(The following text is taken from the paper "Acting with Social Sciences and Humanities" in EASST Review FEB. 2009 - full text is available here: http://www.easst.net/review/feb2009/mayer or here to discuss: http://www1.svt.ntnu.no/forum/easst/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=46 )
Our section comprised of 3 sessions and a total of 13 presentations. In order not to impose a “grand narrative” on the quite heterogeneous set of lectures, I will be following the order of appearance, to open up the broad range of subjects that were addressed. But let me introduce you to the different session beforehand: In the first session “Impact, Co-Shaping and Reflexivity” the presentations analysed what happens with knowledge developed in the social sciences and humanities when it goes beyond the (core) scientific community: how it is used, translated, and made sense of e.g. in the conduct of psychological experiments (Derksen). Some papers focused on the role of social sciences in research projects or institutions they themselves are involved in (Bister, Dunn), or focused on social sciences within multidisciplinary research sites (Dunn) resp. in science communications (Phillips) and in the media and public debates (Plesner).
The second session “(Politics of) Methods and Complicity" was dedicated to methodological issues and their relevance in regard to research politics and research outcomes. The papers focused on performativity and aesthetics of social science methods (Mayer), elaborated on the role and position of a researcher being simultaneously inside and outside his/her field of study (Wöhrer, Stegmaier), and/or included further reflections on political implications of different methodological and theoretical approaches (Mager).
The papers of the third session, called “Inter-Disciplines”, dealt with different aspects of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. One paper focused on perceptions and enactment of /inter/disciplinarity in a contemporary sociology department (Červinková/Stöckelová), two concentrated on cross-disciplinary collaborations (Connor, Dormans) and a further paper was on historical developments of interdisciplinary and participatory social research (Lezaun).
Another perspective on our section reveals roughly 2 main strands of presentations: some of us were on the one hand researchers reflecting on their own practice as (social) scientists or STS researchers; on the other hand some were researchers studying SSH as a full fledged empirical field.
Our first session was opened by Milena Bister (University of Vienna, Austria) and her reflections on the research setting in a STS project investigating informed consent to tissue donation at a university hospital in Austria. Stepping in this particular space of negotiation between biomedicine and society, her team of STS researchers actually came to parallel some of their methods (acts and movements in the hospital) with those of the biomedical project partners. For instance they as well had to ask for the patients’ consent to the social science interviews just as the biomedical team did for tissue donation. Bister showed that by exploring the realm of bioethics in acting with the whole procedure – proposing to the ethics committee, designing the IC form, conducting IC with the patients right after the biomedical IC, interviewing the patients - her team actually co-shaped and reinforced the dominant practices of informed consent, despite their overall critical standpoint.
Caroline Dunn (University of Melbourne, Australia) introduced us to the often-conflicting imaginations of the Other in her research about community attitudes towards forestry industry, which is part of a 7 year project at the co-operative research center. In reflecting ethnographically her own status in the complex meshwork of funders, forestry practioners as participants and other researchers in such an interdisciplinary collaboration, Dunn experienced the potential of negotiating the aims of her social scientific inquiry. By asking collaborators what they expect of her study, she positioned herself as well as her study horizontally within the collective knowledge production process. By letting her own status be questioned by other participants, Dunn could engage in new perspectives and develop otherwise ignored research questions.
Ursula Plesner (University of Roskilde, Denmark) argued in line with Latour (2005) and Lynch (2000) that reflexivity should be given back to actors, rather than being drawn upon as a routine methodological duty and feigned enhancement of validity. Plesner presented empirical materials of interviews with journalists and social scientists from her study on communication of social scientific knowledge via mass media. She marked out the fact that interviewer and interviewees are competent lay audiences for one another. Showing that the concept of “lay sociological imaginations” (Mesny 1998) can be used as a heuristic tool to understand the production of intimacy in interviews with fellow sociologists and journalists. Plesner proposed that we leave the normative concerns related to ‘studying down’, and use active interview techniques (Holstein, Gubrium) when we “study sideways”, conceiving of interviews as bilateral “meaning-making occasions”.
