Thinking with Atmospheres

By Sarah Davies

A (meteorological) atmosphere. Image by Pixabay

I recently had an article published that uses the concept of atmospheres to think about scientists’ experiences of international mobility. While I naturally urge you all to read this in full,* I also thought it would be interesting to more informally share some of the background to this piece of writing. What do I mean by atmospheres, how can we think with them, and what are the benefits of doing so?

The article began, in fact, with a problem of mess. I had carried out a fantastically rich set of interviews with different kinds of scientists, all at the time working in Denmark, who had experienced some kind of international mobility. There was so much interesting in these interviews, about so many different things, that I struggled to tell neat analytical stories about this empirical material. It made sense – was coherent – but in a manner that eluded easy thematisation or categorisation. How, I wondered, to do justice to such material? How to craft stories from it, tell-able stories, that still rang true to the complexities of lived experience?

Using atmospheres was one approach to doing this. Though we mostly think of this word in colloquial terms – as speaking either to a physical atmosphere, such as that surrounding the earth, or to a mood – in recent years it has been taken up as a device for social research (often in ways that blur the meteorological and the metaphoric). Atmospheres are ‘productively nebulous’: as an analytical device, they allow us to simultaneously think about the material and immaterial, the local and global, the emergent and the staged (for instance). They allow us to notice affects and materialities as well as stories and discourses. Beyond these affordances, though, I had already started to think of my informants as existing with different kinds of webs, clouds or networks. As you can see from my sketch below (part of one of my coding diagrams), interviewees spoke about different kinds of overlapping relations that structured their trajectories and decisions, operating at different scales. Atmospheres gave me a framework for thinking about this.

A work-in-progress – messy – analytical sketch by the author.


Well, you can read the full analysis in the article. In it, I draw on different ways of defining and working with ‘atmosphere’ as a way of pulling out different (at times incommensurable) aspects of my informants’ experiences. Atmosphere, I suggest, helps us to talk about the elusive, the hard-to-grasp, the almost intangible, in ways that don’t render these things too neat and tidy and which are therefore part of a broader STS project that tries not to flatten mess in our data and analyses. I hope I have whetted your appetites for such approaches, and for atmospheres in particular.

* As said by every researcher/writer, everywhere. The article is called ‘Atmospheres of science: Experiencing scientific mobility’ and is currently Online First in Social Studies of Science.

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