STS in Europe

STS in Europe

9 novembre 2005 0 Par Arie Rip

Arie_RipArie Rip is Full Professor of Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Twente, The Netherlands

Article publié sous le titre : ‘STS in Europe, dans la revue Science, Technology and Society 4(1) (1999) 73-80. (Article reproduit avec l’autorisation de l’auteur)

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STS as an acronym is commonly used, but it is ambiguous, and interestingly so for the question of the emergence of STS in Europe and elsewhere.

The acronym can be spelled out to read Science and Technology Studies: an interdisciplinary approach to the study of science and technology in which history, philosophy and social studies contribute, and more recently also economics, political science and cultural studies. Work in Science & Technology Studies is published in interdisciplinary scholarly journals like Social Studies of Science. It can also contribute to the disciplines it draws on, sometimes raising new issues there, as in the so-called empirical turn in the philosophy of science and technology. My favourite example of a contribution to a mainstream discipline is the study of Don MacKenzie and Graham Spinardi on ‘Tacit Knowledge, Weapons Design, and the Uninvention of Nuclear Weapons,’ published in the American Journal of Sociology, one of the top disciplinary journals (MacKenzie and Spinardi, 1995). Their article combines detailed sociological analysis with a fresh perspective on science and technology, and it is exactly the latter which characterizes the intellectual contribution that STS can make.

As a field of study, S&T Studies emerged in Europe and the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Indicative is how a degree course in the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science was established at the University of Sussex, in parallel to the Science Policy Research Unit. The Handbook edited by Ina Spiegel-Rösing and Derek de Solla Price captures the early achievements, and reflects the combination of disciplinary and policy orientations (Spiegel-Rösing and Price, 1977). There are earlier roots, of course, but the intellectual imprint of S&T Studies, and its sense of breaking new ground, becomes recognizable at that time. The imprint owed much to Thomas Kuhn, whose Structure of Scientific Revolutions integrated historical, sociological and philosophical analysis in a compelling way (Kuhn, 1970). Kuhn was something of a godfather to the field. At a later stage, however, he felt obliged to create distance from it. The direction the field had taken appeared to him to embrace epistemological relativism, and this he considered intellectually misguided, and potentially dangerous.1

His position can be reformulated as why one should want, or inadvertently risk, undermining the achievements of science. This question has returned in recent years, and in a vehement form, in the so-called science wars in the USA, as well as in the UK but to a lesser extent.2 Scientists (especially physicists) criticize, denigrate and exclude scholars in science and technology studies. And I add, they are helped in their battle by the less fortunate writings and statements of some of these scholars.

While I think the science wars will fade away in a few years, in the meantime damage will have been done, and irreparable damage to some individual scholars. The reasons for the acrimonious debates and for negative action are several, but they all revolve around the symbolic importance of science in our modern world, and in particular, the concern of professional scientists about their status. In other words, even when scholars in science and technology studies do not do anything else but careful and distantiated study of science, and publish their findings in scholarly journals, they are still involved in issues which have societal and political repercussions.

This brings me to the second meaning of the acronym STS: Science, Technology and Society. Is this another scholarly field? Indeed, one can speak of studies of Science, Technology and Society, and there are Centres for such studies at several universities, including my own university. But Science, Technology and Society is not just a scholarly endeavour. It is also a movement, like other social and political movements of our time.

The STS movement started in the late 1960s, early 1970s, as part of a wider movement for cultural and political change, but oriented specifically to the practice of science and the training of scientists in universities. Again, there were earlier roots, John Desmond Bernal’s work being particularly important in this respect.3 The timing coincides with the rise of Science & Technology Studies, and the personal unions show that it was not accidental. The difference between the two STSs is that Science & Technology Studies were linked to scholarly disciplines, while Science, Technology and Society was a movement to introduce broader considerations into university education of scientists and engineers, and (hopefully) also in their professional practices. Quite a number of the present Centres, Programmes and Departments in STS owe their existence to this movement, from the STS Department of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, to the Department of Science Dynamics at the University of Amsterdam and my own Department at the University of Twente.

