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Technology Studies Needs Both Priests and Missionaries

July 2nd, 2010 by Christian

(or: Your technology may be political, but who cares?)

I am a longtime admirer and participant in the intellectual crossroads known as Science and Technology Studies (STS). I first read Langdon Winner‘s “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” and he changed my life.  In my first job I had the chance to organize a conference around my own research interests, and my choice for the keynote was Steve Woolgar (“Laboratory Life,” “The Machine at Work,” “Science, The Very Idea,” “Virtual Society?”).

My intellectual links to STS were formed in  graduate school but I continue my involvement in an STS program now as a faculty member.  I really enjoyed the last 4S conference, where I presented some of my recent work, and I’d like to think it was well received.  I say all this to introduce this post because I want to emphasize that I feel like an STS insider.

In the last few weeks I’ve had a conversation like the one I’ll describe below with three other STS insiders, so I thought I’d share it.  Tell me if I’m crazy.

[Click to enlarge — original photo by lawprier on flickr]

If you’ve read any STS, you know by now that STS scholars typically make arguments of the form: “What you thought was technical is actually political!” Lately I’ve noticed that the few STS graduate programs and some of the other PhDs that can be easily STS-inflected (sociology, communication/media, information science, …) seem to be training people to think that this is their big contribution.

People are quite obvious and upfront about it.  They’re proud. If you ask someone: What is the major contribution of your work?  The answer is, “I show that X technology is political!”  (or sometimes, social). Is this really their money shot? That depends.

I might be able to buy this as a big contribution, but only if it is news to the audience for the work.  That is, saying that (for instance) some aspect of computing “is really political!” is only a research finding to those who haven’t encountered this idea before.  Maybe traditionally trained computer engineers would be this audience?

After a few STS books under their belt, the STS reader of even medium sophistication is always already convinced that technical things are actually political (and social).  Revealing this can’t be the big contribution of a research project because it is already gospel to the STS reader.  Let me reiterate: There must be some nuance or other analytical structure beyond “it’s political” because everything always is.

This is so clear that in a recent STS-inflected meeting in Barcelona, a big joke depended on it.  During the discussion, a speaker during the Q&A ended a speech by saying (facetiously) “or I guess I could just say that technology is politically neutral.”  [BIG LAUGH!] Yes, in STS this is what counts as a joke that gets a big laugh. The audience rightly recognized the joke because technology is never politically neutral.  They were already well trained.(*)

So why, then, do a certain breed of STS scholars keep making arguments of the form, “What you thought was technical is actually political!” and then insist on writing and presenting them for STS insiders.  They lard their work with social scientific jargon and references, restricting the readership so that practitioners (or any outsider) will never appreciate it.  This guarantees that they will be preaching to the converted.  Do we, the converted, enjoy the ritual of a chorus so much that we imagine chanting to be our profession?

[Click to enlarge — original photo by lorenzemlicka on flickr]

I say, “No!” The big challenge for our work is instead to make a theoretical contribution with a new technological instance.  Otherwise, why bother? Ideally I can show that technology is political (shocking the STS outsider) without foregrounding it–while also making some new stab at conceptual thinking about technology for the insider.  This is my goal.  It somewhat unfair of me to raise this concern to you because I’ll readily admit it’s a hard problem.  I struggle with it. I know I don’t like to face this complaint about my own work.  But it is my duty.

Alternately, although this isn’t my own approach, it is OK to keep making the “it’s political!” argument if you explicitly target your work to outsiders.  But if you do that, uh oh… It’s time to bring on the clear writing, suppress the references to endnotes, and re-think your presentation and publication venues, folks. Again, it’s a challenge.  But this is our challenge.  We need missionaries as well as priests.  But don’t confuse the two.

A sad footnote  is that we’ve been here before.  Early enthusiasm about social constructivism in sociology and in science studies produced a very similar kind of useless repetition. “It’s socially constructed!” People wrote. Aha! So there! A response was Ian Hacking’s excellent book, “The Social Construction of What?” (2000), recommended to everyone. It’s not clear to me that the problem I’m describing is at all different. Hopefully we can take this situation in hand and “The Political Construction of What?” doesn’t need to be written to save us.

(*) Actually many of them were neo-Marxist political economists.  They are well trained in this assumption as well, and don’ t need to be convinced.

11 Responses to “Technology Studies Needs Both Priests and Missionaries”

  1. Alison Says:

    Thanks Christian! As usual, you’ve set the bar high for yourself and for the rest of us. I deeply admire and emulate your commitment to both theory development and communication of politics to outsiders. But I want to acknowledge, as someone who thinks of herself more as a missionary and less as a priest, that there are structural barriers to doing this work.

    A real “missionary” contribution would be to bring STS knowledge to computer scientists (as you identified) or to policy makers and other decision makers. So fewer footnotes and more white papers would seem in order. This poses a problem of identification – even as insiders within academia STS scholars sometimes complain of marginalization. Moving outside of academia, we risk losing whatever tenuous credibility we might have had. Adding to this is the tenacious perspective that applied work – especially done outside of the academy – is somehow less valuable than theoretical work.

    Of course, missionaries have always had to negotiate hostile cultures – and run the risk of going native. I think you may have underestimated these here. Thoughts?

  2. Christian Sandvig Says:

    I couldn’t agree more Alison. Being a missionary is an almost impossible job. There are huge barriers. And they are systematic and entrenched.

    I wish I could solve this for you but my point with this post is more narrow. It’s that being a missionary WITHIN STS is completely impossible, and pointless. You can’t preach to that there. If you try the missionary position within STS venues you are doomed to fail. In sum:

    1- Choose to be a priest? Fine. It’s hard!
    2- Choose to be a missionary? Fine. It’s hard, too.
    3- Don’t ever mix them up and tell an STS audience “It’s political!”

