Science and Technology Studies (STS)

STS is EVERYWHERE! But what exactly IS STS?! Where does it come from? How can I situate myself in the field??

To answer these questions I have started to read the following book and will write down some notes: Sismondo, Sergio (2004). An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies. Blackwell.


STS: the intersection of different fields (sociology, history, philosophy, anthropology).

Previously two streams, have now been merged:

  • S& TS (science and technology studies): science and technology understood as a discursive, social and material activity, later on, concerned with legitimate places of expertise, science in public spheres, place of public interest in scientific decision making
  • STS (Science, Technology and Society): understands social issues linked to the development in science and technology, those developments could be harnessed to democratic /egalitarian ideals. à later on concerned with understanding the dynamics of science, technology and medicine.

Central assumptions of STS:

  • Social activities: “science and technology are thoroughly social activities. They are social in that scientists and engineers are always members of communities, trained into the practices of those communities and necessarily working within them. These communities set standards for inquiry and evaluate knowledge claims.”
  • Scientific method: “There is no abstract and logical scientific method apart from evolving community norms. In addition, science and technology are arenas in which rhetorical work is crucial, because scientists and engineers are always in the position of having to convince their peers and others of the value of their favorite ideas and plans – they are constantly engaged in struggles to gain resources and to promote their views. “
  • Actors: “The actors in science and technology are also not mere logical operators, but instead have investments in skills, prestige, knowledge, and specific theories and practices. Even conflicts in a wider society may be mirrored by and connected to conflicts within science and technology; for example, splits along gender, race, class, and national lines can occur both within science and in the relations between scientists and non-scientists.”
  • Non-Determinism: “STS takes a variety of anti-essentialist positions with respect to science and technology. Neither science nor technology is a natural kind, having simple properties that define it once and for all. The sources of knowledge and artifacts are complex and various: there is no privileged scientific method that can translate nature into knowledge, and no technological method that can translate knowledge into artifacts. In addition, the interpretations of knowledge and artifacts are complex and various: claims, theories, facts, and objects may have very different meanings to different audiences.”
  • (Subtle) Construction of knowledge and artifacts: “For STS, then, science and technology are active processes, and should be studied as such. The field investigates how scientific knowledge and technological artifacts are constructed. Knowledge and artifacts are human products, and marked by the circumstances of their production. In their most crude forms, claims about the social construction of knowledge leave no role for the material world to play in the making of knowledge about it. Almost all work in STS is more subtle than that, exploring instead the ways in which the material world is used by researchers in the production of knowledge. “a central premise of STS is that scientists and engineers use the material world in their work; it is not merely translated into knowledge and objects by a mechanical process.”

The Prehistory of Science and Technology studies

What does it mean to be scientific? In the first chapter, the author presents 4 approaches that attempt to answer that question and which provide standards for bad/good science. Important approaches to the study of science:

Logical Positivism (Vienna circle):

“Logical positivists maintain that the meaning of a scientific theory (and anything else) is exhausted by empirical and logical considerations of what would verify or falsify it. A scientific theory, then, is a condensed summary of possible observations. This is one way in which science can be seen as a formal activity: scientific theories are built up by the logical manipulation of observations (e.g. Ayer 1952 [1936]; Carnap 1952 [1928] ), and scientific progress consists in increasing the correctness, number, and range of potential observations that its theories indicate. For logical positivists, theories develop through a method that transforms individual data points into general statements. The process of creating scientific theories is therefore an inductive one”

Info: Problem of induction (Hume) “To take a standard example, “the sun rises every 24 hours” is a claim supposedly established by induction over many instances, as each passing day has added another data point to the overwhelming evidence for it. Inductive arguments take n cases, and extend the pattern to the n+1st. But, says Hume, why should we believe this pattern? Could the n+1st case be different, no matter how large n is? It does no good to appeal to the regularity of nature, because the regularity of nature is at issue”.

Falsification (Popper):

“According to Popper, scientific theories are imaginative creations, and there is no method for creating them. They are free-floating, their meaning not tied to observations as for the positivists. However, there is a strict method for evaluating them”. –> provisionally accept –> falsify

“For both positivism and falsification, the features of science that make it scientific are formal relations between theories and data, whether through the rational construction of theoretical edifices on top of empirical data or the rational dismissal of theories on the basis of empirical data.”


“science can do more when its theories are better approximations of the truth, and when it has more approximately true theories. For the realist, science does not merely construct convenient theoretical descriptions of data, or merely discard falsified theories: When it constructs theories or other claims, those generally and eventually approach the truth. When it discards falsified theories, it does so in favor of theories that better approach the truth.”

Functionalism: (not exactly philosophy of science)

“Merton argued that science served a social function, providing certified knowledge. That function structures norms of scientific behavior”

Common to all of these views is the idea that standards or norms are the source of science’s success and authority.

