Some reflections on research on Long Covid and ME/CFS – or, how to better integrate different knowledge cultures and establish more coordination in research

By Ruth Falkenberg

I have been lying in bed with Long Covid for nearly three months now. Even small tasks are incredibly exhausting for me. I have constant pains, and I am basically unable to continue my PhD, which I would so much like to move forward. This is not what this short piece is about, but I want to disclose from the beginning from what position I am writing these reflections.

Representational picture of a bed – Photo by Becca Schultz

In the past weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about Long Covid research as it is currently unfolding, about papers that have been brought to my attention (‘did you see this new article yet?’ ‘oh, my colleague is also doing research on this, take a look!’), as well as about discussions and activism happening on social media platforms. I want to share some of these bedside reflections here.

On the one hand, it is certainly most welcome that research on Long Covid is accelerating now, after the condition itself, people’s suffering, and the lack of adequate treatment options have been ignored in so many spaces for far too long. More research on the condition is most welcome, not only by people suffering from Long Covid, but also by those who are dealing with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) – a condition that has existed as a medical diagnosis for decades (Rogers 2022). Nevertheless, patients and their suffering have remained mostly unacknowledged, uncared for, and even gaslit by large parts of the medical system.

On the other hand, I all too often find myself stumbling across papers – from a broad spectrum of sciences, including social sciences and humanities – that tend to present as new findings what people suffering from ME/CFS and Long Covid have known and tried to bring to attention for years. For example, yes, both patients and those few doctors that are experienced with seeing and taking seriously patients with ME/CFS and Long Covid have soon recognized the often greatly overlapping symptom constellations of the two conditions. Yet, it sometimes seems that such insights that have been gained and gathered by patients and practitioners – personally but also in Facebook groups, internet fora, or different kinds of associations – are now being heralded as ‘breakthrough findings’ in academia. Of course, it makes sense to further strengthen and substantiate existing insights of patients and practitioners with clinical data and to develop biomarkers for diagnosing ME/CFS and Long Covid, etc. Nevertheless, from reading respective articles, my impression is that such research is mostly done without much contact with the knowledge cultures and existing insights of those most affected.

Research in Science and Technology Studies (STS) has pointed to problems of lacking exchange and mutual learning between different knowledge cultures – but also the potential latent in such exchanges – for decades (see, e.g., Wynne, 1989). Yet, being deeply affected by this current case myself, I find it hard to witness how academia oftentimes seems to present as cutting-edge findings that seem crystal clear to patients and experienced practitioners. I am thus increasingly asking myself what would need to happen in order to bring about more mutual learning between biomedical and other kinds of research and the experience-based knowledge that patients and practitioners have accumulated, cultivated, and shared over the past years and decades. Effectively building on these existing experiences would be particularly important for moving on much quicker to conducting pharmacological and other kinds of treatment studies that are so urgently needed. At the moment, ‘pacing’ – the extremely strict management of one’s anyways severely limited energy resources – is the best strategy there is to offer to patients with both (or the same?) conditions.

In my view, more mutual learning and contact between medical and patient- and practitioner-based knowledge cultures could also do a lot for such treatment studies themselves. Often, I hear utterances such as ‘there is no proper evidence’, ‘we need (larger) randomized controlled trials’, etc… and, sure, it would be great to create this kind of evidence. But patients with Long Covid and ME/CFS are taking tons of off-label drugs, prescribed by a handful of caring practitioners, while alternatives with a better evidence base lag behind demand. They are thus effectively creating their own evidence bases, derived from what helps and what does not. Instead of ignoring these evidence bases and sticking to dominant medical evidence hierarchies (on the latter see, e.g., Timmermanns and Berg, 2003; Trnka & Stöckelová, 2019; or Falkenberg 2019), researchers could at least try to gather them in retrospective cohort studies, or even case study series.

Sometimes, these days, I have been reminded of Steven Epstein (1996) and others’ writing on the AIDS uprisings, with people desperately calling for studies to be done differently, faster, with drugs being approved earlier, etc. I by no means want to compare the suffering of people back then with that of people today, as these are simply completely different conditions and contexts we find ourselves in. However, I feel that some re-thinking of medical evidence regimes and better communication between patient-based and academic knowledge cultures might also in the present case not be a bad idea – given the immense suffering going on, the fact that people are already taking experimental drugs, and that doctors are trying out every option that seems remotely useful to alleviate, if not causes, then at least symptoms. Once again, there are evidence bases that are built up in these experience-based knowledge cultures that should be more closely integrated with those of biomedical and other research.

STS research could play an important role here, in analysing and advocating for these issues with an active voice present in public discourse. Certainly, ME/CFS and Long Covid are also simply fascinating case studies from an STS perspective. Yet, I feel there is a danger also for STS to fall back into the all-too-comfortable mode of just writing another paper, packaging existing wisdom from other knowledge cultures in fancy analytic terms and publishing it in a disciplinary journal. While such publications might turn out to be an interesting read for other STSers and a valuable asset in the CV, it might not be of much help to affected people. I have, already at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, written about how important it is, especially in situations where there is so much suffering going on, to truly reflect on what kinds of research are actually needed and will help affected people. While jumping onto the next trendy topic may be tempting, already existing wisdom and embodied knowledge should not be ignored.

Overall, in my opinion, much more coordination work in research on Long Covid and ME/CFS is needed in the (social) sciences, but also in STS – and potentially facilitated by STS. STS researchers could actively take up an important role in bringing together the different implicated knowledge cultures and even call for a re-thinking of medical evidence hierarchies in this particular case. Such an active engagement from actors other than those affected would be particularly important since patients with Long Covid and ME/CFS hardly have the energy and capacity to engage in any kind of activism themselves. As Rogers (2022, p. 413) simply but appositely put it, “activism involves action, and people with ME/CFS can’t really do that”. It thus needs other actors to take up this task. And while this blogpost surely cannot draw a comprehensive picture of what would be needed to better bring together those different knowledge cultures, and in the end to better orient research in a way that it can truly support affected people, STS research and engagement could take important steps in such a direction. Coordination work from the field of STS may, amongst others, entail extensively exploring, with eyes wide open to things beyond usual academic horizons, how to build on existing knowledges and how to better coordinate the knowledge cultures of patients and practitioners with those of biomedical and other research. This might provide one step in bringing about research that truly helps affected people and integrates their embodied experience and long-standing engagement, rather than bluntly ignoring it.


References
Epstein, Steven. (1996) Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Falkenberg, R.I. (2019). Downward-facing dog meets randomised controlled trial. Investigating valuations in medical yoga research. Master Thesis: University of Vienna
Rogers, E.L. (2022), Recursive Debility: Symptoms, Patient Activism, and the Incomplete Medicalization of ME/CFS. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 36: 412-428. https://doi.org/10.1111/maq.12701
Timmermans, S., & Berg, M. (2003). The gold standard: the challenge of evidence-based medicine and standardization in health care. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Trnka, S. and Stöckelová, T. (2019), Equality, efficiency and effectiveness: going beyond RCTs in A. L. Cochrane’s vision of health care. Sociol Health Illn, 41: 234-248. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.1281
Wynne, B, (1989) Sheepfarming after Chernobyl: A Case Study in Communicating Scientific Information, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 31:2, 10-39, https://doi.org/10.1080/00139157.1989.9928930


Ruth Falkenberg is a doctoral candidate at the Research Platform for Responsible Research and Innovation in Academic Practice. In her work she is concerned with the intertwinements between (e)valuation of research and epistemic developments, focusing specifically on innovativeness and relevance as increasingly important evaluative registers. In doing so, she pursues a broader interest in neoliberal governance in academia, cultures of knowledge production, and research for social-ecological transformation.

Tracing publics in urban spaces: an experience of an urban walking tour

By Katharina Prielinger

Publics are not that easy to find and observe, since they aren’t just “out there”, but emerge and form against issues, controversies and conflicts. In the course “Engaging with diverse publics” offered by Pouya Sepehr in summer semester 2022, we dealt with diverse forms of publics. As the American philosopher John Dewey noted in 1927, the public is not a static entity that simply exists or is out there. It is always forming itself anew and is in a constant state of flux, its existence always fleeting (Dewey 1927). Deviating from STS approaches for studying the emergence of publics I encountered in the first Semester of the STS Master, (controversies, issues or conflicts), I would like to focus on public spaces and places. I want to explore the question of how space making matters for the emergence of publics by focusing on materiality in urban contexts. I shift the focus from the more specific publics (e. g. publics that emerge around issues) that are, in my perception, mostly positioned in discourses, to the public sphere and the way it is built and shaped by subjects and allows them to exist, interact and come together. Since the lockdowns of the past years, I have been confronted with differences among the ways people can access spaces have become more obvious: Some might buy an island for their friends and family, while others need to share a room with their siblings for home schooling. While public spaces may appear accessible for all, I argue that the way they are designed often keeps certain people out and invites others in.

