Science & Technology Studies is the official journal of EASST
Enacting the Pandemic (2020-11-25)
This article has two objectives: First, the article seeks to make a methodological intervention in the social study of algorithms. Today, there is a worrying trend to analytically reduce algorithms to coherent and stable objects whose computational logic can be audited for biases to create fairness, accountability, and transparency (FAccT). To counter this reductionist and determinist tendency, this article proposes three methodological rules that allows an analysis of algorithmic power in practice. Second, the article traces ethnographically how an algorithm was used to enact a pandemic, and how the power to construct this disease outbreak was moved around through by an algorithmic assemblage. To do this, the article traces the assembling of a recent epidemic at the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention—the Zika outbreak starting in 2015—and shows how an epidemic was put together using an array of computational resources, with very different spaces for intervening. A key argument is that we, analysts of algorithms, need to attend to how multiple spaces for agency, opacity, and power open and close in different parts of algorithmic assemblages. The crux of the matter is that actors experience different degrees of agency and opacity in different parts of any algorithmic assemblage. Consequently, rather than auditing algorithms for biased logic, the article shows the usefulness of examining algorithmic power as enacted and situated in practice.
Attaining the Stable Movement of Knowledge Objects through the Swedish Criminal Justice System (2020-09-15)
This article thinks with infrastructure about the stable movement of knowledge objects such as crime scene reports, traces, and order forms through the Swedish criminal justice system. Infrastructures span different communities and borders; the criminal justice system is made up of necessarily disparate epistemic cultures. Thus, they share a central concern: Both aim for stable movement from one context to another. Thinking with infrastructure, the article argues, makes it possible to widen analytical focus and capture the structures and the continuous work that resolve the tension between different sites and thus enable the stable movement of knowledge objects. Using sensibilities from infrastructure studies– for the resolution of tensions, for continuous maintenance, and for inequalities – the article argues that the criminal justice system enacts the knowledge objects’ stability across epistemic cultures. In other words, the stable movement of evidence-to-be through the Swedish criminal justice system is the result of infrastructuring, that is, of its continuous creating of conditions that facilitate movement and create and re-create stability. This perspective may be useful for studying the movement of knowledge also in other contexts.
Rethinking the ‘Great Divide’ (2020-09-15)
It is often claimed that the rise of so called ‘big data’ and computationally advanced methods may exacerbate tensions between disciplines like data science and anthropology. This paper is an attempt to reflect on these possible tensions and their resolution, empirically. It contributes to a growing body of literature which observes interdisciplinary collabrations around new methods and digital infrastructures in practice but argues that many existing arrangements for interdisciplinary collaboration enforce a separation between disciplines in which identities are not really put at risk. In order to disrupt these standard roles and routines we put on a series of workshops in which mainly self-identified qualitative or non-technical researchers were encouraged to use digital tools (scrapers, automated text analysis and data visualisations). The paper focuses on three empirical examples from the workshops in which tensions, both between disciplines and methods, flared up and how they were ultimately managed or settled. In order to characterise both these tensions and negotiating strategies I draw on Woolgar and Stengers’ use of the humour and irony to describe how disciplines relate to each others truth claims. I conclude that while there is great potential in more open-ended collaborative settings, qualitative social scientists may need to confront some of their own disciplinary baggage in order for better dialogue and more radical mixings between disciplines to occur.
Is the Patent System the Way Forward with the CRISPR-Cas 9 Technology? (2020-01-15)
CRISPR-Cas9 technology is reshaping the way scientists conduct research in genetic engineering. It is predicted to revolutionise not only the fields of medicine, biology, agriculture and industry but, much like all revolutionary technologies of the past, the way humans live. Given the anticipated and already seen benefits of CRISPR-Cas 9 in different areas of human life, this new technology may be defined as a true breakthrough scientific discovery. The article presents several challenges connected with various dimensions of the CRISPR-Cas 9 patent landscape. The central argument is that today the biggest challenge is finding a intermediary way that ensures a balance between providing sufficient openness for the further progress of basic research in CRISPR-Cas 9 such as ‘niche’ areas of the latest genetic engineering and adequate intellectual property rights to incentivise its commercialisation and application. The article contends the endeavours by academic scientific institutions to arrive at short-term benefits of the new CRISPR-Cas 9 technology do not constitute such an intermediary way, especially when the CRISPR-Cas 9 patent landscape is viewed as part of a series of controversial bioethical discussions that have been underway for over 40 years.
Public Discourse on Stem Cell Research in Russia (2020-02-19)
This paper studies the evolution of the media discussion surrounding stem cell research in Russia from 2001 until the issuance of the first national law in 2016 and its impact on stem cell’s ‘social career’ in the public discourse in Russia. It analyses how the interaction of different media frames stigmatized either the biomedical technology, or the expert community. It is argued that the regulatory framework in Russia lags behind technological developments in the country and mostly reacts to signs of fraudulent actions from drug makers or practitioners. Moral issues, in contrast to the international discourse, have been not the main reason in Russia.
What is 'Cosmic' about Urban Climate Politics? (2020-03-10)
While Bruno Latour's criticism of Ulrich Beck's cosmopolitanism helped set the stage 15 years ago for the highly productive research approach of cosmopolitics, including as concerns urban ecological politics, a nagging doubt remains that more blood was spilled than necessary in the exchange. In this short discussion piece, I re-stage the Latour-Beck debate as part of on-going inquiries into the more-than-human politics of climate adaptation in Copenhagen, exploring what exact senses of 'cosmos' might be helpful in making sense of this increasingly common-place situation. At issue, I suggest, is the question of what it means to say that ‘natures’, in the plural, are put at stake in such settings. Far from any synthesis, in turn, I conclude that scholars in STS and beyond might do well to extend a shared hesitation towards both sides of the debate - cosmopolitics, cosmopolitanism - and thus take the opportunity to share unresolved conceptual tensions in the service of posing better problems.
Enacting Maasai and Palaeoanthropological Versions of Drought in Oldupai Gorge, Tanzania (2020-10-07)
While palaeoanthropologists have travelled to Tanzania’s renowned human origins site of Oldupai Gorge for over a century, lasting collaboration has yet to be established with the Maasai pastoralists who inhabit the area. This paper uses actor-network-theory and the concept of enactment to compare palaeoanthropological and Maasai livelihoods and to explore why collaboration has been infrequent. Here we show that both groups’ subsistence strategies had to effectively navigate large political-economic contexts. To support their respective livelihoods, scientists and locals expertly acquired resources in non-scientific and non-pastoral worlds. Both Maasai peoples and researchers created and multiplied reality and ontologies by enacting composite – yet conflicting – versions of hybrid drought. The exigencies associated with palaeoanthropological and Maasai subsistence have hindered meaningful collaboration between the groups, despite the fact that members of both dug in the Gorge to address drought. While the legitimisation of scientific ontologies is ultimately well-intentioned, Maasai drought unfortunately remains unaddressed.
The Pragmatic Turn in Clinical Research (2020-12-02)
How does knowledge obtained in clinical trials apply to the actual treatment of patients? This question has recently acquired a new significance amidst complaints about the limited ability of trial results to improve clinical practice. Pragmatic clinical trials have been advocated to address this problem. In this article, I trace the emergence of the pragmatic turn in clinical research, starting from the first mention of ‘pragmatic trial’ in 1967, and analyse the changes to how pragmatism has been conceived. I argue that contemporary version of pragmatism risks missing the mark by focusing exclusively on establishing similarity between the trial and the clinic for the purpose of greater generalizability. This focus eclipses the move for carefully aligning medical experimentation with conditions, needs and concerns in the clinic aimed at greater usefulness.