• For positivists, the key is that theories can be no more or less than the logical representation of data.

• For falsificationists, scientists are held to a standard on which they have to discard theories in the face of opposing data.

• For realists, good methods form the basis of scientific progress.

• For functionalists, the norms are the rules governing scientific behavior and attitudes.


Mumford: “technology comes in two varieties. Polytechnics are “life-oriented,” integrated with broad human needs and potentials. Polytechnics produce small-scale and versatile tools, useful for pursuing many human goals. Monotechnics produce “mega machines” that can increase power dramatically, but by regimenting and dehumanizing.”

Heidegger: “distinctively modern technology is the application of science in the service of power; this is an objectifying process”

Kuhnian Revolution

What was so revolutionary about Kuhn?

He changed the way progress is viewed in the sciences. Instead of steady progress, Kuhn argued that there are periods of so-called “normal” science, which are punctuated by revolutions. A.k.a paradigm shifts.

“ Nothing good lasts forever, and that includes normal science. Because paradigms can only ever be partial representations and partial ways of dealing with a subject matter, anomalies accumulate, and may eventually start to take on the character of real problems, rather than mere puzzles.”

This means that science does not accumulate knowledge and progresses, but accumulated knowledge that is more or less adequate according to a certain paradigm, moving from one to another paradigm. “Science does not track the truth but creates different partial views that can be considered to contain truth only by people who hold those views!”

See the source image

Kuhn also argued against (logical) positivism through theory-dependent observation: “there is no such thing, at least in normal circumstances, as raw observation. Instead, observation comes interpreted: “we do not see dots and lines in our visual fields, but instead see more or less recognizable objects and patterns. Thus observation is guided by concepts and ideas. This claim has become known as the theory-dependence of observation”.

Not only did Kuhn argue for the non-progressiveness of revolutions and theory dependent observations, but also the incommensurability of paradigms. However, this has been highly criticized and Kuhn himself has clarified this argument: “he insisted that he meant by “incommensurability” only “incomplete communication” or “difficulty of translation,” sometimes leading to “communication breakdown” (Kuhn 1970a). Still, on these more modest readings incommensurability is an important phenomenon: even when dealing with the same subject matter, scientists (among others) can fail to communicate. If there is no radical incommensurability, then there is no radical division between paradigms, either. Paradigms must be linked by enough continuity of concepts and practices to allow communication.”

So how and to what extent can scientists communicate even though the paradigms just partially overlap? The book presents 3 alternative views on how communication might work:

  • Trading Zone: Galison

“Simplified languages allow parties to trade goods and services without concern for the integrity of local cultures and practices. A trading zone (Galison 1997) is an area in which scientific and/or technical practices can fruitfully interact via these simplified languages or pidgins, without requiring full assimilation. Trading zones can develop at the contact points of specialities, around the transfer of valuable goods from one to another. In trading zones, collaborations can be successful even if the cultures and practices that are brought together do not agree on problems or definitions.”

  • Epistemic Cultures: Knorr Cetina

“The meaning of terms, ideas, and actions is connected to the cultures and practices from which they stem. Disciplines are “epistemic cultures” that may have completely different orientations to their objects, social units of knowledge production, and patterns of interaction (Knorr Cetina 1999). However, people from different areas interact, and as a result, science gains a degree of unity. We might ask, then, how interactions are made to work.”

  • Boundary Objects: Star and Griesemer

A different, but equally flexible, concept for understanding communication across barriers is the idea of boundary objects (Star and Griesemer 1989). In a historical case study of interactions in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer focus on objects, rather than languages. The different social worlds of amateur collectors, professional scientists, philanthropists, and administrators had very different visions of the museum, its goals, and the important work to be done. These differences resulted in incommensurabilities among groups. However, objects can form bridges across boundaries, if they can serve as a focus of attention in different social worlds, and are robust enough to maintain their identities in those different worlds. Standardized records were among the key boundary objects that held together these different social worlds. Records of the specimens had different meanings for the different groups of actors, but each group could contribute to and use those records. The practices of each group could continue intact, but the groups interacted via record keeping. Boundary objects, then, allow for a certain amount of coordination of actions without large measures of translation

The bottom line of Kuhn’s contribution:

  • “scientific communities are importantly organized around ideas and practices, not around ideals of behaviour.
  • they are organized from the bottom up, not, as functionalism would have it, to serve an overarching goal.
  • changes in theories are not driven by data but by changes of vision. (against positivism)
  • if worldviews are essentially theories then data is subordinate to theory, rather than the other way around.
  • anomalies are typically set aside, that only during revolutions are they used as a justification to reject a theory (against falsification)
  • he created a space for thinking about the practices of science in local terms, rather than in terms of their contribution to progress, or their exemplification of ideals”

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