To address the question of how space making matters for the emergence of publics, I will consider insights from the walking tour “The Invisible Smart City” organized by the Whoosh collective and led by Eugene Quinn. We wandered around the 2nd district in Vienna starting from the Krieau station of the U2 Metro line through the residential area of Viertel Zwei, the campus of the University of Economics Vienna (WU), and the Prater. We returned to the inner city passing through  Praterstern and Vorgartenstraße, finishing at the Karmelitermarkt. We would stroll from one of these stops to the next, observe them, and listen to Eugene’s commentary. The initial focus of the walking tour was to reflect on different kinds of “smartness”[1] in Vienna. The walk touched on many interesting topics and gave us room to contemplate aspects we considered “smart” about the places we were visiting. For example, we discussed how the social democrat approach to urban planning in the red Vienna period from 1919 to 1934 ensured affordable housing. We also talked about how the celebrity architect Zaha Hadid had designed the library at WU Campus (the famous space-ship).

Although the walk focused on the multiple meanings and ways to encounter “smartness” in Vienna, it instead sparked my interest in how publics relate to urban spaces. Unfortunately, the walk itself was not long enough to deepen and discuss my observations concerning the emergence of publics in space (making). So, instead of exploring the initial “smartness”-topic of the walk, I use our course’s joint reflections as a starting point for my own observations.  In what follows, I discuss how the encounters from this walk inform my perspective of how the emergence of different publics might be facilitated by the various places we have visited.

Viertel Zwei

The Area of Viertel Zwei is a space of strategic city development (in contrast to historically grown quarters). Visitors encounter a rather open space with a fountain surrounded by buildings with glass facades where young (white) families and manufactured nature in the form of plant arrangements shape the picture. The real estate advertisements for this place mainly present its buildings, barely showing the inhabitants of the “green oasis” (value-one.com).

Analog to humans, nature will not only emerge where it is expected but it seeps through cracks and takes up space.

I did not really experience this place as an oasis. Walking the paved sidewalk, I had the feeling that despite the advertisement highlighting the greenery, it is only allowed in a highly manufactured way. Trees and grass seemed to have their designated places where they fulfilled a decorative function, almost like house plants. So, greenery in the form of unstructured and unplanned nature supposedly does not fit into the way Viertel Zwei’s urban planning is imagined.

Still, I noticed some grass peeking through the gaps between cobblestones, like small green rebels. I consider the way nature is enacted in this place – that is through the meticulous curation and regulation of plants – as analogous to the way I see it capable of shaping publics: It seemed to me that the public as well is highly selected in this area. I imagine this to be the case because although the space is supposedly open, it is still enclosed by tall buildings that block our view to the outside. These buildings were constructed for people who can afford a certain standard of living, allowing them to stay among themselves in this highly organized quarter. Everything is clean and tidy; nothing is left to chance. What seemed modern and progressive at first glance felt rather dull in this moment.

Modern, colorful, political: These benches are the modern, funky version of the armrests you would see put on benches in the inner districts

In congruence with the high standard of living advertised by Viertel Zwei, residents hold higher academic degrees than the residents of other areas of the 2nd district (Social space Monitoring of the AK 34, p. 15-20). While this area does offer plenty of possibilities to relax, many of them are only for temporary use. Their hostile design intends to keep homeless people from sleeping and spending time in these spaces (see also hostile vienna Instagram account), hence keeping them from the public that I see forming here. In general, the area of Viertel Zwei does not offer many elements (e. g. benches, swings, plants) that one could interact or engage with. The lack of flexible, adaptable design elements that can be used and appropriated by inhabitants in diverse, creative ways could be read as a suggestion that, in an area where most residents live in apartments big enough for individual design and decoration, such planning interventions are generally unnecessary.

Praterstern

The Praterstern is marked by transportation systems – the people here are passing by rather than lingering around. At least the most visible groups are people in cars and people on bikes. At the center of the huge roundabout of cars and bikes lies the U-Bahn and S-Bahn Station of Praterstern. Prior to the alcohol ban for the area around this public transport station, you would also see and notice the traces of club kids and party-goers this area, as well as homeless people. But now this already rather invisible public has been pushed to other corners of the city.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it seems that the rather abstract concepts of publics can still be seen and investigated when searching and interacting with concrete objects such as benches and spaces. It also appears to me that sometimes structural dimensions governing the use of spaces such as drinking bans and the imagination of territorial inhabitants (whether wealthy families or academics) shape the way spaces look and feel and appear to manifest in the ways spaces are designed. Stepping outside the classroom and searching for the traces of publics has made the theoretical considerations discussed in the course tangible; it has become easier to relate them to the way I experience urban spaces in Vienna. The walk and my research about the Naschmarkt/Markthalle/Naschmarktpark-Controversy in Viennas 4th district has deepened my insight into publics, spaces and their interactions.

Finally, with regards to my initial question of how to trace different publics in space, my conclusion reflects the (in)visibilities detected during the urban walk tour. On the one hand, being a member of the Viennese public is about visibility and participation to me. Wherever we encounter spaces that allow different groups of people (rich, poor, residents, visitors, men, women, different migration biographies,…) to be visible, we can see different forms of publics emerging and interacting. On the other hand, we should also pay attention to how material elements (including the use of urban technology) condition space and make certain groups of people invisible or displaced. In my eyes, a smart city (as the walk tried to show) is not primarily a top-down concept of “modern” buildings, smart technologies and organized nature; but rather a place where different people form different publics and claim and shape their spaces.


[1] The concept of smartness seemed to be rather unprecise. Back in the seminar, most of my colleagues reflected on the different ideas of smartness and how the concept of smart cities could be many things: including technologies in citizens daily life as well as providing functioning infrastructure for public transportation.


References

Dewey, J. (2012 [1927]). Search for the public. In The public and its problems: An essay in political inquiry (pp. 59-85). Pennsylvania State University Press

Marres, N., & Lezaun, J. (2011). Materials and devices of the public: An introduction. Economy and Society, 40(4), 489–509. https://doi.org/10.1080/03085147.2011.602293


Katharina Prielinger has been a student in the STS-Masters programme since Wintersemester 2021, after doing her BAs in Sociology and Political Science at the University of Vienna. She is interested in the intersections of urban spaces, politics and social justice as well as the different (interdisciplinary) ways STS might go.

Collaboratively exploring notions of innovativeness in research practices. A short tale of interdisciplinary publishing.

by Ruth Falkenberg, Maximilian Fochler, and Lisa Sigl

 

Together with the natural science partners in our project Valuing, Being, and Knowing in Research Practices , we have recently published a short article in the Science & Society section of the EMBO journal. Our project partners work in the areas of plant breeding, soil-root interactions, and soil microbial ecology, and are located at the BOKU and the University of Vienna. The piece we wrote and published together deals with, and problematizes, dominant notions of innovativeness in research practices. At least for one of us – Ruth – this was the first experience of co-authoring an article as an STS scholar together with researchers from the life sciences. Not only for one of us, however, the process of writing this article, as well as the longer path of getting there was a fully pleasant experience that came along with much mutual learning. How, then, did we arrive at writing this piece?

Interesting enough, the very focus of inquiring into notions of innovation in science was not one that was integral to our research project from the beginning, but it developed in and through the conversations with our interview partners (and now co-authors). Already in September 2019, we began to talk to our project partners from the plant and soil sciences about the various aspects that influence and matter to them when taking decisions in their work (Fochler et al. 2016). In particular, we were concerned with how researchers articulate the relevance of their work to social-environmental problems in their everyday practices and decisions. As we quickly realized, concerns about the social-environmental relevance are often not easy to make sense of for the researchers in their everyday work, and they often need to be negotiated alongside various other ways in which research is valued. One of which, as was often emphasized in these initial interviews, is the innovativeness of research.

