Pennines STS First Meeting

Yesterday, for one day only Copenhagen came to Sheffield. Well, not quite. I got together with colleagues from Manchester and across the Pennines for the first meeting of what we’re calling ‘Pennines STS’. It’s a chance for those of us on each side of the hills to discuss work in progress and develop ideas collaboratively. For the first meeting we did an ‘EASST/4S Revisited’, in which we all gave the talks we’d given in Copenhagen last month. It was great to see presentations on a range of subjects from interdisciplinary collaboration, through organic wine, boundary work, and photovoltaics to agency, networks and the Manchester riots 2011.

People and titles of talks

Paul Martin – political economy context of science and social science collaborations
Kate Bulpin – interdisciplinary collaborations in synthetic biology/iGEM
Andrew Balmer – playfulness and collaborations between science and social science
Kate Wiener – temporalities and practices of use and non-use in context of statins
Bridgett Wessels – agency, networks and reflections on ‘third modernity’
Matt Watson – photovoltaics, engagement and interdisciplinarity
Elisa Pieri – securitisation, city branding and police practices following the Manchester Riots 2011
Yin-Ling Lin – science and soc-sci/humanities students’ boundary working
Anna Krzywoszynska – organic wine, consumption, taste and branding

[Valuable contributions to discussion also came from Susan Molyneux-Hodgson, Celso Gomez and Rob Meckin]

In a way, much of the discussion turned on the perennial issue of what is we’re trying to do in Science and Technology Studies at the moment and the cognate and similarly recurrent interest in ‘working with’ scientists. Though the differences were sometimes subtle, there were alternative positions being put forward as to how STS might relate to scientific work, sometimes overtly and other times more implicitly. Kate Weiner’s work (conducted with Catherine Will) looked in two directions, both towards STS concepts of ‘users’ and to pharmaceutical science and its concern with patient resistance to drugs. In this regard, Weiner’s work took a traditional method of social research (interviews) in order to nuance concepts in both realms. From my perspective, Kate’s work followed the traditional academic pattern of social science, in that it sought to apply STS to science, rather than to collaboratively work on concepts and research with pharmacologists developing statin drugs or GPs prescribing them. This is the way that much STS work is done, which is not to critique it, but to point towards the established division between production of science and commentary on it, and the way in which the scientists generally seem to speak for the science and we speak for the users, or non-users as the case may be.

But there was an interest in trying to understand how we might work in different modes. Paul Martin’s disposition, for instance, seemed to be concerned with attending to governance and how it structures the relations between scientists and social scientists as regards responsible innovation.  Matt Watson and Anna Krzywoszynska’s current project was concerned with findings ways to produce ‘socio-technical efficiency’ using collaborations between social and natural scientists, and thus was a more locally-defined, context-specific undertaking. My own research has been oriented to (or is trying to move towards) ‘strategic power’, as Foucault would term it, rather than ‘structural power’, meaning that I’ve been trying to produce local moments of creative, collaborative play – though, so far, largely failing, I must admit. Which brings me to Yin-Ling and Kate Bulpin’s talks, in that they both drew attention to the ways in which the boundaries between disciplines are organised. Yin-Ling showed that it isn’t only science students who, whilst often eschewing claims to expertise, nonetheless police the boundaries of science but also humanities and social science students who engage in such work. Kate showed how a range of material, temporal and social factors were at work in producing a split between the engineers/modellers and the laboratory biologists during an iGEM project. In conversation with Kate and Susan Molyneux-Hodgson I discussed their interest in bringing interest back to disciplines by attending to the ‘disciplining’ process of education. We thus, collaboratively, pointed towards the ways in which identification of disciplinary expertise is accomplished through talk and practice and how these processes are importantly tied to contexts, norms and power.

I can’t say, in the end, whether we left hopeful or not as regards STS work and the potential for collaborations, but we certainly left with hope for the future of Pennines STS and these productive and exciting conversations.

We’re planning on future meetings so if anyone has an interest in attending then please contact me.


Risky Bodies and Dangerous Desire [1]

Part one of two posts (second post here) related to my recently published paper on sex offenders and lie detection.


We recently had the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, mathematician, cryptanalyst, and pioneer of computer science, who was responsible for significant developments in academic spheres but is perhaps best known for his secret work at Bletchley Park. As a gay man living during a period in which homosexuality was a criminal behaviour he lived two secret lives, until he was outed and criminally prosecuted in 1952 for being gay. Forced with a choice between imprisonment and probation, Turing chose probation, the caveat being that he had to undergo chemical castration. The procedure involved injections of the female hormone, oestrogen, leading him to develop breasts and causing Turing’s depression, which ultimately led to his committing suicide using cyanide in 1954, at the age of 42. Much has been written about Turing’s prolific and creative mind, but far less about his criminal body. Recent calls at the University of Manchester and a widely-signed petition have failed to secure an official pardon. The Justice Minister, Lord McNally, commented that Turing, “Was convicted of a crime that now seems barbaric and cruel,” (BBC News 06.02.12) but that it was, nonetheless, a crime at the time. That Turing’s death might have been prevented if we had been more enlightened regarding sexual difference is lamentable, tragic and must certainly serve to remind us of the debt that we must ceaselessly try to repay in establishing universal equality of sexual freedom.

