Science, Technology, and Society Studies

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Science, Technology, and Society Studies, or STS, is an interdisciplinary field of academic teaching and research, with elements of a social movement, having as its primary focus the explication and analysis of science and technology as complex social constructs with attendant societal influences entailing myriad epistemological, political, and ethical questions. As such it entails four interlinked tenets or concepts that transcend simple disciplinary boundaries and serve as a core body of STS knowledge and practice. Several useful introductions to the STS field are available (Sismondo 2004, Cutcliffe and Mitcham 2001, Volti 2001, Cutcliffe 2000, Hess 1997, Jasanoff, et al. 1995).

Basic Themes

The field of Science, Technology, and Society Studies covers several basic themes.

CONSTRUCTIVISM. First and foremost, STS assumes scientific and technological developments to be socially constructed phenomena. That is, science and technology are inherently human, and hence value-laden, activities that are always approached and understood cognitively. This view does not deny the constraints imposed by nature on the physical reality of technological artifacts, but it does maintain that knowledge and understanding of nature, of science, and of technology are socially mediated processes.

CONTEXTUALISM. As a corollary to the notion of constructivism, it follows that science and technology are historically, politically, and culturally embedded, which means they can only be understood in context. To do otherwise would be to deny their socially constructed nature. This does not contradict reality, but does suggest that there are different contextualized ways of knowing. Likewise any given technological solution to a problem must be seen as contextualized within the particular socio-political-economic framework that gave rise to it.

PROBLEMATIZATION. A view of scientific knowledge and especially technological development as value-laden, and hence non-neutral, leads to the problematization of both. In this view science and technology have societal implications, frequently positive, but some negative, at least for some people. Thus it is not only acceptable, but, indeed, necessary to query the essence of scientific knowledge and the application of technological artifacts and processes with an eye toward evaluative and ethical prescription.

DEMOCRATIZATION. Given the problematic natures of science and technology, and accepting their construction by society, leads to the notion of enhanced democratic control of technoscience. Due to the inherent societal and ethical implications, there need to be more explicit participatory mechanisms for enhancing public participation in the shaping and control of science and technology, especially early in the decision-making process, when the opportunity for effective input is greatest. The ultimate goal is to structure science and technology in ways that are collectively the most democratically beneficial for society.

In adopting such a theoretical framework for the descriptive analysis and prescriptive evaluation of technoscience, STS serves as a location for discussing key societal and ethical issues of interest and concern to a democratic public. As such STS offers a set of conceptual tools and insights, themselves continually open to reflexive analysis and further evolution as scholars and activists gain ever more experience in understanding science and technology.

Historical Development

STS as an explicit academic field of teaching and research emerged in the United States in the mid-1960s, as scholars and academics alike raised doubts about the theretofore largely unquestioned beneficence of science and technology. Public concerns relating to such areas as consumerism, the environment, nuclear power, and the Vietnam War began to lead to a critique of the idea of technoscientific progress that many people had generally come to believe. Marked by such popular works as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) that raised questions about the hazards associated with chemical insecticides such as DDT and Ralph Nader's automotive industry expose, Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), STS reflected a widening activist and public engagement with technoscientific issues and concerns.

At approximately the same time this social movement was emerging, parallel changes within a number of traditional disciplinary academic fields were occurring. Evolving out of the work of scholars such as Thomas Kuhn, whose The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), was tremendously influential, traditional philosophers, sociologists, and historians of science and technology, more or less independently of each other, began to move away from internalist positivist-oriented studies to reflect a more complete and nuanced understanding of the societal context of science and technology. Common to the intellectual analysis in each of these fields was criticism of the traditional notions of objectivity within scientific and technological knowledge and action, an examination that emphasized the value-laden contingent nature of these activities. As these fields evolved, they increasingly borrowed conceptual models and drew on case examples from each other, such that by the mid-1980s a clearly interdisciplinary academic field of study, replete with formalized departments and programs, professional societies, and scholarly journals, had emerged. Reflecting the more intellectual focus of their work, these scholars and their organizations began to use the term S&TS—Science and Technology Studies—to distinguish themselves from the more activist STS wing.

A third element or subculture within STS involves the more practice-oriented science and technology or engineering management and policy fields. Often referred to by the acronym STPP (Science, Technology and Public Policy) or SEPP (Science, Engineering, and Public Policy), this group is particularly interested in the practical policy issues surrounding science and engineering and in exposing scientific and engineering managers to the broader sociopolitical context they are likely to encounter. It too conducts research and scholarship and offers graduate education programs, but generally as part of a focused mission.

Collectively then this interdisciplinary group of scholars and sub-fields constitutes what has become known as STS or sometimes S&TS Studies. Together they examine the relationships between scientific ideas, technological machines and processes, and values and ethics from a wide range of perspectives. Independent of their specific motivations, approaches, and concerns, however, is a common appreciation for the complexities and contextual nature of science and technology in contemporary (and historical) society. Drawing on a strong base of empirical case studies by academic sociologists and historians of technoscience, more activist STSers and the STTP-oriented policy and management groups have since the 1990s been in a position to take a modest "turn toward practice" (Bijker 1993, p. 129) that should in principle, even if not always in practice, allow a more democratic public role in the ethical shaping and control of technoscience.

