sts issues

Local Links
Research approach
Research projects

STS papers
STS issues

Contact & Cv

External Links

OU Sociology
Newcomers to the farm

This page flags up STS-related issues that puzzle or concern me. It isn't a blog, but I add to its contents from time to time.

On Brexit: An Open Letter to my European Friends

For a personal response to Brexit, click here. This is not an academic paper, but it is informed by working in (mostly European) STS for nearly five decades.
(posted 31 January 2020)

Land, Environment and Colonial Mistranslations

Colonial languages and the practices that carry them displace and distort indigenous languages and practices. Solveig Joks, Liv Østmo and I have been writing about how this happens to the Sámi term meahcci, a word that gets mistranslated as utmark in Norwegian law and administration, and as 'landscape' or (perhaps) as 'wilderness' in English. Meahcci is task and time-related, and points to a relational and shifting understanding of the world and the entities that make it up. (Tim Ingold's term 'taskscape' is much better stab at catching it if we are writing in English.) But important, too, is the fact that in the Sámi language verbs and nouns are much more fluid and interchangeable than in Norwegian or English. This paper is a draft contribution to a prospective monograph on the consequences of mistranslations into English-dominated social theory. The argument is thus also that there is much about the world in other cultures and practices that escapes the conceptual grasp of social theory. Click here for this paper.
(posted 14 June 2019)

How to write about material semiotics?

Confronted with the request to write a substantial encyclopaedia entry on 'actor network theory' I was initially reluctant, but agreed to do so if it could more broadly be on 'material semiotics'. My reasons for agreeing were both intellectual and political. I wanted to resist the hypostasis that reduces these rich, varied and grounded approaches in which theory-and-the-empirical are woven together to either a short list of abstractions, or to a few leading authors. The challenge, then, was to write a piece that works through a range of cases. I don't know whether I have succeeded, but for my attempt to do this click here.
(posted 31 January 2019)

Reframing Postcolonial STS, or STS as Patterning

Even critical EuroAmerican ways of knowing carry colonial agendas, including binary essentialisms. STS argues that these are enacted in practices that pretend purity whilst performing in ways that are impure and heterogeneous. So are there ways of enacting divisions whilst resisting the EuroAmerican pull to the essential? Wen-yuan Lin and I explore this by drawing on Chinese medical (CM) practices of patterning. CM patterning works with contextual 'objects-as-appearances' rather than 'stable-objects-out-there', which means that binaries such as subject versus object, and theory versus practice, do not become fixed. Our question is: might patterning therefore be useful to a postcolonial STS? For this paper (which is related to the paper on ziran below) click here.
(posted 12 September 2018)

Mistranslation as environmental colonisation

State policies and biological knowledge frequently work together to colonise the environment and displace indigenous ways of knowing the world. This colonial asymmetry works in a whole range of ways, but it often operates in and through mistranslation. Indigenous terms and the practices they index are displaced by dominant vocabularies. Or translations of indigenous terms are refused, perhaps because they are 'mere beliefs'. And/or it is denied that mistranslation has taken place at all. Traduttore, tradittore. In a forthcoming paper in Environmental Humanities Liv Østmo and I write about the politics of a Sámi environmentally-relevant term, jávredikšun that finds little or no room in Norwegian or in English language and so gets othered from state policymaking. For the final version of the paper click here.
(posted 14 June 2018)

Shi revisited - again!

I've posted about a shi-inflected STS twice before. The issue is: why does STS work with EuroAmerican assumptions and concepts? Why does it not work with 'indigenous' alternatives? There are obvious historical reasons for this, and there might be conceptual advantages too. But at the same time this is a colonising move that others alternative ways of knowing. So the shi paper with Wen-yuan Lin, finally published here in the open access Journal of World Philosophies, debates coloniality in social science and sketches some of the possible implications of a 'Chinese' approach to theorising. One of these is that the theory-empirical divide doesn't actually work. In the same issue of the Journal of World Philosophies there's an article by Leah Kalmanson suggesting that the arguments made in Western 'new' materialism and speculative realism aren't so new to Chinese thought.
(posted 14 June 2018)

