Reuniting STS with HPS

I have recently attended a talk by Harvard Professor Sheila Jasanoff at Bar Ilan University’s STS Program. Jasanoff is one of the founding members of the field of STS (which stands for “Science and Technology Studies” or “Science Technology & Society ” aka “Science Studies” and “Social Studies of Science” – which tells you something about its fragmented history). She talked about the history of STS and her vision of its future.

Jasanoff’s talk was partly a response to a recent attack on STS by historian of science Professor Lorraine Daston1 on behalf of the older sister discipline of history of science. Daston has argued that while both STS and history of science drew the lesson that science is social from Thomas Kuhn’s influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), they have interpreted it differently. Historians of science (cultural historians, to be precise, who for Daston are the most dominant today) have interpreted “social” as “historically situated in a particular culture”. They drew the right lesson which is that science should be studied in its historical context without historians’ imposing their present knowledge back on the past. By contrast, STS scholars interpreted “social” as “political”, and drew the wrong lesson that science should be studied like politics. Consequently, STS scholars have been applying general political or quasi-political theoretical frameworks to different case studies from science. These frameworks presuppose that science is basically the same in different periods, and hence can be analyzed in the same terms. By doing that, STS scholars have abandoned the study of what science is, or so Daston argues.

However, as Jasanoff has argued in her talk and in her co-authored forthcoming reply in Isis,2 it is a misleading caricature to portray STS scholars simply as dogmatically applying theoretical frameworks to case studies, while being insensitive to the different forms science takes in different contexts. Quite the contrary. STS scholars comparatively study, for example, the different forms of regulative science in different countries, which addresses exactly the question of what science is.

Despite that, in my view, there is still a significant point of theoretical dispute between Daston and Jasanoff, which is perhaps between historians of science and STS scholars in general. Jasanoff & Dear write that when studying science “temporality as an epistemic marker … makes little sense in itself”.3 That is to say, science is not an object of study that naturally lends itself to be neatly divided into periods, each of them can be studied on its own. Moreover, they add that historians do not study the past for its own sake, but always through the prism of the present.

I suspect that few historians of science would agree with these claims. Typically, when a historian of science asks me what I am working on, the second question is “in what period?”. Historians often seem slightly baffled when I say that I am not working on a particular period, and I need to remind them that philosophers like me do things differently. The (misguided) view that periodization is the basis for studying science, and that cross-period comparison is dangerous and often illegitimate, seems very much entrenched in current historiography of science, at least in the way historians of science are trained today. I also suspect that many historians of science would deny that they are not interested in the past for its own sake, and even if they are motivated by present concerns, they would insist that it is a mistake to bring present perspectives into the past. Ironically, nowadays, the traditional discipline of history of science seems committed to a more extreme form of relativism than its younger “radical” sister STS.

So are these differences of opinion about methodology a good reason to keep STS and history of science apart? They are not. As I have hinted, the same differences of opinion exist between historians and philosophers of science, who peacefully live together at the same HPS departments. At the IHPST, for example, historians and philosophers of science (at least graduate students) regularly tease each other about their methods. Philosophers tease historians for doing detailed micro-history that focuses on a narrow period, without having the courage to generalize beyond the particular period, touch on bigger themes, and address the wider picture. Historians tease philosophers for writing about “pie in the sky”, without feeling a need to mention any relevant history. If they do mention any history, philosophers force it to conform to their argument, rather than the other way around, or so historians claim. (Of course, the historians are wrong and the philosophers are right.) Nevertheless, they attend each others’ talks, serve together on committees, and maintain all-in-all friendly and productive working relations. They even manage to transform such friendly teasing into constructive comments, thus they even manage to improve each other’s work.

After all, with the exception of a short-lived passionate honeymoon just after the Kuhnian revolution, the marriage between history and philosophy of science is more a marriage of convenience rather than a marriage of love. Today, when the science wars are over and scholars on each side have nuanced their positions and retracted from them their previous radical claims, there is no good reason not to reunite STS and HPS.

There are also strong practical reasons to reunite STS with HPS (to the extent they have ever genuinely been separated). In the current job market, graduates of HPS and STS departments do not have the luxury of choosing in which type of department, if any, they will find future employment. To pass a job talk, they must be conversant in all discourses, regardless of their own orientation. Similarly, regardless of their own strengths, graduate programs simply do not have the luxury today of sending out unprepared graduates to the job market. In the same way HPS departments require their students to take both history and philosophy courses as part of their graduate training, regardless of the students’ orientation, they should make STS part of their required training as well. STS programs equally have a duty to make sure that their graduates are conversant in history and philosophy.

