Normativity Concept Narrative


This spring 2013 Virginia Tech STS course considered the nature and place of norms in science, technology, and studies of them. In short what ought STS be committed to? What roles ought STS play in society? What normative expectations and assumptions already are at play in STS?

The students in the class adopted a range of approaches to exploring STS norms. While some students created individual explorations, others created an amalgam: an exploration of site-specific normativity in STS with Virginia Tech as the starting point (see the visual concept narrative statement The Normative in Science and Technology in Society below).

Individual explorations

Major Normative Trajectories in STS

Timothy Jennings sought to compile and organize a widespread (but not comprehensive) list of norms that have been championed in the brief history of STS. One way Tim has organized these norms is in terms of debate-centered mini-narratives that track or outline prominent normative threads and conflicts in the field. Although in this project we have employed a number of methods to embody different conceptions of “narrative,” if you are looking for a narrative in the traditional sense of a text-based story, here you will find a few. Some of these narratives include:

  • What to Do about Expertise?
  • STS and Neoliberalization
  • Reform Versus Revolution: Science and Technology in Society
  • What Should STS Be, and Where Should it Be Located?
  • Critique and Intervention: Are they One and the Same?

and (perhaps the most "meta" of the narratives)

  • Beyond Deconstruction and Relativism: The Affirmation of Normativism in STS.

Click here for Jennings' work... (still a work in progress).

David Winyard attempted to trace STS threads in faculty dissertation advisors.
Click here for Winyard's work...

William Davis reviewed the place of norms in the history of Virginia Tech STS.
He found…

Merc Fox examined publications by her committee members and their citations.
Click here for Fox's work...

Adam Smith analyzed the Mission Statements and/or Program Descriptions of several major STS academic institutions.
Click here for Adam's work...

Gregory Nelson analyzed the program statements of several STS programs by focusing on their historical roots to the strong program and the Handbook of STS in order to describe the state of normativity in the field today.

Nelson's contrubtion with citations


In order to attempt to map normativity in Science and Technology Studies our group agreed to let Gregory Nelson survey three major Science and Technology Studies (STS) departments in both the United States and Europe. Nelson is a PhD student in the Science and Technology Studies department at Virginia Tech and was part of our collaborative concept narrative for Dr. James Collier’s spring 2013 class entitled The Normative in STS.

In order to map norms across STS departments in different institutional contexts, I examined the following programs online program statements, a few dissertation samples, selected faculty bios, and research interests in Science and Technology Studies programs at: The University of Edinburgh, Cornell University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


The STS department at the University of Edinburgh is housed in the School of Social and Political Science. Their program is entitled Science, Technology and Innovation Studies. For example see: Science, Technology and Innovation Studies defines the raison d’être for their program of study in that “Science and Technology pervade all aspects of modern life” ( Invoking key technologies such as vaccines, mobile phones, jet travel and the internet their mission statement defines how these technologies mediate our interaction with each other and form our understanding(s) about or place in society. On the scientific side, their program information statement asks us to consider the implications of how theories of natural selection, advances in quantum physics or new medical theories and technologies change the way we see ourselves? Edinburgh states, “We seek to answer the big questions about how societies both influence and are influenced by science, medicine and technology.” These initial statements contain the normative concept of co-construction or how science and technology shape and are shaped by society developed by Sheila Jasanoff and respectively Thomas Hughes. Edinburgh’s program adopts the critical perspective that science and technology are not separate from society but rather mutually constitute each other altering the way we perceive reality, form relationship with ourselves and the natural world, and the status of knowledge. To approach such question interdisciplinary inquiry is central the programs mission.

Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at Edinburgh advocates its “international reputation in all aspects of the study of science, technology and innovation in society.” Not only do they value their international approach, but also their historical legacy as a leading institutional agent for the study of science. Implicitly appealing to legacy of the Edinburgh School and the work of David Bloor and Barry Barnes the about statement describes, “With the founding of the Science Studies Unit in 1964, it is here that pioneering work was done in the sociology of scientific knowledge.” Edinburgh’s program articulates their long institutional commitment to inquiry into science through social scientific and humanistic methods by appealing to their department claim of continuing “a tradition of excellence.”

