Three Questions I get Asked

Here are three questions that natural scientists and engineers often ask me, and which are commonly asked of social scientists participating in interdisciplinary collaborations. 

  1. Why do people not like X?

e.g. why do people not like synthetic food additives?

This question usually has to do with a perception that scientists, or a particular field of scientific work, is not viewed favourably by ‘the public’ or by industry, governments, NGOs, and so on. Natural scientists and engineers sometimes have the impression that social scientists will be able to explain why it is that their technical ambitions have been thwarted by a political misconception or misunderstanding.

The question is sometimes embedded in a range of other faulty assumptions about public understanding of science and science communication. As a question, it can position social scientists as experts in the irrational behaviour of individuals and groups. Social scientists can also be positioned through this style of questioning as brokers, and so be expected to help to open governance and/or public doors.

I’d rather talk about:

What do people actually say and do in relation to X? What practices are involved in regards to X and how do you envision X changing, supplementing or supplanting those practices?

When it comes to something like food additives, for example, I’d be interested to know how people make sense of ‘synthetic’ and ‘natural’ from within cooking, eating, feeding and caring practices. We could ask in what ways are these concepts important to the organisation of such practices, or in what ways do these practices organise our demarcations of those concepts? It could be important to explore how novel methods of producing food additives sit alongside or displace existing methods of production, and with what global socioeconomic implications.

In this regard we could begin to understand why the notion or production of synthetic food additives might raise socio-political, economic or ethical questions from publics, NGOs, governments and so forth, rather than assuming people don’t like it because of ignorance.


  1. What will people think of X?

e.g. what will people think of brain-based lie detection?

This type of question usually has to do with natural scientists’ worries about what ‘the public’ will think about their planned innovations or technical recommendations. It comes from a recognition that publics are interested and invested in scientific knowledge production. However, it is often motivated by a desire to ensure that people will think positively about X and so sometimes accompanied by a will to understand how to encourage people to feel positively about X.

The question is sometimes embedded in a range of other faulty assumptions about how people’s negative feelings about proposed technologies will inexorably lead to market failure and that this is necessarily a bad thing. It positions social scientists as PR gurus or pollsters, who can help to take the public temperature and design marketing strategies for innovations.

I’d rather talk about:

What kinds of imagined (necessary, likely, possible or peripheral) actions, routines, relations and social structures are being embedded in the sociotechnical work being conducted? In other words, putting the emphasis not so much on the object of technical interest but on how the envisaged object might impact upon existing practices of life, relations and social order, or open-up new practices. Do we want these kinds of practices and why/ why not? What effects will these changes have and with what implications for people’s experiences of social and technical phenomena?

In the given example of brain-based lie detection, I would want to know more about how we do lie detection now in different contexts and why we do it that way. I’d be interested to know how brain-based techniques would change these contexts if implemented and what implications such changes might have for our ways of living with each other. If we were talking about using brain scanning as evidence for use in legal proceedings, for example, we’d have to think carefully about why we currently use the investigation, interview, interrogation and jury systems. How would brain-based technologies fit in these practices and what would change? What kinds of life and forms of justice are implicated in such changes?

In this regard we could begin to unpick some of the tangle of concepts, practices, norms, politics and so on that are bound up with our current ways of doing lie detection and thus better understand what would be at stake for someone who is asked to give an opinion on a new lie detection technology.


  1. Is it okay to do X?

e.g. is it okay to engineer life?

This question usually has to do with a perceived ethical ‘implication’ of some proposed technical innovation. The questions often centre on technical objects. They involve a recognition that sociotechnical innovation generally implies changes in how things are done or understood. They might have to do with abstract concepts like life or nature. However, by emphasising the objects of technical innovation or abstract questions these kinds of concerns largely miss the everyday practices that are at the heart of how ethical decisions and dispositions are made and formed.

This type of question is sometimes embedded in a range of assumptions about scientific objectivity and how ethical implications arise only from the implementation of knowledge and new technologies in the world rather than in the practices of knowledge production itself. In addition, such questions often come with the implication that X is going to happen anyway, but it would be good to know what moral status it is going to be given when it does happen.

This style of questioning is more comfortable for some social scientists than others, since some of us are experts in ethics. However, in the way the question is generally posed it positions social scientists as ethical arbiters, who themselves are being asked to judge the moral status of objects and so assess the social value of proposed innovations in order to help scientists justify actions they know they are going to take. This is a bit tricky and can be a far less comfortable space to inhabit.

I’d rather talk about:

What kinds of moral or ethical values are embedded in the scientific practices out of which the question has emerged? In other words, what has been decided about ethics already, what kinds of questions have been closed off and with what justification?

I’d also be looking to explore what kinds of ethics and norms are used in contexts in which the proposed X is being invoked. Are there differences in the ethical frameworks used to think about X across different spaces and times and in what ways do these differ? If there are differences of opinion about the ethical valence of X how do we decide amongst such opinions in governance, regulation, and technical innovation practices?  

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.

