Counting Differently: Seminar List Announced

Great news: we have finalised the list of speakers for this term!

At the first meeting, Maan Barua, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, will talk to us about ‘Circulating Elephants’. Please join us over some lunch and refreshments for what is due to be a great presentation and some stimulating discussions.  
Inaugural STS Oxford Working Group Meeting:

October 25th, 12.30pm-1.45pm, at the Said Business School in Seminar Room 13
Dr. Maan Barua
University of Oxford, School of Geography and the Environment
“Circulating Elephants”

We hope to see many of you there!

Counting Differently Seminar List

New book: A comprehensive introduction to Bruno Latour

by Torben Elgaard Jensen

Bruno Latour: Hybrid thoughts in a hybrid worldFrench sociologist, philosopher and STS researcher, Bruno Latour, is one of the most significant and creative thinkers of the last decades. Bruno Latour: Hybrid thoughts in a hybrid world is the first comprehensive and accessible English-language introduction to his multi-faceted work.

The book contains chapters on Latour’s Antropology of Science, Philosophy of Modernity, Political Ecology and Sociology of Associations. It also contains an original interview with Latour. The book is written by Anders Blok (Sociology, University of Copenhagen) and myself.

Further details are available here.

The (eighth) STS Talk-Walk: Visualising – what is it to visualise?

by Andreas Birkbak

The eighth installation of the STS Talk-Walks revolved around the theme of visualisations and visualising. What practical work goes into creating visualizations and making them travel? Who, which or what is actually being visualized? What are the risks involved in visualizing? How come that ‘visualization’ has gained such currency? Has it, actually?

Whether it was due to the all-too-familiar visualisation of ‘heavy rain showers’ on the BBC Weather homepage or not (the grey icon almost scared this writer off), the turnout was not overwhelming this time. However, the happy three that ventured out in the rain were rewarded with great conversational depth and a very tolerable amount of rain. Here follows a necessarily incomplete and biased story of how it went, but really this image says it all (or does it?):

A talk-walk visualization.

Walking downstream on the Thames Path from Said Business School, we started by noting how the term ‘visualisation’ is claimed by a confusing collective of actors. It is taken to mean anything from diagrams that sum up texts or ideas to digital stepping stones that have become integrated into how scientists proceed in laboratories. It was suggested that while this diversity makes it hard to run smooth conferences under the visualisation banner, it could also be cast as a powerful unifying concept. Further to this, one participant pointed out how a visualisation in itself can work as a focal point around which people with different interests are able to gather. Interestingly, our shared everyday language also seems to contain a throng of hints to the visual, as is for example ‘illustrated’ when politicians talk of the need for ‘transparent’ institutions and ‘clear’ policy making.

Later, a halfway pint at the cosy Isis Farm House became instrumental in discussing the concept of affordances and the ontological status of those environments that present themselves visually to us. None of the participants were entirely comfortable employing the notion of affordances (which has also been used by a very diverse set of writers), but it was useful for trying to get at what it is that might make visualisations appear so powerful in comparison to for example texts. Perhaps there is something more immediate about the way that we relate to the visual? This argument was only hesitantly accepted, though, with some unexpecting readers suggesting that they reacted in a highly emotional and instinctive way to the final passages of the novel ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy. In this case the text seemed to have powers equal to the most arresting (in the Barthean sense) pieces of visual art.

During the walking and talking, we several times found ourselves reflecting on the recent InSIS conference Visualisation in the age of computerisation. For example, the keynote by Peter Galison was useful for thinking about how different styles of attaching truthfulness to scientific visualising have emerged over the last three centuries. The idea came up that if digital visualisations are gaining currency in our times, it might have to do with the classic statistical logic of attaching value to representations that sum up large amounts of data.

It turned out that more than one of the talk-walkers were doing current work in which they encountered the practicalities of visualizing, so this occasion to discuss was warmly welcomed. Whether some of the thoughts that were generated at the talk-walk can be transferred from the field of the Thames Path to the field in which visualising work is carried out remains to be seen.

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 22 July 2011.

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.

PhD Day at InSIS

By Helene Ratner

Sometimes, writing a PhD is similar to being the detective in a mystery novel: the contribution we thought we would make in the preliminary literature review end up being a different one. The confusions and aspirations of fieldwork open up an infinity of contextualization possibilities. There are cues and traces to pick up, voices to listen to and others that there is not time or opportunity to follow whose absence is nevertheless present. Sometimes one is not entirely sure what one is looking for but tries to be open for “it”, whatever “it” may be. Then the meticulous going through written notes and transcribed interviews and making difficult decisions about which parts to include and what stories to tell, which inevitably involves odd compromises and painful “kill your darlings” procedures (a darling cemetery may be an idea).

Instead of always being the lone rider with a private mystery to sort out, the STS-DPhils decided to have a PhD day at InSIS to pretend that we all knew the ending to our unfolding projects. And to share our thoughts and challenges with one other.

The PhD Day contestants: Chris, Chandrika, Lucy, Steve, Helene and (behind the camera) Malte

The exercise was the following: We (five DPhil students) were each to produce a four page “as-if abstract” of what we imagined our final thesis to be: the research question, contextualization, methodological questions addressed, empirical chapters’ conclusions and contributions. The intention was to produce a document sufficiently long for an abstract’s usual generalities to become specific in order to imagine and discuss the consequences of the choices we make. What stories can we tell? What contributions can we make? And which don’t fit? What to do with these?

