Historical (In)Sensibilities I: Historicizing STS Methods

— Yana Boeva —

History haunts contemporary STS research. Not in an adverse way. Its presence in STS topics is vital, motivating the panel conveners – all historians of science – to seek reflections and debates on the historicity of contemporary STS phenomena. In other words: How are STS scholars untrained in history reflecting upon their use of history and historiography for their research? In view of this goal, the four presentations in this panel session covered quite distinct temporalities (from the 16th century over the interwar and cold war period to the present), localities (Taiwan, China, Germany, Poland, Korea), and research areas (public health, time keeping systems, industrial design, agriculture).

The panel was structured into two groups of overarching and interconnected themes, ‘Comparative Epistemologies’ following Ludwig Fleck’s approach, and ‘Ethnography and History,’ which enabled each paper to engage in dialogue. The first two papers, by Zxyyann Jane Lu on Taiwanese nursing knowledge formation and by Wei Hong on time models in late Imperial China, argued that while the universalism of Western epistemology dominated both historical records as well as political discourse in the East, the shaping of local knowledge was far more complex through the involvement of often neglected local practices and circumstances. This idea is not novel to contemporary STS discussions, but remains often unexplored as a historical trajectory. On that account, this group of papers could be considered ‘forward-oriented’ for studying a historical case in detail to gain a manifold understanding of contemporary issues.

The second group of papers, by Dong Ju Kim and myself, take our ethnographical studies of contemporary phenomena as starting point to delve into unmapped genealogies, what might be considered a ‘backward-oriented’ approach. We highlighted that while our studied cases have been studied historically – the Green Revolution in Poland and digital fabrication for design – there is a need to backdate and widen the historical origins. Moreover, like the other two papers, these rely on the expanded historical backbones to complicate, as well as, demystify the past and present.

As Wei Hong concluded, we live ‘in the present with the modernity created by the past’. Although the question of the relationship between history and contemporary STS research methods was an expected outcome of this themed panel, it kept reappearing in many other panels without any historical focus. Perhaps STS should develop a stronger framework to value that relationship.