Postcoloniality and the 'politics of how'

How to relate biological knowledge to TEK (traditional ecological knowledge)? Solveig Joks and I explore this for salmon fishing in Sápmi (see also 'Science and TEK/LEK: a postcolonial analysis' below). One crucial issue is: how tolerant are different forms of knowledge to alternatives? The answer is that TEK is relatively permissive whereas biological modelling is not. This leads us to argue the need for a 'politics of how' knowledges are done alongside the 'politics of who' and STS's 'politics of how'. See Indigeneity, science and difference: notes on the politics of how.
(posted 19 October 2017)

Thinking in-between about nature

The term ziran is used in Chinese medicine to translate the 'out there' nature of biomedicine, but also to describe non-binary propensities and flows. This suggests that thinking in-between with ziran might offer a non-essentialising way of understanding Western 'nature' and its 'nature/culture' divide. The art would be to create situated methods that knowingly lay between subjects, objects and circumstances, and worked with appearances rather than 'things out there'. These are the topics of Knowing Between: patterning, ziran and nature.
(posted 2 May 2017)

Revisiting shi and a postcolonial social science

Comparing 'China' with 'EuroAmerica' is fraught with political, methodological, and metaphysical difficulties. Large divides don't work, but something is also missing if you ignore them. There's a new version of the postcolonial shi paper online which reflects a little more about the paradoxes of using a term from Chinese classical philosophy in present day EuroAmerican social science practice.
(posted 2 May 2017)

Nature, coloniality and difference

'Nature' is a problem. It translates poorly into Sámi because for Sámi people the environment is filled with lively and powerful beings with whom it is necessary to maintain relations of care, respect, and reciprocity. But this is not how the Norwegian state sees it as it implements environmental policies intended to maintain a pristine nature. Liv Østmo and I write about this political, practical and ontological clash, as we describe lake fishing on the subarctic plateau. The issue is: how might one recognise difference well?
(posted 30 April 2017)

More on a postcolonial STS

Does it make sense to 'provincialise' STS? To imagine, for instance, an STS understood through a 'Chinese' term such as 'shi'? What are we giving up if we do this? Following Provincialising STS (see below) in The Stickiness of Knowing: translation, postcoloniality and STS Wen-yuan Lin and I explore these questions, ask what 'the empirical' might become and whether there is any place for the idea of 'context' in a shi inflected STS. These two papers, plus critical commentaries, are now available on the EASTS journal site (scroll down the page a little). They are free to download until November 2017.
(posted 16 November 2016; updated 30 April 2017)

Science and TEK/LEK: a postcolonial analysis

How do local or traditional ecological knowledges (LEK/TEK) intersect with biology and the state? And how might the latter be moved? Papers with Solveig Joks, (Sámi Salmon, State Salmon: LEK, Technoscience and Care and Luossa and Laks: Salmon, Science and LEK) explore this for salmon in the Deatnu/Tana river in Sápmi, the Sámi area of North Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Russian Kola pensinula. The Deatnu is an important salmon river fished by Sámi, and more recently by many outsiders. Biologists argue that salmon stocks are under threat, and fishing is therefore severely and controversially limited. The biologists are required to consult with LEK/TEK experts, but this works badly.
(posted 10th March 2016; updated 2nd and 16th November, 2016)

A shi-inflected case-study: an essay in postcolonial STS

The joint paper with Wen-yuan Lin, Tidescapes: a Shi-Inflected STS, develops the 'symmetrical' STS mentioned below by asking what might happen if a Chinese term of art 'shi' (usually translated into English as 'propensity') were used to explore a British empirical case. The answer is that much would change. The term itself does analytical work that existing STS approaches do not. In addition, case studies would loo quite different too. Indeed the term and its intellectual and institutional hinterlands suggest the need to rethink or dissolve the distinction between case and theory.
(posted 18th February 2016)

Postcoloniality and symmetry

The November 2015 Denver Bernal Prize plenary talk picked up the theme of postcoloniality by drawing on a joint paper with Wen-yuan Lin called Provincialising STS. (This version was updated on 23rd December 2015). Here the issue is: what would STS look like if it symmetrically treated 'other' terms of art as potential analytical resources - that is, in the same terms as its own theory? (The symmetry argument started in SSK where the idea was to treat true and false knowledge in the same terms. Then it got extended in ANT to actants. Now we're suggesting it should be further extended to analytical resources).
(posted 1 November 2015; revised 23rd December 2015; 18th February 2016)

STS as Method?