Our project partners often pointed to an increasingly perceived need to demonstrate and emphasize the innovativeness of their work when, for example, writing publications or funding applications. Yet, we then asked ourselves, what exactly is it that comes to count as innovative in such contexts? How exactly do researchers (feel they have to) frame their work when arguing for its innovativeness? And, importantly, how does this shape their research practices, and how do they potentially adapt their work to such perceived demands for ‘being innovative’? In order to delve into these questions more deeply, we decided to conduct focus groups with our three collaborating research groups. These discussions – partly in person, partly online for pandemic reasons, but no less lively – were extremely insightful for us, and triggered many reflections on the side of our participants as well.

In a nutshell, our participants described that innovativeness in the current research system often seems to be seen as making ‘groundbreaking’ and risky steps in novel and unexplored areas, while research practices that build on continuity and the further exploration of previous findings often seem to be seen as less original. Ruth then described and analyzed these dynamics in much more depth for the first paper of her dissertation (see Falkenberg 2021).


Pictured: Innovation in science hardly comes about in single breakthrough projects. In our discussions it was often suggested that scientific innovation may rather be imagined as a myriad of small cogwheels tying into each other.

Yet, we also felt the wish to bring these insights to a different audience than that of our own field, and to communicate them in a more accessible form in a journal that is also read by life science researchers. This sparked this idea of writing not only for natural scientists but also with (some of) the researchers we collaborate with and have talked to in the first place. This idea immediately resonated with our project partners, to whom the dynamics around innovativeness in science that we have collectively explored are of no less concern than to us.

The three of us then drafted a first version of the current article. The subsequent feedback process with our project partners sometimes took a bit longer, partly because of Covid-related time scarcities on different sites, but also because some of our colleagues from the crop and soil sciences imagined it to be a difficult task to comment on a social science text. Yet, after a somewhat slow start, we received very valuable feedback and inputs from our project partners, and they particularly pointed us toward the need to refine and partly change our language when writing for a non-STS-audience.

Similarly, the step of exploring which journal would be suitable for publishing such a piece took a bit longer than usual: rather than choosing from a list of well-known journals in our own discipline, we needed to research and evaluate different possible options from scratch. After exploring and discussing different potential outlets, we decided to opt for a publication in the EMBO journal, which is featuring a special section on issues relating to ‘Science and Society’. This seemed a valuable opportunity for us to publish in an outlet that is prominent within the life sciences but that also provides a dedicated platform for discussions concerning research governance and questions of how research is valued and evaluated. After sending an initially much shorter version of the article to the EMBO journal, the editors encouraged us to further elaborate and exemplify the argument and extend the article. At first being rather surprised by this demand, as we are usually used to shortening our arguments wherever possible, we happily took this suggestion on board. The process of revisions was accompanied by repeated feedback rounds with our project partners, who gave valuable input at different stages.

With our co-authors, as well as with the editors, we soon agreed on a version we were all content with, which was published quite swiftly. Overall, the process of co-authoring this piece was very enjoyable for all of us, and we certainly learned a good bit about what to pay attention to when writing for, and with, such a different audience than usual. Most importantly, we experienced that it can take some time to establish a basis on which interdisciplinary publishing becomes possible (see also Brown et al. 2015), but that it can be a most rewarding experience to collectively contribute to discussions in such a way.

Pictured: Lively discussions during one of our project workshops

 

References:

Brown RR, Deletic A, Wong THF (2015) Interdisciplinarity: how to catalyse collaboration. Nat News 525: 315

Falkenberg RI (2021) Re-invent yourself! How demands for innovativeness reshape epistemic practices. Minerva 59: 423–444

Fochler M, Felt U, Müller R (2016) Unsustainable growth, hyper-competition, and worth in life science research: narrowing evaluative repertoires in doctoral and postdoctoral scientists’ work and lives. Minerva 54: 175–200


Ruth Falkenberg is a doctoral candidate at the Research Platform for Responsible Research and Innovation in Academic Practice. In her work she is concerned with the intertwinements between (e)valuation of research and epistemic developments, focusing specifically on innovativeness and relevance as increasingly important evaluative registers. In doing so, she pursues a broader interest in neoliberal governance in academia, cultures of knowledge production, and research for social-ecological transformation.

Maximilian Fochler is associate professor and deputy head of the Department of Science and Technology Studies. His main research area is science and knowledge cultures. His recent research work focuses on forms of knowledge production at the interface of science and other societal domains (such as the economy), as well as on the impact of new forms of governing science on academic knowledge production.

Lisa Sigl is a postdoctoral researcher at the Research Platform Responsible Research and Innovation in Academic Practice at the University of Vienna. She is interested in changing work cultures in science and the governance of research, with a focus on societal and environmental relevance of research. Further, she is interested in what kinds of conditions support inter- and transdisciplinary work and develops methods and tools to facilitate and manage inter- and transdisciplinary exchange and collaboration.

Which nuclear waste disposal type are YOU?

by Marie Rathmann

 

I’ll be honest, the “Science in Society Laboratories“ course threw me into the deep end. In the course, we discussed three different controversies and worked on them in interdisciplinary research teams. I would not have thought that social scientists and natural scientists could harmonize so well. The topic of nuclear waste disposal wasn’t my first choice in the beginning, but over time I came to appreciate the contribution my team was making. I only found my way into this topic because I was confronted with it. Nuclear power has received a lot of media and societal attention in recent weeks, but the topic of nuclear waste is still hushed up. I want to change this with this humorous poster because humor can also be a serious language. At best, I’ll be confronting someone else with it.

 


 


Marie Rathmann is a master’s student at the University of Vienna’s Department of Communication. She also works as a student assistant on the research project “Journalism under Duress: Risk and Uncertainty in a Changing Mediascape” at the Hans-Bredow-Institut in Hamburg. Her research interests are situated at the intersection of gender and media research. In the 2021/22 winter term, she participated in the interdisciplinary “Science in Society Laboratories” course run by the STS Department.

Reflecting on care in research: Using collaborative autoethnography to find our place as PhD students at the STS department

by Esther Dessewffy and Bao-Chau Pham

 

In February 2021, marking the first anniversary of the COVID 19 pandemic, Fredy, Andrea, and I newly arrived at the STS department. Well, not quite newly. After completing the department’s masters program, I was curious to finally get to know it “from the inside”. The three of us were warmly welcomed to the new office by our colleagues Bao-Chau and Sarah. Our office was in a building that was so new, not even all the construction workers had left yet (there was still quite a bit of hammering and drilling going on). I felt instant relief; good bye home-office, no more working at the kitchen table. And hello face-to-face interactions and office banter… As the following year has taught me (I dare say most of us), my experience of academic work in pandemic times simply does not live up to my initial, naïve imaginations of a spatially (and temporally) confined workplace. – Esther

Apart from excitement and nervousness, the overwhelming memory of my first few weeks as a PhD student in September 2020 is that of feeling uprooted. Within the first week, I was met by welcoming new colleagues (many of whom I would end up exclusively seeing on Zoom for the rest of the year), moved into a new flat, hot-desked in other people’s offices since the one I was allocated was still a construction site and ended up back in a makeshift workspace on my kitchen table as we all had to self-isolate. While this constant moving didn’t help with settling into a routine, knowing what is expected of a new PhD student, or finding one’s place within a large and yet unfamiliar group of people, I began to realize that this rupture allowed me to suggest and somewhat freely practice my own understanding of academic practices. Ironically, while studying how infrastructures often become visible as they break down, I was experiencing it first hand. – Bao-Chau

 

Settling into our work environment at the STS department, we wondered how our evolving research designs and the way we connected with colleagues would be impacted by the uncertain circumstances of the pandemic. Even though academic work has arguably been digital by default for decades, it seemed to us that the current (ongoing) situation added an unprecedented dimension, where the spatial and temporal confines of the workplace were blurred and working from home had become the new normal. To us it felt like the rules and rhythms of academic work were at a critical juncture – no longer in total disruption as they were at the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020, but not yet calcified – a sort of uncharted territory for us to settle into, explore, and shape for ourselves.

