Interventionist science and technology studies

STS interventions combine constructivist assessment with a change agenda

Project leaders: Roland Bal and Paul Wouters
Researchers: Teun Zuiderent and Ernst Thoutenhoofd
Duration: 2007 - 2009


This project aims to systematise what we know about intervention as element of science technology studies (STS), by investigating the relation between interactions with 'clients' in the pursuit of STS research. The project builds upon earlier work by the BMG group and the VKS and will extend this to a framework for systematic comparative, post-hoc research through a series of ±20-25 interviews, over the course of 18 months. The interviews will be conducted with leading researchers whose work falls within STS, or whose work demonstrates interventionist features: problematic interaction between different research goals, and maintenance of an STS research agenda. The interviews will be analysed with respect to apparently recurrent themes and interconnecting theoretical insights. The tagged material will also be the basis of organised reflexive discussion among participating scholars and the project researchers.

Curent Project Status

We interviewed leading Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars whose work demonstrates interventionist features. We interviewed Wiebe Bijker, Stuart Blume, Simon Cole, David Hess, Sheila Jasanoff, Brian Martin, Annemiek Nelis, Helga Nowotny, Arie Rip and Lucy Suchman after reading their work. In-depth interviews with each of them lasted up to three hours. Through a qualitative analysis of the interview transcripts in Atlas.ti we have explored differences of scholars’ reported participation in the practices they study and proposed different modes of intervention in STS.

One of the indicators of intervention modes that we encountered was the way interviewees saw the relation between ‘activism’ and ‘interventionism’. In some modes, these were closely related, so that STS research could credibly be conceived as a form of strategy consulting for activists. In other modes, activism was seen as a problem for interventionist research, as it implied a predetermined stance that prevented curiosity-driven, exploratory reconceptualisations of public issues. ‘Engagement’ was equally differently conceived, with some modes suggesting that empathy breeds the understanding that has to occur before developing a response, while other modes implied that engagement is not a relevant attribute of good research but explorative probing is.

To our surprise however, constructivism—foremost among STS epistemic commitments—was never raised in the interviews as a problem for action: the relativist stance that is implied by constructivism apparently does not imply a normative deficit with respect to a pragmatic potential for contributing to change agendas; by the same token, the tendency towards situated descriptivism and symmetrical analyses within STS should not be taken to imply that behind the published texts there was never a coherent attempt to either intervene in practice or expose it to alternatives for itself.

In summary, our working conclusions are that, (a) claims that the descriptive reflex of STS inheres a lack of normative commitment, rest on a failure to recognise that a plethora of intervention modes (including outright activism) and a range of motivations and engagements have long driven STS work, if certainly not always as an explicit theme in STS publications; and (b) STS intervention should not be conceived as a solution to ethnographic distance that is visible in much STS reporting, but instead as an empirical domain in which STS scholars are developing considerable expertise.

Project Publications

Zuiderent-Jerak, T. and Thoutenhoofd, E.D. (2008) Constructing constructivisst expertise: Epistemologies of ‘acting with’. Paper presented to the joint 4S/EASST meeting, ‘Acting with science, technology and medicine’. Rotterdam, August 20–23 Zuiderent-Jerak, T. and Thoutenhoofd, E.D. (2009) Modes of intervention in science and technology studies: Presentation to the Danish Association of Science and Technology Studies (DASTS). Copenhagen (Denmark), 10–11 June