STS explores methods. It always has. It asks how science (or technology, or medicine, or indigenous knowledges) assemble themselves. It hasn't usually thought of itself in this way, but perhaps there's a case for saying that STS is a method for studying methods. That, at any rate, is the hypothesis that underpins the historical views that makes up the paper STS as Method. (posted 1 November 2015)

A Postcolonial STS?

If knowledges are contextual, then Euro-American STS would be 'provincialised' by post-colonial STSs which would take different forms in different post-colonial worlds. We would have multiple STSs. A possible 'Chinese' STS drawing on the non-analytical and syncretic practices of Chinese medicine is explored in A Correlative STS? Lessons from a Chinese Medical Practice and developed more strongly in the published version of this paper (Wen-yuan Lin and John Law, 'A Correlative STS: Lessons from a Chinese Medical Practice', Social Studies of Science, 44 (6), 801-824. Sorry: we can't put this online.)
(posted 28th August, 2013; revised 20 February 2015; and again 1 November 2015)

STS and Policy

Material semiotics suggests that the world is multiple. But how does policy handle multiplicity? The answer is: in all sorts of ways. However often it refuses the possibility of 'natural' multiplicity, seeing this only in the social. For the case of policy on foot and mouth disease, ANT, Multiplicity and Policy explores what policymaking might look like if it also acknowledged natural difference.
(posted 22 February 2015)

STS and Political Economy

How do STS sensibilities intersect with the concerns of political economy? This issue is explored in a long singly-authored Appendix to a collaborative piece which draws on the two traditions to argue that government is a form of (in the UK failed) experimentation. In certain respects - for instance in their shared concern with specificity - the convergence between the two traditions is striking. See page 19 and onwards in A State of Unlearning.
(posted 29th January, 2014)

A 'Western' and a 'Chinese' 'international'?

Is it possible to imagine alternative forms of 'international'? For this argument tentatively explored for alternative 'analytical' and 'correlative' modes of international relations see Making things differently: on 'Modes of International'.
(posted 28th August, 2013)

Knowledges, 'North' and 'South'

Postcolonialism and STS are converging in this respect: 'difference' is being understood not just politically, economically, and culturally, but also as a matter of metaphysics or ontology. For discussion see What's Wrong with a One-World World, and Cultivating Disconcertment; and (with a change in terminology to talk of 'places' rather than 'spaces') Knowledge Places.
(posted 25 September, 2011; revised 14 November, 2011)

What is Theory?

In STS theory is usually embedded in empirical case studies. It is articulated (in a Kuhnian sense) in relation to materials. It doesn't float free, and neither does it become a rigid set of precepts. Such, at any rate, is what is argued in Notes on Fish, Ponds and Theory.
(posted 3 July 2012)

Animals and Textures

The qualities and textures or 'architextures' of relations are important for the character of objects, animals or people as these are enacted in practices, as well as the forms of those relations. This thought is explored in the context of human animal relations in Animal Architextures.
(posted 14 June 2012; amended 15 June 2012)

Financial Failures and Political Frames

How does STS imagine politics? In the context of the Eurozone crisis the question is urgent. Understanding of banks and their failures is limited, and the legitimacy of European elites is unclear. Perhaps STS can help to re-imagine politics by exploring how knowledge frames and limits understandings of catastrophe on the one hand, and political and economic debate on the other. For interdisciplinary thoughts see Deep Stall? The euro zone crisis, banking reform and politics
(posted 31 May, 2012; amended 14 June 2012)