As a means of reflecting on these experiences, we – alongside our colleagues – initiated an autoethnography project where we would attend to how we, through the digital aspects of our labor, coexist, create workspaces (in our homes), and encounter our work environments and colleagues. The group involved in this autoethnographic project met several times over the next couple of months to document and jointly reflect on our digital work practices. Next to an interest in digital infrastructures and the production of scientific knowledge, the project is based on the conviction that attending to the mundane practices through which we navigate and balance our workplace and our homes (with partners, family members, and all), enables us to interrogate the nature of academic work, and perhaps find ways of doing it differently. Crucially, making our diverse living situations visible allows us to imagine and create a workspace that will accommodate our common grounds, needs, preferences, and our differences, since these are not always accounted for structurally and institutionally. Hence, in the project we draw on notions of care (Lindén & Lydahl 2021), attending not only to our practices of care but also critically examining them, taking into consideration how they have become necessary in the first place, and which (institutional) structures they support.

In this post however, we outline the autoethnography process from our perspectives as early career researchers and describe how the autoethnography has helped us find our place at the department and amongst our collaborators, as well as how it has shaped our sense of self as early career researchers. Rather than focusing on critical care (Martin et al. 2015) and institutional power relations that emerge from this vantagepoint, we use this blogpost (interspersed with ethnographic vignettes) to focus on how collaborative autoethnography as care practice has shaped our evolving researcher identities.

 

Encountering autoethnography

I think this autoethnography makes the work of arranging and curating what we write, collect, and think about in producing “data” really obvious. Our partial vision becomes particularly palpable when we compare the different aspects of (academic) labor we paid attention to and considered worth noting. Our living and working arrangements have such a huge impact on the things we attend to. – Esther

Being made to engage with one’s own, stay-at-home, sweatpants-wearing self and writing about the drudgery of home-officing, at first seemed to amplify Esther’s feelings of isolation. Luckily, meetings with fellow members of the autoethnography project gradually alleviated these anxieties; we realized that sharing and reflecting on the smaller and larger struggles of our everyday lives brought us closer together. Learning about colleagues’ care-work, relating to each other over back pain and infrastructural issues (like “how do I get MaxQDA to work on my home and my work computer?”), and becoming acquainted with the conceptual “glasses” through which each of us understood their work practices gave us a sense of belonging and shared identity, while the diversity of themes and practices complicated creating a linear, journal-friendly piece.

 

Thinking together

 

I’m still undecided as to how those observations, that were shared in this safe space we’ve created, will translate into an academic journal. In crafting our reflections into a coherent narrative targeted at specific journals I’m wondering what we’ll be front-staging, thereby reproducing what we think is suitable for academic publishing, and what we’ll backstage because it seems too personal to share beyond our group. – Bao-Chau

Given our diverse family, living and working situations and the realization that our collective reflections had gradually become impossible to detangle from our individual ethnographic observations, the thought of forcing our impressions into a linear narrative felt kind of insincere. Luckily, there is some sympathy for working with non-linear, experimental narration in STS. John Law for instance proposes to use a pinboard to collate empirical material around logics of ‘juxtaposition and difference’ (2007, 135).

The possibility to try alternative ways of writing excited us and reassured us that it is alright, sometimes even sensible, to not always force our thoughts into standardized genre structures, and that the occasional struggle with crafting a linear narrative didn’t disqualify the two of us as “proper” social scientists. Indeed, our fellow collaborators agreed that the pinboard analogy made emergent patterns and crucially discontinuities among our field notes visible. We became attuned to the way our different living situations imbued our idiosyncratic care practices that had become necessary to pursue academic work in pandemic times.

 

Getting to know each other

 Getting to know someone quite intimately through digital words, images, practices, icons (like Fredy and I doing the ‘night shifts’ and seeing each other’s green Slack circles), before getting to know one’s mannerisms also made me think about digital identities and their embodiment – I now associate Sarah not only with her face and voice but also with her profile picture on Slack, for example. – Bao-Chau

As a side-effect of the autoethnographic observations’ care-sensitivity, we have understood that even mundane practices such as writing this blog-post or simply noticing common work-rhythms, made us feel like our academic (writing) practices were a way to get to know each other, our thoughts, habits, and values, and thereby helped us establish caring collegial relationships. As Bao-Chau once put it “doing autoethnography was performative as a method in shaping our group to be what it is today”; it also attuned us to the digital dimensions of knowing and encountering each other.

The exercise of deliberately writing down, sharing, and engaging with our diverse work habits and routines in group discussions and workshops gave us the opportunity to reflect on the kinds of caring relationships we want to foster as colleagues, and how we imagine liveable workspaces in academia. We also became acutely aware that this specific way of conducting research as a team, taking field notes, joint reflections, thinking theory together, and writing vignettes, was gradually blurring the boundaries between individual and collective sensemaking.

 

Practicing care in collegial relationships

The autoethnographic writing required a lot of vulnerability and honesty with ourselves and each other. Digitally sharing and communicating private situations, feelings, uneasiness, emotions and struggles added a whole new layer of emotional commitment to each other. – Bao-Chau

 

Reflecting on and appreciating care practices in academic work that tend to fall short of recognition, such as reviewing, organizing activities, sharing relevant information and calls, or cleaning up text and quotations, has made us attend to the often less visible labor (emotional, interpersonal, time commitment). As early career researchers these were pleasant revelations that reaffirmed our career choices. Both of us had been warned of exploitative and hierarchical structures, but now found ourselves pleasantly surprised to be in such a caring, liveable work environment.

While this collaborative autoethnography project is ongoing (with new members recently joining and a few publications in the works), we have found that it has simultaneously shaped our experiences and perspectives in the early phase of our PhDs. It has also encouraged us to further pursue our interest in reflexive methods by organizing a panel at EASST 2022 called “Making Liveable Worlds Through Reflexive Methods”, to which we have received a number of fascinating contributions dealing with issues ranging from reflexivity in the biosciences to caring through entertainment magic. Moreover, we have understood the value of continuously reflecting on the practices and skills we adopt in order to become what we perceive as caring, attentive, and collegial researchers. Apart from acquiring ‘lockdown literacies’ (Gourlay et al. 2020) to navigate the new challenges and constellations of pandemic living/working, we have also become versed in shaping caring work environments together with our fellow collaborators.


References

Gourlay, L., Littlejohn, A., Oliver, M., & Potter, J. (2021). Lockdown literacies and semiotic assemblages: Academic boundary work in the Covid-19 crisis. Learning, Media and Technology, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2021.1900242

Law, J. (2007). Pinboards and Books: Juxtaposing, Learning and Materiality. In D. W. Kritt and L. T. Winegar (Eds.). Education and Technology: Critical Perspectives, Possible Futures (pp. 125–150). Lanham: Lexington Books.

Lindén, L., & Lydahl, D. (2021). Editorial: Care in STS. Nordic Journal of Science and Technology Studies, 3–12. https://doi.org/10.5324/njsts.v9i1.4000

Aryn, M., Myers, N., & Viseu, A. (2015). The Politics of Care in Technoscience. Social Studies of Science, 45(5), 625–41. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312715602073


Esther Dessewffy is a doctoral candidate and university assistant at the STS Department. She researches the academic practices enacting simulation software for designing and understanding processes in the built environment.

Bao-Chau Pham is also a doctoral candidate and university assistant at the department. She studies the sociotechnical imaginaries that underpin the governance of Artificial Intelligence on the EU-level.

Handout Hermeneutics. A Report from the STS Archives

by Magnus Rust

 

This is a story of how the latest technologies have changed our way of collaboration, and why this change is invisible. The center of this study is a mundane object. An object millions of students worldwide have encountered. They weren’t confronted with the very same object every single time but with different expressions of the same idea. We are talking, how could it be otherwise, of the seminar handout. More specifically we will turn our attention to multiple iterations of a specific handout issued by the Viennese STS department in the last eight years—the handout of the annual course “Risky Entanglements? Theorising Science, Technology and Society Relationships”.

 

Brief History of the Viennese STS department

It was the year 2010 when the Viennese STS department took another important step in its history. After the English-language MA program had been established a year earlier, the department moved from a classic Altbau in Sensengasse 6, where it had been located since 1988, to its modern location, the NIG (Neues Institutsgebäude) in Universitätsstraße 7.

