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.