Research, Teaching and the Development of Science & Technology Studies

Peter Taylor, April 1995

I have shaped my career so that its structure exemplifies a key theme of my scholarship: complexity built from interconnected, diverse elements, or, as I now call it, heterogeneous construction.1 In the 1970s and early 80s sociological accounts and political critiques of science argued that scientific investigations were always vulnerable to competing interpretations and that the general directions taken in science reflected social interests. During this period I combined environmental activism and research in the area of agriculture and the environment, before coming to the United States to work with two biologist/social critics on a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology. The goal of my subsequent research, teaching and other scholarly initiatives has been to extend the sociological and political analyses of science and, at the same time, to develop my framework for addressing ecological and environmental complexity. I seek to build a strong theoretical framework for explaining more specifically how scientists as practicing social and intellectual agents build diverse aspects of their "sociality" into the particular ways they know the world. Such a framework, moreover, should enable working scientists and students to analyze the diverse resources harnessed in scientific practice and prepare them to bring such understanding to bear on their research, policy work, and other social interventions. Acknowledging the linkages between theories and practices means, in turn, that new collaborations, programs, and other activities must be initiated in order to open up space for such reflexive, critical scientific practice in society and, in particular, in the academy.

When I joined Cornell's Program on Science, Technology & Society (STS) in 1990 the position offered me an unusual opportunity to develop the interlocking theoretical, pedagogical and program-building dimensions of my project. My primary teaching and advising responsibilities were to be in the inter-college Biology and Society major administered by STS, and I was expected to help develop an STS graduate program and "engage in collaborative, cross-disciplinary research."2 With the subsequent formation of the Department of Science & Technology Studies (S&TS) I have continued to work towards establishing critical reflexive practice within the natural and social sciences and within this field-in-formation, science and technology studies.

The theme of complexity constructed from hetereogeneous elements applies, not only to my career as a whole, but equally to its component strands, namely:
1) the different topics of my research:
a) in ecology, ecological communities or systems;
b) in socio-environmental studies, the linked natural and social processes producing environmental degradation; and
c) in S&TS; the diverse influences or resources that scientists draw upon in making their scientific knowledge and practices;

2) my teaching about the environmental and life sciences, to both science and S&TS students, and my advising of these students; and

3) the initiatives I have taken to promote reflexive, critical science and S&TS.

These strands of research, teaching and field building, like those of any heterogeneous construction, need to be viewed as intersecting processes.3 The importance of cross-linkages within my work can be illustrated by a series of examples:
-- I frame my account of ecological theorizing in my book, The Limits of Ecology,4 to lead ecologists into examining the sociality of ecological knowledge.
-- I use analysis of debates about ecological organization within ecology proper5 to inform my analysis of socio-environmental frameworks that employ ecology's models.
-- I use insights from critical examination of conceptual developments within the sciences to motivate and animate S&TS interpretations of those sciences, and vice versa. Such reciprocal animation6 is central to my particular transdisciplinary7 approach to S&TS.
-- In the course of developing instructional material and activities to promote reciprocal animation, I find rich material for my writing.8
-- I have used my framework of counterfactuals in S&TS analyses to inform my pedagogical efforts to promote critical thinking. Both counterfactual analysis and critical thinking, as I see them, seek to understand ideas, practices, and assumptions by placing them in tension with alternatives.
-- Through my undergraduate research course, in which students pursue their own investigations of the social impact of science, I explore a more general project, namely, enhancing people's confidence to act upon their critical thinking about science.
-- Through the different programs, workshops and organizations that I have helped establish, I have also generated audiences, participants and support for reflexive, critical science and for S&TS. As a scholar working across the established disciplines, and often departing from the terms, models, and practices they provide, I am keenly aware that if transdisciplinary approaches such are to become a valued strand of science and technology studies, reliable contexts of production and reception are needed.

Three sections follow: Research and Writing; Teaching and Advising; and Initiatives in the Development of Science and Technology Studies. These provide an overview of the innovations, achievements, and other contributions that I have made to date, the on-going projects, and some new directions that I see my work taking. I have written this statement to be read in conjunction with my publications, selected works in progress, curriculum vitae, and the documentation of my teaching and advising. I have, therefore, chosen not to detail the specific content of my publications. Instead, the first section on research and writing describes the rationale for my overall project to which the publications, works in progress, and proposed research and writing contribute. Similarly, the second section only summarizes the important characteristics of my approach to teaching and advising and provides some specific illustrations. The portfolio constitutes the full documentation of my substantive themes, accomplishments and efforts to develop as a teacher. The third section, however, can be read without accompanying documents. In order to convey the special demands of establishing STS/ S&TS I detail my formal and informal responsibilities in the Program/ Department and the 160 student-strong Biology and Society major. This final section also describes the range of initiatives, over and above the immediate STS/S&TS responsibilities, that I have undertaken to develop new collaborations, organizations and other settings in which a reflexive, critical strand of science and S&TS can prosper.

1 This and other italicized terms correspond to key themes in my work. In the case of heterogeneous construction see "Building on construction: An exploration of heterogeneous constructionism, using an analogy from psychology and a sketch from socio-economic modelling" Perspectives on Science, 3 (1), 66-98; "Co-construction and process: a response to Sismondo's classification of constructivisms" Social Studies of Science, 25 (2), 348-359.
2 From the advertisement for the position.
3 "The social analysis of ecological change: From systems to intersecting processes" Social Science Information, 34: 5-30, 1995. (With R. García-Barrios) [Note: I am the senior author for all the co-authored papers listed in these notes]; "Is transgression good," Invited commentary for session on "Feminism confronting science studies" at American Sociological Association, August 1994.
4 Manuscript in preparation.
5 "Community" pp. 52-60 in E.F. Keller & E. Lloyd (eds.) Keywords in evolutionary biology, Harvard University Press, 1992.
6 In using this term I am borrowing Max Black's idea that a metaphor works in two directions. It not only allows the associations of one field (B) to "animate" our thinking about another (A), but our thinking about B is influenced in turn, or "reciprocally," by being metaphorically associated with A.
7 I prefer this term because interdisciplinarity is not sufficiently specific. I distinguish four main models for people doing interdisciplinary work. They can:
1) be borrowers -- They either a) borrow from other disciplines, but are based in one of the established disciplines, or b) use expertise and authority in a primary discipline (especially in a science) to enter and influence another discipline;
2) be multi-disciplinary -- They either a) work in a team of people from different disciplines; or (less commonly) b) work in more than one discipline, being on par with specialists in each of those disciplines. A variant of this is serial disciplinarity, e.g., undergraduate training in science and subsequent work in philosophy of science;
3) explore and make new paths -- They use experience in or perspectives from moving across the different disciplines to raise and tackle questions not raised within the separate disciplines, to generate new categories, methods, and frameworks;
4) work towards establishing a new interdiscipline, e.g., biochemistry. In the area of S&TS two additional models of interdisciplinarity arise from the fact that
5) the topics are often drawn from some discipline of science or technology; and,
6) consequently, part of the audience is often located in some discipline of science or technology.
The interdisciplinarity of my work fits the path-making model (3) more than the others (1,2,4). The disciplines from which I draw and which I aim to influence through my work include ecology, socio-environmental studies (itself a range of disciplines), and the feeder disciplines of S&TS, namely, history, philosophy, sociology and politics of S&T. In addition, models 5) & 6) clearly apply to my work. The label transdisciplinary is, in sum, quite apt.
8 Particular examples include "The social analysis of ecological change," and the depression analogy used in "Building on construction." author identification, etc.