About STS

STS is an interdisciplinary research area called (variously) Science, Technology, and SocietyScience and Technology StudiesScience Studies, or (in Spanish) Ciencia, tecnología, y sociedad (CTS). It is concerned with two subjects:

  • how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific research and technological innovation; and
  • how scientific research and technological innovation affect society, politics, and culture.

It is important to note that these two subject areas are seen to be in reciprocal relation with each other. In other words, science & technology shape society, but society in turn shapes science & technology.

STS scholars tend to be inspired by one or both of the following:

  • Scholarship The intellectual excitement of examining and explaining scientific and technological innovations and controversies, as well as the impact of science and technology on society, from new and revealing perspectives, all of which assume that science and technology are socially embedded.
  • Activism Concern over the direction that science and technology have taken and the rising potential for adverse impacts.

History of STS

STS is a new and expanding subject; for example, in 2005, four major U.S. universities announced new STS programs. Like most interdisciplinary programs, it emerged from the confluence of a variety of disciplines and disciplinary subfields, all of which had developed an interest — typically, during the 1960s or 1970s– in viewing science and technology as socially embedded enterprises.

Early Developments

The key disciplinary components of STS took shape independently, beginning in the 1960s, and developed in isolation from each other well into the 1980s:

  • Science studies, a branch of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) that places scientific controversies in their social context.
  • The history of technology, that examines technology in its social and historical context. Starting in the 1960s, some historians questioned technological determinism, a doctrine that can induce public passivity (after all, why bother fighting something that’s inevitable)? At the same time, some historians began to develop similarly contextual approaches to the history of medicine.
  • history and philosophy of science (HPS) (1960s). After the publication of Thomas Kuhn‘s well-known Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which attributed changes in scientific theories to changes in underlying intellectual paradigms, programs were founded at the University of California, Berkeley and elsewhere that brought historians of science and philosophers together in unified programs.
  • Science, technology, and society In the mid- to late-1960s, student and faculty social movements in U.S., UK and European universities helped to launch a range of new interdiscplinary fields (such as Women’s Studies) disciplines that were seen to address relevant topics that the traditional curriculum ignored. One such development was the rise of “science, technology, and society” programs, which are also — confusingly — known by the STS acronym. Drawn from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, history, political science, and sociology, scholars in these programs created undergraduate curricula devoted to exploring the issues raised by science and technology. Unlike scholars in science studies, history of technology, or the history and philosophy of science, they were and are more likely to see themselves as activists working for change rather than dispassionate, “ivory tower” researchers. As an example of the activist impulse, feminist scholars in this and other emerging STS areas addressed themselves to the exclusion of women from science and engineering.
  • Science, engineering, and public policy (SEPP) studies emerged in the 1970s from the same concerns that motivated the founders of the science, technology, and society movement: A sense that science and technology were developing in ways that were increasingly at odds with the public’s best interests. The science, technology, and society movement tried to humanize those who would make tomorrow’s science and technology, but this discipline took a different approach: It would train students with the professional skills needed to become players in science and technology policy. Some programs came to emphasize quantitative methodologies, and most of these were eventually absorbed into systems engineering. Others emphasized sociological and qualitative approaches, and found that their closest kin could be found among scholars in science, technology, and society departments.

During the 1970s and 1980s, leading universities in the U.S., UK, and Europe began drawing these various components together in new, interdisciplinary programs. For example, in the 1970s, Cornell University developed a new program that united science studies and policy-oriented scholars with historians and philosophers of science and technology. Each of these programs developed unique identities due to variation in the components that were drawn together, as well as their location within the various universities. For example, the University of Virginia’s STS program united scholars drawn from a variety of fields (with particular strength in the history of technology); however, the program’s teaching responsibilities — it is located within an engineering school and teaches ethics to undergraduate engineering students — means that all of its faculty share a strong interest in engineering ethics.

The “Turn to Technology”

A decisive moment in the development of STS was the mid-1980s addition of technology studies to the range of interests reflected in science studies programs. During that decade, two works appeared en seriatim that signaled what Steve Woolgar was to call the “turn to technology”: Social Shaping of Technology (MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1985) and The Social Construction of Technological Systems (Bijker, Hughes et al., 1987). MacKenzie and Wajcman primed the pump by collecting a highly readable collection of articles attesting to the influence of society on technological design. In a seminal article, Trevor Pinch and Weibe Bijker attached all the legitimacy of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge to this development by showing how the sociology of technology could proceed along precisely the theoretical and methodological lines established by the sociology of scientific knowledge. This was the intellectual foundation of the field they called the social construction of technology (SCOT).

The “turn to technology” helped to cement an already growing awareness of underlying unity among the various emerging STS programs.

Professional Associations

The subject has several professional associations:

Founded in 1975, the Society for Social studies of Science, initially provided scholarly communication facilities — including a journal (Science, Technology, and Human Values) and annual meetings — that were mainly attended by science studies scholars, but the society has since grown into the most important professional association of science and technology studies scholars worldwide. The Society for Social Studies of Science members also include government and industry officials concerned with research and development as well as science and technology policy; scientists and engineers who wish to better understand the social embeddedness of their professional practice; and citizens concerned about the impact of science and technology in their lives. Proposals have been made to add the word “technology” to the association’s name, thereby reflecting its stature as the leading STS professional society, but there seems to be widespread sentiment that the name is long enough as it is.

Founded in 1958, the Society for the History of Technology initially attracted members from the history profession who had interests in the contextual history of technology. After the “turn to technology” in the mid-1980s, the society’s well-regarded journal (Technology and Culture) and its annual meetings began to attract considerable interest from non-historians with technology studies interests.

Less identified with STS, but also of importance to many STS scholars, are the History of Science Society, the Philosophy of Science Association, and the Association for the History of Medicine. In addition, there are significant STS-oriented special interest groups within major disciplinary associations, including the American Anthropological Association and the American Sociological Association.

The Future of STS

STS is now sufficiently well established to have taken on a distinct identity as a field capable of offering an indispensable perspective on science and technology. At the same time, STS has won widespread respect for the rigor and excellence of its scholarship, much of which takes the form of detailed, book length case studies. (The term “studies” in “science and technology studies” reflects the field’s preference for high-quality, in-depth, detailed case studies as a fundamental measure of scholarly achievement.) Still, some STS scholars express dissatisfaction with the field’s as-yet nascent impact on science and technology practice, and call for closer, more collaborative relationships with scientists and engineers.