Science and its surroundings

Development Policy28 Nov 2007The Broker

Broker readers interested in cross-disciplinary research at the edge of science and technology and social sciences may want to browse these two websites: and Both look at science and technology in their historical contexts: how does – and did – technology interact with society, culture and political, economic, social, and psychological developments.

The Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) is a scholarly platform that facilitates debates about science across conventional academic boundaries. Engineers and anthropologists, economists and philosophers of science – all are welcome to contribute. 4S covers an enormously broad area, as is evident from 600-page book of abstracts for this year’s annual meeting in Montreal.

4S is governed by a President and a nine-member council. The current president is Michael Lynch of Cornell University, one of the eight Ivy League universities in the US. Among his predecessors are the French philosopher Bruno Latour and Wiebe Bijker, professor of science and technology at Maastricht University. One of the 4S council members also hails from the Netherlands: Paul Wouters, founder of the Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Launched in 2006, with the support of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), the VKS calls itself a platform for cross-disciplinary thinking about new ways of knowledge creation, specifically ‘e-research’. For a list of innovative research projects, visit

‘All history is relevant, but the history of technology is most relevant’. So goes the precept of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), another ‘cross-’ and ‘multidisciplinary’ institution that brings together the arts and the sciences. Founded in 1958, SHOT is, according to its website, ‘dedicated to the historical study of technology and its relations with politics, economics, labour, business, the environment, public policy, science and the arts’. The research topics of SHOT members reflect this wide range of interests. Academics from mostly US and European universities share their research findings at annual meetings.

It is historical curiosity as well as political engagement that speaks from presentation titles such as: ‘(Post)Cold War imaginaries: Satellites, cell phones, and nanotechnology’, ‘Switching to a biofuel in the pinch: Wood gas in Finnish automobile traffic during World War II’, and ‘Ideology and irony in technopolitics: Computers and apartheid revisited’.

Political commitment is also the angle from which, again, Wiebe Bijker spoke at the opening plenary of SHOT’s annual meeting this year. Looking ahead to SHOT’s 50th anniversary, Bijker pointed to the society’s challenges outside academia. SHOT should engage with the most urgent challenges facing humankind, he argued: globalization and vulnerability. By analyzing the ‘fundamental characteristics of our technological cultures’, historians of science can play their part in the alleviation of poverty, hunger and illness. Bijker’s paper will appear in SHOT’s quarterly journal, Technology and Culture, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Another journal to look up is Inside Technology (MIT Press).