In addition to the abstract, we each wrote a one-page review with feedback, comments, ideas, questions for each abstract. We met on Saturday the 12th with one hour for each project where the author was in charge of the debates which ranged from clarifying some of the comments over letting people associate freely on each other’s comments to bringing up new challenges that were not mentioned in the abstract or the comments. Steve Woolgar participated in the day as a senior researcher (and the majority’s supervisor), offering his thoughts, ideas and experience to the many mysteries to be solved (or deliberately left unsolved).

Our projects differ empirically, ranging from disaster management in India to patent law in the UK. Also, we are at very different stages, from in the midst of fieldwork to the finishing the concluding chapter. Despite these differences, we found that there were several common challenges and themes we could articulate through debating the specific problems. Some of us, actually, quite enjoyed deferring our own stuck-places to others’ projects in order to see how they would tackle them.

Here are some of the common themes raised:

  • Justification. We found that a common trajectory would be first to state how widespread a specific phenomenon was (which justified the need to study it now) and then to identify “gaps” in the literature addressing this phenomenon (which justified the need to study it through, say, ethnography). In these debates we discussed whether identifying gaps was a way of making straw-men and a “dirty and cheap trick”, which led to the question of what exactly would count as an ”expensive and clean trick”. And how we could make the standard (though well-worn) ways of justifying our studies work for us. We also noted the tension between how we on the one hand often wanted to deflate common understandings of our research objects – while at the same time, we would find that we were the ones taking them the most serious, devoting 3-5 years of studying, writing, reading about them.
  • Ethnographic angst. We also discussed the challenges we experienced when “collecting data”. What to do about the events where we couldn’t be present? Did our “informants’” (biased?) accounts of these meetings have the same status as our own (unbiased?) direct observations? And what kind of hierarchy did we invoke with such a notion of observations being more credible than interviews? We discussed ways in which we could transpose our own challenges to the informants. If we experience certain challenges, chances are that they deal with similar issues. How do they resolve them?
  • A totalizing modest sociology? All being within STS or anthropology, we quickly noticed how certain analytically laden “words” would frame our projects. These included “contingent”, “messy”, “practice”, “mundane”, “complex”, “multiple”, “situated”, etc. While these terms often are used as provocations to “singular”, “transcendent” and “clean” understandings of a phenomenon, they are not innocent. So one question regards how totalizing these terms are? To what extend do we assume to find mess, contingency, complexity, multiplicity etc.? And are we open for other enactments of our research object? And how to we make these terms work for us so it’s not just a matter of identifying “mess” but take that one step further? And in a second sense, how do these terms work for us in terms of enacting boundaries in relation to defining a relevant audience?
  • Coherence. This was the most common problem. We all had stories, partly written analyses that we wanted to tell. But how to relate them to a common “object”? Which role should they play in relation to one another? Should we compare cases? Or could we use our “cases” differently than in terms of comparison? Which order should our chapters come in? How to build in a momentum? How to deal with wanting to say everything at once but not being able to? How to work elegantly with deferral in our writing?
  • Consuming. The day involved not only consumptions of ideas and words but also teacakes, chocolates, and fruits. The conversations enacted by these presences led to one participant’s happy discovery of the possibility of buying poptarts in Tesco. So in that respect the solving of PhD mysteries had a happy end.

The (fourth) STS Talk-Walk: Travelling – how to make our work travel?

by Malte Ziewitz

The first STS Talk-Walk of the year revolved around the issue of travelling: how to make our work travel? This turned out to be a concern not just for the master and doctoral students among us, but also the post-docs and professors. What is it to ‘reach’ an audience and be ‘understood’? What do we want our research to do? Who do we relate to and how? Lots of food for thought thanks to the Amsterdam group, who had shared the topic on their blog.

The 'Travellers': Fredrik, Andreas, Malte, Torben, Helene, Cristina and (right behind you) Chandrika

The 'travellers': Fredrik, Andreas, Malte, Torben, Helene, Cristina and (right behind you) Chandrika

To give you an idea of what this was about, here are three random issues we discussed while walking:

  • Work doesn’t need to be written up and published to start travelling. Already asking a question in an interview (or asking for an interview) can be a way to spread ideas and foster new relationships.
  • Who to relate to in our work? The ‘big shots’ in the field or rather unknown younger scholars? While some expressed their frustration with reading the 87th reinterpretation of ‘Pandora’s Hope’ and preferred to learn about the potentially better fitting work of recent graduates, others were skeptical of abandoning big names entirely since it may help researchers get noticed in the first place.
  • A final observation concerned the ways in which we managed (or did not manage) to make our own work travel during the talk-walk. Although there always is a cross-cutting theme, we usually spend at least a few minutes to tell our respective conversation partners what we are currently working on. While some of these accounts seem to have travelled well, others caused frowning and confusion. This led some of us to turn the issue into a topic and try out different ways of telling their stories.

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 18 February 2011, 2pm. More info here.