Louise Phillips (University of Roskilde, Denmark) brought with her transcriptions of meetings in a Danish research and development consultancy. The researcher-consultants in the consultancy under study attempt to operate on the basis of dialogic principles in the sense that they view the communication of knowledge as knowledge-sharing, interaction, dialogue or negotiation rather than the one-way, unilinear transmission of expert knowledge to a less knowledgeable target-group. In analysis of the transcriptions, Phillips applied an integrative approach combining dialogic communication theory and STS – to address the questions: What happens to social scientific knowledge when it is communicated dialogically? How are different knowledges produced, negotiated, challenged and transformed in the meeting between social scientific knowledges and other knowledge forms and the meeting between the researchers and other participating actors?
Maarten Derksen (University of Groningen, The Netherlands) presented a study of 'machinations' (Latour, 1988) in psychology, part of a larger project on social technology conducted together with Anne Beaulieu. Noting that studies of technology usually focus on machines, he argued that it has become urgent to explore the engineering of human behavior. His analysis focused on priming studies and automaticity theory, attempts to construct subjects as machines, not under the control of a free, rational self. Derksen showed that priming research nevertheless produces excess subjectivity, resistance to machination, and proposed this as a general feature of machinations in the social sciences
Our second session started with my presentation (Katja Mayer, University of Vienna, Austria) about the usage of network diagrams in the context of Social Network Analysis. With focusing on their embedding in and capacity of coupling with scientific as well as popular visual cultures, but also on the material and corporeal dimensions of the imaging process, I illustrated what I call the “epistemological desire of being touched by- and touching” objects of research. Traveling fingers on social topographies, rhetoric precision via metaphors to circumscribe pictorial ambivalences, ergonomic standardizations in color schemes, are enacting and animating social structures, and therefore should be regarded as authentic practices to produce scientific validity. I concluded that in studying scientific practices the body is not to be blinded out as automatism, rather it should be considered as present criterion and constant involvement.
Peter Stegmaier (University of Nijmegen, Netherlands) tackled his role as “embedded” social scientist in the Centre for Society and Genomics in Nijmegen. With its mission to understand and improve the interaction between genomics researchers and various other societal actors, this institution employs Stegmaier to carry out a “meta-project” on what is considered to be the framework approach of the center, namely, ELSA (for ethical, legal, social aspects of) Genomics. He described himself as a “re-informant” who cooperates with and studies the social scientist-managers and -researchers in this facility. “While the informant informs a stranger/outsider about an unknown world of insiders, the re-informant/outsider informs the insiders about their known world. The re-informant shows the unknown or neglected dimensions/aspects, and questions insider perspectives through estrangement.”, as Stegmaier phrased it. He observed the institution’s own condition of doing research and outreach and he pointed to unknown or neglected dimensions/aspects, and questioned self-evident perspectives through professionalized “estrangement” (Hirschauer 1994; Hirschauer/Amann 1997). With a reflexive, ethnographic approach Stegmaier sought to know “something from the inside and outside at the same time” (Hirschauer 1994).
Being a gender researcher herself Veronika Wöhrer (University of Vienna, Austria) found herself in conflicting attributions towards her own role in her investigation of international co-operations between gender researchers of four different national communities. In her presentation Wöhrer explored the ambivalence/mutuality of proximity and distance to the protagonists as “complicity” (Marcus 1998) and showed how she was constructed as Other by her “co-researchers” (Kitzinger /Wilkinson 1996;). In the awareness that they were sharing the same scientific field, she was perceived differently in each context, i.e. as “rich Westener”, “experienced gender researcher”, “poor student” or “badly prepared foreigner”, which brought her to re-conceptualize her own assumptions about the respective “others” in the different field sites. She argues for more explicit reflections of one's own entanglements with the field, especially when researching (social) scientists, to contribute to what Bourdieu called a "reflexive sociology" (Bourdieu 1988).
