The Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) conference this August was not just a site of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural scholarly exchange, or a good excuse to plan a trip to Japan. It offered, in the almost endearingly undertheorized words of the Society’s online Annual Meeting announcement, no less than “a chance to experience, interact with, and understand the cultural diversity of Asia.” Hardly ones to pass that up, a few colleagues and I packed our bags and set off to interact with the world’s largest continent.
The annual meeting was held in a cluster of slightly forsaken numbered buildings on the Komaba campus of the prestigious University of Tokyo. Just a couple of stops off of Tokyo’s main circular railway line, via a small train with plush pastel seats and Hello Kitty-adorned windows, the Komaba campus serves as the University’s center for first- and second-year undergraduate general education. Upon arrival at the main gate, we were directed through a ginkgo path to a registration area that, while lacking in some basic amenities such as water, did provide conference-themed sandalwood fans that proved indispensable in Tokyo’s summer heat.
The conference was a 4-day event organized around the theme of “STS in Global Contexts.” Held as a joint meeting with JSSTS (Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies), it offered a unique opportunity not only to engage Science Studies questions by situating them within broader transnational networks, but also to consider the particular significance of STS as a burgeoning field in contemporary Japan, and thus to reflect upon what a distinctly East Asian STS might look like. Indeed, in a message printed in the conference program, JSSTS president Hideto Nakajima noted that locating the meeting in Tokyo served as a meaningful index of the “not only economic but also socio-political importance” of STS to East Asia – a region which, Nakajima claimed, only in the “last decades…starts its steady economic growth,” more than sixty years after the end of World War II. Many of the panels throughout the conference days echoed a sentiment of excitement over new possibilities for collaborative international scholarship, and the final day of the program was dedicated to Japanese language presentations.
The over 200 sessions, while difficult to characterize under any small set of unifying themes, could be described collectively as bringing some of the field’s most compelling and oft-revisited issues into dialogue with new objects of inquiry. (Flipping quickly though the conference program, for example, I caught sight of “Religion,” “Bioethics,” “Online Governance,” “Intermediaries,” “Sense Making,” “Responsible Innovation,” “Blindness” and “Reflexive Modernization” “In Action.”) Unsurprisingly, many of the talks tapped directly into classic STS questions concerning knowledge production and circulation, forms of expertise, translation and boundary work, and the social and political dimensions of (bio)technological innovations. These topics, when brought to bear on such actors as Nintendogs™, nanoparticles, and laboratory animals, allowed some presenters to reflect in new and productive ways on how science and technology come to not only mediate human experience, but also contest and redefine its very meaning. I will focus the remainder of this report on some of the pivotal points that were discussed in two notable panels that I attended.
Beyond the “Third Wave”
This well attended panel, organized by University of Tokyo Sociologist Miwao Matsumoto, sought to make a specific intervention into a number of arguments that have stemmed from Harry Collins’ and Robert Evans’ (2002) proposed “Third Wave of Science Studies.” Rather than summing up debates over whether, as Collins and Evans have suggested, we need to construct new boundaries and categories of scientific knowledge that can distinguish between the contributions of a technically qualified elite and the broader public, the session’s stated goal was to consider the problem of knowledge distribution as not only contained “[with]in the sphere of knowledge,” but also as implicated in “various modes of ‘real politics’ such as technocratic or participatory.” To that end, Collins, Brian Wynne (whose study of Cumbrian sheep farmers (1996) was invoked by Collins and Evans  to illustrate the difference between ‘interactional’ and ‘contributory expertise’), and Steven Epstein were invited by Matsumoto to reflect on STS’s relationship to science policy.
Collins’ presentation focused primarily on outlining what he termed “the current state of play in work inspired by the Third Wave idea.” This description of the technical and methodological developments of the program was to be followed by a consideration of the Third Wave’s political approach, but due to time constraints the latter subject was only addressed during the question and answer period.
