Decentered approach to infrastructure building in Science & Technology Studies

Nomination statement (unsuccessful)for 2019 Infrastructure award of Society for Social Studies of Science

“Consistently working on [a] decentered approach to infrastructure development follows from and feeds into STS analyses of the ecological-like complexity of influences shaping science as agents combine a diversity or heterogeneity of components or resources as they establish knowledge and technologies…”

Science in a Changing World

a constellation of initiatives aimed at “facilitating learning & teaching innovation, research & public engagement, discussion & collaboration regarding scientific developments & social change.”[1]

SICW is linked to what is now a Master’s program (with same name) at the University of Massachusetts at Boston (UMass Boston), but the decentered approach to SICW infrastructure building began developing much earlier in the work of its coordinator, Peter Taylor.[2]  This statement sets the scene with a brief account of the principles that animate the decentered approach, describes the prehistory before UMass Boston and the strands making up SICW, and closes with some remarks about the ways that this kind of infrastructure development follows from and feeds into STS analyses.

SICW initiatives and their precursors have revolved around encouraging students and researchers to contrast the paths taken in science, society, education with other paths that might be taken, and act upon the insights gained. Thirty years ago, bringing critical analysis of science to bear on the practice and applications of science was not well developed or supported institutionally. That need has been addressed through new collaborations, programs, and other activities, new directions for existing programs, and collegial interactions across disciplines and regions. In this spirit of constructing society-at-a-small-scale, the initiatives have not centered on establishing high-profile, funding-intensive institutional structures or on converging into obligatory passage points. They have been decentered in the sense of fostering diverse paths or path-making—a multiplicity that follows from the diversity of histories and concerns brought into SICW initiatives and the premise that what a person really learns from any participation is what they integrate with their own history and concerns. Indeed, SICW is as much about people taking tools and processes back their own situations and subsequent work as it is in tangible products visible at SICW’s base at UMass Boston.

Of course, not all the initiatives included below have been successful and sustainable, but certain qualities allow them to be models that others can adopt or adapt:

  • planningthat takes into account the often-limited and uncertain state of resources, guides where we put our not-unlimited energies, and seeks sustainable or cumulative results;
    • community-building, not only towards a sustainable product, but so participants/ collaborators value their involvement in the process;
    • probing what has been taken for granted or left unarticulated until coherent principles emerge to guide our efforts;
    • transparency and inclusiveness of consultation in formulating procedures and principles and making evaluations available;
    • documenting process, product, and evaluations to make institutional learning more likely;
    • organization, including efficient use of computer technology, to support all of the above.

Prehistory of SICW before UMass Boston: Contributions of Peter Taylor

A. Interdisciplinary academic programs

·  Science, Technology and Power undergraduate program, New School, co-founded 1986-87.

·  Biology and Society major at Cornell U., revision of requirements and core course to acknowledge STS as disciplined fields of inquiry, 1990-92

·  Science & Technology Studies department at Cornell U., founding faculty member, 1991-92

B. Interdisciplinary seminar series

·  New School, 1986-87: “Controversies in the Life Sciences” lecture series. “Work and Lives” weekly faculty/student brown-bag presentations.

·  UC Berkeley, 1988: “Shifting frames in interdisciplinary studies,” colloquium series

·  Cornell University, 1990-93: “Social Analysis of Ecological Change,” guest speaker series

·  Swarthmore College, 1997-98, “New biology: Old and new questions,” faculty discussion group

C. International multi-day workshops bringing critical analysis of science to bear on the practice and applications of science

·  U. Helsinki, 1988: “Mapping ecologists’ ecologies of knowledge”[3]

·  UC Berkeley, 1989: “Ecology and resource economics”[4]

·  Swarthmore College, 1997-98, “How can we help each other with ‘agency’?”[5]

D. Development of STS societies

·  International Society for History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB). Program organizing (1987-91), President-Elect, President, Past-president (1993-99), Education Committee (1997-2005): established program sessions, wording, procedures, committees, presidential plenary, and a graduate student prize that furthered the Society’s original impulse of promoting innovative, cross-disciplinary sessions and discussions that brought in students and international scholars.