In fact, my personal career illustrates the mixing of the two STSs. As a student in a chemistry department, I was interested in broader issues, and took courses in philosophy as well. In 1969, at the height of the student movement, the narrow education of scientists was criticized, and STS was introduced as a new element in the university curriculum of physicists, chemists and biologists. Not without resistance on their part, of course. The big issue, however, was not, as in the present science wars, epistemological relativism and how it would undermine the status of science, but the politics of science and social responsibility of scientists. I note in passing that attention to ethical issues moderated the otherwise strong (and then fashionable) leftist orientations of the STS movement.4

At the time, I was involved in setting up a Chemistry and Society Programme at my university (the University of Leiden), and was active in the Science, Technology and Society movement in Europe. By the early 1980s, STS was widely accepted, but its political sting had become diffuse. Also, scholarly achievements were becoming important in order to maintain one’s position in the university. STS Programmes which failed to do so disappeared. Movement characteristics remained visible, however, in the interest in democratization of science, in technology assessment and control, and in emancipation. In my own career, for example, I mobilized sociology, economics and political science to study the dynamics of science and technology, but also applied this to develop new forms of technology assessment, and to critically analyze of the role of scientific establishments.5

The combination of scholarly interest and being part of a movement is characteristic of many people active in STS, in its two meanings of Science & Technology Studies and Science, Technology & Society. One can see this very clearly in the activities of the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST), and also, but to a lesser extent, with its North-American counterpart, the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S).

Is this an uneasy combination of two incompatibles: distantiated scholarship versus engaged action? Or is it the case that the vicissitudes of the development of STS have led to a situation where synergy is possible between the articulation of deep intellectual problems about science and technology in society, and professional service of STS scholars leavened with critical analysis? The latter is a real possibility. Indicative is how STS in Europe, at least in continental Europe, does not suffer from science wars. For example, Bruno Latour — one of the arch-enemies of science according to the USA science warriors — advises French governmental authorities, and contributes to motor-car companies’ discussions of their future (Latour, 1996).

This is not a plea to serve the powers that be. Engaged action takes a variety of forms. My point is that the achievements of Science & Technology Studies can be integrated in action, including action that links up with establishments. In the science wars in the USA, professional scientists, used to a protected life and now feeling insecure, victimize science scholars. In countries outside the USA (and Europe), scientists and scholars have been exposed to the insecurities of the outside world all along, and STS can be part of the solution.6

The questions I pose here, about STS, about the tension between distance and engagement, and about the embedding of scholars in the world of action, have no simple answers. I limit myself to two reflections.

The first reflection is about modernism and the continuing force of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Enlightenment ideals. The STS movement, for all its radical features, continues the tradition of the Enlightenment, with its strong belief that things can be changed for the better, and that science enables us to effect such changes. In STS, science-as-it-is, and the promises of progress, are critically analyzed. But the expectation of progress is still there. From Bernal’s optimism that science will lead us to a better world if we could free it from the shackles of capitalism, to the sadder, and perhaps wiser, version of today, that we should recognize science (and technology) for what it is and can be, and build on its progressive parts, Enlightenment reigns.

I do not want to give up the Enlightenment ideals, but am dubious about the implied voluntarism. As if it were only a matter of getting your goals right, and then work towards their achievement. The history of STS itself, especially in Europe, shows turns and twists, and path dependencies — but it may well be that it is these, rather than the various good intentions of the 1970s, which created the present-day situation and its potential for reflexive progress.

The second reflection starts with Science & Technology Studies and their present intellectual thrust. The constructivist position (which I share) has been deployed to argue against the certainty of received scientific positions. While there are good reasons to undermine such certainties — intellectually, in order to understand what is actually happening in science, and politically, when scientific findings are used to support gender or racial inequalities — the complementary question how robustness of findings and insights is achieved should be addressed as well. Otherwise, constructivism remains locked-in into its polemical and destructive mode. Foundations of science are constructed, just as bridges are constructed, but this fact of life does not imply that one cannot rely on them (even if there are some bridges which do collapse).

