Essay: Jen Henderson

A Critical STS?

When I started my participant observations at the local Weather Forecast Office (WFO), I didn’t fully know what I was getting into. I’d taken a few introductory courses in qualitative methods, hoping that by retooling myself from creative writer to social scientist, I’d better match my skill set to the needs of the forecasting community. Learning new methods wasn’t an entirely unselfish move. I have an M.F.A. and have taught at the university for ten years, usually as an adjunct or instructor under a spousal contract. While I’ve enjoyed teaching and writing, my career has unfolded largely in the vacuum of a few isolated literary journals, parenting magazines, and a rarely visited blog. I felt stuck in the adjunct track without recourse beyond writing essays and hoping for the kinds of publications that might justify a more significant position in academia. Returning to graduate school for a Ph.D., then, became a way to re-enter the job market with skills that might better position me for a tenure track job in a science-related discipline, even if it meant I would be the token humanist, as we say in STS. It also has become a personal quest to discover a larger community of scholars and professionals who want to cultivate relationships with our collective readers not based on what I think (we think) they should know but in collaboration with what they need. In short, I returned to school to re-create my own sense of purpose.

As a novice qualitative researcher, however, I didn’t fully appreciate the ethical issues I might encounter at the forecast office beyond the IRB. What I didn’t expect in shifting methodologies is the attending normative commitments implied in my new approach and the conflicting epistemologies suggested by both my past work as a creative writer and my present interests in ethnography. It’s become a conflict of two disciplinary worlds: Journalism, but with an authority outside my own ethical sensibilities (the IRB), approving my interactions with these “subjects.” Ethnography, but with my inability to respect rules that prohibit friendships and collaborations.

This essay is my attempt to explore a middle ground, if there is one, to see if I might find some methodology and, perhaps, theoretical framework that reflects the ethics and morals I already hold dear. I do not mean this essay to be exhaustive but rather my first foray. In many ways, Andrew Feenberg’s work resonates with me in his normative commitment to a philosophy of technology that espouses an explicit democratic aim. Whereas Feenberg’s solution is left without specific mechanisms for its execution, I’m searching for the means to such an end: “collaboration between concerned groups and professional specialists.”1

Creative Nonfiction:
As a nonfiction writer, my ethical commitments seemed clear, although difficult to negotiate at times. Above all, I dedicated my authorship to the tenets of nonfiction espoused by people in my graduate program at Goucher College, a group comprised mostly of journalists and essayists. If one were to trace the lineage of my mentors, such as Tom French or Walt Harrington, back to the earlier ethical codes that shaped their journalism, one would stumble on people like Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion, early narrative journalists who changed the face of reportage in the mid- to late twentieth century, popularizing it for more mainstream consumers.

Common among these writers was a commitment to veracity. You can’t make it up, they intoned. You write only what actually happened, or what you can prove actually did. “The nonfiction writer,” says Phil Gerard, “must be more truthful than we usually require of ourselves or others.” The meaning of truth in this instance encompasses only demonstrable events, though he goes further. “So when we label a piece of writing nonfiction, we are announcing our determination to reign in our impulse to lie.”2 The presumption that a truth of this nature (a reality) can be discovered didn’t shock me at the time. I felt comfortable with empiricism and its more trenchant sister, positivism. As writers, we discovered the facts of the story through research, interviews, acquired expertise in the subject. Our main job, then, involved stitching together these discoverable details through our own stylistic preferences.

And so my normative commitment, my heritage, was to some version of empirical truth, verifiable through research and interviews, dogged analysis and self-scrutiny. Of course, the writer’s subjective point of view corrals these facts, tames them into a narrative built on the second normative commitment, storytelling techniques. Aesthetics. That is, the writer feels responsible not only for veracity but evocation. An intimate journalism, as Harrington would say. Between these two pillars of craft, truth and narrative, the creative nonfiction writer feels free to roam between description and prescription, or at least I’ve felt free to do so. Perhaps this history explains why I’ve not been aware of the “transportation problem” between is and ought. In my writing world, the two happily live side by side, enfolded in the writer’s talent. Good writers show us how the world is and tell us—or at least hint at—how it ought to be.

