An absolutely fascinating 4S panel from Ana Vara and David Tyfield:

2019 New Orleans Sept 4-7

Open Panel 69: How Should STS Address Inequality? As a Subject, a (Dis)Value)? Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives

In technoscientific times of huge and increasing inequalities that involve almost all aspects of social life, both within and between countries, questions regarding inequality seem unavoidable to STS scholars, both from an analytical and an ethical standpoint. Specifically, the roles of technoscience in conditioning how inequality is created and augmented, and the (possibly novel) nature of its impacts on trajectories of innovation and vice versa emerge as central concerns.

STS has a long history of engagement with such issues. Since the early days of the field, the study of controversies (e.g. Nelkin) has highlighted the unequal distribution of risks and benefits in the development and implementation of many technologies, contributing to entire new fields of research such as environmental justice. Other topics related to inequality addressed by STS include working conditions, race, access to health, and gender. The study of the production of knowledge has also taken into account the differential status of knowledge according to its origin. While the study of ignorance is a relatively newer focus, with categories such as “undone science” by David Hess et al. targeting inequality quite specifically.

However, in spite of its sustained concern, STS has not developed specific theoretical frameworks on inequality. This panel invites discussion of the possibility and desirability of the development of specific theoretical frameworks on inequality in STS, as well as how contributions from other disciplines can be accommodated. From an empirical perspective, this Panel encourages contributions on cases where this problematic issue is central in different ways.

Ana Vara, National University of San Martín, Argentina
David Tyfield, Lancaster University, UK


The deadline for submissions at the conference website ( or via is February 1st, 2019

This looks superb:

Open Track: The Lives and Deaths of Data

Convenors: Sabina Leonelli and Brian Rappert, Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology & Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis), University of Exeter, UK (see also the Exeter Data Studies group:

Abstract: This track investigates the relational constitution of data: how stages in the life of data articulate to one another and the challenges involved in storing, moving, classifying, manipulating and interpreting them. The session is intended to explore the collectivities emerging through data collection, dissemination, assemblage and analysis. Analysing the ways in which information becomes taken as given things, the manner in which data and their varying contexts of use are co-constituted, and the means by which utility is invested and divested in them provides a platform to explore and challenge the powers attributed to “Big” and “Open” data by governments, lobby groups and institutions around the world. With its long standing attention to the conditions of knowledge production, STS scholarship is well positioned to reflect on the value(s) attributed to data under a variety of different circumstances, how such attribution changes in time, and what this indicates about the properties of the objects being identified and used as ‘data’ and of the communities involved in such identification and use. Questions to be addressed include: What would it mean to speak of the birth of data? How do they develop, especially when they are used for a variety of purposes by different stakeholders? Do they ever cease to be data, and how can we conceptualize situations in which data are dismissed, forgotten, erased, lost or regarded as obsolete? This session will be organised as a set of individual presentations encompassing several different aspects and areas of data use.

Process: The deadline for submitting an abstract is 21 February 2016. If you want to participate in this open track then you will need to select it when you submit your abstract to the 4S/EASST Conference. Instructions for submission of your abstract are available at

. If you would like to discuss the relevance of your paper to the open track, then please contact either or both of us:


The suggestion that research methods have a double social life seems uncontentious to me. The claims being made are that (1) methods are shaped by the social contexts in which they emerge and (2) methods in turn help shape those contexts. So research methods should not be understood as neutral tools developed in isolation from the social world they are orientated towards. Instead, we need to recognise the manner in which methods are shaped by that world and in turn contribute to its shaping. This involves rejecting what Law, Savage and Ruppert describe as the ‘methodological complex’:

It assumes that methods are tools for learning about the social world. That this is what they are. End of story. We see this in methods courses. Juxtaposed and differentiated both from theory, and from substantive courses, these tell us about techniques for knowing the world. Which to choose. How to use them. How to analyse data. And how to present it.

There’s nothing wrong with this in certain senses: in social research indeed we need methods, and it’s not a bad idea to use those methods properly. But to think of methods in this way – simply as appropriate tools – involves consequences, some of them unanticipated, which create a baggage which can be heavy, even burdensome. We can distil this as ‘the methodological complex.’

This ‘methodological complex’ entails a particular division of labour for empirical research and a particular conception of how research can be undertaken. Theory, methods and substance are construed as distinct spheres of activity. Research questions are derived from theory, inviting the use of methods to address them in relation to distinct areas of substance. They also argue that this involves the ontological presupposition of a stable world, with definitive features that can be reported and turned into data:

We’re distinguishing between the world on the one hand, and representations of that world on the other. In this way of thinking it’s methods that bridge the gap. If we get those methods right then our representations will match the realities of the world. Tools have a better or worse capacity to do the job at hand. They  will, as the philosophers of science say correspond to it; or at least (this is what the  pragmatists say) they will describe it sufficiently well to be treated as accurate. This means that they are tools for handling the world. If we get them wrong then our accounts of reality, our data, will be flawed.

I’m hostile to any attempt to refute naturalism on this basis, arising from the obviousness with which these points can be reconciled to a critical naturalism (see Roy Bhaskar’s Possibility of Naturalism). But I think it’s important to explore them because the analysis seems entirely plausible to me, even if I’m sceptical about the prescriptions many would draw on the basis of them. I also agree that, as the authors put it, “oscillates between an objectivist concern with ‘bias’ and a humanist response which seeks refuge in an ‘ineffable’ human moment which somehow lies outside this purview of representational methods”. Roy Bhaskar makes a similar point when he argues that positivism and hermeneutics share a view of natural science, framing reality in terms of a schism between matter and meanings with the former being the domain of the natural sciences and the latter the domain of the (hermeneutical) social sciences. In fact I find their analysis congruent with Bhaskar’s, complementing it productively as a result of a sightly different focus:

By reducing issues to questions of technique, it allows different parties to come together around some kind of shared project, whatever their goals,values, orientations and identities. If we need to create random samples, then this is because it is important to avoid undistorted samples. If it is dangerous to avoid recruiting so-called professional participants to our focus groups, then this is because we’re looking for people who are naïve and untutored in appropriate ways. If the ethnographer needs to avoid the outsiders who flock to talk with her when she first arrives in the field, then this is because she’s on the lookout for gatekeepers or people at the core of the community rather than people with grudges on the periphery. We learn all these things in a million different versions in the hope of reducing bias; in the hope of knowing and describing the world accurately. This search to avoid bias and to use our ‘tools’ more effectively is pervasive, indeed ubiquitous. We share it. But it then also leads to an automatic response, from even the most positivistic researcher, about ‘what is left out’ by any specific method.

Their point is not that a concern to use tools effectively is wrong but rather that an exhaustive treatment of methods in these terms serves to preclude consideration of others aspects of methods that are salient to the practice of social research. Their project seeks to recognise that “methods are fully of the social world that they research; that they are fully imbued with theoretical renderings of the social world” and to think through the implications of this for how we understand them. These are the questions that we lose sight of if we focus on using tools effectively. As I understand their point, they accept that tools are used in the production of knowledge but argue that to understand these ‘tools’ we need to stop and consider them as objects in their own right. Their point is not a trivial constructionist one, such as to assert that ‘methods are socially constructed’ (well of course they are, would anyone argue that methods are natural kinds?) because to do so would enact precisely the oscillation between objectivism (there is a world out there with fixed properties which we use neutral methods to investigate with a greater or lesser degree of efficacy) and subjectivism (there are first-person human realities which are intrinsically beyond the purview of objective representation using neutral methods) – in critical realist jargon, I think they’re proposing a systematic framework for investigating the transitive dimension of social science.