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Modes of political problematisations in environmental STS: quantitative and qualitative patterns in the implication and explication of normative premises in conference contributions

Authors:

Abstract

STS is strong in analysing the practices and promises of science and technology, showing their normative and political situatedness, implications and consequences. Recently, STS has started to turn to empirical studies of social scientific methods (Law/Ruppert 2013) and of STS's own methods (Lippert/Douglas-Jones 2019). This paper pushes the emerging reflexive scrutiny of STS's own knowledge production by focusing on the implicit and explicit normative and political textual positioning of and in contributions to STS conferences, specifically abstracts and titles of conference papers. We recognise that textual work necessarily cannot make all political and normative implications explicit. Authors partially make choices of what to explicate but their writing is also shaped by writing conventions, emerging genres and canons, within (or beyond) STS (Hyland 2004; Biagioli 2006).
Modes of political problematisations in environmental STS: quantitative and qualit-
ative patterns in the implication and explication of normative premises in confer -
ence contributions
Authors
Associate Professor Dr Ingmar Lippert (Technologies in Practice Research Group, ITU
University of Copenhagen; Science and Technology Studies, Museum für Naturkunde Ber-
lin),*
Professor Dr Tahani Nadim (Science and Technology Studies, Museum für Naturkunde
Berlin; Institut für europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin),
Dr Arno Simons (Abteilung Forschungssystem und Wissenschaftsdynamik, Deutsche Zen-
trum für Hochschul- und Wissenschaftsforschung)
[What?]
STS is strong in analysing the practices and promises of science and technology, showing
their normative and political situatedness, implications and consequences. Recently, STS
has started to turn to empirical studies of social scientific methods (Law/Ruppert 2013) and
of STS's own methods (Lippert/Douglas-Jones 2019). This paper pushes the emerging re -
flexive scrutiny of STS's own knowledge production by focusing on the implicit and explicit
normative and political textual positioning of and in contributions to STS conferences, spe-
cifically abstracts and titles of conference papers. We recognise that textual work neces-
sarily cannot make all political and normative implications explicit. Authors partially make
choices of what to explicate but their writing is also shaped by writing conventions, emer -
ging genres and canons, within (or beyond) STS (Hyland 2004; Biagioli 2006).*
We focus specifically on the presences and absences of political and normative positioning
in abstracts. Drawing on Law's (2004) post-structuralist work on method assemblages, we
differentiate the enactment of presence (points made very explicitly accessible and at the
center of an abstract), the enactment of manifest absence (points that are not explicitly
available for the reader but which are evident and appear recognisable) as well as ab-
sence as Otherness (points which hinge on unacknowledged absences). We consider the
distribution of what is present, manifestly absent or absent as the Other as normative be -
cause these distributions shape what can be problematised and which modes of politics
are (re)produced.
Environmental STS is concerned with the social studies of technologies and knowledges in
the service of environmental or sustainability studies. At times, environmental STS also
works towards sustainable development and environmental justice. STS conference contri-
butions focus, inter alia, on the empirical-normative fields of biodiversity loss, climate
change or climate crisis, plastic pollutions, chemicals and toxics, traffic and energy trans -
itions. All these fields are characterised by differently troubling politics and more or less lat -
ent conflicts. Our premise is that any STS study on, or within, these fields necessarily
relates discursively to some of the normative premises of these fields. Anecdotally recog -
nising that environmental STS researchers are often politically motivated, we want to ex-
plore (a) which modes and patterns of critique, politics and normativity we identify in STS
conference abstracts and (b) how these modes and patterns textually operate.
[Why conference abstracts?]
How do "we" encounter STS? Conferences offer important contact zones of science in the
making. By reading abstracts of sessions, panels and individual contributions, we can get
a good sense of issues and approaches currently occupying STS scholars. In contrast to
(the few) journals, conferences provide lower entry barriers, allowing a more diverse set of
researchers a public platform. We focus on conference abstracts because they constitute
critical moments where STS researchers formulate and collectively test their thinking in a
semi-protected space (prior to final formulations that appear in journals). Abstracts are sig -
nificant entities in academic writing, establishing the worlds in which the problems-to-be-
analysed dwell, in which ontologies are performed and which promote specific discursive
positions (thus also operate politically) and construe credibilites of these positions and of
authors (Hyland 2004).*
At the same time, we recognise that STS conferences are not equally accessible to all. Ab-
stract publication depends on acceptance which might be determined by a strong network
or a prestigous institutional affiliation. In addition, the material resources and institutional
support required to enable conference participations are extremely restricted, creating a
bias in conference participation (see Steward/Piterou 2010). Our corpus consists of the ab-
stracts published for the EASST conferences 2014 (Torun), 2018 (Lancaster) and the
EASST/4S conference 2016 (Barcelona); EASST has given us clearance to use this cor-
pus. This choice of EASST conferences entails an overrepresentation of scholars and con-
cerns from European and Western regions. For our analysis such parameters will thus es-
tablish a different kind of manifest absence.
*
[How?]
We approach titles and abstracts as doing problematisations. Drawing on Foucault (1977;
1985), a problematisation denotes the structure of the thinkable – the problematisable – in
a text. The problematisation presents the reader with a specific problem that the reader is
(made) interested in. This textual structuring operates through rendering normative and
political premises unequally present and absent. We use two sets of methods to analyse
abstracts/titles as problematisations: text-mining (including topic modeling, co-word ana -
lysis establishing clusters) and ontological analysis of abstracts in the centers and peri -
pheries of clusters (Woolgar and Neyland 2013). We analyse the abstracts/titles for pat-
terns of problematisations. Specifically, we focus on how STS problems are presented as
to-be-analysed, rendering that problem as central while narrating through a frame of
premises that work as a hinterland for the problem.
For instance, some contributions will make present or manifestly absent specific analytical
frameworks (e.g. marxisms, feminism), political-economic histories or world-orders (capit-
alism, colonialism, imperialism), or commitment to research communities (postcolonial
STS, feminist technoscience studies, research communities "for" sustainable development
[consider Germany's Forschung für Nachhaltigkeit], "for" SDG measurementability, "for"
energy transitions). Text-mining delivers clusters of abstracts/titles (e.g. clustered around a
core of statistically exceptional occurances, e.g. co-words). We then analyse these
clusters for similarities and differences in how the clusters' cores and peripheries are se -
mantically engaged with, how these cores relate to, environmental discourses. To locate
abstracts' textual positionings in environmental discourse, we draw on sensitivities de-
veloped in the studies of environmental discourse about dominant framings that, we sus-
pect, may be effective even when only operating implicitly (Hajer 1995; Dingler 2003).
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