Since its dawn in 2009, an integral part of the master’s program “Science-Technology-Society” has been  the “case-based learning” approach. Newcomers are split into small groups and given an emerging topic in STS. Now it’s the group’s task to write a full-fledged research exposé that could (theoretically) be handed in in a real world situation. From zero to 100 in only one semester in a field not well known to all of the students. A challenging task but also quite rewarding when finished. Not surprising that this case-based-learning approach won the Teaching Award of the University of Vienna in 2014[1].

This cased-based learning phase consists of a bundle of seminars, lectures, tutorials and feedback sessions. One of the five core classes is the aforementioned “Risky Entanglements? Theorising Science, Technology and Society Relationships” first offered in WS 2009, this year taking place for the 14th time. The “Risky Entanglement” is one of the staples of the STS institutes. At the same time, the STS department had been in flux. After Helga Nowotny had founded the original STS department in 1988, Ulrike Felt became, after 10 years as an assistant, a professor in 1999. Maximilian Fochler became the second professor in 2012 and Sarah Davies has been holding a third professorship since 2020. Not to forget all the students, PhD candidates, postdocs, or secretaries who have worked at the institute over the last decades.

But not only has the staff changed but also technologies, societies, the zeitgeist. It would be of great interest to investigate the topics researched at this institute in the last decade. But it is also equally interesting to not just analyze the works of this institute but how those works worked; how work was done, and how the teaching was organized. All of this follows a key concept in STS called “symmetry”: the idea that reflexive modes cannot only be applied to a research matter but also onto your own research methods.

 

Changing layouts

Here, we finally return to the handouts, more specifically the handouts of the core course “Risky Entanglements” from 2013 to 2020. Upon closer inspection, they provide insights into how digitalization has shaped the production of those documents. Even if not visible directly, those eight handouts represent a curve from a collective to a collaborative praxis of writing.

A handout—sometimes also called syllabus—is a staple of a student’s life. Its purpose is to comprehensively communicate what a given seminar is about, what is expected for the seminar sessions and how the seminar will be graded. From my personal experience in the field of humanities, I can tell you that there is a big variety of handouts. Some are very precise, others just create confusion.

You can say the handouts of the Viennese STS department were quite solid right from the start, like one syllabus from 2000 shows:

 

This proven design echoes in the first handout for “Risky Entanglements” 13 years later:

 

The design in general has become ever clearer, a department logo has been introduced and color is used to communicate even more effectively. The next iteration of the course one year later lands with a surprise. All the established information bits are still there but the text direction has changed:

 

“Corporate amnesia” and its solution

But why was the text direction and design changed? That is not that easy to answer, mainly because “corporate amnesia” (Arnold Kransdorff) is at play. This is a classic problem of “organizational memory”[2] or of “tacit knowledge” (Michael Polanyi) to use an STS term. It assumes that for operating any institution—whether company or university—successfully, much more knowledge is needed than what’s in the manuals. Knowledge that might not even fit in a written manual and is thus at risk of getting lost easily. When people leave an institution, much of this tacit knowledge often leaves as well.

The idea of “corporate amnesia”, however, is much older than management literature. It has been discussed for a long time and has been problematized in many fields, for example, in the discipline of history. It was Jules Michelet, a patriotic French historian and popularizer of the word “renaissance”, who wrote in 1846: “My inquiry among living documents taught me likewise many things that are not in our statistics.”[3] What he meant was that he was not only trusting the dead paper documents for his historiographies, but also seeking contact with “living documents”, that is humans. He made Oral History a staple of his analyses, also collecting French fairy tales.

Why the design was tilted is not exactly known, but it might have something to do with the media situation in 2013. Maybe the handout was not only provided digitally but was also printed and hung on the institute’s walls? What is more telling is that such a drastic design change was even possible. In 2013 there were 4 competing handout designs and even more variations at the institute, differing among staff members or guest professors (though the content structuring was pretty much the same throughout).

 

A disruptive change

This hotchpotch ended in 2015. Even though the lecturer for “Risky Entanglements” stayed the same, the design was adapted once again. From that point in time all STS handouts would follow a corporate layout that seems to have stayed unchallenged to this day. The only adjustment was that from WS 2015 to WS 2016 when the handout font was switched from Calibri Light to Arial:

This very last change seems to be the most neglectable detail of all but is in fact an indicator for the most disruptive change in handout preparation at the institute yet. It was in WS 2016 that the handout production was converted from offline to online. In previous years, word documents were sent between administration and lecturers for pinning down dates, contents and synopses. A tedious process that can be even more annoying if the two parties operate with different software versions.

In 2016 the institute’s administration started using a cloud-based service for the creation of the handouts. It seems like the seminar “Science, Technology and ‘the Law’” by Xaq Frohlich in WS 2015 was the test run for this practice and was subsequently adapted for all handouts to come. It makes sense: Frohlich was a guest professor, so communicating dates was more difficult than just walking to the office next door.

 

From collective to collaborative writing

But what is the disruption here? It was the switch from a collective act of writing—people work in the same handout but send clearly distinguishable versions around—to a collaborative act, where, at the end of the day, nobody can trace back what person contributed which part [4]. Wikipedia, founded in 2001, is a prime example of collaborative writing (even if technically it is possible to trace every change made back to a specific user account).

That was the giant leap: from collective to collaborative. Simultaneous instead of linear. From server-bound to de-central. Internet instead of Intranet. This allowed organizational re-configuration. The cloud document can be shared with external lecturers, always allowing them to access the latest version without being constantly bombarded by the STS institute with edited work-in-progress pieces.

It’s a bit like Schrödinger’s cat on demand: If you want to know about current status you can access the online document. If not, you won’t know the latest version, or whether there is even a newer version available. And like Schrödinger’s cat, at one point in time the status’ uncertainty is resolved. The handout is finished. The cat is dead. Every new observation will deliver the same result.


References:

[1] University of Vienna: Universität Wien verleiht Lehrpreis UNIVIE Teaching Award 2014, Blog (05.06.2014), https://medienportal.univie.ac.at/presse/aktuelle-pressemeldungen/detailansicht/artikel/universitaet-wien-verleiht-lehrpreis-univie-teaching-award-2014/)

[2] James P. Walsh & Gerardo Rivera Ungson: Organizational Memory, in: The Academy of Management Review 1(16), 1991 (pp. 57-91).

[3] Jules Michelet: The People, translated by C. Cocks, London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1846, p. 2.

[4] cf. Kathrin Passig: Schreibende Staatsquallen, in: Dorothee Kimmich et al. (ed.): Verweilen unter schwebender Last. Tübinger Poetik-Dozentur 2015, Künzelsau: Swiridoff, 2016 (pp. 69-86).


Magnus Rust is a student at the Department of STS, University of Vienna, with a background in Cultural Studies and journalism. He is interested in historic developments of technologies big and small and their contemporary social ramifications.

The Failures of Seamlessness? When a Visit to the Theater Turns into an STS Lesson

by Carsten Horn

The Vienna State Opera is one of many cultural institutions in the city of Vienna (Credit: Karl MPhotography)

Vienna is beautiful, not only because of the historic buildings or the many parks and green spots in the middle of the city (and many other things could be mentioned). One particular aspect that lends the city its special atmosphere for me is the abundance of theaters. On any given day you can go out to see tragedies or comedies, classical or modern plays, amateurs, or professionals on the “boards that mean the world” (to imperfectly translate Schiller’s phrase into English). So, what better thing to do after a long day of racking one’s brains about STS than to go out, attend a play and get the mind off heavy STS stuff.

Thus, one Saturday evening I find myself in line at the entrance of one of the many theaters. Now, in Austria, given the implementation of a vaccination mandate and the so-called “2G-Rules” (stating you either have to be vaccinated (“geimpft”) or recovered (“genesen”), one has to present a certificate to prove that one meets the access requirements. Much could be said about the logic of this way of controlling access (Deleuze, 1992) not only to theaters but also restaurants, bars and museums, but remember, at least initially, the goal of this visit to the theater was to get my mind off STS. Conveniently, the Austrian Ministry for Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection has introduced the so-called “Green Pass App,” a digital app that stores all your Covid-19-related certificates on your smartphone so you don’t have to carry them around in the paper format that is issued at the vaccination centers (or at pharmacies, but more of that later) or find a pocket large enough to fit the rather unwieldy, yellow vaccination pass, mine issued by the World Health Organization (WHO). As the line moves ahead, I collect what I need to be able to enter: the personalized ticket, my ID card to prove that I am indeed the person the ticket has been issued to and that I am indeed the person whose name is stated on the vaccination certificate I am about to present, and my Green Pass App-equipped smartphone. Opening the Green Pass App, I am not greeted by the familiar green checkmarks underneath the QR-code which signal that, yes, I may access museums, theaters or bars and restaurants. Instead, I see two bright red boxes: My vaccination certificate has been invalidated. In disbelief I scroll down on the screen — after all, I was vaccinated for the third time only little more than a month ago and even with the rapidly changing regulation there surely shouldn’t be any problem, right? But there it is, in black on white: My Green Pass App claims I have only been vaccinated twice, the last time in the summer of 2021, thus the invalidation. All my pleas to the theater employees that my app is clearly lying and that there must have been some type of technical error because I have been vaccinated three times are, rightfully, to no avail — and thus I find myself, contrary to the intention of attending the play, thrown right back into the midst of current debates in STS.

