is a neat but not uniquely futuristic trick..."

Nina Wakeford also presented on the studio-approach to research taken by the INCITE group. In her paper (pdf) she discusses "collaborations between the producers of new technologies hardware manufacturers, software developers and interface designers and the researchers and analysts of these technologies." Of particular interest are her suggestions that researchers need to present more than a final report with design specifications:

"[T]he active and embodied process of translation of the data becomes crucial in the collaboration. This behaviour is not a mere process of 'channelling the user' in terms of the voices of those we have interviewed. It involves explicitly producing an active and engaged sociological or anthropological interpretation for an interdisciplinary audience."

She also questions why critical approaches are so often missing in corporate research and design, and wonders why certain things just don't seem to translate no matter what we do. Following Lucy Suchman, she argues for "partial translations" and suggests that "conversations about value...are only one way to frame partial translations." Integral to this process of translation is the creation of a shared artefact or idea, or what Nina calls an "interprofessional hyperlink" around and through which collaboration occurs. For example, the mobile object used to faciliate collaboration with Intel was the 73 Bus. In collaborating with Sapient, the shared idea and practice is ethnography. In each case, INCITE (and other social science) researchers are challenged to produce visual or material, rather than just textual, knowledge.

Also of interest is Paul Wouters paper (pdf) on the collaborative research experience of the Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences (VKS) in Amsterdam.


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