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Situating our knowledge practices: a review of AusSTS2021

In June 2021, more than 180 early-career Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars and participants congregated at this year’s Australasian STS Graduate Network Conference (henceforth AusSTS2021) to reflect on the theme of “situated practice.” The third event since the network was founded in 2017, this year’s multi-sited gathering comprised local nodes in the Australian cities of Sydney, Melbourne, and Darwin, and in New Zealand’s Wellington. Each node hosted their own program of paper presentations and field trips, and all participants came together virtually for shared keynote sessions. With Australia and New Zealand now more than eighteen months into the new normal of COVID-related public health restrictions, lockdowns, and border closures, it felt particularly timely to consider how we, as researchers, are situated within ever-shifting material assemblages and discourses of technoscience. For those of us in Sydney, such questions became all the more urgent and relevant as a local COVID-19 outbreak transformed our meetup from an in-person to a virtual format just days before the conference began.

AusSTS2021 commenced with a wonderful keynote lecture by Professor Michelle Murphy (University of Toronto), who discussed the social life of chemicals in Ontario’s chemical valley through an Indigenous STS framework. In the lecture, Murphy challenged the hegemonic way of thinking about chemicals as predictable molecular units in “white space,” arguing that this reigning understanding reinforces colonial capitalist infrastructures and masks the disparate effects of chemicals on differently situated bodies. Urging us to consider critically the technoscientific objects that academia disciplines us into prioritising, Murphy elaborated an alternative to the dominant conceptualization of chemicals—“alter-chemicals”—premised on attention to Indigenous desires, body/land entanglements, and being in good relation. Engaging the concept of “place thought,” from Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee scholar Vanessa Watts (2013), Murphy’s lecture took us to the heart of how situatedness is bound up with ontopolitics. While place-based thinking can construct situatedness as a matter of relative geography in a shared world, place thought is an Indigenous ontology that treats knowledge and place as always inextricable. To consider situated practice in a decolonial frame is thus to accept not only differently situated experiences of life, but the existence of multiple, sometimes incommensurable worlds.

The second keynote session was a stimulating conversation about embodied research between two prominent STS scholars: Professor Kane Race (University of Sydney) and Dr. Anne Galloway (Victoria University of Wellington), facilitated by session chair Dr. Kiran Pienaar (Deakin University). Race and Galloway shared reflections about their careers in STS, their embodied research practices, intimacies with their research objects, and the role of care in their respective work. A scholar of extensive research on gay men’s sexual, chemical, and technological practices, Race described disputing the risk-centred discourses of prevailing academic research by turning instead to the rich, everyday relations of care and pleasure assembled by gay men. Galloway explored the commitment to “additive empiricism” that animates her work in multispecies ethnography and creative design. For Galloway, “additive empiricism” indexes a commitment to reject the reductive imperatives of capital “S” Science and to instead proliferate accounts of relations with an eye to radical contextuality. Race and Galloway’s discussion keenly highlighted the need for STS scholars to cultivate practices of noticing: paying attention to materiality in order to untangle the dominant stories of Science, and doing away with purity in favour of the mess, muck, and trouble of lived relations.

Following the keynote sessions, subsequent sessions comprised three or four papers, five minutes each. Presenters shared works-in-progress, posing a question, reading a vignette, or offering a provocation. The brief length of papers allowed presenters to distill a salient theme in their work, which the audience then aerated and turned over together in the Question & Answer period. The Sydney node hosted two concurrent streams of sessions, alongside concurrent events in Melbourne, Darwin, and Wellington. While it is beyond the scope of this review to do justice to all of the wonderful presentations across these events, in what follows I share reflections on the sessions I attended as a window into the lively space of AusSTS2021 as a whole.

The first session I attended was themed Storying. My own paper in this session reflected on the affective dimensions of race in technoscience, exploring how embodied research methods can dispute the post-racialism that attends assisted reproductive markets. Jodie Kidd analysed the infrastructures of policy that see intergenerational trauma enacted as risk in Australian child protection discourse. And Mia Harrison traced how time is materialised as an aspect of evidence making in news media about COVID-19 vaccine efficacy and production. Together, the papers and discussion explored the critical question of evidentiary regimes in STS. What counts as evidence in a given project, and how do our appeals to certain bodies of evidence have performative effects? What do our methods of “storying” reveal of our assumptions about what research is and what it does? Through such lines of questioning, storying appears as an active and affective practice, bringing our research objects into being.

