February 15, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

Is STS trivial? Chris Toumey reflects on writing a book about nanotech and the humanities

This is a guest post by Chris Toumey, a cultural anthropologist who has observed and studied developments in nanotechnology for many years. Chris and I have known each other for a long time, and his work and words have always inspired me. He has just published a book entitled Nanotech and the Humanities: An Anthropologist Observes the Science of Atoms and Molecules. In this post he reflects on his writing and its relation to Science and Technology Studies (STS). I’ll follow up these thoughts with my own about what I have called ‘responsible writing’. Chris’s book is part of a new STS genre of which Andrew Maynard’s Films from the Future, featured in this blog postis another example.

Is STS trivial?

The field of STS has a cloud above its head, namely, the question of whether our work is trivial. If our research and writing cause others to better understand science and technology, then our work is worthwhile. We do not need to formulate hypotheses about cause-and-effect relationships in the natural world, let alone conduct experiments to test hypotheses. That we can leave to our friends in science and engineering. Our contribution is to enrich our readers’ understandings of science and technology by elucidating the historical circumstances from which science and technology emerge; or to show how social forces shape them; or to identify cultural dynamics which steer science and technology in one direction, and not another.

But our work is trivial if the international STS community consists of philosophers speaking only with other philosophers; or some philosophers interacting only with some historians; or a small number of philosophers and historians communicating only with a small number of professors of literature; and so on.

In other words, our work is nontrivial if our insights are helpful to others, whether scientists, engineers, or laypersons, as they hope to better understand science and technology. But we consign ourselves to trivial work if we are a community of scholars in the humanities and social sciences who communicate only with each other.

When I collected twenty-nine of my publications on nanotechnology into my book Nanotechnology and the Humanities, I intended that this volume would enrich the reader’s appreciation of nanotech. It is not a science textbook or a replacement for one. Instead, it draws upon a rich spectrum of research and writing about nanotech by many fine scholars in the humanities and social sciences. While I am the author of each piece except for the Foreword by Brigitte Nerlich, I do not limit the value of my book to my own concerns or insights. On the contrary, I draw attention to the contributions of others, including experts in disciplines well beyond my own home in cultural anthropology. I have sometimes used my commentaries in the journal Nature Nanotechnology to review the books of Cyrus Mody, Colin Milburn and others; also to synthesize the work of more people who are brighter than myself. No one would think that I am a solitary genius, and I am not, but I aspire to shape my research and writing as a platform for presenting the best insights about nanotechnology which come from the humanities and social sciences.

This is how I hope that Nanotechnology and the Humanities will be appreciated. If some of us in STS have enriched others’ understandings of nanotechnology, and especially if my book reaches readers beyond the STS community, then I have shown that our research and writing have escaped the trap of trivial scholarship. We do not limit ourselves to communicating only with like-minded colleagues, but we see that many persons’ understandings of science and technology can benefit from the perspectives of the humanities and social sciences which we call Science & Technology Studies.


Chris mentions the foreword to the book which I (Brigitte) wrote a while ago. Having totally forgotten what I wrote, I was surprised to find the following bit of text which I think is worth repeating. But before I do so, I just want to say: writing well and writing non-trivially for a wide range of people is not easy. It can be quite hard work! So I am grateful to people like Chris who put in this work.

“At a time when we hear more and more about ‘responsible research and innovation’, I think it is time to reflect on what one may call responsible academic writing and responsible language use. Here I echo Chris Toumey’s words: those of us, especially in what is called Science & Technology Studies, where we use the humanities and social sciences to better understand nanoscience and nanotechnology, have a responsibility to share our work with the very scientists and engineers that make nanotechnology happen, as well as with as large an audience as possible of non-specialists who care very much about science, technology and their societal issues. This means writing in order to be understood rather than writing to show off how clever we are. The chapters for this book accomplish these tasks brilliantly. They are readable, understandable, enjoyable, but nonetheless profound. They are great examples of responsible research and writing.

The twenty-five commentaries that make up this book, plus the four longer pieces, lead the reader through the history of nanotechnology which began in the 1950s, engage with its reception and discussion in the public sphere at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, and then home in on one of the main ways in which nano became public, indeed an object of visual consumption: nano images. The books ends with a discussion of recent controversies and debates surrounding nanotechnology.”


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