A notable scholar at Edinburgh includes Donald Mackenzie who authored a dissertation in the program in 1977 entitled The Development of Statistical theory in Britain, 1865-1925. In contemporary times Rebecca Hanlin authored and defended a dissertation in 2008 titled Partnerships for Vaccine Development: building capacity to strengthen developing country health and innovation. In the dissertation’s abstract Hanlin states, “using detailed historical exposition in tandem with the social-theoretic tools of the sociology of scientific knowledge(SSK), and particularly Barnes’ account of meaning finitism, this thesis examines the social the social origin, definition, and case-by case application of conceptual categories in the regulatory oversight of drug development and approval.”
This dissertation by Hanlin articulates the trajectory of Edinburgh’s STS department dating back to the earliest days of its founding by those who created the strong program in the sociology of scientific knowledge. The use of the words case-by-case and the reference to SSK articulates the fundamental intellectual trajectory of studying the relationship between science and society to the strong-program advocated and developed by Bloor and Barnes which emphasizes micro-sociological-historical approaches of inquiry and that later became major research regime in the field of STS.


I then examined STS in the United States and normative concepts in by investigating of Cornell University’s Department of Science & Technology Studies department in the College of Arts and Sciences: I contacted Trevor Pinch, Director of Graduate Program. Pinch is well known for his association with Harry Collins who developed the Bath School and the Empirical Program of Relativism approach to the sociology of scientific knowledge. The Bath School emphasized studying laboratories and experiments in order to approach scientific knowledge through micro-sociological studies rather than the more historical studies of the SSK. The Bath school approach was extended by Collins’s student Trevor Pinch who worked to develop the school of social construction of technology with Wiebe Bijker, which postulates that technology ought to be brought under the similar gaze of science by scholars who prioritize these endeavors as social phenomenon.

We can see some of the normative concepts of the Bath School in Cornell description of their STS program. According to the Cornell’s department website a justification for the field of inquiry is given in similar terms to Edinburgh’s statement. For example, the question is posed on the main website “What is Science & Technology Studies?” Cornell emphasizes that given the importance of science and technology in the world there is a need for “scholarly work on its social dimensions.” Cornell’s STS webpage states, “The Department of Science & Technology Studies is dedicated to research and teaching about scientific knowledge and technology in its social context.” The use of history is directly mentioned: “…faculty members examine S&T both in contemporary societies and through historical investigations.” The normative goal of such inquiry is “…to build a body of theory and empirical findings about: the social processes through which scientific knowledge and technical knowledge-whether packaged into texts, people, machines, images, or other forms-is created, evaluated, challenged, spread, transformed, and fitted into social relations.” The notion of “packaging” of scientific or technical knowledge embeds STS theory developed by Bruno Latour in Laboratory Life with the concept of the “Black Box” and Langdon Winner’s idea of artifacts having politics.

Cornell asserts a contemporary norm, socio-material embeddedness, of STS scholarship by claiming that knowledge does not merely exist in an S&T practitioner’s mind, but can become materialized in artifacts whereby diffusion occurs and intersects with broader society. The idea of “packaging” implies a normative conception of how information flows and becomes materialized. STS at Cornell takes this central understanding on board by introducing its field of inquiry. The move to prioritize packaging means that knowledge can become embedded in artifacts and becomes fitted to social relations, however, this is slightly different than the implications of co-construction or the idea that S&T both shape and are shaped by society that we saw in Edinburgh’s program introduction. Rather Cornell’s program asserts the goals of developing theory and empirical findings about “the way people use, reconfigure, and contest scientific knowledge and technology…the normative issues entangled in scientific and technological developments, and the place of science and technology in the modern world.” Clearly, Cornell’s aim is to study intersection of S&T with the broader society, but avoids the normative concept of co-construction directly, but maintains the importance of the relationship between S&T with broader society in more obscure terms.