Collins first discussed two draft papers in the Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEE) at Cardiff University. The first, “Language and Practice,” represents an important effort by Third Wave sociologists to incorporate a consideration of linguistic enregisterment into an understanding of both interactional and contributory expertise. In the original formulation of these two ideal types of expertise, Collins and Evans claimed that while interactional expertise was language-based and described “enough expertise to interact interestingly with participants,” contributory expertise was practice-based and meant “enough expertise to contribute to the science of the field being analysed” (2002, p. 254). Furthermore, they theorized that parties with contributory expertise may lack interactional expertise, and suggested that the responsibility for combining expertises lies with those in possession of interactional competence (ibid, p. 256). “Language and Practice” represents a partial rethinking of these categories with its acknowledgement that “specialists are all tied together in the sea of language…The sea of language is formed by the practical work of those practical specialists whose work feeds backwards and forwards into the language.” While Collins maintained in his presentation that the difference between the two forms of expertise is that “a contributing expert…does a tiny bit of practice and an interactional expert…doesn’t do any,” this forthcoming paper will argue that “language dominates practice in the learning of practice”; hence, “we are all interactional experts.” The second draft paper Collins discussed, titled “Three Dimensions of Expertise,” introduces a “Periodic Table of Expertises” with two novel dimensions: access to tacit knowledge about a domain, and degree to which expertise is esoteric or ubiquitous. According to Collins, domains such as car driving and forms of education can be better analyzed when charted in “expertise space.”
The remainder of Collins’ presentation focused on a description of “the imitation game” as an emergent Third Wave methodology that, he argued, “touches on things like ethnography and anthropology – you can use the imitation game to think about where you are, as an ethnographer or an anthropologist would do with fieldwork.” Through an examination of such exercises as “gays and lesbians pretending to be straight and vice versa; active Christians pretending to be atheists,” Collins claimed that the Third Wave is forging new scientific pathways relevant to philosophy, management, media studies, and criminology.
Wynne, opening with the disclaimer that “I don’t have a program to sell or to advertise, as Harry’s just done,” argued strongly that the Third Wave’s designation of the “problem of extension” and technological populism as primary STS concerns is misdirected. Rather, he declared, we ought to be thinking critically about “the enrollment of science in global economic and political forms.” Drawing first upon his own study of sheep farmers and then on the MMR vaccine controversy, Wynne rejected the Third Wave interpretation of these cases as exemplars of populism or contributory expertise. (Wynne has published similar arguments elsewhere (cf. Wynne, 2003)). He offered that in these and similar instances, lay contestation of scientific expertise is not driven by “the claim that they know better on the propositional grounds of the experts involved. What [lay people] are doing…is actually making assertions and complaints and contesting the definition of the problem that’s being vested in and formed through science – scientism, in other words.” As such, Wynne concluded, public participatory movements are not only about introducing relevant contributory expertise, but also tied to the politics and power relations of co-production in the framing of scientific issues. Accusing Collins of overlooking these crucial STS concepts, Wynne asked: “Does the Third Wave allow us to understand the contexts in which expertise is formed, defined, and actually given authority?”
Like Wynne, Steven Epstein began his presentation by asserting that the relationship between Collins and Evans’ reading of his work and his own interpretation of it is reflective of some of the unresolved issues in SEE. Acknowledging the significance of the central contributions of the Third Wave – including the concept of expert acculturation via language acquisition, and the attention paid to the category of experience – Epstein went on to argue that SEE undermines these positives through its adherence to binary oppositions and resurrection of rigid normative boundaries. Noting that “in Collins and Evans there is the technical and the political, and never the two shall meet,” Epstein cited Star and Griesemer’s (1989) seminal work on the fluidity of boundary objects and wryly commented that “until Collins and Evans, I don’t think we’ve seen in any post-First Wave Science Studies an attempt to prescribe a boundary buildup as a moral and scholarly imperative.”
In contrast to the Third Wave’s rigid boundary approach, Epstein went on to detail how the story of AIDS activism is one that “emphasizes the productive and generative character of a certain kind of muddiness.” AIDS activists, Epstein argued, are fundamentally hybrid, never definitively crossing the line from the political to the technical en route to becoming uncredentialed experts. They “gained their seats at the table of science, but they did so by pursuing an insider-outsider strategy that routinely combined reason and technical discourse with some of the most angry, outrageous, and sometimes casually reckless political speech and public theater found in any social movement of the late twentieth century.”
Epstein concluded by suggesting three directions for future work on science and politics: (1) The “greater empirical study of the connections between the normative orientations that concerned groups take towards science, and the kinds of contributions and interventions that they make”; (2) An examination of the co-production in real time of new collective identities and models of representative democracy, or “what happens when science makes the groups which are then called upon to contribute as a group to…decision making around those sciences?”; (3) An increased study of lay expertise in response to “undone science,” including that which isn’t studied, isn’t known, or cannot be discussed.