The STS Controversy

One result of this intellectual theorizing about the socially constructed nature of technoscience has been a strong, often polemical, backlash from certain quarters of the scientific community. This was unfortunate because much of the debate in what became known as the Science Wars appeared to miss, or ignore, the central focus and insights of STS, and was often polemical because of comments by participants on both sides. Many scientists hold tightly to the traditional ideal of objective knowledge based on reason and empirical evidence. For such individuals relativist claims that scientific knowledge is socially constructed and not to be found in an objective autonomous nature, but rather as the result of a set of historically and culturally elaborated set of conventions, was unsettling and struck more than a discordant note. Combined with widespread evidence of scientific illiteracy among school children and widely held pseudoscientific beliefs on the part of the general public, some scientists came to view much of STS as anti-science and indicative of a postmodern cultural decay.

Arguing in support of the objective nature of scientific evidence and science as a special way of knowing, a number of such individuals led by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt (1994) and Alan Sokol (1996a, 1996b, 1998) took issue with some of the more relativist-oriented STS scholars, such as Bruno Latour (1987), and launched a series of sharp attacks in print and at academic conferences. A spirited debate ensued, supposedly over the epistemological nature of scientific knowledge, but it veered into the social dynamics and political implications of science, and by association tended to indiscriminately taint all STS scholars as anti-science and engaged in a flight from reason.

Among the skirmishes Sokol, a physicist, wrote an article consisting of complete gibberish, but cast in post-modern constructivist language, that was published in the cultural studies journal, Social Text (Sokol 1996a), ironically in an issue intended as a response to the earlier work of Gross and Levitt (1994). Sokol was motivated by what he considered to be the "nonsense and sloppy thinking" that "denies the existence of objective realities" (Sokol 1996b, p. 63) and sought to expose it through his parody article, with the end result of adding fuel to the already hot fire of debate.

Without replaying the whole debate, which also included a bizarre invitation by Sokol for anyone who did not believe in scientific objectivity to come to his upper story office where they could test the law of gravity by stepping out the window, much of the dialog missed the common core of agreement that actually bound the combatants more closely together than perhaps at least science defenders realized. That is to say, most scientists, including Gross, Levitt, and Sokol, readily accept a moderate constructivism, one that views scientific knowledge of the natural world and its associated processes, and most certainly technological creations, to be socially constructed phenomena. Few moderate STS scholars or members of the public would deny the obdurate reality of nature, nor do they seek to control the underlying scientific epistemology, but it certainly is within reason for them to both understand and seek to control the sociopolitical implications of contemporary technoscientific advances. In the end then, it would appear there was probably more in common between the scientific combatants and that their war reflected much ado about little. Yet, at the same time, it does suggest just how difficult it may be for STS, either as a group of investigative scholars or as a social movement, to play an ethically and politically responsible role in the shaping and control of science and technology as the twenty-first century unfolds.

The Problem of Ethics

To say that incorporating an ethical awareness and normative framework into society's control and shaping of contemporary science and technology will be difficult, is not to say that it should not be attempted, nor that such attempts from within the STS community are not already occurring. Indeed that has been much of the raison d'etre of STS right from the beginning, even of those more intellectual scholars most interested in revealing the epistemological underpinnings of scientific knowledge. Thus it has been the case that STS social constructivists have often revealed the underlying values and ethical choice decisions made in scientific research and discovery, while those analyzing technological decision making, such as that surrounding the launch of the space shuttle Challenger (Vaughan 1996), similarly revealed the ethics of the decision to go forward that chilly Florida morning, even in the face of admittedly mixed evidence regarding the viability of O-rings at reduced temperatures. Other more specifically focused philosophers and ethicists have analyzed case studies of technoscientific failures or near failures, ranging from DC-10 aircraft landing gear to the San Francisco BART transportation system to the collapse of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway, for what they reveal about the ethics and values subsumed in such technoscientific endeavors. Other scholars have examined such issues as the siting of toxic waste and hazardous manufacturing facilities because of what they show about environmental justice inequities.

Out of such analyses has come increased attention to the need to make scientists, engineers, and corporate managers much more socially and ethically attuned to the implications of their work. To that end, engineering education programs focus more attention on the ethics of engineering through required coursework, while organizations and groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which established a Committee on Scientific Freedom Responsibility in 1975, and the computer science community, which created the ethics-oriented Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in 1983, concentrate specific resources toward the effort to raise awareness of ethical issues.

Beyond this institutional level of response, increasing numbers of STS academic scholars have come to recognize and focus on normative concerns as an integral part of their work. In part this has been a response to the gauntlet thrown down by the political philosopher of technology, Langdon Winner (1993), who finds much of the largely descriptive constructivist analysis wanting in terms of human well-being and the social consequences of technological choice. One significant measure of the barometric shift in such matters has been the work of Wiebe Bijker, a leading constructivist scholar and the 2001–2003 President of the Society for the Social Studies of Science. In a number of works, including his 2001 pre-presidential address, Bijker explicitly argued the need for greater political engagement in matters technoscientific on the part of citizens and scholars alike, each drawing on the constructivist insights of STS. Such engagement in his view would entail much greater democratic participation in the technoscientific decision-making process on the part of the public and a larger role for STS scholars as public intellectuals who, by drawing on their STS insights, might contribute normatively to the civic enhancement of our modern technoscientific culture (Bijker 2001, 2003).


As the foregoing analysis suggests, STS, as an intellectual area of research and teaching, as applied policy analysis, and as a social movement, is not only a field well suited to explain the nature of science and technology (historically and in the contemporary world), but one that also holds out great promise for the normative and democratic enhancement of today's technoscientific society. STS both provides an analytical framework and serves as a locus of debate. Such is the potential of STS and the greatest opportunity for its application.


SEE ALSO Interdisciplinarity;Merton, Robert;Scandinavian and Nordic Perspectives;Science, Technology and Law;Science, Technology, and Literature;Sokol Affair.


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