Cornell refers to “the emerging discipline of Science and Technology Studies” as if the field has not yet coalesced into a disciplinary project. However, drawing on their initial formation Cornell states, “Founded in 1991, the department has an internationally –known Ph.D. Program devoted to training students to conduct advanced research.” The program also dedicates to undergraduate pedagogy in the conduct of STS. Cornell has a Biology & Society Major “…designed for students who wish to combine training in biology with exposure to perspectives from the social sciences and humanities on the social, political and ethical aspects of modern biology.” Cornell, unlike other program surveyed, has an undergraduate Science and Technology Studies major which “furthers students’ understanding of the social and cultural meanings of science and technology. It is ideal for students pursuing careers in law, public policy or management, as well as for scientists, engineers and others interested in science, technology and society.” Cornell’s emphasis on both graduate and undergraduate work in the field is evidence of the normative concept that STS is a field of inquiry of utmost importance in today’s world where science and technology are the dominate forms of knowledge and material production. STS inquiry ought to be available to both undergraduates and graduate students alike given the fields relevance to contemporary social life.
The graduate program description states, “The Graduate Field of Science and Technology Studies (S&TS) at Cornell University is devoted to training students to conduct advanced research in one of the most exciting of contemporary academic disciplines” ( Referring to key normative concept that STS research treats science and technology as historical and cultural production their program advocates how research in STS requires an ability to uncover how scientific knowledge, authority, and expertise operate in differing social milieus or international contexts. The normative desire for interdisciplinary approaches is conveyed forcefully in their graduate program description. For example, “the field transcends the boundaries of pre-existing disciplinary specialties. Such categories as ‘historian’ or ‘sociologist,’ are still relevant for guiding research design, but they fail increasingly to capture the transdisciplinary character of S&TS investigations.”

Building on the normative concept of transdisciplinarity Cornell emphasizes diversity as well. Cornell explains, “Our aim is to bring together faculty and students with diverse backgrounds and interests in a shared effort to study science and technology with special tools for exploring distinctive questions.” Diversity and cross-disciplinary collaboration is emphasized by both Edinburgh and Cornell. Furthermore, Cornell values a descriptive approach, a legacy of SSK. Their “…approach throughout is both descriptive (aimed at understanding how science and technology are done) and normative (for example, showing where actual practices and professed norms are in conflict).” However, not I did not see mention of philosophy but rather sociology and history as disciplinary frames. Hence, I questioned whether their program is actually normative in their research in terms of passing judgment. Are STS scholars at Cornell passing normative judgments on the enterprises of science and technology or are they dedicated to the empirical approach of micro-case description?

Clearly their approach falls more toward to the micro-case description side of STS that we observed at Edinburgh. Cornell’s STS graduate research description adopts the micro perspective overtly stating that “alongside a vita l concern with issues of methodology, epistemology, and social theory, the Cornell approach to S&TS nonetheless possesses a strong empirical focus. This means that a typical piece of doctoral work takes as its core an episode, comparative study, or state of affairs about which one can ask a coherent, theoretically challenging question deriving from the analytical approaches of S&TS.” Giving priority to the empirical, Cornell states, “The empirical material guides what can and cannot be said, while leaving considerable space for theoretical advances.” Clearly, the empirical takes priority over the theoretical. Does this normative basis for STS research confine the room for theoretical advances?

In conclusion, Cornell’s STS program embeds values of empirical practice as a normative concept for producing STS research. Their program seems to take Edinburgh’ strong program even stronger. Cornell dedicates priority to “the practice of the empirical” which “forms the foundation for theoretical considerations.” Their commitment to empirical work organized along the lines of micro-social case studies embeds the notion that legitimate and scholarly STS work must rely upon observation and empiricism in order to construct theory.

Two scholars of notable importance produced at Cornell include Virginia Tech’s STS department’s own Saul Halfon and Sonja Schmid. Schmid’s dissertation entitled "Envisioning a Technological State: Reactor Design Choices and Political Legitimacy in the Soviet Union and Russia" (2005) demonstrate the normative commitment to the empirical. In such a vein of STS she states:

This dissertation explores nuclear reactor design choices in the Soviet Union. It attempts to answer why two particular reactor designs were chosen for standardized production and implementation in the Soviet Union by surveying the technical features of the available designs, the role of the centralized, command-administrative economy, the characteristics of Soviet institutions governing nuclear energy, and the way nuclear power cadres were conceptualized. The research is based on archival documents, interviews with veterans of the Soviet nuclear power industry, and recently published sources; it draws on conceptual tools developed in the history and sociology of science and technology, and on sociological and anthropological analyses of risk.