Learning to Read

What I understand this recent post by Neuroskeptic (an excellent blog I thoroughly recommend) to be about is a general frustration with social scientists not writing in such a way that they can be easily understood across disciplines, particularly with reference to the natural sciences. As a sociologist, first let me say that I do believe the Campaign for Plain English is a valuable one and I believe such efforts should apply, in part, to social science writing. However, natural scientists’ complaints about social scientists’ writing are something of a pet peeve of mine. I work in interdisciplinary contexts and, on a day-to-day basis, this means I have to try to understand the language of my natural science colleagues whether they’re collaborators or, since I study science, an object of knowledge. I have something of an advantage in this respect since my first degree was in biology and I can lean on some of that knowledge when, for example, trying to understand the paper I am about to use as an example of neuroscience language.

Taking the first research article in the most current edition of Nature Neuroscience I found the following abstract:

“In the postnatal and adult mouse forebrain, a mosaic of spatially separated neural stem cells along the lateral wall of the ventricles generates defined types of olfactory bulb neurons. To understand the mechanisms underlying the regionalization of the stem cell pool, we focused on the transcription factor Pax6, a determinant of the dopaminergic phenotype in this system. We found that, although Pax6 mRNA was transcribed widely along the ventricular walls, Pax6 protein was restricted to the dorsal aspect. This dorsal restriction was a result of inhibition of protein expression by miR-7a, a microRNA (miRNA) that was expressed in a gradient opposing Pax6. In vivo inhibition of miR-7a in Pax6-negative regions of the lateral wall induced Pax6 protein expression and increased dopaminergic neurons in the olfactory bulb. These findings establish miRNA-mediated fine-tuning of protein expression as a mechanism for controlling neuronal stem cell diversity and, consequently, neuronal phenotype.”

This abstract is full of technical terminology that makes is practically impenetrable to anyone without postgraduate degrees in a biological science. Using my limited training in biology I now understand much of this after a couple of reads but I am quite certain that a colleague in the Department of Sociology without such knowledge would be quite unable to. Not because it is badly written. Indeed, it is quite clearly written. Rather, it is full of jargon and as such it becomes difficult to follow the meaning of the sentences and to keep in mind the sentences’ meanings as you move through the paragraph. This would not be so for someone used to reading ‘phenotype’, ‘transcribed’ or ‘dopaminergic neurons’, etc.  Conversely, the article used in neurocritic’s blog post from Health is – to my jargon-ready mind – quite clearly written. In fact, I was rather surprised at how clear it was since I was expecting something worthy of Sokal’s biting criticisms . I didn’t struggle with ‘ideology’ or ‘hegemonic’ because I’m used to reading these. I know what they mean without having to take time to look them up. As such, I can read the abstract and understand what it is arguing in much the same way that a neuroscientist or scholar from a related discipline would read the Nature Neuroscience abstract.

Importantly, neurocritic’s re-writing of the Health article’s abstract doesn’t only make it easier to understand for someone outside the circle, as it were, it also means that it loses some of its technical specificity. Society, for example, isn’t the same as ideology. How men construct a ‘body project’ isn’t just how they ‘think’ about such things. An ‘analysis’ does not tell me nearly as much as ‘a thematic analysis’ and the blog’s reference to ‘conventional’ masculinities is not quite the same as the article’s ‘hegemonic’ masculinities.

Furthermore, the rest of the Health article proceeds to deal with these technical terms in, frankly, a rather basic manner, providing definitions that would be relatively easily understood by an interdisciplinary readership that one would expect of Health. The same article written by the same authors for a different journal would, I suspect, be far more opaque to a non-expert. This is as much to say that there are limits on this project of making work understandable outside of its immediate disciplinary context. Take the example of ‘phenotype’. We could change this to be ‘physical and behavioural characteristics’ and we might not lose too much of the technical specificity. This is similar to what neurocritic has done by turning ‘hegemonic’ into ‘conventional’ in  the Health abstract. However, we couldn’t really find an easy alternative to ‘dopaminergic’ or ‘transcription’ without actually explaining what those mean and thus making the piece infuriatingly simple and overly long for anyone reading the article with the requisite expertise. This is true of ‘interpellation’, which is a similarly technical term that would need explanation and not simply a plain English substitute.

Of course, natural scientists have little time to engage substantively with a discipline almost entirely alien to them because they are exceptionally busy people. I understand and sympathise. In the hinterlands of interdisciplinarity this is not quite the case and so an article in Health would do well to try and be as clear as possible, which I firmly believe this article has done. This gets to the crux of my irritation. The problem is that natural scientists, from my personal experience, expect social scientists to do all the work of trying to explain their findings in as simple and general a language as possible. Partly this is because they are busy, as I say. But it is also because they seem to have the underlying assumption that our technical terms are just there to make us sound clever whereas their technical terms are essential to properly characterising phenomena and communicating efficiently. This is not the case. Social scientists have created an expert language to describe social phenomena and whilst those of us engaged in efforts to exchange knowledge across the historical divide will do our best to explain these technical terms and to reduce our use of them, we cannot do all the work. Natural scientists must, if they genuinely wish to benefit from scholarship outside of their fields, take time to learn the language, just like they did when they took their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in physics, biology, neuroscience, etc. Finally, the demand that we make our social scientific work more available to our colleagues in other disciplines invokes a particular instrumental and power-laden position. In general, social scientists, if they want to be heard, have impact and contribute to solving problems, are forced to give way to the needs of natural scientists because – institutionally, nationally and locally – they have more power in defining the circumstances of interdisciplinary work and in defining the problems to which it is oriented. Perhaps we social scientists could do more to explain ourselves, but natural scientists could do a lot more to try and understand.