Earlier in the year, news of the results of a round of chemical castrations has been quite different in tone to our mournful celebration of Turing’s centenarian anniversary, different because it wasn’t gay men this time, but paedophiles that were being treated. A pilot experiment conducted at HMP Whatton by Don Grubin, Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at Newcastle University, used anti-androgens as a drug to suppress testosterone production in hopes of reducing sexual desire. Importantly, not all the inmates were treated with these drugs; others took selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are used to treat depression. Also important to note is that the programme was voluntary, and that inmates could – ostensibly – stop taking the drugs at any time they wished.

What motivated the study was the contemporary logic as regards sex offender management: that they are dangerously risky because their desires are fundamentally deviant. The drug treatments therefore, were principally used as a mechanism for reducing desire. As Grubin is quoted in the Huffington Post UK: “The former [anti-androgens] can remove all sexual desire, but in some cases men can still maintain sexual relationships; the latter [SSRIs] reduce the intensity of fantasies and urges, but do not remove sexual drive. In both cases psychological treatment should be provided alongside the medication.”

Thus sex offenders have become caught somewhere between the law and medicine, somewhere between criminal and sick. They are the modern monster. In an interview with BBC News, Grubin is quoted as saying, “You are not giving these drugs to make them safe – you are giving them to lower the risk.” Indeed, because sex offenders are understood to be fundamentally deviant, and abnormal, to be inescapably monstrous, the medical profession have given up hope of a ‘cure’ for paedophilia, and instead understands these offenders in the context of risk management.

Chemical castration and medication are not the only ways that we have found to code, manage and measure the risk of sexual offender’s bodies and desires. Since around the 1980s, the infamous lie detection device, the polygraph machine, has been used in the USA to monitor offenders’ behaviour in post-conviction probation programmes. Checking up on them periodically to ask questions about whether they’ve breached the terms of their probation (Have you have any contact with…?) forms a temporal mode of surveillance, in which the polygraph exam is understood to increase the fear of future discovery. In this respect, we imagine that sex offenders make rational decisions weighing up the costs and benefits of criminal activity in the moment of deviant decision-making.

More confusingly still, the device is being used as part of their therapy, such that the polygraph machine isn’t only for surveillance but for treatment. It becomes part of the ‘containment approach’ to sex offending, in which we have to manage the offender’s risk by knowing as much as possible about his various desires and sexual proclivities. In a sexual history examination the polygraph is used to assess the offender’s habits and fantasies, so that we get information about what he likes to masturbate to, how often, what he thinks about, whether he’s into transvestism, using tools and implements in sex, and a range of other details. All of this is collected to determine his risk in an actuarial manner, coding him with a specific figure and categorising him within various risk levels.

These uses of the polygraph are sometimes supplemented with the penile plethysmograph, a device that measures the tumescence of the penis by use of a rubber ring or a volumetric chamber during exposure to various pornographic (both consensual and non-consensual, adult and under-age) materials. The changes in his penis during this exposure are used as a proxy for his desire and thus feed into determining his riskiness. These examinations, like those of the polygraph, ultimately serve to reinforce the notion that the sex offender is fundamentally different, by showing how his body responds differently and by exploring the fine detail of his sexual imagination.

This isn’t the first time such devices of lie detection and bodily arousal have been used to police sexuality. It should be no surprise that during McCarthyism homosexuals were victimised as being particularly vulnerable to blackmail and as such had to be outed and fired from government. This became known as the ‘Lavender Scare’, the homosexual hue of the communist ‘Red Scare’. Outing homosexuals involved uncovering deception, determined by the body’s responses during interviews with CIA operatives and the ominously titled Miscellaneous ‘M’ Group. In this period it was gay men and women that were the sexual danger, the monster of the times against which sexual normality was defined.

Alan Turing was only one victim of practices targeted at gay people; his suicide just one of the more visible of what must have been a great number of tragedies. As laws changed and homosexuality was de-criminalised, the medical definition of gay people as being sick was similarly removed from the diagnostic manuals and the emphasis of the abnormal category of sexuality shifted towards paedophilia. The various panics around homosexuality and the array of techniques we had developed to police it went along with the shift in target.


In the next part coming next week I’ll discuss the relationship between these developments and the constitution of childhood. I’ll also briefly explain an alternative approach that has been trialled with sex offenders.