During the question and answer portion of the session, Collins argued, using the example of the MMR vaccine controversy, that “there needs to be an expert intervention between what the public wants…and what’s medically possible.” He reiterated that following the deconstructive work of the Second Wave, he is interested in recuperating a notion of expertise and attempting to provide answers. “The special thing being done by the Third Wave, as opposed to what’s being done by Steve and Brian,” Collins offered, is that “the Third Wave has a scientific look about it, and what I was showing you with pride was new kinds of diagrams, new kinds of experiments, new kinds of things like that which we think we’ve invented in order to study knowledge and expertise better.”
Wynne responded that unlike Collins, he does not take his responsibility to be that of developing a normative philosophical stance. Rather, he seeks to understand the concerns of people who don’t normally have a voice, “and try to struggle that with what that means for the kinds of science between players of authority.” Later, Epstein added that questions regarding the role of expertise cannot be addressed until we “begin to blur some of these boundaries, and talk about the hybrid formation of various kinds of social actors, and the kinds of social processes that might or might not bring them into being.”
The two compelling papers that comprised this panel each spoke to the ways in which current, provisional molecular knowledge and imagined or promissory futures interact to produce enduring forms of subjectivity. Karen-Sue Taussig’s talk, titled “On Democracy: Citizenship and the Obligation to Participate in Scientific Research,” examined two university-affiliated projects ostensibly designed to facilitate public participation in forward-looking genomic research. Taussig’s primary ethnographic case is a University of Minnesota three-year longitudinal genetics study, called the Gopher Kids Study, which enrolled up to 500 child subjects this year at the Minnesota State Fair. The study, advertised to families in a local newspaper with the slogan “DNA on a Stick!” offered a University souvenir, ride tickets, and admission to the 2011 and 2012 state fairs in exchange for yearly saliva, hair, nail, and blood samples. Taussig argued that the Gopher Kids Study is a citizenship project, not a scientific one. While its scientific questions are either nonexistent or facile, “it is teaching people how to be research subjects, and teaching them that they should feel an obligation to participate in a revolution in medicine.” As such, Taussig claimed, examining the Study provides an ethnographic opportunity to consider “the social transformations involved in efforts to realize a molecular medical clinic,” and reveals that attempts to close the gap between new molecular knowledge and as-yet-unrealized interventions occur in a space in which various relations are uncertain and contested.
Historian/lawyer Jonathan Kahn’s talk, “The Expanding Embrace of Race in Biomedical Product Development,” drew upon Kahn’s extensive work on the use of race in the context of gene patenting and drug development to consider whether “BiDil is a harbinger or an anomaly.” Kahn detailed two recent pharmaceutical and medical device cases that illustrate “a powerful dynamic whereby increased biomedical knowledge, rather than leading to more individualized targeting of biomedical interventions, becomes reframed in terms of racial categories primarily for commercial benefit.” In the first case, Kahn raised concerns that race-specific clinical trials for the beta-blocker Bystolic® are expanding upon BiDil’s model, in which the drug is tested prospectively for efficacy in Blacks, and comparative efficacy between Blacks and Whites is not examined. Resonating with Tausig’s presentation, Kahn argued that with this trend, clinical trials are serving primarily a commercial rather than medical purpose.
In the second case, Kahn examined a phenomenon that he described as “the politics of the meantime” in the discourse surrounding a new diagnostic test for genetic variations affecting responses to the blood thinning drug warfarin. Those who currently use race in biomedical R&D, Kahn argued, “frame it as an interim surrogate until we reach the promise land of genomic medicine.” But as the case of the warfarin test illustrates, in the face of genetic information “race should wither away, but it persists.”
Kahn concluded by reflecting on the “inertial power of race” to reemerge or leave traces, given that biomedical research relies upon the creation and pursuit of the unknown. Warning that “steppingstones have this way of remaining underfoot long after you’ve reached your supposed destination,” Kahn advised that “eternal vigilance is the price of responsible use of race in medical research.”
Collins, H. M., & Evans, R. (2002). The Third Wave of Science Studies. Social Studies of Science, 32(2), 235-296.
Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional Ecology, `Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3), 387-420.
Wynne, B. (1996). May the Sheep Safely Graze? A Reflexive View of the Expert-Lay Knowledge Divide. In Lash, Szerszynski, & Wynne (Eds.), Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology (pp. 44-83). London: SAGE Publications.
Wynne, B. (2003). Seasick on the Third Wave? Subverting the Hegemony of Propositionalism: Response to Collins & Evans (2002). Social Studies of Science, 33(3), 401-417.
Talia Weiner is a doctoral student in Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. She has conducted psychiatric anthropology/science studies research in the United States and Indonesia. Her interests include forms of biomedical subjectivity, narrative co-production, and the role of discursive practices in shaping experience.