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Archive for April, 2014

I was recently asked to create a short sketch for a project on the issue of matter in scientific culture and the study of techno-science, based on my work on visualization and decision-making in techno-scientific governance. Here is what I came up with.

 

In science & technology studies (STS) a heated debate has ensued, surrounding the issue of the role of ‘what matter matters’. Herein, individual disciplines contributing to the STS fold, in turn, argue variably for or against the importance of ontologies: Anthropology, widely considered the main supplier of methods to science studies – largely through ethnographic methods – has come under attack because it is felt that it has eschewed empirical discussions of methodology as well as in-depth conceptual and theoretical debates, whereas sociology is seen as focused on how to resolve issues of justice by evaluation of demographically valid populations, and, finally, philosophy (of science) is considered stuck in a reiteration of the continental-(post)analytic divide, with object-oriented ontologies on the one side, and the neo-analytic discussions of ontic vagueness, neo-nominalism, and a program of an ‘epistemology of techno-science’ on the other side.

This project’s aim is not to renounce or belittle these developments, yet it aims to introduce systematically an empirical-methodological conversation. People actually have to use knowledge in practices together, and make them work, and they have to make the materials they work with work in ways that work out. For example, technicians in research labs or clinics produce images of brains, the physico-chemical central nervous system, that belong to research subjects; images are used by experts to create research results, functional brain models, or clinical diagnoses; eventually, these are used to explain ‘what’s going on’ to a patient or the wider public. We create visual images and models of all kinds of physical, chemical, and biological processes and entities that matter. But what and where is matter in this chain of interactions? Where is it created? In this project, an introduction (following from the researcher’s earlier work on semantic agency in scientific practice) an elucidation of three ontological kinds of entities will be attempted, aimed at the understanding of how people at different levels of techno-scientific interaction chains deal with the issue of matter that they can have access to only by means of technologies of visualization. It will be shown, on the example of recent advances in imaging technologies, that are used in the study of neuronal activity, intra-cellular activities, and of organic substances such as proteins that between models that are elusive and actual matter, interactions function on a level of tangibility. While we have a more or less stable concept for matter in scientific practice (if not necessarily in physics), what matters more – no pun intended – for people in asymmetrical knowledge interaction chains, is tangibility. Imaging technologies that make visible what must otherwise remain elusive, cannot ‘give’ us or create matter, but they provide a poetics and politics of tangibility. For any empirical and methodological discussion of ontologies in techno-science, what these layers mean for the actual practices and practitioners must become a focus of the conversation, or we remain stuck in a turf war between disciplines. Science studies is for the moment an associative interdisciplinary field in the middle of just such a turf war on the issue of matter itself, but it needs to achieve an integrative interdisciplinarity, that can produce genuinely tangible, empirical results.

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