A report I wrote on this massive conference for the UCL STS news site. Thanks to Sara Peres and Raquel Velho for input.
“A new formal collaboration in STS begins now”. So opened the 172-page programme for the inaugural joint meeting between the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) and the Sociedad Latinoamericana de Estudios Sociales de la Ciencia y la Technología (ESOCITE). One would hope any conference would involve plenty of novelty, from new information to new research partnerships. But in bringing together two of the largest societies for social studies of science from across the global North and South, this meeting attempted novelty on an ambitious scale. In many ways, it succeeded; it was certainly the first time any of the UCL STS party – formed of Tona Anzures, Oliver Marsh, Sara Peres, and Raquel Velho – had seen tango dancing from the scholars we cited as undergraduates. But the larger question spanning the whole conference was: would the meeting work to foster strong and sustainable connections of social studies of science across global Souths and Norths?
A conference of this sort was always going to bring challenges. Firstly, in its sheer size. The 188 paper sessions split across four days and fourteen two-hour slots tested both the decisionmaking skills and stamina of all participants. Networking with over 1000 scholars alternated between exciting and overwhelming, particularly as lack of provided lunch meant that much of it took place in a small Chinese buffet across the road from the venue. The introductory plenary session incorporated an interesting innovation of 3-minute mini-presentations on ‘what is STS, why do I do it, and what/who for?’ from leading STS scholars, which provided a greatly insightful collection of perspectives; however the inclusion of 24 different speakers from across 4S and ESOCITE led to idea overload towards the end. Nonetheless the speakers’ challenge of distilling the heart of their work, and the listeners’ opportunity to compare them so directly, was an experience which could easily and usefully be adopted in many other settings.
A second key source of challenge and opportunity was the enormous variety of scholarship present. Representatives from the more expected departments of STS, innovation studies, environmental policy and suchlike were joined by experts in law, art, and film-making. Even a single topic often had multiple dedicated sessions – infrastructure, innovation, and biosciences were amongst the recurrent themes – to tackle the same issue with alternative questions, emphases, and disciplinary backgrounds. The resulting mix frequently provided entirely new perspectives, whether in theoretical perspectives or in methodological approaches (as in a fantastic session on ‘New Forms of Description’, which suggested ways in which scholars could develop new forms of physically representing their studies). But equally, this could lead to stark reminders of how diverse and fragmented basic standpoints and terminology can be across different disciplines within social studies of science, and the great difficulty of balancing technical precision with generalisability. For the UCL group, this was exemplified by responses to our own presentations – while some of us were offered completely unexpected and fruitful suggestions for new avenues to pursue, others were confronted by frustrating deafness to basic premises. Though the lack of free wi-fi at the conference had somewhat inured us to frustration by this point.
These factors of communication were further highlighted by the explicitly international focus of the conference. Partly on linguistic grounds – papers in any session could span the official languages of English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and some questions expanded this list even further. Language barriers were a novel issue for mostly the US and UK scholars (though with many exceptions, current author not included), while regular attendees at ESOCITE conferences were well used to this set-up. But perhaps more important than issues of language were issues of national academic culture. Though many conferences incorporate work from within different contexts, the nature of this joint meeting made visible some important questions for collaboration. For instance the opening plenary, and many of the papers throughout the conference, suggested that whether engaged STS should be used as a tool for working alongside or against institutions of power, a discipline which improves or emancipates from current governance, is a view which broadly differs between UK and Latin American scholarship (UK scholars generally taking the former approach, Latin American scholars the latter). It was certainly one of the questions from this conference which merits further discussion. The prizegiving plenary also showed a notable difference in presentation style. The ESOCITE prize talks included a substantial component dedicated to the scholar for whom the award was named; this served as an important reminder that full collaboration involves not just combining existing work, but also widening the pools of ‘canonical’ works and writers we teach and use as a background to our thinking.
In conclusion, the conference lived up to its claims to novelty – in all its opportunities, and all its challenges. As individuals, we were made to step outside of our academic comfort zones and encounter a great variety of alternative ways to think about and practice STS. As national and disciplinary groups, we were offered hints as to those important but sometimes elusive features uniting our studies – most notably, a commitment to not just understanding but also changing the intertwinings of science with power. And as a conference we saw the current frontiers and directions of STS scholarship, not just in the work of individual scholars but in the sum of their parts. And we got quite a bit of tango in the bargain.
UCL STS group:
Tona Anzures: Session chair ‘Prospectos para la innovacion collaborative de America Latina’ and presenter ‘Scientific Migration and Distant Collaboration: Mexican Immigrants in the UK’
Oliver Marsh: Presenter ‘Networked Science Enthusiasts: Online Knowledge and Offline Identities’
Sara Peres: Session chair ‘The Science and Politics of Biodiversity: Protecting and Governing Nature’ and presenter ‘Genebanks as Archives: the Memory Practices of Conservation.’
Raquel Velho: Session chair ‘Interdisciplinary (lack of) communications’ and presenter ‘Building Bridges: Collaborations between STS and Engineering in Transport Accessibility’