A broader version of constructivism – which I have called constructive constructivism to emphasize my point – is necessary, and is possible as well (Rip, 1994). I can use Bruno Latour as an example again, because he tries to develop a constitution for our scientific and technological societies, based on the insights of Science & Technology Studies (Latour, 1993). In our own research programme in the University of Twente, we use the phrase of societal construction of science and technology, to emphasize the limited scope of voluntarism of a single actor, and the importance of alignments and of patterns in the co-evolution of science, technology and society.7

In both examples, the whole issue of relativism, so prominent in the present science wars in the USA, evaporates. The science warriors tend to fight Science & Technology Studies scholars by asking them to jump out of a thirteenth-floor window, if they really think the law of gravity is constructed, and thus relative. Instead, there is now a joint concern how to shape our scientific-technological societies.

STS in Europe, if it can get its act together, will make an important contribution to the world of the 21st century. To coin a phrase: the modernism of the Enlightenment, with its fixation on progress through science, must be replaced by an enlightened modernism, where our appreciation of science and its role is informed by Science & Technology Studies, and driven by the critical stance of the STS movement.


  • Bernal, J.D. (1939), The Social Function of Science. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Bernal, J.D. (1954), Science in History. London: C.A. Watts & Co.
  • Cozzens, Susan E., Peter Healey, Arie Rip, and John Ziman (eds.) (1990), The Research System in Transition. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.
  • Edge, David (1997), ‘Beam and Mote’, Social Studies of Science, 27(2), pp. 357-359.
  • Fuller, Steve (1977), ‘Constructing the High Church – Low Church Distinction in STS Textbooks’, Technoscience (Newsletter of the Society for Social Studies of Science), 10(3), pp. 10-11.
  • Kuhn, Thomas S. (1970), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. Second, enlarged edition.
  • Kuhn, Thomas S. (1977), The Essential Tension. Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Latour, Bruno (1993), We Have Never Been Modern. Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
  • Latour, Bruno, with Véronique Vissac-Charles (1996), ‘Suivre un projet, c’est repérer ses objets-frontières’, in Jocelyn de Noblet (dir.), Penser le Futur. Paris: Edition PSA Peugeot Citroën, pp. 180-205.
  • MacKenzie, Donald, and Graham Spinardi (1995), ‘Tacit Knowledge, Weapins Design, and the Uninvention of Nuclear Weapons’, American Journal of Sociology, 101(1), pp. 44-99.
  • Pinch, Trevor J. (1982), ‘Kuhn — The Conservative and Radical Interpretations’, 4S Newsletter 7(1), 10-25.
  • Rip, Arie (1979), ‘The Social Context of ‘Science, Technology and Society’ Courses’, Studies in Higher Education, 4, pp. 15-26.
  • Rip, Arie (1982), ‘The Development of Restrictedness in the Science’, in Norbert Elias, Herminio Martins and Richard Whitley (eds.), Scientific Establishments and Hierarchies. Dordrecht: Reidel, pp. 219-238.
  • Rip, Arie (1994), ‘Science & Technology Studies and Constructive Technology Assessment’, EASST Newsletter 13(3), pp. 11-16. Keynote Speech to EASST Conference, Budapest, 28-31 August 1994.
  • Rip, Arie (1997), ‘A Cognitive Approach to Relevance of Science’, Social Science Information, 36(4), pp. 615-640.
  • Rip, Arie, and Egbert Boeker (1975), ‘Scientists and Social Responsibility in the Netherlands’, Social Studies of Scence, 5, pp. 457-484.
  • Rip, Arie, and René Kemp (1998), ‘Technological Change’, in Steve Rayner and Elizabeth L. Malone (eds.), Human Choice and Climate Change. Volume Two: Resources and Technology. Columbus, Ohio: Battelle Press, pp. 327-399.
  • Rip, Arie, Thomas J. Misa and Johan Schot (eds.) (1995), Managing Technology in Society. The Approach of Constructive Technology Assessment. London: Pinter Publishers.
  • Schwartzman, Simon (1985), ‘The Quest for University Research: Policies and Research Organization in Latin America’, in Björn Wittrock and Aant Elzinga (eds.), The University Research System. The Public Policies of the Home of Scientists. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, pp. 101-116.
  • Spiegel-Rösing, Ina, and Derek de Solla Price (1977), Science, Technology and Society. A Cross-Disciplinary Perspective. London and Beverly Hills: SAGE Publications.
  • Wolpert, Lewis (1992), The Unnatural Nature of Science. London: Faber & Faber.
  1. This position of Kuhn is already visible in the preface to his 1977 collection of essays, The Essential Tension. The contrast between the original Kuhnian inspiration and the radical consequences drawn by many of the so inspired has been highlighted by Pinch (1982) []
  2. One set piece in the science wars is the 1994 Gross and Levitt book, which continues to reverberate in the relevant academic communities; witness the pieces in Technoscience (Newsletter of the Society for Social Study of Science) on the related conference on “The Flight from Science and Reason in Contemporary Society” (conference report by David H. Guston, 8(3), Fall 1995, pp. 11-14, and reply by Norman Levitt, 9(1), Winter 1996, pp. 18-19) and a later discussion initiated by William R. Freudenburg (9(2), Spring 1996, pp. 26-30). In the UK, Lewis Wolpert has been an articulate critic of the sociology of scientific knowledge, and a more sophisticated one than his American counterparts (cf. Wolpert, 1992). Traces of the debate are visible in Nature, and were summarized by David Edge in his “own” journal (Edge, 1997).

