A Brief History of “Choice”, and Some Questions

by Lucy Bartlett

Two weeks ago, the STS discussion group convened to listen to Stefan Schwarzkopf present his new paper ‘The invention of Choice: the making of a Cognitive-Semantic Field’, and to think about Choice. Not choice with a small c but Choice with a capital C. Stefan’s ‘history of a concept’ came from his odd observation that we seem to be a world where our own and emerging economies are being structured around the people’s right to choose, even though we are inundated with new research form neuroscience and social-psychological which suggest we, human individuals, are inherently bad at choosing.

Stefan Schwarzkopf on ChoiceOn top of this paradoxical situation Stefan illuminated the present gap in the literature. Although, we research choice in its contemporary enactments, there is little on the history and contingent factors which brought about the reification of choice as a essential human right.

This was rectified as Stefan took the STS discussion group on a history of Choice starting a millennium BC with the first politicised example of choice, the original ‘chosen ones’, the Israelites. Then we moved through history to the time of the Ancient Greek Philosophers and Aristotle’s ideas on ‘deliberate desire’. Before embarking on a descriptive discussion of 12th-century Europe’s choice and their inability to cope with new found ‘Freedom to choose’. This all lead Stefan to the 17th century, characterised by both religious and political upheaval which built the ground work for the overt politicisation of the term.

From this pivotal point the term of choice no longer meant to ‘be chosen’ but rather referred to something that should be preferred. This preference became mundane in use and with the proliferation of the conscious decision was also meet with more random processes of choice, linked to all areas of social life. It became a term of empowerment and an individual right. A right that was then expanded to become the luxury of ‘consumers’ – a marketing opportunity.

The talk ended where it started in the paradoxical ‘contemporary’ situation. As Stefan acknowledged the history of the concept presented is just the tip of the Choice-iceberg. We have much more to explore. For example, how did Choice materialise? The history presented so far was based on documents. Did anyone not have choice? And for those who didn’t have choice at times, do they know? And what processes meant they do get it?

The final provocative question of the session left us all thinking reflexively about our own contemporary Choice. Do we really actively think about choice, specifically mundane choice? Or is it more of a habit now than a deliberate ‘preference’? And, if so what does this mean for the future of Choice?

This session was a Special Event in the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme. A copy of the draft paper is available here.

Public Foraging

by Amy Hinterberger

In this week’s Situated Seminar we met outdoors at OxGrow, Oxford’s Edible Community Garden to discuss two pieces: Noortje Marres & Javier Lezaun‘s ‘Materials and devices of the public: an introduction’ in Economy & Society (2011) and Dimitris Papadopoulos’s ‘Alter-ontologies: Towards a constituent politics in technoscience’ in Social Studies of Science (2011). Since January 2011, OxGrow has turned two unloved tennis courts in the heart of Oxford into a thriving food garden. Doireann, our garden guide explained that OxGrow is a combination of intellectual and physical energy in the spirit of community building. Sitting on the grass we could see a wind generator producing energy, a bee hive, raised garden beds and the new addition, a composting toilet. At OxGrow, planting, weeding, harvesting, composting, foraging and feasting build community.

OxGrow posterIn this setting, Catherine Montgomery introduced the pieces through four themes: politics, inclusion, materiality and experimentation. Is foraging for food political? Was it a public act? How does a garden, tools, seeds, fruit and veg help us think about materiality, as well as the objects and devices of politics? What was the relationship between politics and publics? With their focus on the materials and devices of the public, Marres and Lezaun offer ways to think about public action and participation. They focus on how materials, a merchant ship, a plastic water bottle, carbon accounting technologies, acquire what they call ‘political capacities’. The idea here is to consider not just how materials and devices shape the construction of publics, but how some objects, environments and infrastructures become invested themselves with political and moral capacities. Papadopoulos is also interested in the processes and practices of politics. His article presents a typology of the four ways that those working in STS-related fields conceive of politics: formalist, participatory, assembly and grounded. In seeking to foreground a materialist politics, Papadopoulos wants to take the best aspects of these four approaches and develop what he calls a constituent politics, which emerges from the account of politics already given in technoscience, but seeks to evolve from the limitations of these approaches by creating material alliances between groups of people and particular non-human others.

