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.