Science and Technology Studies:
From STS, I’ve inherited an obligation to question what counts as truth and knowledge. We spend our time examining the ways society shapes technoscientific practice and how society gets embedded in it, as well. This privileging of science and technology as the object of inquiry feels less foreign to me than it did a year ago; in many ways I’ve come to appreciate how the threads of my own writing life connect to the tenets of STS. Yet, I’ve struggled with the methodological choices presented in STS, those that imply a commitment to the case study and/or a commitment to the field, to observation.3 That is, in both the sociology of and history of science and technology, a student discovers a labyrinth of small-scale studies, each one a detailed description and analysis of the object of inquiry, and each one (usually) revealing some aspect of social construction masked by the dominant ideologies, powers, and practices. The STS student likewise finds untold opportunities to open the many black boxes of science or technology, to reveal to scientists that what they say they do in the manifold labs of innovation isn’t really what they do. And so a student might struggle to legitimately claim to be a scholar of STS without critiquing the eponymous domains of the discipline, and doing so via in the privileged approaches.

Some theoretical and historical flexibility exists in framing these methods within STS, loosely highlighted in the division between what Steve Fuller labels a “Low Church” perspective, with its roots in a 1960s “movement-oriented” or “belief oriented” concern (e.g. Public Understanding of Science), and the “High Church” viewpoint of “critical-historical theology” or “justification-oriented” concerns (e.g. SSK).4 I’m most aligned with the Low Church lineage, which I interpret to be a more collaborative, participatory, and social justice approach within the discipline. Still I find even these options limiting. Part of the reason for my dissatisfaction lies in the methodological approaches that most closely align with Low Church, which still rely almost exclusively on empiricism. That is, even ethnography requires a normative commitment that attempts to imitate the legitimacy of science. As Jerome Ravetz convincingly argues, in order to address the more complex societal problems facing our increasingly industrialized world, disciplines like STS will need to develop methods more appropriate to its aims. He suggests that “By pretending to be what it is not [science], the immature or ineffective discipline condemns itself to remain in that state, rather than engaging in the sort of work that would open up paths to achieving maturity of character appropriate to itself.”5

As I’ve said before, in class and in our online forum, I don’t agree with Ravetz that these immature human sciences are inferior to science in the ways he would like us to believe. And I’m not sure we can say that all of the sub-disciplines within the social sciences are ineffective or immature. But even Ravetz suggests science alone can’t save us. There is room for a mature human sciences (and humanities, I would argue). The question left to us is a matter of design: what will these mature disciplines look like? How will they function? What are their methods? That is, Ravetz implies certain non-scientific methodologies as the basis for future human sciences. This suggestion seems to me to be closely related to the framing of our normative commitments in our research. As human scientists and scholars of the humanities who are dedicated to intervening in the fields of science and technology, how do we know which methods and theoretical frameworks best allow us to position ourselves to contribute successfully to humanity’s complex problems? Are there methods available or in development in other disciplines that might more appropriately meet our aims?

To explore my growing dissatisfaction with the traditional methods of STS and at the same time suggest possible methodological candidates that better meets the aims of the human sciences, I turn to two concepts from critical pedagogy: critical bricoleur and critical ethnography. Do either of these offer a way forward?

Critical Pedagogy:
But first, what is critical pedagogy? What are its main normative assumptions? Carolyn Shields, educational scholar and critical pedagogue, notes that “Critical research begins with the premise that research’s role is not to describe the world as it is, but also to demonstrate what needs to be changed.”6 For most critical pedagogy researchers, the underlying framework is a neo-Marxian social justice based largely on the works of people like Paulo Friere and his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. His philosophy embodies the concept of conscientizaçāo, or “the deepening of the attitude of awareness characteristic” of all emerging consciousness. Only in this state, Friere argues, can “humankind emerge from their submersion and acquire the ability to intervene in reality [or historical awareness] as it is unveiled.”7 Critical pedagogues, then, become teachers and researchers who dialogue with different oppressed groups, oppressed because of race, class, and/or gender. These scholars not only commit to critiquing power and privilege but to changing it, to prescribing ways to undermine the status quo. Many critical pedagogues also align with post-structuralist epistemologies. Social construction, of course, plays well with this worldview.

