The (first) STS Talk-Walk: what is it to compare?

by Malte Ziewitz

Sunny intervals, 13ºC and a light breeze: perfect conditions for the Oxford STS group to leave our usual comfort zone at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) and discuss challenging questions in a slightly different context. Last Friday afternoon, a small group of us embarked on our inaugural STS Talk-Walk. As an experiment, we are trying out this new discussion format and will meet up once a month for a walk during which we explore a question that cuts across our work.

The idea traveled to Oxford from the University of Amsterdam, where Annemarie Mol and Anna M. Mann have hosted a Walking Seminar for a while. As they write, “talking-while-walking can enhance thinking in ways not attainable behind a desk or in a seminar sitting down.”

Our first STS Talk-Walk took us on a 10 km trail along the Thames, across Port Meadow and back along the Oxford canal. The theme was adopted from the Amsterdam group, who had successfully used it in the past: ‘Comparing — what is it to compare?’.

  • What do we compare with what as a part of our research? How should that help us in answering our questions, telling our stories, etc.? Does it?
  • What is fun/difficult/striking/surprising etc. in the work of ‘comparing’?
  • What difference might it make to use other terms, e.g. contrasting? Or what other terms would be relevant to/in our work?
  • What are some authors/texts in which comparison figures in an interesting way? In what ways can we learn from them?
  • What is it to compare and what do similarity and difference have to do with this?

Talking-while-walking did not just afford a steady intake of fresh air, but also a variety of ‘passing observations’. For example, a shed along the way crammed with rubbish to the rafters provoked comparisons with participants’ offices, which were claimed to be “much tidier” — an observation which led us deep into issues of scale, enactment and how the objects of comparison come about. A well-groomed swamp evoked associations with Marylin Strathern’s work and alternative approaches to ‘comparing’, such as relating, juxtaposing and translating. And an encounter with a herd of cattle ended up in lively discussions about the similarities and differences between our visiting PhD student Helene and a cow.

Helene and a cow on Port Meadow

What is it to compare a PhD student and a cow?

All in all, our first STS Talk-Walk turned out to be more challenging than expected. Staying focused on a topic for two hours, listening, appreciating, questioning, arguing and adapting to changing conversation partners was very different from the relaxing stroll that some of us expected — but also (comparatively speaking) more rewarding.

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 19 November 2010, 2-5pm. Please e-mail malte.ziewitz at to sign up.

2 thoughts on “The (first) STS Talk-Walk: what is it to compare?

  1. dear talk-walkers,

    Congratulations on having started – in practice, which is, as we know, what counts – your Oxford STS talk-walk group. Keep up the good walks, think well, have fun & take care,

    Annemarie Mol

  2. Pingback: A walking seminar « geographical imaginations

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