March 6, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich
The story of ‘of’
Since moving away from linguistics and into Science and Technology Studies (STS), I have often been asked what I am (a question I dread) and what I do (a question that is slightly more easy to answer). These questions came back to me recently when reading a very interesting article in New Scientist about the evolution of language, the half-life of words and why a word like ‘we’ has not changed for 19,000 years.
For some reason this made me think about my troubles with another, also probably quite stable, word, namely the word ‘of’. I was thinking in particular about my intellectual journey from the study of language to the study of science and technology (or, as mentioned above, more commonly called ‘Science and Technology Studies’, which nicely avoids the ‘of’ issue). Now, with the study of language you sort of (and I stress sort of) know where you stand (especially since Ferdinand de Saussure made linguists think about what the study of language was actually a study of). But what about the ‘of’ in ‘the study of science and technology’?
What does the ‘of’ stand for? Or as Saussure might have asked: What is STS’s object of study; what is it about? This probably needs quite a lot of thought, but for this blog I’ll just make a list of possible ‘ofs’: Is it the study of science and technology in the public sphere? Or the study of the social and ethical implications of science and technology? Or the study of the impact of science and technology on culture and the arts; or indeed of the impact of the arts and culture on science and technology? Or the study of the public understanding of or engagement with science and technology? Or the study of the communication of science and technology? Or the study of the social shaping of science and technology; or, of course, the study of how science and technology shape society? Or the study of how knowledge related to science and technology is created? Or the study of the life and work of those doing science and technology (observing them in the lab or out in the field)….. And so on. And of course all these various studies of can be subdivided according to new and old and emerging sciences and technologies or STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine) disciplines.
STS is probably the study of all of these ‘things’. But all of these things are very different ‘objects of study’, demanding different epistemologies, approaches and methodologies. This makes it an extremely fertile and exciting field of study, albeit a sometimes perhaps perplexing one. And there is yet another layer of complexity that an old linguist like me finds interesting but also slightly daunting, and that is that STS operates at the intersection of scholarship, engagement, and action. Unlike my past research into say, Philipp Wegener’s inspiring work on exposition and predicate, this type of research overlaps much more substantially with policy, politics, publics, participation and the public sphere , which adds extra levels of potential controversy, contestation and conflict (ah, the power of alliteration) to the study of science and technology.
At the moment, my personal ‘ofs’ are the study of media representations of science and technology and the study of the linguistic, cultural and visual framing of science and technology. I am for example fascinated by the playful (but also utterly serious) use of Lego/Bricks in text and talk around synthetic biology and what this may imply for the public understanding of this emerging science. Are we moving away from fears about scientists Playing God and creating Frankensteinian monsters to hopes framed through the image of scientists ‘just playing’? Or are we perhaps moving away from fearing the advent of ‘l’homme machine‘ to hoping for the advent of ‘homo ludens‘?