E. Conference sessions, often giving rise to published collections

·  Organizer or co-organizer of 12 ISHPSSB sessions (some multi-session sessions; 1987-2009) and 5 sessions at other STS societies (1993-95).

·  Published collections from sessions above as special editions of Biology & Philosophy (twice), Science as Culture, Social Text, Environment and History, Human Ecology, and as a book, Changing Life: Genomes, Ecologies, Bodies, Commodities (1991-2003).

Science in a Changing World initiatives based at UMass Boston

A. Interdisciplinary programs

·  Science-in-society focus in Critical & Creative Thinking Master’s program, 1998-[6]

·  Science, Technology & Values undergraduate program, 1999-[7]

·  Infusing Sustainability into the Curriculum, including Faculty course development workshops, 2003-5[8]

·  Writers’ Workshop for graduate students; Workshop for teachers of grad. courses, 2009-14[9]

·  Science in a Changing World Master’s program, 2009-[10]

“…designed for educators and other concerned citizens who want to explore the relationships among new developments in scientific knowledge, in education, and in society. Innovative and inspiring instructors arrange course material, classroom activities, teaching/learning interactions that provide students an opportunity to learn about science in its social context, to gain a set of models for their own educational or activist work, to discuss practices and philosophies of education and social change, and to undertake research with a view to engaging with science in a changing world.”

·  Project-Based Learning graduate courses, 2009- [11]

·  Science in a Changing World, combined B.A./M.A. program, 2014- [12]

B. Collegial discussions

Intercollege Seminar in Humanities and Sciences, 2004- [13]

Biweekly discussions for group of faculty and doctoral students convened around a semester-long topic: “different disciplines and colleges come together to focus on topics of common interest, exchange ideas, renew their intellectual energy, and advance their work in a spirit of adventure and collaboration.”

Dialogue Hours, 2009-

“A five-phase format[14] gets participants present and into a reflection, writing, and dialogue process that addresses their current concerns about scientific and social change. A topic may be set as a starting point, but it is always interesting to see how thinking evolves during an hour.”[15]

When the Social, not the Medium, is the Message: Workshop on Community-building and Research Collaboration in Virtual Spaces, 2011[16]

Collaborative Explorations (CEs), 2013-

CEs aim to “support and build community beyond formal programs of study and engage [participants] in deep and meaningful self-directed learning inquiries.”

“An extension of Project-Based Learning (PBL) and related approaches to education in which participants address a scenario in which the problems are not well defined, shaping your own directions of inquiry and developing your skills as investigators and prospective teachers (in broadest sense of the word). The basic mode of CEs centers on interactions in small groups over a delimited period of time, designed to sustain the face-to-face PBL experience of re-engagement with yourself as an avid learner and inquirer. An online CE consists of live sessions for an hour over 4 weeks and exchanges on a private community between sessions.”[17]

C. International workshops bringing critical analysis of science to bear on the practice and applications of science

·  New England Workshop on Science and Social Change (NewSSC), 2004-

“Most workshops are dysfunctional—this one wasn’t!” read one evaluation from the first NewSSC workshop in 2004. With the aim of “fostering collaboration among those who teach, study, and engage with the public about scientific developments and social change,” these experimental, interaction-intensive, interdisciplinary, four-day workshops have continued annually, with additional workshops in Portugal.[18]


1. promote the social contextualization of science in education and other activities beyond the participants’ current disciplinary and academic boundaries.
2. facilitate participants connecting theoretical, pedagogical, practical, political, and personal aspects of the issue at hand in constructive ways.
3. train novice and experienced scholars in process / participation skills valuable in activity-centered teaching, workshops, and collaboration.
4. provide a workshop model that can be repeated, evolve in response to evaluations, and adapted by participants.
5. For participants to go on to build on the tools and processes of the workshop, on connections made among participants, and on their contributions to the issue at hand, buoyed by the enthusiasm, hope, resolve, and courage that is generated by the learning, interacting, sharing, connecting, and communing that happens during the workshop.”

