Science, Technology, and Society Studies, or STS, is an interdisciplinary field of academic teaching and research with elements of a social movement that focuses on the explication and analysis of science and technology as complex social constructs with attendant societal influences myriad epistemological, political and ethical issues. As such, it entails four interrelated tenets or concepts that transcend simple disciplinary boundaries and serve as the core of STS knowledge and practice. Several useful introductions to the STS field are available (Sismondo 2004, Cutcliffe and Mitcham 2001, Volti 2001, Cutcliffe 2000, Hess 1997, Jasanoff, et al. 1995).
Science, Technology, and Society Studies covers several fundamental themes.
CONSTRUCTIVISM. STS primarily assumes that scientific and technological developments are socially constructed phenomena. This means that science and technology are inherently human and therefore valuable activities that are always approached and understood cognitively. This view does not deny the limitations that nature imposes on the physical reality of technological artifacts, but asserts that knowledge and understanding of nature, science, and technology are socially mediated processes.
CONTEXTUALISM. As a corollary to the notion of constructivism, it follows that science and technology are historically, politically and culturally embedded, which means they can only be understoodin connection.Otherwise one would deny their socially constructed nature. This does not contradictReality,but suggests that there are different contextualized types of knowledge. Likewise, any given technological solution to a problem must be contextualized within the particular socio-political-economic framework that produced it.
PROBLEMATION. Viewing scientific knowledge and, in particular, technological development as having value and therefore not being neutral leads to theproblematizationfrom both. From this perspective, science and technology have societal implications, often positive but some negative, at least for some people. Therefore, it is not only acceptable but necessary to question the nature of scientific knowledge and the application of technological artifacts and processes in terms of evaluative and ethical precepts.
DEMOCRATIZATION. Given theproblematicNature of science and technology and their acceptanceconstructionby society, leads to the notion of increased democratic control of technoscience. Because of the inherent societal and ethical implications, more explicit participatory mechanisms need to be in place to enhance public participation in the shaping and scrutiny of science and technology, particularly early in the decision-making process when the opportunity for effective contribution is greatest. The ultimate goal is to structure science and technology so that together they bring the most democratic benefit to society.
By adopting such a theoretical framework for the descriptive analysis and prescriptive evaluation of technoscience, STS serves as a venue for discussion of important societal and ethical issues of interest and concern to a democratic public. As such, STS offers a set of conceptual tools and insights that are themselves continually open to reflective analysis and advancement as scientists and activists become more experienced in understanding science and technology.
STS as an explicit academic teaching and research field emerged in theUnited StatesThe mid-1960s, when scholars and academics alike began to question the hitherto largely undisputed usefulness of science and technology. Public concerns related to areas such as consumption, the environment, nuclear power and theVietnam Warbegan to lead to a critique of the idea of technoscientific progress that many people had commonly believed in. Characterized by such popular works asRachel Carson'Ssilent source(1962) who raised questions about the dangers associated with chemical insecticides such as DDT and DDTRalf Nader's Automotive Industry Exposé,Unsafe at any speed(1965), STS reflected a growing activist and public commitment to technoscientific issues and concerns.
At about the same time that this social movement emerged, parallel changes were taking place in a number of traditional academic disciplines. Emerging from the work of scholars such as Thomas Kuhn, whoseThe structure ofScientific Revolutions(1962) was enormously influential, traditional philosophers, sociologists, and historians of science and technology more or less independently began to move away from internalistically positivistically oriented studies to reflect a more complete and nuanced understanding of the societal context of science and technology. Common to intellectual analysis in each of these areas was a critique of traditional notions ofobjectivitywithin scientific and technological knowledge and action, an investigation that emphasized the value-laden conditionality of these activities. As they developed, they increasingly borrowed conceptual models and drew on each other's case studies, so that by the mid-1980s a clearly interdisciplinary academic field of study had emerged, with formalized institutes and programs, professional societies, and scholarly journals. Recognizing the more intellectual focus of their work, these scholars and their organizations began using the term S&TS -science and technologyStudies – to differentiate themselves from the more activist STS wing.
A third element or subculture within STS includes the more hands-on science and technology or engineering management and policy areas. Often referred to by the acronym STPP (Science, Technology andpublic politics) or SEPP (Science, Engineering andpublic politics), this group is particularly interested in the practical policy issues surrounding science and technology and in exposing science and technology managers to the broader socio-political context they are likely to encounter. It also conducts research and grants and offers graduate education programs, but generally as part of a focused mission.
Collectively, this interdisciplinary group of scientists and subfields form what has come to be known as STS or sometimes S&TS studies. Together they examine the connections between scientific ideas, technological machines and processes as well as values and ethics from a wide variety of perspectives. Regardless of their specific motivations, approaches, and concerns, however, there is a common appreciation for the complexity and contextual nature of science and technology in contemporary (and historical) society. Based on a solid base of empirical case studies by academic sociologists and historians of engineering, since the 1990s more activist STSers and the STTP-oriented policy and management groups have been able to make a modest “turn to practice” (Bijker 1993, p . 129), which in principle, if not always in practice, should allow moredemocraticallypublic role in the ethical design and control of technoscience.