 

Of seams and cyborgs

“Oh Green Pass App, why have you forsaken me?” (© Carsten Horn)

Given the contemporary proliferation of digital infrastructures, “seamlessness” has become a virtue. The multiple, (not only digital) infrastructures we are constantly attached to need to fit one another so that, for instance, we can easily and almost automatically link the results of our latest run in the park, self-tracked by one of the many apps that exist just for this purpose, to our social media feeds for our digital social networks to, literally, cheer us on or to link our sensing devices to our smartphones and the corresponding apps (Williams et al., 2020). Janet Vertesi (2014) has shown that this is a more or less tedious task of what she calls “aligining,” that is, finding more or less creative ways of making heterogeneous infrastructures compatible. Nevertheless, especially in digital infrastructures, seamlessness, thanks to technologies such as Application Interface Programming (API), may seem rather easy to accomplish and at times may even be invisible to the user of such infrastructures. In this sense, what is at stake in the denied theater visit portrayed above is twofold. On the one hand, in the rather classical STS move to look for controversies or situations of breakdowns, Vertesi (2014, p. 276) argues that “[m]oments when actors fail to interweave their many systems successfully can be analytically useful for revealing otherwise invisible infrastructural components essential to the task at hand and surfacing sociotechnical orders and tacit social relations to analytic view.” On the other hand, there seems to be more at stake than just the alignment of however heterogeneous technical infrastructures — in this case, among others, the infrastructures that make the vaccination campaign of the City of Vienna possible and the digital infrastructure involved in the certification of the vaccinations. Perhaps even more pervasively, alignment here concerns the relationship between the digital world and the real world, especially salient in the times of the pandemic (Coeckelberg, 2020). To successfully enter the theater, I should have been a “cyborg” (Haraway, 1985), which in this situation comes to mean the entanglement of a vaccinated bodymind and a digital app. Only this entanglement of the real and the digital world would have made me “vaccinated” in terms of the official 2G-Rules. Because the latter component — the functioning app — was missing, I might have been a vaccinated bodymind but this was insufficient to grant me the desired access (thus the hopelessness of my pleas to the employees). In turn, this makes visible an often taken-for-granted dimension of the cyborg as the interweaving of organism and technologies: the seams “between embodied consciousness and socio-material fields, flesh and machines and body and society” (Freund, 2004, p. 277).

 

The work to make digital health work

At last, and through concerted efforts of (re-)aligning infrastructures, I still got to see the play – even though I arrived a bit late. (Credit: Cottonbro)

As Vertesi (2014) points out, breakdowns of interconnected infrastructures as a methodological point of departure unveil the social relations that are obscured as long as these infrastructures hold together seamlessly, including the work of (re-)aligning them. This is an especially salient insight for the contemporary efforts of digitalizing healthcare systems ongoing in many countries. These efforts often have the alignment of digital infrastructures as their core. They entail questions such as how the socio-technical alignment is possible, who makes alignments work and who is responsible for failures and the corresponding repair of seamlessness. Such sociocultural questions need to be considered carefully to get a fuller picture of digitalized healthcare. Existing research into telemedicine, as one particular form of digital health, shows that it indeed goes along with a redistribution of work. Work that may subsequently become invisible in formal accounts of medical practice but is crucial for the workings of telemedicine (Nicolini, 2006; Oudshoorn, 2008).

How did things work out or, rather, had to be made to work out in my case? The recovery of the seamlessness between the digital and the real world took a detour: I had to align the medical infrastructure of the City of Vienna, with the built infrastructure of the city, the small alleyways of Vienna’s Inner City, and the infrastructure provided by the Global Positioning System (GPS) to guide me the way to an emergency pharmacy that was still open on a Saturday evening. There, a pharmacist could luckily print out my vaccination certification. This was made possible by the alignments between the technical infrastructure of the pharmacy and the Austrian electronic health record that the pharmacist thankfully created by using my insurance card. This impromptu printout, at last, granted me access to the theater. The solution disclosed an alternative pathway and a corresponding different configuration of the digital and the real world: The moment of breakdown and the distributed efforts to find a resolution make visible a vast analog and digital infrastructure that exists in parallel with the Green Pass App. This infrastructure and the types of work it implies tend to remain hidden in the seemingly inconspicuous analog sheet of paper that I was then able to present to the employees at the theater (although the QR-code printed on top of the certificate provides a trace of the digital world as a constant companion). In turn, this also shows that for me, in this situation the interconnectedness of infrastructures has been boon and bane at the same time: disruptive when it failed at the theater entrance, enabling in the concerted effort to repair the situation and save the day after all. Dealing with these ambivalence(s) of seamlessness will likely be one of the major challenges in the digitalization of healthcare systems in the near future. The play, an adaption of a recent French movie, turned out great in the end, by the way; I only missed the first couple of minutes.


References:

Coeckelbergh, M. (2020). The Postdigital in Pandemic Times: A Comment on the Covid-19 Crisis and its Political Epistemologies. Postdigital Science Education, 2, 547–550.

Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October59, 3–7.

Freund, P. (2004). Civilised Bodies Redux: Seams in the Cyborg. Social Theory & Health, 2(3), 273–289.

Haraway, D. (1985). Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. Socialist Review, 15(2), 65–107.

Nicolini, D. (2006). The work to make telemedicine work: A social and articulative view. Social Science & Medicine, 62(11), 2754-2767.

Oudshoorn, N. (2007). Diagnosis at a distance: the invisible work of patients and healthcare professionals in cardiac telemonitoring technology. Sociology of Health & Illness, 30(2), 272-288

Vertesi, J. (2014). Seamful Spaces: Heterogeneous Infrastructures in Interaction. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 39(2), 264–284.

Williams, R., Will, C., Weiner, K., & Henwood, F. (2020). Navigating standards, encouraging interconnections: infrastructuring digital health platforms, Information. Communication & Society, 23(8,) 1170-1186.


Carsten Horn is a second-year master’s student at the Department for Science and Technology Studies. He also works as a researcher in the research project “ICU4Covid” at Department. His research interests are situated at the intersection of STS, sociology and philosophy. Currently, he is writing his master’s thesis on the regulation of digital health technologies.

Paused Isolation – STS, Sunshine, and Spritzers at the 20th PhD Seminar in Raach

by Esther Dessewffy

 

 

To our great pleasure, and against the odds, the 20th annual PhD summer school took place (almost) as usual in June in the seminar center in Raach am Hochgebirge. Despite COVID-19, the department managed to create a safe space for its PhD candidates to come together, socialize, hike and engage in intense feedback rounds about ongoing projects. Thanks to rigorous abidance to the 3G rule (“tested, vaccinated or recovered”) and wearing FFP2 masks indoors, it was possible to maintain a secure atmosphere and mitigate the risk of contagion.

This year, the public health situation did not permit the of international commentators, who would have otherwise reviewed invitation papers submitted by junior researchers at different stages of their doctorate. Luckily, our very own Ulrike Felt, Sarah Davies and Max Fochler volunteered to fill in. In total, the participants and reviewers intensively engaged with fourteen papers, such as complete journal submissions that had already been handed in, dissertation chapters, and exposés of early-stage candidates.