Beside the practical necessity in such integrative training, it can also foster more charitable interpretations among researchers of different approaches, or at least an awareness that there is more than one way to study science, knowledge and inquiry. Confident HPS departments should not discourage students from pursuing a more STS-like direction in their dissertation if they wish. And STS programs should not discourage students who end up taking HPS routes. This may only bring about more diverse, interesting and integrative research, which can never be bad.

  1. Daston, Lorraine. 2009. Science Studies and the History of Science. Critical Inquiry 35(4): 798-813.
  2. Dear, Peter & Sheila Jasanoff. Forthcoming. Dismantling Boundaries in Science and Technology Studies. Isis.
  3. Ibid, 14.

by

Boaz Miller
Boaz Miller is a postdoctoral fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Tel Aviv University. He has a PhD and MA from the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST) at the University of Toronto. His areas of specialization are philosophy of science and social epistemology. He works in the intersection of philosophy of science, analytic epistemology and science and technology studies. He studies scientific expertise, the relations between knowledge and consensus, and the relations between social values and evidence. He has a BSc in computer science and "Amirim" Interdisciplinary Honors Program from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

10 Comments

  • Will Thomas Reply

    Boaz, does this imply that historians and STS types don’t talk to each other at all? This was certainly not the case back when I was doing my grad work at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass.; a number of students in our department worked with Jasanoff over in the Kennedy School, and we had links to the MIT STS department as well. Here in London, Imperial College and UCL’s STS program share an MSc program. In both places, our contact with philosophy of science has been basically nil.

    More generally, I would argue that even though historians of science and STS-types aren’t really plugged into each others’ current doings, the kinds of questions that historians of science ask descend directly from the era of closer interaction — I disagreed with Daston on this point in a blog post at EWP (over a year old now).

    By contrast, philosophical questions — or, more precisely, epistemological questions — hardly register on historians’ radars, which is a phenomenon I discussed in an entire series of posts on what I called the History of Science’s “Great Escape” from philosophy.

    If there is a reason why STS and HoS don’t really talk, it seems to me that there is little to talk about. The initial “yeasty” interaction (to borrow Daston’s adjective) seems to have been predicated on the (I think specious) idea that a massive epistemological misconception was systematically crippling historical inquiry, and that only a properly sociologically enlightened historiography could hope to be progressive. In this respect, I think STS gave us more of an attitude about what was supposed to make our history good than anything else, and this attitude persists to this day. Having taken this general attitude on board, we’ve had little use for some of the more esoteric discussions in STS theory, much as we have little use for the more esoteric points in philosophy of science.

    None of this is to say that a closer relationship with either STS or PoS is to be avoided, but there doesn’t seem to be anything really pushing the fields together, either. As far as my two cents are concerned, historians need to get away from their epistemic worries, and need to worry more about problems of historiographical craft, which have never really been front-and-center in any era of the history of HoS.

  • Boaz Miller
    Boaz Miller Reply

    I don’t think STS types and historians (and philosophers) don’t talk to each other. This whole quibble seems more to do with internal politics in some universities than anything else. (I don’t understand why you think they haven’t got much to talk about. This is an odd claim.) But, as I tried to show, there are also substantive questions at stake. It is true that HoS and STS have shone away from epistemology in recent years. I think this is changing in STS because of the recent interest in (and money given to) policy questions, which you can’t address by merely describing how networks are formed. Also, some of the STS anti-epistemology trend has been purely rhetorical. Despite her claims to the contrary, Jasanoff’s work, for example, has a distinctive philosophical flavour, which is exactly what makes it good.
    Personally, I don’t see how historians of science can write good or interesting history of science without engaging with epistemic questions. It seems they have two options. Either they avoid epistemology at all and write a not-very-interesting story about how this person said this, and another one said that, and the third got a grant for such and such amount and so on, or they can tacitly assume some unsophisticated epistemology and write an unsophisticated narrative. Realism was popular long ago. Relativism seems popular now. This is why I didn’t like Objetivity. Daston and Gallison explicitly refrain from giving any explanation of the trends they describe, or engage in a serious conceptual analysis that addresses the unity and disunity of the different notions they describe. I think HoS can do better.

    • Will Thomas Reply

      I agree, HoS can do better, and for the reasons that you claim. Our current reading of the intellectual history of science is not very sophisticated at all. At best it can be said that we simply ignore intellectual history or gloss over some of the deeper points in historical arguments, but I think there is, as you say, a tacitly assumed epistemology, which isn’t very satisfactory.