The second session took up questions of Caring and Relating. Covering wide terrain, the three papers explored matters of interrelation in our research, from ethnographic practice to facilitation to modes of orienting our bodies as subjects and research technologies. Laura McLauchlan explored the role of friendship as a relational webbing that holds diverse actors in the spaces of drug policy reform, even when these spaces are challenging or feel stacked against participants. Sumaiya Muyeen centred the concept of ceremony to theorise the Muslim-fem body in Australia as a site of anti-colonial solidarities through material engagements with land and place. And Anisah Madden enacted situated practice as a method by taking us through a guided meditation and grounding exercise, modelling in real time that situated research begins with our bodies and their multi-sensory capacities. Practices of relating were diffracted across this panel with attention to how we know and bear witness as researchers. Care emerged not as simply a warm or nice feeling, but rather a practice of accountability to our interlocutors that is often uncomfortable, challenging, or dissonant, a responsibility to attend to the relations in and around our research practice.

The third session showcased four papers exploring Designing and Making. Bringing scholars of design, art and cultural studies together with a curator, this session exemplified the interdisciplinarity of the conference at large, and the innovative lines of thought in STS that emerge from speaking across disciplinary vernaculars. Matthew Harkness’s paper complicated individualistic narratives of 3D printing and maker culture by tracing the agency of non-human actants, while Chris Muller and Deborah Lawler shared the story of their fruitful collaboration in a research and curatorial project with collections at the Sydney Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Scott Webster turned us to a discussion of the cultural politics of 3D printing monuments destroyed in acts of “memoricide,” and Kasia Jezowska centred coal and its technological and design histories as a means of thinking concurrently about Australian and Polish national cultures. Attending to the agency and charisma of material objects, this panel explored vital STS questions of the multiple and underdetermined engagements to which material objects lend themselves, always exceeding their intended uses and modes of relating.

The final panel I attended was titled Sensing and Knowing. In this session, Ella Butler explored the experience, now all too familiar to many of us, of online teaching and its virtually embodied relations. Asking about the craving for face-to-face interaction for which the virtual classroom offers a kind of ersatz, Butler proffered the provocation: what are the stakes of seeing (or not seeing) a student’s body on screen? Marianne Clarke explored the inseparability of knowing and being and the blurry edges of our research methods in her reflection on the relationship she crafted with the ocean of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs as a route through the challenges of thinking and living in a pandemic. And Sophie Adams turned to the relations between non-human and human ways of knowing and sensing electricity in her work on “prosumers,” solar panels and the operation of Australian electricity grids. Together, the three presenters explored how the senses are crucial to our research methods, tracing myriad ways of inter-embodied knowing that exceed vision and its technocratic “God trick” (Haraway 1988). Sensing and knowing are, instead, an iterative loop, with situated research an open-ended practice.

Across such diverse offerings, AusSTS2021 fostered exploration of the lively STS scholarship flourishing in Australia and New Zealand today. Situated practice has long been an elemental keyword in social studies of technoscience, attending to how scientific knowledge production is entangled with cultural practices, historical contexts, and relations of power. The conference offered the opportunity to explore the many meanings and interdisciplinary genealogies of situated practice not only in relation to the technoscientific objects we study, but also our own practices of research. Starkly different than “identity” or “positionality” singularly operating as a point of departure for research, situated practice calls for many methods. While some are traditional ethnographic or empirical research methods, others are creative forms of writing or being with what or whom we study. Others still are practices of self-care and tending to relationships. Many of these methods do not translate to the realm of visible research outputs that register in academia’s regimes of accounting. And yet, they are crucial forms of research practice and responsibility that guide many of us working in the field of STS.

Situated practice emerged from our discussions as an ongoing process of tending to how knowledge production is indivisible from material arrangements in which we are always already imbricated. Knowing and being are inextricable here, though not synonymous. Rather than simply instrumentalising our bodies as tools and means of data collection, situated research asks us to attend carefully to materiality with an eye to cultivating not just “good” data, but good relations. Thank you to the conference organisers and to all the participants at AusSTS2021 for creating such a generous and generative intellectual meeting place.

AusSTS2021 Organizers:

  • Sydney: Sophie Adams, Mia Harrison, Kari Lancaster, Matt Kearnes
  • Darwin: Matt Barlow, Cathy Bow, Kelly Lee Hickey, Kirsty Howey, Jen Macdonald, Michaela Spencer
  • Melbourne: Thao Phan, Tim Neale, Emma Kowal
  • Wellington: Courtney Addison, Max Soar

Dr. Jaya Keaney is a Research Fellow in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. She is a feminist technoscience and Cultural Studies scholar interested in the intersections of reproduction, bioscientific cultures, and social inequity. Her current research explores the racialization of inheritance across two projects: a book project about race and queer kinship in contemporary fertility markets, and a post-doctoral research project about the implications of epigenetic models of trauma for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Her recent work can be found in Body & Society, Continuum, and the edited anthology Long Term: Essays on Queer Commitment (Duke University Press, 2021). Jaya is also the recipient of the 2021 Thesis Prize from the Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association (AWGSA).


References

Haraway, Donna 1988. “Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.” Feminist Studies vol. 14, no. 3, 575-99.

Watts, Vanessa 2013. “Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!).” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society vol. 2, no. 1, 20-34.


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