The (seventh) STS Talk-Walk: Spinning – what is it to spin a topic?

by Malte Ziewitz

The first STS Talk-Walk this term took us downstream along the Thames to the Isis Farmhouse. It also challenged us to think hard about ‘spinning’: what is it to spin a topic? How have you spun your research in recent papers, talks and presentations? What were the practicalities involved? What did you find easy/difficult/challenging/etc. about it? Is there an ethics of spinning? How useful is it to talk about ‘spinning’ as opposed to ‘framing’ or ‘turning’?

Spinning like a spider?

As usual, the conversations were diverse and touched upon a myriad of aspects, thoughts and stories. In fact, it seemed that the theme of ‘spinning’ could be spun in many different ways. So here is a short and highly selective list of ideas and associations that travelled with us along the Thames.

  • What does it practically take to spin an issue? Jasper told a story about the candidacy of Michael Ignatieff in the Canadian federal elections and how it was spun by different political groups. While some argued that a well-educated leader with international reputation would be the right person to advance Canadian politics, others portrayed him as a stranger and outsider, who had long lost ties with his country and ‘common Canadians’. It was interesting to see how the different spins variously mobilized objects like ‘common Canadians’ or ‘international challenges’ to present their version of the world and spin a web of carefully crafted realities.
  • Also the ethics of spinning figured prominently. While some thought that ‘spinning’ already comes with strong connotations of dishonesty and betrayal, others suggested that it is the very idea of a fact (and not just a perspective on it) which is achieved in the process of spinning. At any rate, it turned out to be productive to think about what counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ spinning — and what it takes to make these arguments.
  • Some wondered about the different meanings the word ‘spinning’ has adopted in other languages. In German, for example, the verb ‘spinnen‘ can refer to the activity of threading or weaving a web, but is also used to denote the state of ‘being bonkers’ (as in the famous line from the Asterix cartoons, ‘Die spinnen, die Römer.‘ = ‘These Romans are crazy.’).
  • The longer we talk-walked, the less certain we were about who, which or what is actually spinning what, which or whom. Tanja told a story about a recent press release that was issued about her research on neuromarketing. While the press release had emphasized the generally critical stance of the project towards the currency of all things ‘neuro’, it turned out to be received quite differently. In fact, the project was presented as ‘cutting-edge’ neuromarketing research itself, and sentences indicating ethnographic distance were simply edited out in re-publications. As a consequence, people started e-mailing with praise for the interesting project and the need to advance the field of neuromarketing. While a lot more complex, the story showed that spinning cannot simply be credited to the magic craft of a few spin doctors or political consultants, but rather appears as a messy and unruly process with unpredictable outcomes. Spinning, in this sense, means becoming part of and engaging with an issue — if we like it or not.
  • All this led us to speculate that spinning may not be the exception to a rule, but rather a useful trope to talk about the activity (and politics) of doing research generally. What if everything is somehow spinning — and what kind of spin would that be?

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 17 June 2011. More info here. If you have an idea for a topic, please let us know.

How’s My Feedback? – A One-Day Conference on the Technology and Politics of Evaluation

by Malte Ziewitz

How's My Feedback? - The Technology and Politics of Evaluation

If you follow the news from our How’s my feedback? project, you probably know already about the upcoming conference. On 28 June 2011, a range of researchers, designers, managers, government innovators and users will come to Oxford to discuss the technology and politics of evaluation. Specifically, we will focus on the phenomenon of web-based review and rating schemes, i.e. all those platforms that in one way or another invite, aggregate, calculate and distribute feedback about books, dishwashers, lawyers, teachers, health services, ex-boyfriends, haircuts, prostitutes or websites.

There is bound to be a lot of food for thought. While some have greeted this development as an innovative way of fostering transparency, accountability and public engagement, others have criticized the forced exposure and alleged lack of accuracy and legitimacy, pointing to the potentially devastating consequences of negative evaluations.

The conference will tackle these issues head-on. How are we to judge the effectiveness of these schemes? What modes of governance are implicated in their operation? What does it take to establish and maintain such a scheme? How can we make sense of different methodologies, such as algorithmic rankings (e.g. Google Web Search) vs. individual user reviews (e.g. TripAdvisor)? What counts as ‘good’ feedback and what as ‘bad’? What is it to evaluate the evaluators – and will this business ever end?

A special focus will be on our recent attempts to develop a platform that allows people to share their experience with online reviews and ratings — a feedback websites for feedback websites. An excellent line-up of speakers has volunteered to comment on this process from different perspectives, including Malcolm Ashmore (Colombia/Loughborough), Andrew Balmer (Sheffield), Stefan Schwarzkopf (Copenhagen Business School), Ian Stronach (Liverpool John Moores), Alex Wilkie (Goldsmiths) and Steve Woolgar (Oxford).

So if you fancy a day in Oxford (and give some feedback), please have a look at the conference page and check out the homonymous project. Most importantly, please register soon to secure a spot.