Thus, critical pedagogues critique, much as we in STS do, the larger systems of society, including the technological and scientific enterprises that comprise the bulk of STS work. They, too, ask what counts as knowledge and truth. It seems to me, then, that one of the main differences between critical pedagogy and STS is the emphasis on what we each value: Critical pedagogy values human rights first and foremost and requires its researchers to commit to exposing and changing inequality. History and sociology in STS can be said to primarily value the scientific study of science, although the Low Church tradition has explored inequality and human rights when embedded in the domain of science and technology. And the emphasis on democratic technology as argued by Feenberg sounds very much like it might be compatible with critical pedagogy, as well.

Methods employed by those who identify with the normative commitments of critical pedagogy resist purely descriptive outcomes. As a result, there are few “participants” and no “subjects.” Instead, researchers in this field seek problems defined by local communities, the people affected by inequality, and they usually approach their methods as a joint enterprise. By this I mean they shift their methods to match the problem they’ve encountered, drawing from a multitude of options, and the communities with whom they work help refine and select these methods. As Joe Kincheloe, a leader in the critical pedagogy community, puts it, critical pedagogues are ‘’…committed to research eclecticism, allowing circumstance to shape methods employed…”

In particular, Kincheloe argues for a critical researcher-as-bricoleur who “abandons the quest for some naive concept of realism, focusing instead on the clarification of his or her position in the web of reality and the social locations of other researchers and the ways they shape the production and interpretation of knowledge.”8 The bricoleur tinkers without concern for the traditional “appropriate” uses of specific methods, or their “appropriate” applications; instead, she deploys the tools that seem most valuable to the project in light of desired normative outcomes. STS strikes me as a discipline likewise amenable to bricolage, at least to those students now entering STS programs as interdisciplinarians. We are encouraged to combine historical analysis with field work, or discourse analysis with ethnography. Critical bricolage, then seems not so far removed from the interdisciplinary nature of problem-solving within STS.

The second related concept, critical ethnography, offers a method that matches this commitment. It, like critical bricolage, shares the critical objective of transforming and critiquing systems of inequality; however, its methodological practices diverge from traditional ethnography, dismantling many of the assumptions valued in the positivist tradition. Critical ethnography locates itself almost symbiotically with the bricoleur, the former providing the execution of the latter’s strategy. Critical ethnographers collaborate with members of their communities in design and write up of research. They rely on autoethnography, hermeneutic interpretation, phenomenological reading, literary journalism, and even mixed methods—whatever methods, experimental or otherwise—that they think will reflect their commitment to seeing members of the public as lay scholars, co-authors, and citizen-as-critics.

Yet, many of the methodologies assembled by the critical bricoleur are seen, in my opinion, as suspect in STS. They are so rarely discussed in our coursework or present in our discipline’s history that I’ve come to believe that the only acceptable ways to approach research is through those methods traditionally embraced by the three main domains science studies: philosophy, sociology, and history. In a discipline committed to questioning what counts as knowledge, it’s surprising to me that alternative methods don’t count as research. STS recognizes only those methodologies that perform scientifically.

In “Deploying Qualitative Methods for Critical Social Purposes” authors Cannella and Lincoln recognize the limitations of these radical qualitative methods, especially in academia. They outline several strategies for more successfully integrating a critical perspective into the academic culture, many of which focus on changing that culture:

Critical work is likely not possible without the construction of alliances within/between academia and the public that would place at the forefront concern for equity and justice. Scholarship in higher education must actively work to counter corporatization of knowledge from within by challenging controlling, narrow discourses of accountability, quality, and excellence. Further, to inquire into the regulatory and equity issues that are most important to a range of communities, both inside and outside of academia, and to construct new ways to share those inquiries, we must be involved with them.9

I agree. But it is precisely in this involvement with publics relevant to my interest in meteorology where I feel I face the biggest challenge. In order for critical pedagogy to gain legitimacy and thus the power to be an effective means, it must be negotiated within academia first. Yet, I here I feel most powerless. I’m in a discipline which, in my mind, should be an obvious proponent of alternative research methods, of radical constructions of knowledge. But it’s not. Perhaps what we need is not, as Ravetz suggests, a mature human sciences per se but human sciences willing to risk being scientific for being helpful, to risk being empirical for being just. Perhaps what we need is a critical theory of STS, one that will stretch to accommodate research co-designed and co-authored by communities; one whose academic representatives will count this work toward tenure and promotion and defend this work to college committees, deans, and BOVs who don’t see its value; one that stands behind its normative commitment to open black boxes, even ones created to protect its own methodologies.

(Jim, feel free to comment on prose and content.))

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