History’s Fundamental Contribution to STS

The collective blog Somatosphere, always a terrific source, has just posted about and embedded video from a public conference last Spring sponsored by Harvard’s Program on Science, Technology, and Society, entitled “Science and Technology Studies: The Next Twenty – Conversations Within and Beyond the Field.”

Below is an excerpt from a talk by UCLA historian Theodore Porter in the opening session (“Does STS Matter, and to Whom?”) on the fundamental contribution of history to STS. (Or, better, link to full talk and commentary; I recommend anything/everything by T. Porter, but here’s  an additional link to “How Science Became Technical,”Isis [2009].)

I do not think of history and STS as rival claimants for my loyalty, but of STS as the far flung community of scholars taking seriously that – when much of academia still does not – the fascinating and urgent importance of science and technology in regard to practically every aspect of modern life… And I hope most will recognize history as naming an ideal of analysis in time and a whole field of exemplars for understanding scientific activity in relation to a heterogeneous culture, a culture from which science does not stand apart but in which it moves and speaks.

The historical form is no alternative to the mission of STS but rather can serve it while drawing upon it. And studying the past, like travel, helps us appreciate the singularity of the present, an experience that is further enhanced when we examine how the present has incorporated and been given form by all those materials, customs, ideas, and practices that the past supply.

He made a final point concerning language that I think may also apply to those interested in not only integrating neuroscience and social science perspectives (particularly anthropology) as an academic exercise but doing so in a way that “also and mainly” engages the public on matters relating directly to them/us:  psychiatric diagnosis, caregiving, and public mental health policy:

I think it important to be able to talk about science in languages different from those of science.  While this includes some terms of art of our own, we can’t do without them, I prefer to keep as close as my meanings allow to the vernacular. This language of study and analysis does not disavow, but includes meanings and intentions, unexpected consequences, elements of paradox. Formal tools like statistical regression or actor network analysis might be helpful, but in STS aiming to understand “S” and “T” in relation to society, culture, history, or politics can only go so far with these…. Writing for the public, if we grant it the courtesy of supposing it intelligent, distorts our analysis less than writing to provide fodder for the millstones of bureaucracy.


Porter, T. (2009). How science became technical. Isis, 100. 

ABSTRACT Not until the twentieth century did science come to be regarded as fundamentally technical in nature. Atechnical field, after all, meant not just a difficult one, but one relying on concepts and vocabulary that matter only to specialists. The alternative, to identify science with an ideal of public reason, attained its peak of influence in the late nineteenth century. While the scale and applicability of science advanced enormously after 1900, scientists have more and more preferred the detached objectivity of service to bureaucratic experts over the cultivation of an engaged public. This reshaping of science, which has been both celebrated and condemned, provided a stimulus to the incipient field of history of science, and it remains a key historical problem.

This entry was posted in challenges of interdisciplinary research, culture, brain, development, and mental health, Defining mental illness by Constance A. Cummings. Bookmark the permalink.

About Constance A. Cummings

Constance A. Cummings, PhD, is Project Director of the non-profit Foundation for Psychocultural Research, which supports and advances interdisciplinary research and scholarship at the intersection of brain, mind, culture, and mental health and illness. She is co-editor (with Carol Worthman, Paul Plotsky, and Dan Schechter) of Formative Experiences: The Interaction of Caregiving, Culture, and Developmental Psychobiology (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and (with Laurence Kirmayer and Rob Lemelson) the forthcoming Re-Visioning Psychiatry: Cultural Phenomenology, Critical Neuroscience, and Global Mental Health (Cambridge, 2015). She received her doctorate in theoretical linguistics from New York University.

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