Drawing on recent work in Actor-Network Theory (Law 2004, Mol 2002), Astrid Mager (University of Vienna, Austria) reflected on the different methods employed in her study on online health information and how they differently enacted “the web”. Taking in the standpoint of website providers the web was shaped as a network of clear-cut websites understood as coherent information packages linked to a specific actor. Taking in the standpoint of users the web was performed as assemblage of disconnected pieces of information organized around specific issues primarily by the search engine Google. Mager further asked what the political implications of the various methods chosen are in terms of “ontological politics” (Mol 2002). She elaborated that focusing on website providers tends to enact the web as a de-central actor-network that may strengthen the rhetoric of democracy widely attached to the web especially in its early days. Following users, in contrast, shapes the web as a Google-organized space that may underline the imagination of Google as an information monopolist increasingly spreading in public discourses. Mager concluded by arguing that it is thus central to think about the divergent politics pushed forward when choosing one method or another.
Alice Červinková and Tereza Stöckelová (Academy of Sciences Prague, Czech Republic) gave account of their long-term study in a department of sociology. They described the “inter/disciplinary hybrids” of social anthropology (SA) and gender studies (GS) that are partially connected to the “mother” discipline of sociology. Following Strathern (2007) they argued that disciplines are always interdisciplinary and identify three logics of this "hidden" interdisciplinarity. The logic of administration keeps SA and GS interlinked with sociology because of the lack of admissible senior professors who have to be formally "borrowed" from sociology; the logic of trajectory is embodied in researchers identities who often have degree in sociology and are not ready to completely disconnect from it (they are “boundary subjects”); and the logic of discipline allows for disciplinary ordering and cleansing, for keeping certain topics, epistemologies, ontologies and politics (especially in case of gender studies) out/on the margin of "proper" sociology, while guarding a partial control over them and mobilizing them as “sociology” when convenient.
During his presentation, Conor Douglas (University of York, UK and University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada) reframed the question “How to integrate qualitative social scientific results into the development of a new prescribing algorithm for the anticoagulation drug warfarin?” into “How and why does social scientific knowledge matter in a multidisciplinary research project on pharmacogenetics?” He argued that while the project’s social science component implied the collection of “bio-narratives” of patients to effectively develop a way for understanding how patients make sense of their medical treatment that these findings may not be able to be readily integrated into the overall project organization. It is a challenge for social scientists involved in multidisciplinary research to reflect on what they are effectively doing in the research process, and for investigators to critically examine their own social science knowledge production processes in the same way that we in STS are accustomed to examining conventional technoscientific knowledge production.
Javier Lezaun (University of Oxford, UK) introduced us to MS Balao, a large cargo ship that was partly designed as a platform for experiments in the democratization of work, under the auspices of the Work Research Institute in Oslo from 1968-1978. Lezaun showed how the ship was treated as socio-technical experiment in offshore shipboard democracy. Essential social and spatial requirements for democratic work were built into the technological conditions and physical arrangements of the ship. The experiment included “onboard” social scientists who in the process of conducting their research learned that hierarchical forms of organization and communication were also inherent in their research practice, and concluded that they had to open up their “expertise” to other contributors, hence performing a democratization of research as well.
Stefan Dormans (Virtual Knowledge Studio, Amsterdam, the Netherlands) presented a project on ICT-enabled collaborations, so called collaboratories, in the domain of social history. The various collaborations under study revolve around geographically dispersed groups of experts who aggregate and co-create specific datasets for international comparative research. In his own project, Dormans tries to combine the traditional ethnographic role of the observer with an active role as participant in a more design-oriented approach. Besides writing a critical analysis on the collaboratories, he also actively participates in their development. However, as discussed during the presentation, this double role challenges the ethnographers fear of ‘going native’ and, since the project started fairly recently, it is still difficult to see if this combination of distance and engagement is a feasible one.