      To the extent that historians do contend with epistemology in any even somewhat serious way, I think it is in the MPI’s program of “historical epistemology”. They’re circumspect in their intentions, but I’m pretty sure the idea is to supplant a traditional transcendental PoS, with a historically successive series of modes of “knowing”, of which the Objectivity book is a part (thus Daston’s “philosophy anyone?” statement at the end of her Critical Inquiry paper). I’m with you, though, in not finding the accounts in that book of various ways historical actors arrived at knowledge, and of various disputes and their resolution very satisfactory. If they eventually want to arrive at something that will satisfy philosophers’ objections, they’ll have to up the tempo and rigor of the historical epistemology project a bit.

      The practical question of disciplinary alignment, however, does not have so much to do with whether the disciplines are compatible in principle, or whether they have need of something that the other fields should in principle provide, so much as it is a question of whether they are doing something right now that would make a material contribution to each others’ work.

      There may be philosophical objections to Objectivity, but would historians be interested in working with philosophers to build accounts that are philosophically satisfactory? More generally, would historians be willing to do studies addressing present points of interest in the PoS literature, or, conversely, would historians’ interest in developing narratives hold the attention of philosophers more interested in very specific points of argument? STS policy analyses might do with a dose of history, but are any historians presently working on anything that could make a substantial contribution (yes, yes, Naomi Oreskes, but besides her)?

      I certainly agree that there is much that the fields could potentially offer each other, but that ideal vision can’t change the store of things that the fields are actually willing to offer each other. For my money, I think the best move is to pick some specific examples of good integrated STS-HoS or HoS-PoS (Hasok Chang’s work, maybe?), or STS-PoS, show how they hold up to the best standards either field has to offer, and then expand from there, just as if you were building something from scratch. I’d definitely read that with great interest!

      • Boaz Miller
        Boaz Miller Reply

        Hasok Chang is a good example, and Ian Hacking also knows how to transcend boundaries and speak to people with different specialties, but I doubt that there is going to be another Kuhn. There are some young and middle-career people doing some integrative work. At IHPST there are a few. It’s not all ground-breaking (and it needn’t be), but it’s a good trend, and I hope it will catch. I know more philosophers than historians, but this may just be because I am a philosopher. Once historians realize there is more money in policy, they might become interested too.

  • Alice Bell Reply

    I did my undergrad in a department that is called STS but is really mainly HPS (UCL). In reality, my degree was a rather seamless mix of the two, and I’ve tend (as Will above) to think it’s a bit odd when people talk of a great divide. I think divides exist in areas of the two and in others work is closer – I mean ‘area’ both in terms of disciplinary or departmental localities.

    I like the point about teasing! Having since added education and media studies to the STS/HPS mix too, I’ve found a bit of friendly incredulity can be a good way to deal with disciplinary boundaries and identities, when they make themselves noticeable.

  • Rebecca Reply

    I’ve done sociology of science, phil of science, now doing HoS. In my experience (which may be partly down to US-UK differences) these employed radically different methods, and while they can learn much from each other’s output, I think there’s a benefit in keeping them separate as disciplines. For a historian, cross-period comparisons ARE dangerous because they go against the entire methodology of history; it’s essential to specialise in one period because studying at the level they do requires so much ‘temporal’ knowledge and skills. I’d worry that combining them would mean a loss of specialist skills, particularly for historians (the more time you spend constructing cross-period narratives, the less time you have to study a single one in depth?)

  • Greg Lusk
    Greg Lusk Reply

    @ Rebecca – Maybe it is my lack of historical training (or my over abundance of philosophic training) that makes me think this, but is there really a problem with cross-period comparisons, or is the problem really with cross-period attributions? In the little history I’ve read, historians have feared and gone to great length to clear up anachronism. They don’t want to be attributing to the historical narrative present day concepts. This is largely the lesson HOS took form Kuhn. Comparisons are somewhat required even if to only define the temporal periods that, you claim, history is so reliant on.

    I tend to agree with Boaz, that there does not seem to be good reasons to keep the two disciplines separate, but I know HOS and STS scholars that would definitely disagree.

    • Will Thomas Reply

      The legitimacy of cross-temporal comparisons is an interesting topic; the best discussion I know of is Jed Buchwald and Allan Franklin’s introduction, “Beyond Disunity and Historicism” to their book Wrong for the Right Reasons. You can even read it via Google Books.

      • Boaz Miller
        Boaz Miller Reply

        Daryn Lehoux gave an excellent talk on this at IHPST, and I think he has written about it too.

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