Thursday February 4: (Re)Introduction to Science Studies

Law: On Sociology and STS

Woolgar: The wrong bin bag: A turn to ontology in science and technology studies?

Lynch: Ontography: Investigating the production of things, deflating ontology

http://somatosphere.net/2014/01/a-readers-guide-to-the-ontology-turn-part-1.html

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3 comments

  1. The question of a possible ontological shift in the subject of science studies seems to be a major source of contention among the authors. Perhaps one sticking point lies in the possibility that identifying an ontological shift or ontological turn is one that might also require its own ontology. To say, for instance, that the interactions between sociology, science, society, culture, etc. will be studied with an emphasis on ontology rather than epistemology would somehow require an awareness of one’s own ontological impact on the study. The person doing the study, due to the very fact that he or she is a particular person with a particular background and particular views, cannot divorce himself (or herself) from himself (or herself). There can be no such thing as objectivity when there is always a subject involved doing the objectivizing.

    The modern opposition between subject and object is an artificial and fanciful one because the so-called subject imposes his or her own subjectivity, his own ontological singularity, onto the object being encountered, onto the situation being studied. The personality and the particular ontology of the person doing the study cannot be removed as an effect on the study. Perhaps the most interesting or revealing explication of this is the example of the wrong bin bag given by Woolgar and Lezuan: “The normative significance of an ontological approach is much more than a matter of how to behave in relation to familiar, given, common objects. Instead, it requires that we treat entities as themselves a form of ontological enactment” (333). The entity, in this case the bin bag, does not get to be itself; it is not given. Its character is imposed onto it and understood as the concept “bin bag” that is either an ordinary, everyday entity about which it would be ridiculous to fight or a politically and environmentally contentious piece of equipment. The behavior of the woman and the behaviors of the council members are dictated by their particular representations of the bin bag. Even suggesting that the bin bag is just a bin bag indicates an ontologically singular representation of this particular entity in the world.

    There are many possible worlds because there are many possible representations of the world and these representations are the things that are acted upon, not some stripped-down, objective, thing-in-itself. The bin bag is both ordinary and illegal. And this is really the part that interested me the most: “Of particular interest to us is the observation that the ‘politics’ invoked in this example – the possibility of contrast and conflict – depended on the achievement of ontological singularity” (Woolgar and Lezuan, 336). The writer of the article needed to achieve an ontological singularity in order to convince the reader that the actions of the council were ridiculous. The bin bag has to be just a bin bag and so the writer needs to put forth her ontology as the only true ontology. So then how does one go about ascertaining truth in a world of ontological pluralities? If the traditional, “objective” explication of context in sociological studies is no longer an adequate explanation for the actions of the entities being studied, then who or what gets to do the explaining? Who gets to decide what the world is in a particular study: “To what extent can we as analysts claim to have been involved in world-making or to have ‘interfered’ in the ontological politics of the bin bag?…To what extent should we feel obliged to infer…that examination at the level of ontology is no longer just about perspectives on the world, but now concerns the very constitution of the world?” (Woolgar and Lezuan, 335).

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  2. A very lively start to our examination of STS. As someone who had only followed STS up to about the early 2000s, but has also looked at new materialisms and OOO within philosophy and media studies, this week’s readings were both a pleasant update and a re-encounter with familiar concepts in new disciplinary contexts. I was surprised, however, at the extent to which I was uncomfortable with the length of some claims and the lack of specificity to others. While I can see many reasons to cheer an ontological turn (or merely a greater cognizance about the ontological work already performed) within STS, I share Woolgar and Lezaun’s ambivalences about what’s new or efficacious in this language (327) and more than a few objections to the politics of the debate as presented.

    First and foremost, Lynch, Woolgar, and Lezaun’s characterizations of contemporary STS really leave Feminist STS (among other more overtly political standpoints) out in the cold. The detached position of the STS scholar as a kind of impartial navigator across multiple ontologies is deeply worrying to me (see, for example, Lynch’s suggestion that “ontography may require agnosticism towards particular positions in disputes about matters of concern” (458) or or Woolgar and Lezaun’s incredibly irrelevant and irreverent addendum to Winner’s point about the racism of Moses’ New York (335)). This is quite expressly opposed to feminist standpoint theory, or the kind of reflexivity Woolgar and Lezaun gesture towards at the end of their article (335) but do not perform. To state the obvious, maybe that’s not unexpected when all the authors are white men? What is the politics of these enactive methods, if, following John Law (640) we should not begin to entertain their neutrality?

