Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Conversations between Geography and STS

I've been thinking about the relationship between geography and Science and Technology Studies (STS) a lot recently, and this post is an attempt to record some reflections on this topic. In part my thinking has been influenced by our new institutional setting as fellows in the STS Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge Massachusetts, where I have been submerged, for the first time, in an STS-infused environment, and have been prompted to consider broader differences between the US and UK university systems. This relationship or conversation between STS and geography has also emerged as a key focus in a review paper on approaches to organisational learning which I am preparing for submission.

The director of the Harvard STS Program and our mentor while we are here, Professor Sheila Jasanoff, has encouraged us to think about the nature of disciplinary structures. Indeed she has written about this herself in the context of the relationship between history of science and STS (article here). When we start to consider the historical basis and development of disciplines which are now institutionalised in our university systems, journal titles, established roles for academics in government, and so on, the arbitrariness of such disciplinary structures becomes apparent. Why, for example, should history be a distinct discipline when all disciplines within the social sciences and humanities are dealing with processes, artifacts and knowledges with a history? Why should the discipline of political science contain the sub-disciplines of comparative politics, international relations and political philosophy, but no area for specific studies of salient environmental politics issues? We also face problems when trying to precisely define what a 'discipline' is. As Sheila put it, when we look at the myriad foci, methods, approaches and conceptual frameworks or patterns of interactions within any given discipline we discover that they are not 'disciplined' spaces at all.
Disciplinarity: Humanities vs Social Science
So in many ways it is not a jarringly different set of practices, understandings and expectations which we are experiencing in this new setting at Harvard, but rather sets of writings and approaches which have subtle differences in emphasis and focus. Geography and STS are disciplines with a lot in common in terms of commonly used methods and the theoretical and philosophical resources they draw on, and also in their aim of relating social processes to the 'natural' or material. It is productive rather to think about which analytical resources from each discipline can be most fruitfully be put to work to fulfill our intellectual and normative aims. 'Space' is a good example of a concept which geography claims as its own - and with good reason as much important conceptual work is done by scholars within the discipline. However, STS concepts like boundary work or actor-network theory have also had an important influence on geographical work and geographical theorisations of space.

This relationship also has national differences. Geography is a very strong discipline in the UK with its own prominent learned society and a long history, and is taught in virtually all schools and disciplines. Where STS is taught or practiced this is usually within geography, sociology or natural science departments. There are a few exceptions to this however, such as UCL and Nottingham. I think it would be fair to say that in the US, though there are several extremely prominent geographers at American universities, geography as a discipline has a lower standing and does not span the same range of topics as it does in the UK. STS is comparatively strong in the US with several well-respected departments at prominent universities like Cornell, Yale and MIT. Though still, perhaps due to its relative youth, STS is often viewed of as an 'interdisciplinary area' rather than a fully-fledged discipline. There has also been an unwillingness amongst some prominent STS scholars to defend STS's disciplinary credentials, as many of them still have home disciplines like sociology, philosophy or history of science to retreat to.

Geography is the older discipline, rooted in European colonial history and in the late twentieth century undergoing processes of reinvention and reflection on its disciplinary roots. Perhaps due to its relative age and size, there are much clearer boundaries separating different spheres of geographical work, from Quaternary geography to biogeomorphology, to economic geography and cultural geography. What many of this diverse set of geographers have in common perhaps in recent time is efforts made towards policy engagement and increasing calls to engage in interdisciplinary research in order to deal with complex contemporary challenges. STS is a much newer discipline emerging in the latter half of the twentieth century from an increasing focus on issues related to science and technology in other disciplines like sociology, philosophy and history.

We can find examples of academics who are working in the border lands between the disciplines - for example, Sarah Whatmore or Gail Davies - or figures from STS who have been influential in geography - for example, Bruno Latour and Sheila Jasanoff. Similarly the two disciplines share elements of the same intellectual heritage - for example the works of Foucault and Deleuze - and there are several key concepts with traction in both disciplines, or where there has been cross-pollination between disciplines - here I'm thinking of terms like boundary work, practices, situated knowledges, materiality, embodiment and co-production.

I have been focussing on the on-going conversation between geography and STS in an article I am currently writing on organisational learning and reflexivity. As I was trying to develop my argument, advocating the need to recognise organisations as entities constantly being made and remade, and for developing a more dynamic, open-ended and more-than-cognitive definition of learning, I realised that recent important developments and emerging directions in the study of organisations and learning have been enriched by the ongoing interchange between STS, geography and related disciplines. In the paper I have been trying to identify times when translations of concepts between geography and STS have led to new insights in themselves. For example, this is arguably evident in the development of non- or more-than-representational theories by geographers and others, or in the particular ways in which STS scholars have linked processes in the social realm to space and the material.

The paper is still a work in progress, and I think this broader conversation is likely to continue throughout my PhD as I further explore and perhaps even develop the borderlands between the disciplines...

No comments:

Post a Comment