In the gardenLike the examples highlighted by Marres and Lezaun, we discussed how OxGrow is a site of experimentation. In bringing together the idea of experimentation with how the political comes to be constituted, we discussed how the papers both sought to identify the creation of what might be called ‘pre-political spaces’. We questioned how Papadopoulos sought to identify forms of actions and practices before they became codified as politics. How was this to be done? Marres and Lezaun also want to challenge conventional understandings of politics by focusing on mundane and everyday objects. It was suggested that the privilege awarded to ‘artisanal production’ by Papadopoulos may not be ‘material’ enough. Marres and Lezaun suggest that a focus on materials and devices requires a move away from the human. Some queried how this move to go ‘beyond the human’ overlooked the materiality of the human body in public space. What happens to our analysis of the category human in attempts to focus on materials and devices that are usually assumed to be non-human?

Coming back to the question of politics, Doireann explained to the group that people at OxGrow have political concerns, especially about climate change and global food systems. But at Oxgrow, politics is kept ‘low key’. The garden is there for the digging and in offering this kind of material engagement people work together. In reflecting on this comment, it was suggested that STS might not be very good at ‘keeping the politics low key’. Everything it seems is political. What then, is outside politics? And furthermore, what is the benefit of using the public for thinking about politics? And indeed, the emphasis at OxGrow on ‘building community’, as opposed to something called publics suggests that the multitude of ways people see themselves as kinds of collectivities matters for politics and what counts as political action, or participation.

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme.

Meeting the Universe Halfway: Reflections on Diffractions

by Catherine Montgomery

As we gathered at the Radcliffe Observatory to “meet the universe halfway”, the building itself seemed to comment on us, the group of us STSers, anthropologists and historians who had turned up to discuss Karen Barad’s seminal work. We were welcomed in by the Greek gods of the eight winds – were they there to encourage our knowledge-gathering or to toy with us mere mortals as we grappled with quantum mechanics and its ‘ontoepistemology’?

Feminist technoscientist analysts in actionIn Steve Woolgar’s introduction to our situated space, we heard how, in the eighteenth century, it was the role of the Observer to make meteorological observations, but the role of his successor to interpret them. He went on to tell us of the building’s transition from observatory to vascular laboratory in the 1930s, alluding to a photograph of sheep milling in its vestibule. Should we conceive of ourselves as sheep, following blithely in the footsteps of STS’s ontological turn, or as the esteemed interpreters of previous scholars’ scientific inquiry? Or perhaps, as Barad herself suggests, such analogical thinking takes us down a blind alley.

Barad’s (2007) book, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning provides a challenging and heady exhortation to rethink some of social research’s most fundamental, stock-in-trade concepts: power, agency, and causality (to name but a few), and in the process, the relationship between the epistemological, the ontological and the ethical. Barad fearlessly tackles these big questions through an exposition of quantum physics, rejecting the notion of inherent uncertainty and seeking to reinstate philosophy-physics as an apparatus for comprehending matter and meaning. She professes not only to provide a ‘rigorous’ re-telling of the Bohr/Heisenberg debate, but, in the feminist science studies tradition, to dismantle persistent dichotomies by questioning how ‘we are part of the world in its differential becomings’ (Barad 2007:185) – and thereby to contribute to making a better world.

The Radcliffe Observatory observedBut a better world for whom, where and when? And why the insistence on rigour and giving a definitive account of physics? And how does feminist technoscience help to dismantle dichotomies over and above other approaches? These were just some of the questions that arose from our discussion, often turning around the book’s location at the intersection of quantum physics and STS. Challenged by the dense subject matter, some among us wondered if it was really necessary to read about quantum eraser experiments or if we could skip straight to the STS insights. Perhaps, it was suggested, Barad’s attention to ‘serious science’ was an implicit response to the science wars of the 1990s, the legacy of which has been to squeeze out STS playfulness and irony? But what about the joy of uncertainty and the powerful moral positions that such uncertainty can engender? As we needled through these issues, the subject-object relationship in social-scientific research recurred, prompting reflections on the STS trope of the detailed empirical case study and (on cue) the need for a healthy dose of reflexivity. This culminated in the question as to what we should take from ethnographies of scientific practice, and why it is that we hanker after certainty and intellectual resolution?

The gods were obviously enjoying themselves. In our own reflexive moment, we imagined a group of physicists sitting around in a circle, as we were, wondering if they could skip the feminist technoscience and cut straight to the quantum mechanics. But this moment was short-lived, as the conversation returned to ‘serious’ STS concerns: were we witnessing a proto-split between Mollaw and Calltour? Should we escape the local and reach for a meta-perspective or embrace contingency, multiplicity and uncertainty? We left the Radcliffe Observatory with such questions playing on our minds, not a sheep in sight…

This session was part of the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. Rather than discussing readings in the confines and comfort of a seminar room, we immerse ourselves in locations that speak to the issues at hand. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme.