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.

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