·  The evolving workshop processes have informed shorter workshops in four countries[19], Project-Based Learning graduate courses and Collaborative Explorations (see above), and documentation of participants’ innovations in teaching and public engagement.[20]

·  Creative Thinking in Epidemiology, ½ day workshops, 2011-13[21]

D. Contributions to New Developments in STS societies

·  ISHPSSB, pre-conference workshops, 2001: “Helping Each Other to Foster Critical Thinking about Environment, Science, and Society[22] and “Teaching History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology”[23]

·  Innovative 4S session proposals (assigned to lunchtime slots!) 2006[24], 2016[25]

·  NewSSC served in 2006 & ‘14 as off-year workshop for ISHPSSB, which helped fund graduate student participation[26]

·  Participation blog (a failed initiative!), 2012[27]

·  Experiential activities as part of 4S Making and Doing, 2017 & ‘18[28]

·  Pre-conference 4S workshop, 2017[29]

E. Contributions to New Modes of Documentation, Publication, Communication

·  Online documentation of products, process, and evaluations, evident in footnote URLs and reticulating links.

·  SICW Portals and social media, 2006- [30]

·  Online documentation of teaching and learning tools and processes, 2001-, evolving into a 2012 book (2nd edition due out early in 2019 includes workshop processes).[31]

·  Science as Culture, new section: “Engagements,” 2010

·  Lives in STS blog, to diversify contribution to topic of 2018 4S session in which the speakers drew from a narrow demographic.[32]

Decentered SICW approach to infrastructure development in relation to STS analyses

Werskey: “I can look at my life as a series of failed political experiments.”

Taylor: “May I attribute this to you?”

Werskey: “OK [if placed] in the context of encouraging looser attachments, greater irony and a sense of humour when undertaking these engagements.” [33]

The 1970s counterculture, with its emphasis on people getting together to create new organizations that prefigured the society they wanted to replace the existing systems, influenced many people in the USA (and elsewhere) who went on to become scholars and writers about science in its social context. This countercultural spirit runs through SICW and its precursors, especially in the construction of society-at-a-small-scale and in supporting people adopting and adapting tools and processes to their own situations and subsequent work.

Consistently working on the decentered approach to infrastructure development follows from and feeds into STS analyses of the ecological-like complexity of influences shaping science as agents combine a diversity or heterogeneity of components or resources as they establish knowledge and technologies. Because things drawn into one construction are necessarily implicated in others, engagements in infrastructure building—SICW included—should accept a level of indeterminacy: some initiatives flourish; others fade. As Atsushi Akera notes, the formation of new professions “often occurred at the intersection of multiple institutions and disciplines,” and involved “recombining prior knowledge and preexisting institutional forms,” and various actors “letting go” of some commitments in order to forge new associations.[34]  In this light, the ideal is that, whatever the tangible products of any initiative are, they foster participants’ skills and dispositions for flexible engagement, that is, connecting quickly with others who are almost ready to foster participatory processes and, through the experience such processes provide their participants, contribute to enhancing the capacity of others to do likewise.4


[1],  These sites are archived from wikispaces wikis, subject to slow correction of broken links.

[2]  Taylor, P. J. “Intersecting Processes: complexity and change in environment, biomedicine and society” Ludus Vitalis, XXI: 319-324, 2013

[3]  —– and Y. Haila. “Mapping Workshops for Teaching Ecology.” Bull.Ecol. Soc. Am. 70: 123-125, 1989.

[4]  —– Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. U. Chicago Press, 2005


[6]  —– “Teaching ‘critical and creative thinking’ about science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts,” Bull. Sci., Tech. & Society, 19: 424-425, 1999.












[18]  —– et al. “Cultivating Collaborators: Concepts and Questions Emerging Interactively From An Evolving, Interdisciplinary Workshop.” Science as Culture 20: 89-105, 2011,













[31], —– and J. Szteiter. Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement. The Pumping Station, 2012.



[34]  Akera, A. Calculating a Natural World. MIT Press, 2006.

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