Telling stories differently: A selection of STS (related) podcasts

By Ruth Falkenberg

The podcast is a quite popular form of storytelling. What approaches are there in the field of STS that use this medium, thus telling stories in a different format than what we are used to? (Image licensed under Creative Commons)

As STS researchers, we constantly examine how knowledge is produced as well as disseminated, we inquire into the ways in which stories about science and technology are told and shared. In telling our own stories, we usually stick to established and commonly accepted forms of academic communication – we give conference presentations, we write papers for peer-reviewed journals, and already writing a blogpost like this one seems to be a refreshingly different form of engagement. Yet why not tell our own stories in more radically different ways?

The importance of rethinking the ways in which we tell our stories has been highlighted by STS scholars such as John Law, who in his book After Method encourages us to open up academic research and writing more to creativity and departures from the normativity of standard methods, in order to allow for grasping and enacting a wider range of realities. Being more directly concerned with practices of storytelling, also Donna Haraway frequently invites us to think about ways of ‘storying otherwise’.

One form of story-telling that enjoys quite some popularity – and that is increasingly used for the dissemination of information about science and technology – is the podcast. For me, the podcast is an interesting medium that allows to tell, approach, and receive stories in different ways. Thinking about calls like the one by Law to open up our own ways of storytelling, I started to look out for approaches in the field of STS that use this medium. In this blogpost, I want to present a selection of the variety of interesting podcasts that I came across during my search, amongst which some are recommendations from my colleagues here at the Vienna STS department. Not all of these podcasts have been produced by STS scholars, but they all touch upon issues related to our field of inquiry, open up new perspectives, and tell stories in ways that are a bit unlike than what we are used to.

An interesting example of an STSy podcast is the “How To Think About Science” series in which David Cayley talks to and about various philosophers, historians, anthropologists and sociologists of science, among them many familiar voices from the STS community, including, for example, Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer, Bruno Latour, or Brian Wynne. As an STS scholar, one will not find all too radically new ideas here, yet the series is definitely a valuable opportunity to listen to some STS stories in a different format than usual. Moreover, while the podcast series is framed as a look at science as an institution rather than STS per se, it still seems worth a recommendation for people outside of our own field who want to engage with some introductory STS perspectives without having to read lengthy academic papers.

How to think about objectivity in a time where we are confronted with claims about “fake news”? This is one of many questions addressed in the podcast on “The Invention of Objectivity” featuring Peter Gallison and Lorraine Daston. (Image licensed under Creative Commons)

Another thought-provoking introductory piece to some STS ideas is a podcast on “The Invention of Objectivity” with Peter Gallison and Lorraine Daston, hosted by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Coming rather from a history of science perspective, it may equally be worth a recommendation to students at the beginning of their careers in STS and as well to people who want to engage with science and its often taken for granted assumptions in a critical and reflexive manner.

A podcast that engages with more concrete issues surrounding technoscience and its relation to the societies we live in, is produced by the Bergman Klein Centre for Internet and Society who publish fishbowl discussions or other events in a podcast format. Here, one can follow conversations of “leading cyber-scholars, entrepreneurs, activists, and policymakers as they explore the bleeding edge of the internet and technology, democracy, law, and society”: The discussed topics range from algorithmic bias in resume search engines employed in hiring processes to broad issues such as how technology can be governed.

In contrast to this rather unconventional podcast format, the Digital Sociology Podcast by sociologist Christopher Till utilizes a more classical interview style, featuring conversations with various scholars who deal with digital culture and society in different ways. It is also worth scrolling further down the archive of this series, which started out with podcasts focusing specifically on Digital Health/Digital Capitalism. Personally, I would particularly recommend episode three featuring philosopher of technology Tamar Sharon who talks about her work on self-tracking and the quantified self.

Addressing a much broader and less academic audience, the podcasts of the Freakonomics series deal with “the hidden sides of everything” (thus not only but still often focusing on science and technology). While the series is not made by STS scholars or focusing primarily on STS topics, the hosts often take things apart in a quite critical manner, and definitely offer though-provoking viewpoints. Dealing with topics that range from 23andMe (a direct-to-consumer genetic testing company) to “How the Supermarket Helped America Win the Cold War”, the podcasts offer interesting opportunities to encounter (critical) perspectives on science and technology provided by people from other fields than our own.

Similarly, also the 99% invisible podcast is not explicitly devoted to STS topics, but in dealing with the unnoticed aspects of (technological) design and architecture in the worlds that surround us, it often offers quite STSy viewpoints. The podcast’s episodes usually focus on a specific example of design and often feature interviews with architects, various kinds of experts, or people who have been influenced by the design – thus including both designer as well as user perspectives.

The last two podcasts I want to mention here may come closest to the idea of specifically sharing STS perspectives with a wider audience. One of these has recently been launched by STS scholars Shobita Partasarathy and Jack Stilgoe. In their podcast, they aim to challenge what they call “The Received Wisdom” about science, technology, and politics by talking to “thinkers and doers” from various domains and places. In doing so, they indent to reach audiences beyond our own academic field, to engage with people “out in the world” and specifically with those actually involved with science and technology. Setting out with these – from my perspective – quite promising goals, the first episode of the podcast already addresses one of the most pressing issues of our time – climate and tech activism in the context of the global climate crisis.

Last, a captivating podcast series produced by the Munich Centre for Technology in Society in the context of a seminar hosted by Ruth Müller. Quite in line with the thoughts that motivated me to write this blogpost, relating to how we can broaden our own ways of sharing and disseminating our stories, the seminar’s aim was to engage with the genre of the podcast in order to develop new practices of storytelling, specifically aiming to put questions of responsibility, sustainability and socio-ecological justice centre stage. The different episodes then deal with questions ranging from “What does it mean to drink a coffee “to go”?” to “How do scientists deal with questions they might never find an answer to?”.

Overall, while the collection of podcasts that I have presented here is certainly very selective, it may provide an impression of the various interesting formats that already exist out there in which one can listen to STS-related stories. I hope that this overview may serve as a stimulus for some who read this – for the own consumption or for recommendations to others, but especially also as an encouragement to maybe try out ourselves such different forms of sharing the knowledge we produce with wider audiences.

I want to thank all my colleagues from the Vienna STS department who provided me with very interesting and valuable inputs on my search for STSy podcasts.

Ruth Falkenberg is a PhD student at the Research Platform Responsbile Research and Innovation in Academic Practice. She is interested in cultures of knowledge production and valuation practices in academia, particularly in the context of contemporary neoliberal regimes of research governance. Her dissertation is part of the project Valuing, Being and Knowing in Research Practices, which investigates how valuation practices and processes of subjectification are entangled with strategic decisions in researchers’ work.