Schmidt draws on historical, ethnographic, SCOT, all empirical approaches, which find their foundations in the Bath School and at Edinburgh.

Saul Halfon’s dissertation abstract explains how actor-network theory forms the basis for exploring consensus as commitment to a socio-technical network. For example he states,

Coming out of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, many people declared a new consensus on international population policy—a shift in the guiding framework from "population control" to "women's empowerment…Treating consensus as commitment to a common socio-technical network, rather than actual or strategic agreement on facts, theories, or approaches, this work seeks to understand how contradictions and tensions are bridged and covered over in ways that function "as if" full agreement were in place.

The notion of a common socio-technical network comes from the fusion of approaches developed in history of technology by Thomas Hughes and Science Studies by Bruno-Latour. Such programs are deeply indebted to the Bath School and Edinburgh. Actor Network Theory (ANT) represents the culmination of synthesis of many concerns in science and technology studies and constitutes the dominant approach of today’s STS scholars.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s program in science and technology studies is called History, Anthropology, and Science and Technology, and Society (HASTS) in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. Like Edinburgh, MIT’s program places value on the situatedness of science and technology in social and cultural contexts. Their program “trains scholars to study science and technology as activities situated in social and cultural contexts. HASTS faculty examine expert as well as popular engagement with the processes and products of technological and scientific work, and conduct research across a spectrum of geographical areas and historical periods.” The idea that science and technology are “situated” in society and culture recalls Edinburgh’s notion of influence/influencing. MIT establishes the raison d’être in similar terms as the other programs surveyed in this narrative as HASTS describes a methodological approach where:

…faculty and students employ historical, ethnographic, and sociological methods and theories to investigate a wide range of topics including: culture of engineering, the making of scientific tools and theories, conventions of laboratory practice, science and technology in military enterprise, the relation of technology to economic institutions, the relation of science and law, the politics of race and science, knowledge-production in biomedicine and life science/agricultural and environmental history/science education.

Normativity functions through the very objects of inquiry deemed worth inquiring into i.e. those listed above. The centrality of technology and science in contemporary society demands similar considerations as the other STS programs surveyed here. In a testimonial on their webpage Bruce Bimber, an MIT HASTS student in 1992 and practicing STS scholar, states:

I came to the STS program at MIT in the mid-1980s, as an electrical engineer who was passionately interested in the social and political dimensions of technology…. In the half- dozen years before I arrived at MIT, Apple had gone public, IBM had introduced its first PC, and Time magazine had named the computer "Machine of the Year" in place of its traditional "Man of the Year." Big questions were everywhere, and the STS program re- launched me on a new career as a social scientist who studies technology.

Clearly, the impact of science and technology upon society, embodied by the computer revolution created the impetus to develop social scientific inquiry into technology and science. Like all programs surveyed Bimber’s statement emphasizes the centrality of science and technology’s grand effect upon our society. Bimber is currently a Professor in the Departments of Political Science and Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Many of STS faculty at MIT are either former scientists or engineers; a difference from Edinburgh.

Given this brief survey of STS programs internationally we can see how consensus emerge that The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (2008) describes regarding the disciplinary formation of STS. The handbook identifies many of the same approaches from our survey. First, interdisciplinary inquiry is central to the field. Combining differing approaches across the vastness of the academia produce STS inquiry. Second, engagement with the broader society is forms the backbone of STS scholarship both in its initial constitution and in contemporary work. For example, in the introduction to the handbook, Edward Hackett et al state, “The field is not a narrowly academic endeavor: STS scholars engage activists, scientists, doctors, decision makers, engineers and other stake holders on matters of equity, policy, politics, social change, national development, and economic transformation.”

When looking to see what broad norms might characterize STS scholarship we confront as crucial split. One side of STS strives for academic legitimacy and the resources accompanying such legitimacy (High Church). The other strives for “change in the service of justice, equity, and freedom.” In three STS departments surveyed we do not see an explicit commitment to Low Church matters or activism. Rather, the program descriptions focus on how their inquiry is justified given science and technology fundamental role in contemporary society. It is clear that the activist side of STS (Low Church) remains under recognized by many of the institutions public statements surveyed though hinted at in the handbook.