As a newcomer to the PhD program and the summer school, I was impressed by the high standard of papers and feedback. I was particularly happy to get insight into the creative approaches the presenters had taken to resolve different questions and issues that had emerged during their ongoing research. I listened to feedback discussions between peers who brought an abundance of fresh and imaginative takes alongside a deep reservoir of research experiences. The diverse applications and combinations of theoretical concepts, different interpretations of analyses, and ideas about how to create a compelling narrative arc gave me a vivid impression of fellow students’ individual perspectives, sensitivities and approaches to research. Despite the passionate exchanges, the appreciative and respectful atmosphere nurtured the emergence of new, collectively assembled avenues of thought and a sense of familiarity.

Outside the seminar room things were equally exciting. Sharing the seminar center with a clown school (yes, I’m serious), left one or the other STSer questioning their career choices (apparently you can scream as loud as you want as a clown). After the feedback sessions, we would go on short hikes in the woods in search of Raach’s legendary donkey population (I’ve seen it with my own eyes). Despite STSers’ tendency to be critical of nature-culture dichotomies (Latour, 1993) and stable distinctions between rural and urban (Kaika, 2005), leaving the city for the countryside – complete with nature and “wild life” – turned out to be integral to our imaginary of a proper summer school. Long evenings together, dreaming about having cats or even mini-horses as emotional support animals at the department, and the occasional spritzer contributed to a fun experience that brought the department closer together – a much needed development after a year and a half of Corona induced isolation.

 

 


Links:

https://sts.univie.ac.at/en/old-before-jan2018master-sts/lehre/phd-social-studies-of-science/phd-summer-school/

References:

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern (1. publ. ed.). Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Kaika, M. (2005). Preface: Visions of Moderniz ation & The Urbanization of Nature. In ?City of Flows: Modernity, Nature, and the City? (pp. 3-26). Routledge.


Esther Dessewffy is a PhD student at the department of STS at the University of Vienna, where she has recently completed her master’s degree. Her thesis on the political dimensions of different simulation methodologies for design in architecture is supervised by Sarah Davies. She enjoys ethnographic research and is looking forward to participating in teaching activities in 2022.

Designing for the Event, or what can Urban STS learn from Urban Games?

by Carsten Horn

As Science and Technology Studies (STS) have become an established field of research and discipline they have also become a household name in large-scale technoscientific innovation projects. This has led to a multitude of calls for an “engaged STS,” which not only partakes in such innovation action but takes a normative stance in it. One area in which STS expertise has grown in influence is the intersection with the field of Urban Studies and processes of urban planning – for example in the manifold smart city projects currently carried out in many metropolises. Departing from the concept of “technical democracy” (Farías & Blok, 2016), the challenge STS is faced with here is the re-configuration of urban planning in ways that allow for “collaboration among laypeople and experts” (Farías & Blok, 2016, p. 539). In this brief essay, I want to argue that in order to re-think this challenge, STS may find a rather unlikely ally and learning partner in the design of urban games — games specially designed for and played in urban space (e.g. Big Urban Game played in Minnesota in 2003 or Cruel 2 B Kind). To make this point, I draw on an interview I conducted with a German urban games designer in the course of the seminar “Creating Urban Space – Invited and Uninvited Participation” headed by Andrea Schikowitz and Ignacio Farías at our Department.

 

Design and the Event

Drawing on Participatory Design (PD), a pragmatist notion of publics and STS engagement with participation, one of the major contributions of STS to Urban Studies has been a reconceptualization of what urban design and urban planning do: They no longer primarily aim at producing socio-technical artifacts but make a point of providing platforms for symmetrical encounters of experts and laypeople – the focus, in other words, shifts to infrastructuring participation, the design of platforms for participation (Corsín Jiménez, 2014). Situating themselves within this shift, Erling Bjögvinsson et al. (2012) understand their task as designers in the tradition of PD as the construction of a Thing (“Thinging”): the (re-)assembling of collectives of human and non-humans which serves as an infrastructure for novel encounters between these entities. The resulting associations and the human and non-human entities they consist of are not predetermined but emerge out of these encounters. Bjögvinsson et al. (2012, p. 108) describe this in terms of the “event”: Infrastructuring, they argue, “must deliberately design indeterminacy and incompleteness into the infrastructure, leaving unoccupied slots and space free for unanticipated events and performances yet to be”. The challenge for infrastructuring is, thus, to design for the event.

With the concept of the event and the subsequent challenge to design for events, we delve deeply into philosophical territory which warrants a brief discussion of one of the philosophical traditions the concept originates from. In the line of thought stretching from Whitehead to Deleuze to Stengers, “event” describes the “becoming together” of the entities that form an assemblage (Fraser, 2009): “the event is characterised by the fact that the interactions of its constitutive elements change those elements” (Horst & Michael, 2011, p. 286). Neither the identities of the elements nor the relationships between them are pre-determined. The event, moreover, is self-sufficient in that no external explanations can be invoked to explain the emergent assemblage. While it is out of the scope of a blog post to go into details of this conceptualization of the event or to discuss its relationship with other understandings of the event (e.g. on the line of Heidegger and Badiou), it becomes evident that “event” signifies the (temporary) suspension of one state of being, i.e. a specific arrangement of heterogeneous entities, for a new state to emerge. For Bjögvinsson et al. (2012), we can therefore define the event as the emergence of novel entities and the relations between them.

If “events are different from the states of affairs in which they are actualized” (Goodchild, 1996, p. 54, as cited in Fraser, 2009, p. 78) and, further, do not have an external reason, Bjögvinsson et al.’s (2012) notion of deliberately designing infrastructures for the event is at risk of a contradiction or, at least, a conceptual tension. As STS research has shown, infrastructuring is not a neutral act (Star & Ruhleder, 1996). Infrastructures afford some (participation) practices rather than others based on the choices made during the construction of the infrastructures by their creators – in this case, urban designers and planners – who are always situated in the current state of affairs (Bjögvinsson et al., 2012). This implies that what can emerge out of the infrastructures of urban planning, and thus the event-ness aimed at by Bjögvinsson and colleagues, is potentially limited by such choices. It is here that I want to propose that experiences and practices from urban gaming can contribute to our theoretical and practical engagements.

 

Urban Games as Improvisation Technologies

Urban games, to give a very brief definition, transcend the “magic circle” – the idea of a distinct time and space – that has traditionally been defined as characteristic of games and played in a threefold way: it goes beyond it spatially because the city as a whole is turned into a playground; it expands the temporal aspect because the boundary between play and non-play becomes fluid; it transcends the magic circle socially as the distinction between player and non-player is blurred as bypassers may (inadvertently) become part of the game (Montola, 2009). Moreover, urban game designers face many of the same challenges as STS-inspired urban planners and researchers, namely the need to accommodate (and intentionally trigger off) unforeseen events. As Mela Kocher (2018, p. 269) argues, urban game designers attempt to anticipate the actions of future players but there remain “blank spaces” that are only filled by the play during the game. Interested in this challenge, I asked my research participant what the role such events play in his design practice:

I often use the concept […] by Christopher Dell who is a music theoretician, improvisation of the second order which means planned improvisation. So I design into my games the need for improvising and intentionally leave free space for that.

Street Art Scavenger Hunt in which players collect points by gathering images of graffiti and other forms of street art ( © Daniel Parlow)

 

Thus, the urban game is designed as an “improvisation technology” [Improvisationstechnologie] (Dell, 2014) and game participants are made to improvise and to bring into being what the designer has not foreseen. The event is not a byproduct of the design but an intentional component. Such events enact novel associations that would be otherwise unthinkable:

There’s a square over here where oftentimes alcoholics hang out and enjoy themselves. And there is a relatively large object that needs to be circled. I observed how a group that played there, a mix of students and punks, that was so much in the game that they just asked this group of old Polish and German alcoholics with whom they would never have interacted otherwise. And they were like, yeah, sure, and hey Herbert, come over, they need help. And then they were all holding hands and so the 21-year-old female students and the 50-year-old pissheads over there, stand together, hold their hands in order to circle that thing, and then, bye, we have to continue.

Players “conquer” a tree in the city by forming a human chain around it (© Daniel Parlow)

In the game described here, players have to “conquer” landmarks in urban space by forming a human circle around them. Due to the differing size of landmarks, groups of players may have to involve bypassers, making possible such unlikely alliances. In the event, the established identities of the constituents of such alliances are suspended; the boundaries that would have usually tended to foreclose interactions between students, punks, and alcoholics are dissolved for the moment to make way for collaborative engagements entailed by the need to improvise. However, this example also illustrates one of the challenges of event designing: How can the opening be sustained and the emerging association be stabilized? How can the temporary emergence of new associations be perpetuated? How can the return to the previous state of affairs be prevented?

