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Renewable energy for STS scholarship: the Handbook of Science and Technology Studies

Lucy Suchman

09 January, 2017

At least one thing that members of the field of STS can look forward to in the new year is the 4th STS Handbook, available from MIT Press in hardcopy beginning February 1st.  The latest in a series that began in 1977 (with subsequent volumes published in 1995 and 2008), the 2017 edition exemplifies work in a transdisciplinary field that is at once well established and in ongoing transformation. The 36 chapters of the Handbook are the product of the work of 121 authors – a rich set of collaborations that includes new as well as longstanding STS scholars.  4S’ agreement with MIT Press includes reasonably-priced access to downloads of individual chapters, as well as to the full Handbook. Our hope is that this will facilitate the collection’s use as a resource for research and teaching.

The contents of the Handbook reflect the life of STS at this particular historical moment.  Rather than extensive rehearsals of STS history or central precepts, the volume is organized thematically and aimed at demonstrating the range of projects and problems that currently animate STS research. For those who are already deeply engaged with STS, this diverse survey of the most recent research in the field will serve as an invaluable reference and resource for ongoing work.  At the same time, as the editors explain in their framing introduction, the contributors have been urged to tell their stories with those who are curious about STS, or just entering the field, in mind.  As Gary Downey and I note in our Preface to the Handbook, the result is a collection that renders the varied field of STS scholarship as an open but definable terrain, on which future work can build.

Beginning with an informative Introduction by Handbook editors Ulrike Felt, Rayvon Fouché, Clark A. Miller, and Laurel Smith-Doerr, the volume sets out what the editors characterize as an ‘epistemic landscape,’ arranged thematically.  The first section, titled ‘Doing, Exploring, and Reflecting on Methods’ begins with a chapter by John Law titled ‘STS as Method,’ followed by a collection of chapters on diverse STS methods including the analysis of documents, scientometrics, ethnomethodology, art, design and performance, as well as discussion of engagements with digital systems, experiments in participation, and emerging research practices of making and doing.  Each of these chapters is co-authored by collaborations that bring established scholars together with new STS researchers. Section II, titled ‘Making Knowledge, People, and Societies’ turns to a set of issues that engage contemporary STS researchers, beginning with a chapter by Sheila Jasanoff reflecting on science and democracy; and followed by chapters on social movements; structural inequality and the politics of science and technology; race and science; sex, gender and sexuality in biomedicine; feminism, postcolonialism and technoscience; imaginaries of STS; and technoscience futures.  Section III addresses ‘Socio-Technological (Re)Configurations’, with chapters on reconceptualizing technology users; infrastructures; cities; the architecture of information networks; machineries of finance; critical theory; and development.  Section IV, ‘Organizing and Governing Science,’ takes up questions of gender, inequity, and the scientific workforce; the social and epistemic organization of scientific work; interactional expertise; surveillance and regulation of laboratory practices; ethics as governance in genomics and beyond; responsible research and innovation; and reframing science communication.  Finally, Section V, ‘Engaging with Societal Challenges,’ considers contemporary issues ranging from aging to agricultural systems; security; disaster; environmental justice; and the making of global environmental science and politics.  The multiple authors of each of these contributions  (most of the chapters are collaborations of at least three authors) are too many to name here, but include a panoply of the most admired STS researchers working in the areas represented.

The Handbook appears at a moment when the dominance of the technosciences is both taken for granted, and under threat from new waves of antipathy towards knowledge that challenges entrenched political and economic interests.  Insisting upon the difference between the STS premise that facts, evidence and other ground truths of the sciences are not given but made, and the assertion that they are made up – or can simply be made up to suit political and economic expediency – has never been more important.  We need more than ever to make clear what it means to delineate new entities and effects in ways that are accountable to evidence, as well as to the ontological and epistemological politics of whose knowledges count. The contributions to the Handbook comprise a snapshot of contemporary STS as an ever more inventive, involved, critical, passionate and generative field of scholarship.  And they help us to think together about how to think through dominant paradigms of science and technology towards more just and sustainable human, and more than human, futures. 

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Backchannels / Reviews

Critical reviews of media, technology, literature, and performances. These are not intended to be book reviews of STS scholarship, but STS-based reviews of cultural works, including material culture, outside of our field.