Realities, Repetitions and Rituals

If realities are enacted in practices then how is this done? And how are subordinate realities able to shelter themselves from the hegemonic realities done by practices that are intolerant of difference? One response is that realities grow out of repetitions, for instance in the form of protecting rituals or refrains. This possibility is explored in Devices as Rituals.
(posted 16 February, 2012)

Baroque Places

Knowing or experiencing come in different forms, material, embodied and in terms of subjectivities. The 'baroque' is a different world of experience, theatrical, heterogeneous, sensible to Otherness, and deeply embedded in power relations. How might social science or humanities empirical research borrow from the baroque? These questions are explored in Assembling the Baroque
(posted 16 December, 2011)

Utopia, Tinkering and Catastrophe

Asked to consider the issue of disaster, and to place this in the context of utopian thinking, this piece on Heterogeneous Engineering and Tinkering raises questions about utopianism and, as its title suggests, revisits the notion of heterogeneous engineering to recommend non-utopian tinkering as a way of improving the human lot.
(posted 14 November, 2011)

Industrial Specificities

STS attaches itself to specificities and case-studies, and is suspicious of general models of science. But general 'neo-liberal' models of economic life are powerful, at least in the UK. Perhaps a concern with the specificities of industrial production would be better then the general 'value for money' approach adopted by the UK government to buy new trains. See Knowing What to Do? How not to Build Trains.
(posted 31 July, 2011)

Knowledge Spaces
What are knowing practices? Perhaps they include representations or their analogues, the realities being represented, a set of subjectivities or knowing locations, and a collection of implicit realities embedded and enacted in the knowing practices. Taken together we might think of these as knowledge spaces. For this argument In different modes, see The Double Social Life of Method, Cultivating Disconcertment, Collateral Realities, and most recently the Explanatory Burden.
(posted 16 March, 2011)

The UK's Economic Narratives
How well do grand narratives work in practical and economic policy terms? It wouldn't be surprising to learn that discourses of 'modernisation' or 'rebalancing' don't really engage with the specificities of, for instance, UK industrial decline. For this argument collaboratively developed see Rebalancing the Economy.
(posted 16 March, 2011)

Knowing the Social, Digitally
What's 'the digital' doing to the social? How is it representing it? And enacting it? How does this differ from older representations of the social? What are the continuities? And how might the social sciences think about this? For a CRESC working paper on these topics written with Evelyn Ruppert and Mike Savage see Digital Devices: Nine Theses.
(posted 23 January, 2011)

STS in the Social World - Again
Perhaps it would be useful to think of method as having a double social life. On the one hand perhaps it is shaped by the social. On the other (or at the same time) perhaps it also shapes or enacts the social. The consequence? Perhaps it is extreme obduracy. For this thought explored in a plenary presentation to the CRESC Annual Conference in 2010 see The Double Social Life of Method.
(posted 5th September, 2010)

The Elusive Enacted
If practices productively enact realities, then no doubt they also enact non-realities, or realities that didn't quite make it, others that one might think of as discarded reality-possibilities. Post-colonial theorists read against the grain in this way to discover subaltern histories. For this intuition explored in the context of animals see Slippery: Field Notes on Empirical Ontology.
(posted 5th September, 2010)

STS in the Social World
STS scholars have worked on the performativity of economics for some time, but we've thought less about how 'the social' and 'the political' get enacted as topics in their own right. This is changing. For an STSish view of how the UK 2010 general election was enacted see the CRESC blog on the social life of methods.
(posted 18th April, 2010)

The Conditions of Possibility
What can we say about enacted but hidden structuring realities? This continuing analytical and political concern leads to the genealogical territory of Michel Foucault. For an STS take on the hidden performativities of method see the paper on Collateral Realities.
(posted 29th December, 2009)

STS, Normativities and Politics
The puzzle is not the interest in politics, but the seemingly widespread STS view that general rules are necessary for good politics and proper demaractions. For an alternative situated view of politics that draws on Donna Haraway's work, see the paper on the Greer-Bush Test.
(posted 23rd December, 2009)

Page last edited:
31 January 2020