The STS controversy
One result of this intellectual theorizing about the socially constructed nature of technoscience has been a strong, often polemical, backlash from certain quarters of the scientific community. This was unfortunate since much of the debate was in what was known asscience warsappeared to miss or ignore the central focus and insights of STS, and was often polemic due to comments from participants on both sides. Many scientists cling to the traditional ideal of objective knowledge based on reason and empirical evidence. Such people are subject to relativistic claims that are scientific knowledgesocially constructedand to find it not in an objectively autonomous nature, but as the result of a set of historically and culturally worked out conventions, was unsettling and struck more than a dissonant note. Combined with widespread evidence of scientific illiteracy among schoolchildren and widespread pseudoscientific beliefs on the part of the general public, some scientists began to view much of STS asanti-scienceand indicative of a postmodern cultural decay.
A number of such people, led by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt (1994) and Alan Sokol (1996a, 1996b, 1998), argued for the objectivity of scientific evidence and science as a particular kind of knowledge, and challenged some of the more relativistically oriented STS scholars such as Bruno Latour (1987) and launched a series of harsh attacks in print and at academic conferences. A lively debate ensued, ostensibly about the epistemological nature of scientific knowledge, but centered on the social dynamics and political implications of science, tending to smear all STS scholars indiscriminately as anti-science and engaging in aEscape from reason.
In the midst of the skirmishes, the physicist Sokol wrote an article, written in utter gibberish but in postmodern constructivist language, which was published in the journal Cultural Studies.social text(Sokol 1996a), ironically in an edition intended as a response to earlier work by Gross and Levitt (1994). Motivated by what he saw as "nonsensical and sloppy thinking" that "denies the existence of objective realities" (Sokol 1996b, p. 63), Sokol attempted to expose this through his parody article, with the end result of adding fuel to the already hot fires of debate.
Without repeating the whole debate, which also included a bizarre invitation from Sokol to anyone who didn't believe in scientific objectivity to come to his upstairs office, where they could test the law of gravity by stepping out the window, left much of the dialogue lost a common core of understanding that actually bound the combatants closer together than perhaps at least the defenders of science realized. That is, most scientists, including Gross, Levitt, and Sokol, readily accept amoderate constructivism,one that sees scientific knowledge about the natural world and the processes involved, and certainly technological creations, as suchsocially constructedphenomena. Few moderate STS scholars or members of the public would deny nature's stubborn reality, nor attempt to control the underlying scientific epistemology, but it is certainly reasonable for them to both understand and attempt to understand the socio-political implications of contemporary technoscientific advances to control them . So in the end, it seems like there's probably more commonality between the scientific fighters and theirsKriegreflects much noise about little. At the same time, however, it suggests how difficult it can be for STS, either as a group of inquiring scientists or as a social movement, to play an ethically and politically responsible role in the shaping and control of science and technology as the twenty-first century unfolds.
The problem of ethics
To say that incorporating an ethical awareness and normative framework into societal control and shaping of contemporary science and technology will be difficult does not mean that it should not be attempted or that such attempts are not already taking place within the STS community . In fact, this has been a big part of STS's raison d'être from the start, even for those more intellectual scholars most interested in uncovering the epistemological foundations of scientific knowledge. As was the case, STS social constructivists have often uncovered the underlying values and ethical choices involved in scientific research and discovery, while those have analyzed technological decision-making, such as that surrounding the introduction of theSpace ShuttleChallenger (Vaughan 1996) similarly revealed the ethics of the decision to proceed on that chilly Florida morning, even in the face of admittedly mixed evidence regarding the viability of O-rings at reduced temperatures. Other philosophers and ethicists with a more specific focus have analyzed case studies of technoscientific failures or near misses, ranging from the landing gear of the DC-10 aircraft to theSan FranciscoBART transport system to collapse theKansas CityHyatt Regency Walkway, for what they reveal about the ethics and values subsumed in such technoscientific endeavors. Other scholars have delved into issues such as the location of toxic waste and hazardous manufacturing sites because they show injustices related to environmental justice.
Out of such analyzes has come increased awareness of the need to make scientists, engineers and business managers more socially and ethically attuned to the impacts of their work. To this end, engineering education programs have a greater focus on engineering ethics through required coursework, while organizations and groups such as theAmerican Association for the Advancement of Science(AAAS), which established a Committee on Scientific Freedom Responsibility in 1975, and the computer science community, which established the ethics-oriented Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in 1983, focus specific resources on efforts to raise awareness of ethical issues.
Beyond this institutional response, more and more STS scholars are recognizing and focusing on normative concerns as an integral part of their work. In part, this was a response to the gauntlet of technology political philosopher Langdon Winner (1993), who finds much of the greatdescriptiveconstructivist analysis regardinghuman well-beingand theSocial consequences of technology choice.A significant measure of the barometric shift in such matters was the work of Wiebe Bijker, a leading Constructivist scholar and President of the Society for the Social Studies of Science in 2001–2003. In a number of works, including his 2001 presidency address, Bijker explicitly argued for the need for morepolitical commitmentin technical-scientific questions by citizens and scholars alike, each based on the constructivist findings of the STS. Such engagement would mean much greater democratic public participation in technoscientific decision-making, and a greater role for STS scientists, he saidpublic intellectualswho, by drawing on their STS insights, could normatively contribute to the civic improvement of our modern technoscientific culture (Bijker 2001, 2003).
As the analysis above suggests, STS as an intellectual field of research and teaching, as an applied policy analysis and as a social movement is not just a field well suited to explaining the nature of science and technology (historically and in the contemporary world). ), which also holds great promise for the normative and democratic advancement of today's technoscientific society. STS provides both an analytical framework and a place for discussion. This is the potential of STS and the greatest opportunity for its application.
STEPHEN H. CUTCLIFFE
SEE ALSOinterdisciplinarity;Merton, Robert;Scandinavian and Nordic Perspectives;science, technology and law;science, technology and literature;Sokol affair.
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