The international appeal and conduct of STS champions diversity and international cross-disciplinary by appeal to the value of the international span of the field since its inception. For example, in the beginning with the publication of the first edition of The Handbook of Science, Technology, and Society gathered together a team of authors from different academic disciplines and fields in 1977 (1). The first handbook took four years to produce in which “authors and editors met and worked in Moscow, Schloss (Germany), Amsterdam, Delhi, and Paris.” The second handbook wrestled with the unsettled emergence of a full-blown disciplinary program. Hackett et al states, “Instead the [second] handbook offers ‘scholarly assessments of the field…definitive road maps of the terrain…that project the fields broad interdisciplinary and international outlook…” The third handbook is “theoretical[ly] eclectic[c]” in which, “normativity, relativism, and evaluation of expertise and scientific knowledge endure from previous volumes but in new ways: no longer just problems for philosophical reflection, such concerns are now posed in terms that seek collective political or social resolution”

David Edge, who the third edition of the handbook is dedicated to, summarizes some of the major norms surveyed across the three institutions and in the most recent handbook. Edge writes in the second edition of handbook in Reinventing the Wheel that “Local contingencies set local targets and determined the form of the emerging interdisciplinary dialogue. Since its inception, STS has been marked by its inherent diversity; a thousand flowers have bloomed, and some withered too.” STS is a program of inquiry which values diversity and interdisciplinary approaches. Edge summarizes that “STS holds out the ‘new’ view of science and technology as essentially and irredeemably human (and hence social) enterprises——both in the context that nourishes, supports, and directs them and their inner character. And this is a triumphant, positive humanism: not the miserable confession that ‘scientists are only human’ because you can catch them making mistakes, getting angry, being secretive and fraudulent” However, in so much of society we witness the huge consequence of scientists making mistakes with regards to environmental and human health perhaps the time for normative judgments exercised by authoritarian experts are of even more importance. Have STS scholars abandoned their capacity to make normative judgments about what ought to be pursued and not by abandoning the philosophical vein so important to the philosophy of science? Not once do we see any of these program or the handbook make mention of those philosophers who formed so much of the early work in the social studies of science.

At the end of the day I come back to the slightly different question posed four years ago by Dr. James Collier: whither the philosophy of normative judgment in Science and Technology Studies? Social activism, on the part of the Frankfurt School, motivated many of the early work in STS, whereby the regimes of science and technology were questioned and challenged in their contemporary form. However, today’s appeal to mass participatory democracy has outsourced the authority of the STS practitioner to make normative claims to the masses in the name of neoliberal democracy. Maybe it is time to become more willing to make decisions and use expertise with clear normative commitments through adjudicating what ought to be pursued and what ought to be fought? This is a dangerous route but the failure to do so might result in a planet inhospitable to humans. To survive requires judgment. Invigorating activism in STS will invigorate the macro philosophical-normative critiques so characteristic of the Frankfurt School long go and may help our current situation.

Small Group Project

The Visual Concept Narrative Statement

Using a visual program for concept organization, a smaller subset of the students in the course created a timeline of STS events, influences, trajectories, and programmatic missions.

Crystal Cook and Jen Henderson concentrate on the academic biographies of their committee members and worked their way out and back. Their hope is that by uncovering people key to their academic STS lives, these students might be able to uncover the STS norms which they themselves have taken on. Rather than speaking for STS writ large, Jen and Crystal speak for what STS may be at a certain place and time. It is their hope that the viewer engages with and uncovers her own expectations as she reads through these vignettes: What do you find yourself reacting to? In agreement or disagreement with? What norms do these descriptions reveal? What do they demonstrate STS ought to be?

This visual concept narrative statement stretches beyond Virginia Tech as Adam Smith interweaves into the narrative STS ideals as described in descriptions of STS programs; another student, Greg Nelson, layers in various STS program mission statements. Expanding from here, Nicole Regna examins norms in her scientific field of biology. On the concept narrative visual statement below these scientific norms weave through the stories, people, ideals of STS. One might then ask, what contrast or comparison do her insights provide to the norms expressed in STS? Are they touchstones or hot potatoes—something passed around but never held for long?

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