    Polemics in books, conferences and scholarly journals can be seen as the stuff of academic life. The science wars extend, however, to resistance against appointments and harassment of individual science scholars. The long-drawn out battle to have a science studies scholar appointed at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies is a case in point. []

  3. Bernal (1939) and Bernal (1954) have had lasting effects. The pre-history of STS has been traced for the UK by Rose and Rose (1968), and for the Netherlands by Rip and Boeker (1975). For an analysis of the nature and context of the STS movement, see Rip (1979). The distinction between Science & Technology Studies and Science, Technology & Society remains visible, for eexample in textbooks (Fuller, 1977). Fuller’s characterization as ‘high church’ versus ‘low church’ in fact depends on a more general tension between elitist and emancipatory streams in science. Political and epistemological differences are inextricably mixed here, and I have tried to capture this by speaking of ‘high science’ and ‘low science’ (Rip, 1982; Rip, 1997). []
  4. The situation was, of course, complex and cannot be captured in a few sentences. For example, within the STS movement there was already concern about ‘hyper-reflexivity’ in science studies, because this relativist thrust would undermine the political clout of the movement. Also, the leftist orientation of STS was not homogeneous. In fact, there was a right wing to the STS movement, with its roots in earlier attempts at liberal education and the cultural and civilizational importance of science. And this again was not just a matter of politics, but also of esthetics versus ethics (elegance and style versus emancipation). []
  5. See for example Cozzens et al. (1990) and Rip et al. (1995). []
  6. Indicative is how North-American and European science scholars still identify, in their distantiated analysis, with the concerns of academics about encroachment of political and bureaucratic measures on scientific research. Schwartzman (1985), from his Latin-American perspective, sees this as worries about fine-tuning of an otherwise firmly entrenched establishment — in contrast to the difficulties experienced elsewhere. []
  7. One example of this approach is the analysis of co-evolution of technology and society, and the need to change technological regimes rather than individual actors’ behaviour (Rip and Kemp, 1998). []