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.
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.
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.
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.
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, jávredikun 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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,
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.
A shi-inflected case-study: an essay in postcolonial STS
The joint paper with Wen-yuan
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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'.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
The UK's Economic Narratives
Knowing the Social,
STS in the Social World
The Elusive Enacted
STS in the Social World
The Conditions of Possibility
Page last edited:
31 January 2020