Object orientations in STS?

by Timothy Webmoor

Graham Harman diagrams the ‘fourfold’ object at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society

Graham Harman recently visited Oxford for a week as part of a Mellon funded Sawyer Seminar. The organisers, archaeologist Chris Gosden and geographer Sarah Whatmore, both of the University of Oxford, put together an innovative format whereby scholars who think and write about the supposed ‘ontological turn’ were gathered together with objects at the fantastically eclectic Pitt Rivers Museum. Immersed in musty stuff, the scholars were to think freshly about the interdiscplinary importance of things by talking through objects in-the-hands. Perhaps at home with the Heideggerian ‘throwness’ of the event, Harman contributed to the discussions through his advocacy of Object-oriented Philosophy. A theme which emerged at the event, particularly at the more conventional series of presentations held mid-week, was whether a turn to ontology could ever possibly ‘take things seriously’ on their own. Or whether a consideration of objects, devices, instruments and other missing masses – the under-labourers of a host of heterogeneous practices in science and society – must necessarily ‘shift out’ to a more holistic consideration of the relations that stuff enter into. A lesson of STS has of course been not to a priori bracket off what ingredients are engaged in what we are describing. This agnosticism leads researchers to acknowledge many untoward connections that might have been passed over in ‘conventional’ studies. So often how we relate to things is through relations.

But do we lose the trees for the forest? In emphasizing relations that things enter into, do objects themselves drop out of view? Sometimes reading magnificently sensitive accounts of how constellations of humans and nonhumans are coordinated to become semi-stable phenomena, whether electronic patient records in hospitals or location-based mobile phone technologies, I come away with little idea of the actual objects. Descriptions seem sometimes too eager to pass quickly to the ‘higher order’ scale of commodity derivative trading or atherosclerosis enactment and management. Is it intellectually blasé or even disreputable to describe objects themselves?

This is where Harman’s work intervenes. Amongst his many works that merge “the centaur of classical metaphysics . . . with the cheetah of actor-network theory,” chapter 6 in his Prince of Networks cautions against the influential trend of relationism in much of STS. Of course, we might subtly question the very categorisation and boundaries taken up in definitions of objects as isolated, discreet and self-contained. But Graham undertakes just this. A very close and phenomenologically sophisticated and sensual study of objects and their ‘essence’ as unified entities that can neither be reduced to their relations with other humans and nonhumans, nor exhausted by their qualities. But then ‘essences’ are out of vogue now too. For STSers, Harman provokes us to pause and consider the ‘thingly’ qualities of what matters. To consider the trade-offs involved in scaling-out our sophisticated accounts of how things enact ontologies. Archaeologists, who have long produced ‘thick descriptions’ of objects and developed nuanced theories for the relations of things and persons, find a much needed humility in Harman, a reminder that storying the past can never be too focused on objects themselves.

STS Discussion Group: Programme for Trinity Term 2011

by Tanja Schneider

Here is the preliminary programme for this term’s STS Discussion Group. Each session is dedicated to a specific topic, which we will discuss on the basis of required readings. We will meet in the James Martin Seminar Room at InSIS in Oxford. Please note the changing times and days. All welcome!

Week 2:
Wednesday 11 May 2011, 15.00–16.30
Object-oriented Philosophy and its Relation to STS
Visiting speaker: Graham Harman, The American University in Cairo

G. Harman (2009) The Prince of Networks, Melbourne: re.press, chapter 6.

Week 3:
Wednesday 18 May 2011, 15.00–16.30
Ontologies for Developing Things

C. Bruun Jensen (2010) Ontologies for Developing Things: Making Health Care Futures through Technologies, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, chapters 1, 2 and 9.

Week 4:
Thursday 26 May 2011, 11.00–12.30
Care and STS

M. Puig de la Bellacasa (2010) ‘Matters of care in technoscience: assembling neglected things’, Social Studies of Science, Vol.  XX(X) 1–22.

A. Mol, I. Moser and J. Pols (2010) ‘Care: putting practice into theory’ in: A. Mol, I. Moser and J. Pols Care in Practice: On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms, Bielefeld: Transcript, pp. 7-21.

Week 5:
Thursday 2 June 2011, 11.00–12.30
Social Studies of Markets

K.  Çalışkan, and M. Callon (2010) ‘Economization, part 2: a research programme for the study of markets‘, Economy and Society, 39(1) 1 -32.

D. MacKenzie (2010) ‘The credit crisis as a problem in the sociology of knowledge’, Working paper.

Week 6:
Wednesday 8 June 2011, 11.00–12.30
In Remembrance of Harold Garfinkel

H. Garfinkel (1967/1984) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Malden MA: Polity Press/Blackwell Publishing, chapter 3.

Week 7:
Thursday 16 June 2011. 11.00–12.30
The Political Practice of STS – interfering description vs. the composition of a common world

J. Law (2009) ‘The Greer-Bush test: On politics in STS’, Version of 23rd December 2009.

B. Latour (2010) ‘An attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto‘, New Literary History, Vol. 41, 471-490.

Week 8:
Thursday 23 June 2011, Time tbc
Punting on the Cherwell

Please e-mail me to sign up or ask a question.