    Secondly, I found it quite curious that the ontological turn did not come with some particular innovations or restrictions to the ways in which method interacts with materiality. I was entirely unconvinced by Woolgar and Lezaun’s claim that “the ‘textual’ in ‘textual analysis’ does not entail any lesser capacity for ontological enactment” (333). If not, then what is the impetus behind the ontological term (within and beyond STS)? While both texts and material practices of recycling perform local ontologies, certainly there’s something qualitatively different (and importantly so) in the performance of matter vs. the performance of language.

    Finally, and in a way that synthesizes these two points, how is it that the social is being redrawn in a text like Law, seemingly to make space for matter in a way that is perhaps uncharitable to the mutuality and compatibility of social constructivism and ontocartography? One example of this tension can be found on page 632 of his paper where he claims that “any move to systems logic tends to undo social foundations as an explanatory resource.” Why should this be the case? Are systems not profoundly socially constructed and enacted? It reminds me of the scalar approach to infrastructure in writers such as Paul Edwards. Certainly categorical distinctions across different spans of space, time, and entities can be highly constructive towards organizing and producing knowledge, but these categories surely must be taken with a grain of salt. It seems to me far more likely that the social is already in the systematic, that previous work on representation is already in the performative, and so forth. There is, as all these authors already agree, a lack of a convincing cause to endorse a full revolution within the field. Why then is STS (albeit to different and sometimes reluctant extents) still turning rather than merely growing?

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  3. I first read the article, “On Sociology and STS,” by John Law, and realized the connection between science and technology along with sociology. To be specific, this article deals with how STS (science, technology, and society) was created from a wide range in different fields including science, sociology, and politics. From the micro-perspective to macro-perspective, John described how STS was intertwined with sociology in the historical perspective. Among many possibilities of what science study means, one thing that came to my attention was how there was development of naturalistic ‘sociology of scientific knowledge.’ Sociology of scientific knowledge has been in a debate as to whether it was more related to theory or empirical foundation.
    With this article, John described science as culture, practice, and case study. Among them, I agreed with the perspective of Kuhn the most as to how sociology of scientific knowledge was created by plenty of resources in the field of social science that had not been practically used in the past. This seemed to be more of empirical view to me in dealing with sociology of scientific knowledge. In addition, this naturally leads to explain how culture as a part of science reflects natural and social circumstances as well. Furthermore, this was also the related to the perspective of treating science as practice. Khun stressed the extension of existing rules to come up with new experimental setting, and this was fairly related to empirical view in understanding the science as practice.
    In addition, one last thing I would like to mention in this article is about how STS or science study was developed throughout the history. What came to my attention was how the scope of science was expanded to include technology as time passed by from a purely epistemological perspective in the past. However, at the same time, John indicated that many of the shifts shown in the history in the field of science were not much related to sociology. This was a part that sounded a bit inconsistent to me while reading this article, but it again made sense for how elements in the system of STS are related to each other and make a certain network (ANT). Among many perspectives provided by different authors, Actor Network Theory seemed to be the most persuasive and convincing view in dealing with science study to me. Seeing as how nothing is certain in explaining the essence of science study, I believe that relation to one another in the network system sounded the most persuasive. John concluded by mentioning ontology that was further dealt with in the article of “Ontography: Investigating the Production of Things, Deflating Ontology” by Michael Lynch.
    In this article, I was able to grasp the meaning of ontology more than other articles. To be specific, it was clear to see the difference between the general ontology and empirical/practical perspective of ontology. Practical perspective of ontology was taken by Khun as mentioned above, and it made me find it somewhat easy to read this article. Among what was suggested in the article, what came to my attention the most was that ontology does not necessarily mean the difference or multiplicity but a product from relationship of constitutive practices. In addition, it was also interesting to see that sociology of scientific knowledge was really a means for reinforcing the scientific credibility instead of being epistemology.

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