    Strangely, approach #3 seems very common.


  3. Tarleton Says:

    Sadly, I think you’re absolutely right. I remember being really mesmerized by the period of time in, say, the late 90s and early 00s, when I felt like there was a great eal of new thinking coming out of STS — the mangle of practice (Pickering), or interactional expertise (Collins). And I love the STS technology triumvirate — SCOT, ACT, and Winner-esque “artifacts have politics” arguments. I still particularly like thinking with heterogeneous engineering (Law) as a way of getting beyond these. But I don’t feel like there’s a lot of new thinking comeing from this part of STS. Perhaps there is good work coming from other parts, that I don’t pay as close attention to — identity, medical, biopolitics, etc. But the only addition to the thinking about technology that I’ve thought was a new addition was Eglash’s work on appropriation, and the way Pinch and Oudshoorn add that to other theories of user activity (von Hippel, Silverstone, Woolgar, etc).

    So one thought, and its one I can’t confirm, because of my failures in tracking other parts of the field, as mentioned above. Maybe the reason the scholarship around technology has slowed is because some have taken your lesson to heart — and are now working on medical technologies, or biopolitical technologies, or lab science technologies, or whatever, and trying to make an argument about how technologies are a part of a larger complex of arrangements and practices, without highlighting “the politics of technology”? Again, I don’t know if that’s the case, though I’d like it to be true.

  4. Christian Says:

    Right on! There is a training question here I’d highlight.

    It seems to me that we are training PhD students to do what I labeled as #3 (two comments ago). They don’t see their contribution the way I think they should. It’s not just PhD students — I have this problem, most scholars in the area have it to a degree I bet, but we have some obligation to correct the guidance of the PhD students before we launch them at the world.


  5. David Says:

    What about converts, non-believers, agnostics, and atheists?

  6. Christian Says:

    heretic? saint? pope? yahweh?

  7. Tom Streeter Says:

    Thanks Christian. As a latecomer to STS, I still get a thrill from the “it’s political” argument, but as with social constructionism in general, I agree that you should find out something that you didn’t know before in your work, that it should be more like “it’s political in this particular way, and that teaches us this about politics (or law or policy).” I try to write for a broadly literate audience, and try to come up with arguments that advance understanding. I try anyway, though might not always succeed.

  8. Christian Says:

    It is so nice to have comments that I just have to agree with.

    Tom you are so right. As in your book, “Selling the Air,” you posited that there was a new corporate/political form dominating the electromagnetic spectrum. From my memory of the book it was the idea of “corporate liberalism” that was the payoff, not “the electromagnetic spectrum is political!” (what a short book that would be, as that is an easy argument to make).

    I don’t think you positioned that book explicitly as STS per se, but it could certainly be retroactively read as “technology studies.”


  9. bozo Says:

    I actually think this is a better critique of social theory than STS. In fact, this is Latour’s main thrust in his (admittedly polemic) attack of social theory in Reassembling the Social. Whereas social theory can simply insist on the priority of the social, STS (and ANT, in particular) actually explain HOW something is constructed. The pay-off, in other words, is a careful empirical description of how something came to pass. This is not trivial. And it’s certainly not a simple insistence on constructivism, as critique by Hacking…

  10. Christian Says:


    I don’t think Latour’s work suffers from the critique I am mounting, and neither does all of STS. So I’m happy to agree with your defense of Latour. In fact, I think in the sentence starting “the STS reader of even medium sophistication…” I say so. (But why does Latour need defending here? Was I attacking him? Didn’t mean to.)

    I’m not sure I follow your “social theory” comment though. STS is social theory! In any case, I’m sure there is a great variation in the quality of scholarship in social theory and STS and (name a discipline), however you delimit them.

    I’m also not sure I take “HOW” as the big payoff of ANT: I think it has other payoffs and framing it as “HOW” undersells them.


  11. JanetV Says:

    Thank you for a thought-provoking piece. However, it was my understanding that STS has moved on a long time ago from that argument. It may still be internally articulating *how* science is political, and the particular nuances of that sociology and politics with respect to technologies and scientific practices. But whereas I think that’s a great place to start to get undergraduates interested in STS, that wouldn’t be where my contribution would lie, or where I’d want my graduate students’ contributions to lie.

    There are two issues with the “politics” of science, though, with respect to “intervening” and presenting broader implications for our findings. The first is that the scientists I interact with *know* that there are politics involved in their enterprise (they work with NASA, after all!). The challenge is in making that statement not seem like “a bad thing” that is interfering with their science, instead of seeing “the politics” as the very thing that empowers their science. Introducing some complexity and even choice to the idea of “science is political!” seems to be more crucial. To that extent, STS’s single-situation studies (single tech, single community, etc) provides limited opportunities to provide choices to scientists or politicians in a language they understand, such as cost-benefit analyses of sociotechnical decision-making.

    The second problem is one often faced by those who do “go native” or are asked in some way to contribute to the community in which they are embedded — and to which they are embedded. This is a common practice among all kinds of qualitative researchers, from anthropologists to sociologists and management scientists and so on. I’ve recently become more involved in the Human-Computer Interaction community precisely because it is a place in which technological intervention is both welcome, and considered sociotechnical from the get-go, with complex implications. The pitfalls, dangers, and oppportunities of these interventions are well-documented in these other fields but less frequently discussed in the STS literature. Those kinds of lessons learned would be much appreciated as we attempt to “give back” responsibly and thoughtfully to our communities.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking piece!

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