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.
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.
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.
User Representations as a Design Resource (2020-12-15)
The study of how the understanding of usages and users is achieved and turned into the characteristics of products comprises ‘the sociology of user representation’ in Science and Technology Studies. Whilst the early research on the topic was foremost a critique of designers’ imposition of theirimagination and preferences on prospective users, research has since discovered a richer research landscape in accomplishing the difficult task of anticipating the future contexts and identities of users. Our paper continues this line of work by examining a situation where first-hand access to users is blocked from human-centred design-oriented designers. Constructing an array of complementary user representations helps them to bridge the previously accumulated knowledge on users in their trade to the envisioned technology. The complementarities in the handful of key user segment representations and what is represented in their explicated form allowed the design team to make reasoned and accountable design decisions.
Mapping Case Studies of Public Engagement and Participation in Science and Technology (2020-12-22)
In recent years, increasing criticism has been levelled against case study based research on public engagement and participation in science and technology (PEST). Most critics argue that such case studies are highly contextual and fail to provide global, holistic and systemic views of public engagement phenomena. In this study, we mapped the case study literature on PEST by identifying a robust sample of articles, and analysed it looking for emerging patterns that could provide empirical evidence for new frameworks of public engagement design and analysis. Results show that the case study based literature on PEST continues to grow, although concentrated in a few countries and knowledge domains. The trends that emerged from the sample reveal high centralisation and planning and suggest that deficit science communication models are still common. We argue that future frameworks may focus on decentralising hierarchical power and dependency relationships between agents.
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.
Bodies Translating Bodies (2020-12-29)
STS and 'aesthetic studies' share an interest in artifacts and the aim to describe and analyse both artifacts and their agency. The present article contributes to such dialogue, first by reconstructing the relation between Actor-Network Theory and 'aesthetic studies' and then by proposing an analytical model enabling the description of 'aesthetic practices', by considering artifacts as bodies. Such model draws on Latour’s (2004) reflection about bodies, on Ingold’s (2007) one about materials and especially on Fontanille’s (2004) semiotics of the body. To illustrate the relevance of the model, the article offers a description-analysis of the development of a prototype of an electronic circuit designed for a data glove.