This difficulty notwithstanding, it is the re-definition of the game as an improvisation technology that can help Urban STS to embrace and design (for) the event in participation processes. This way, or so I have argued, can the latent tension that is inherent to any attempt to deliberately design for the event be resolved: How can participants – laypeople and experts alike – be “encouraged” to improvise which, in turn, facilitates the formation of new relations and identities, the becoming of new urban assemblages (Farías & Bender, 2011)? Moreover, concealed beneath this argument, as a second audio track, as it were, runs the call for (Urban) STS to more thoroughly engage with urban gaming (a gaping lacuna as of now). In a symmetrical way, to conclude, both fields may learn a lot from each other.


References:

Dell, C. (2014). Die improvisierende Organisation. In Die improvisierende Organisation. transcript. http://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.14361/transcript.9783839422595/html

Farías, I., & Bender, T. (Eds.). (2011). Urban Assemblages. How Actor-Network Theory Changes Urban Studies . Routledge.

Fraser, M. (2009). Facts, Ethics and Event. In C. B. Jensen & K. Rödje (Eds.), Deleuzian Intersections. Science, Technology, Anthropology (pp. 57–82). Berghahn Books.

Montola, M. (2009). Games and Pervasive Games. In M. Montola, J. Stenros, & A. Wærn (Eds.), Pervasive games: Theory and design (pp. 7–23). Morgan Kaufmann.


Carsten Horn is a second-year master’s student at the Department for Science and Technology Studies. He works as a researcher in the research project ICU4Covid. His research interests are situated at the intersection of STS, sociology, and philosophy.

’Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences’: A publication story

by Andrea Schikowitz & Sarah R Davies

One thing that students (and our non-academic friends and family members) are often curious about is the process of publication. How do researchers create texts, and what are the stages through which these texts pass before they become public? Having recently had chapters published as part of the anthology “Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences”, we thought our experiences might be illustrative – as well as relating to the themes of the book itself.

The book came out of a workshop that took place in February 2017 here in Vienna (which was in turn based on two conference panels in 2014 and 2016). Drawing scholars together from across the world, the discussions went so well that the organisers suggested that participants put together an edited volume based on the papers presented. They already had a connection to a book series – the Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook – so proposed working towards publishing as a part of this.

Many of the next stages were ‘behind the scenes’ to us as authors, as the editors – two of the scholars who had organised the workshop, including colleague and friend of the department Karen Kastenhofer – managed the reviewing process and negotiated with the editors of the book series. We submitted our chapter manuscripts in 2017 and received comments from an internal review by the editors. In 2018 we received comments from external reviewers and revised our manuscripts in response to these, until the reviewers were satisfied. Once all the chapters had been through this process and been accepted, the whole manuscript could be handed in to the series editors (in 2019). At this point we received a few more comments (including from a language editor), and made further small revisions. The book was formally accepted by the series editors in August 2019, and handed over to the publisher.

The publisher also sent the volume out for review, however, and requested some further changes. This process meant that we received proofs of our chapters – for double checking the final text – in November 2020. The editors received the final proofs of the whole manuscript in February 2021, and the book has now been published (and is available for free online!).

So: publishing can be drawn out across years, and involves many different actors. While this is not always the case (publishing a single paper in a journal can be a more streamlined process, for instance), we do think it’s interesting in the context of the themes of the book.

Image by Georg Schroll

Both our contributions to the yearbook focus on the enactment of researchers’ identities as a malleable and precarious process rather than as a stable condition. We both argue that identity work is about bringing together individuality and collectivity in specific ways, which is ongoing and might differ across settings and situations. Being a ‘good researcher’ is performed through specific practices – and publishing is certainly a crucial practice through which contemporary researcher identities are performed.

We see many of the developments that the yearbook analyses – from acceleration of research to increased international mobility – reflected in the changing constellations and belongings of the authors during the publication process. The work on this publication took place in, was supported by, and contributed to different and changing institutional, disciplinary, and national communities over more than five years. The editors and authors who contributed to the Yearbook formed different communities and shared different belongings during the publication process.

Image by the authors

For example, Andrea’s contribution “Being a ‘Good Researcher’ in Transdisciplinary Research: Choreographies of Identity Work Beyond Community” builds on research conducted for her doctoral project (in the frame of a larger research project) at the STS department of the University of Vienna, but when the workshop took place she was a guest researcher at the Institute for Organization Studies at the WU Vienna, financed by a scholarship. When doing the revisions of the chapter she was holding a postdoc position at the TU in Munich. She was still there when the final author description and corresponding address had to be provided. When the Yearbook was finally published, she had just started her current postdoc position, again at the STS department in Vienna, as part of Sarah’s group, who had become a full professor there in the meanwhile.

So, Andrea conducted different amounts and kinds of work for this chapter at different institutions, partly funded by third party funding, and colleagues from all these institutions provided feedback on different versions of the chapter (all of this finds expression in footnotes and acknowledgements). Further, this publication in its various stages (‘under review’, ‘accepted for publication’ or ‘forthcoming’) also to some degree contributed to Andrea’s becoming part of these different communities, as she put it on her publication list when applying for new jobs.

Yet, the final publication, dated 2021, is what will finally ‘count’, when academic productivity is more formally evaluated on the basis of publications (e.g. for cumulative dissertations, etc.).

The story behind this one publication interestingly mirrors Andrea’s analysis, in her chapter, of the spatiotemporal choreographies which enact academic identities, which go back and forth between different belongings and communities. We can also see that such unlikely things as a single publication (which appears as one discrete event on our publication lists and CVs) can contribute to continuity across these different belongings and to our identity work. For being a ‘good researcher’ we need to perform both at the same time: the (sometimes lengthy and cumbersome) process of publication which however allows us to form a researcher identity and togetherness with the other authors and editors, and with those who provide feedback, beyond institutional belongings; and publication as a discrete event and transferable commodity that gets affiliated with individual and institutional performance and on which we rely for mobilizing institutions to get jobs and grants.

But the story does not end here – this is where science communication sets in. After the official publication has been launched (which is of course also an instance of science communication), various authors announced the publication in Tweets (and re-tweeted them mutually), or over other individual or institutional social media platforms. We also wrote this blogpost about it, and some of us have and will use chapters for teaching. This relates to Sarah’s argument, in her chapter “Performing Science in Public: Science Communication and Scientific Identity”, that scientific identity work is also done through public communication. Such practices (in her study, participation in a science festival) are important not just for representing research and researchers in public, but for a sense of shared community within scientific collectives. Tweets about this book, for instance, may well be read by lay audiences, but also our fellow department members and other colleagues, helping to reinforce a particular imagination of who we – the authors – are and what we do.

So, a single publication experience can open up many dimensions of the practices involved in being a researcher in contemporary technoscience. While of course contributing to some of the more worrying developments in research, such as changing rapidly between short-term engagements or quantified evaluation, these experiences also provide mundane and often unacknowledged possibilities for togetherness and communication beyond a single community.


References:

Kastenhofer K., & Molyneux-Hodgson S. (Eds.), Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences. Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, vol 31. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-61728-8_11

Davies S. R. (2021) Performing Science in Public: Science Communication and Scientific Identity. In: Kastenhofer K., & Molyneux-Hodgson S. (Eds.), Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences. Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, vol 31. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-61728-8_10

Schikowitz A. (2021) Being a ‘Good Researcher’ in Transdisciplinary Research: Choreographies of Identity Work Beyond Community. In: Kastenhofer K., & Molyneux-Hodgson S. (Eds.), Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences. Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook, vol 31. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-61728-8_11


Andrea Schikowitz is a university assistant (post-doc) at the STS department, University of Vienna. Her research deals with the encounter of heterogeneous ways of knowing and possibilities for change. She has investigated this question by analysing various settings – such as transdisciplinary sustainability research, public governance, urban living labs and collaborative housing. Her current focus is on knowledge practices in urban planning and controversies, and on the intersection of digital and material practices therein.

Sarah Davies is Professor of Technosciences, Materiality, and Digital Cultures at the STS Department, University of Vienna. Her research explores the relations between science and society, particularly as these are done in digital spaces.