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Reflexive Practices

Research Project ‘Reflexive Practices – the Uses of Science and Technology Studies’

Science and Technology Studies (STS) have started to arrive in the German speaking countries. Originating in England, France, the Netherlands and the United States in the 1970s, its empirical insights and theoretical implications are increasingly being perceived in Germany as well.
With a few exceptions (K. Knorr Cetina, B. Joerges), German language history of science and technology had been sceptical of STS's radical empricism and orientation toward scientific practices. Thus, the study of the processes generating scientific knowledge  has been either ignored or led to attempts at exclusion from the field. Few researchers actively participated in debates within STS.

With the wide reception of classic STS texts in sociology, ethnology, cultural anthropology, as well as communication, media and cultural studies, things started to change. The reasons for this are manifold. Among others, the extension of science studies to include technology since the mid-1980s played a key role in making the results of STS relevant not only for the sociology of knowledge but also for disciplines concerned with technology in the broadest sense. Thus, the insights of STS are increasingly being applied to fields focussing on the use(s) of technology and on technological dispostives (e.g. human-machine interaction, the study of cultural techniques, the history of technology, media philosophy, the anthropology of medicine, investigations of financial markets, etc.).

Despite the attention recently given to STS in the German speaking countries, it is far from clear what exactly it is: a field of enquiry? A method or an approach? A theoretical programme? Even a discipline? Currently, the common thread of STS may well be a basic set towards taking neither the context-free validity of scientific knowledge nor the social structures enforcing and disseminating it for granted. Instead, the emphasis is on local processes and practices of knowledge production and of producing claims of universality, examined in detailed empirical (historiographic and ethnographic) case studies.

Agreement on these basic tenets of the field of STS emerged in the course of heated debates in the 1990s. Whereas Science Studies had followed a social constructivist programme that tried to explain the outcome of scientific controversies strictly sociologically ('strong programme' of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge of the Edinburgh brand), this position was modified or radically questioned by more and more researchers in STS. On the one hand, 'materiality' has come to be considered an important part of the phenomena under discussion; on the other hand, social influences are no longer thought of as a priori explanations but as performatively emerging in the course of 'doing science'. This has resulted in a "second wave" (Bruno Latour) of STS carried by younger researchers. Moreover, a theoretical debate on 'relational ontologies', of world knowledge co-produced by humans and artefacts is transforming the field, challenging both the dichotomy of constructivism and realism and deterministic modes of explanation.

In the German context, discussions tend to focus on actor-network theory and on Bruno Latour in particular (Science in Action; We Have Never Been Modern). Given his prominent role in the 'ontological turn' within STS and his provocative demeanour in STS's dispute with sociology, this may come as no surprise. But it would be a distortion of STS to reduce the field to only one approach or even to only one of its practitioners. Thus, the German reception needs to take note of other STS researchers such as Trevor Pinch, Andrew Pickering, Susan Leigh Star, Wiebe Bijker, Lucy Suchman, Michael Lynch, and others, as well the implications of their works, be they epistemological or political, or pertaining to the theories of knowledge, technology, and power.

To take these STS works into accout is to ask the question of what STS is and what it can and should do. How can STS be put to use by a younger generation of German researchers no longer approving of its wholesale rejection, but interested in exploiting its innovative potential. The project 'Reflexive Practices' is an attempt to establish a forum for German language scholars to discuss the uses of STS to critically engage the issues described. By bringing together scholars interested in STS, the project is trying to help establish it in the German academia. Given the fact that many people find their everyday lives increasingly infused with science and technology, STS and its analytical potential is and will remain to be politically highly relevant.

We would like to invite interested scholars to take part in our effort to fathom the potential of STS in different research areas and to apply its approaches to a variety of objects of study in order to not let the second wave of STS pass by as untapped as the first one.

Katharina Kinder-Kurlanda
Carsten Ochs (ochs[at]

Launch Event (coming soon)

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