Science and Technology Studies Essay

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Alternately referred to as “science studies” or “science, technology, and society,” science and technology studies (STS) emerged relatively recently as an interdisciplinary conversation straddling the social and natural sciences. STS is commonly held to have originated with a critique of orthodox historical accounts of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and similar epochal events, many of which depended on the idea that science works in a value-neutral fashion by accumulating knowledge obtained through direct observation. STS builds on an alternative depiction predicated on science and technology as thoroughly social phenomena. Supplementing its engagement with the history of science and technology, it gradually incorporated philosophical inquiry into scientific knowledge and the sociological study of technical practices and institutions.

Since the early 1960s, scholars and academic departments specifically engaged in those conversations have proliferated (beginning principally in the United States and the United Kingdom), becoming institutionalized in the 1970s in the form of a growing number of professional societies, journals, and state-supported research funding programs. By virtue of its interdisciplinary constituency, STS accepts a broad variety of approaches to research, a methodological and analytic amalgam drawn from across the humanities and social sciences that includes qualitative, quantitative, and hybrid forms.

Most recently, a broad movement within contemporary STS has sought to effect a conscious shift beyond the bounds of academe, newly engaging a variety of nongovernmental and grassroots organizations in the design of proposed technologies and environmental research programs, fostering a field of inquiry focused on the boundary between scholarship and advocacy and the role of scientific expertise in democratic societies.

STS and Environmental Issues

The field of STS bears strong relevance to contemporary issues of environment and society. Karl Marx was an early exponent of the fundamental interdependence of modern technology and nature, suggesting that the very objective of “industry” is to transform our environment in such a way as to make it more useful or accommodating to human societies. Many of the writings of Martin Heidegger develop a deep critique of this instrumentalist, anthropocentric relationship between human societies and nature. It should come as no surprise, then, that as a conversation on the social underpinnings and effects of scientific knowledge and technological development, STS is rife with concerns and questions also pivotal to inquiry into environment and society.

Social constructivism, for instance-a concept broadly adopted within STS in the 1970s-is an important example. This somewhat controversial term refers to the idea that technologies, systems of knowledge, theories, and even scientific “facts” are more appropriately thought of as actively constructed by social groups, in a process partially shaped by values and political forces, rather than through some neutral or “natural” process. One vein of STS research, begun in the late 1970s and usually referred to as “laboratory studies,” shows how afterthe-fact accounts of scientific work can be highly “sanitized” in comparison with the quite messy realities of how science is actually conducted.

By taking careful, firsthand account of the details of research practice, communication, and organization in situ-much as early anthropologists might have taken account of the details of life in, say, a Micronesian village-a more analytically useful depiction can be built, one that enables scientific research that more fully acknowledges its own social underpinnings. The relevance of this work for environmental issues rests on the prescription it provides for environmental science and engineering endeavors, be it the design of transportation infrastructure, the evaluation of genetically modified crops, or the determination of forest “health.” Sound science and just, sustainable technologies require an understanding of the social and political forces intrinsic to them.

Another broad area of intersection between STS and environmental issues lies in the study of risk. Arguably, a hallmark of our modern relationship with the environment is the common acceptance (or imposition) of technologies that entail nontrivial risk. This includes risks to humans and/or their environment, overt or undisclosed risk, potential or empirically demonstrated risk, and everything from long-term, cumulative risk (e.g., low-level exposure to radiation, or the introduction of genetically modified crops into the food chain) to immediate, catastrophic risk (such as industrial accidents or oil spills). Many large-scale technological systems of the modern era-nuclear and hydroelectric power, fossil fuels, industrial manufacturing, crop monoculture-entail such risk. STS scholars have focused their efforts on recording and analyzing the ways in which that risk is understood and evaluated and the means by which those most susceptible are allowed to participate (or are prevented from participating) in decisions about risky technologies.

This relates to a final topic of specific relevance to issues of environment and society: The meaning and function of expertise. It has been argued that science is intrinsically democratic in that it is (ideally) blind to the social and political biases and backgrounds of either its practitioners or those who rely upon them. One undeniable aspect of science, however, is that it entails the bestowal of authority on specific individuals (scientists and engineers) and institutions (schools, laboratories). Today that authority is routinely marshaled in arguments for or against many decisions and initiatives with major social and environmental implications, in a variety of forums from scholarly journals to courtrooms, popular news media to global economic summits.

STS takes the view that the very process of developing and conferring scientific expertise is unavoidably imbued with the social and the political. “Green chemistry,” for example, provides an alternative path for the education of chemical engineers by foregrounding the environmental life cycle of synthetic chemicals. Further, the dichotomy between “lay” and “expert” (or “user” and “designer”) itself valorizes certain types of knowledge over others, sometimes subordinating or ignoring the less-formalized expertise of those who are often closest to the phenomena in question and whose local environment is the most subject to the possible side effects and by-products of science and technology. Some STS practitioners seek to articulate alternative modes of research and design that capitalize on the participation of a broader variety of stakeholders, while others document those cases in which scientific experts and institutions have abandoned the orthodoxy of “science neutrality” in favor of conducting research explicitly in support of social justice or underrepresented populations.

Given the ubiquity of (and unprecedented authority granted to) science and the patent benefits to human welfare often provided by technological development, it is perhaps not surprising that the critical perspectives espoused within STS have engendered no small measure of controversy. By placing an emphasis on the more democratic ideals of science and the egalitarian possibilities of technology, many of those in STS strive not to eliminate them wholesale (were such a course even possible), but to shape them radically and appropriately.


  1. Mario Biagioli, The Science Studies Reader (Routledge, 1999);
  2. David Hess, Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction (New York University Press, 1997);
  3. Sheila Jasanoff, Gerald Markle, James C. Peterson, Trevor J. Pinch, eds., The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (SAGE Publications, 1995);
  4. Science, Technology & Human Values: The Journal of the Society for Social Studies of Science (SAGE Publications);
  5. Science, Technology & Society: An International Journal Devoted to the Developing World (SAGE Publications);
  6. Sergio Sismondo, An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies (Blackwell Publishing, 2004).

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