Interview: A look inside the research group 'STS'

This month CESAU spoke with professor and researcher at the Department of Information Studies, Finn Olesen, who is coordinator of the research group STS. Behind this abbreviation a world of connections between science, technology and society unfolds.

By Kristine Frahm

CESAU: What does STS mean?

Finn: The short answer is that STS means Science, Technology and Society Studies. It is an expression for an international field of research that is especially known in Europe and USA, but increasingly in other parts of the world too. It is a field interested in imperative connections between technology, science and society; those areas cannot be separated. In simple terms: The minimum unit of analysis in STS-research is the relation between the three, or at least two of the three, areas.

CESAU: Why is it particularly relevant to look at technology and natural science from a sociological or societal perspective?

Finn: Because technology and natural science has been traditionally perceived as something that was of no interest for the social or human sciences. But one will quickly discover that there are a lot of societal or social determinants involved, when one analyses technology and natural science. For example in environmental technology which is imbued with conceptions and values of society. Natural science and technology are in some way always an important part of how we think and organize our society. But at the same time we have accepted that the social and human sciences have no right to make significant remarks on the knowledge produced by the natural sciences. STS-research breaks with this view.

Break with positivism

CESAU: How does STS-research approach it’s research topics?

Finn: STS perceives a scientific society as a social group. It consists of scientists, situated at a specific place at a specific historical moment under some cultural circumstances, which obviously makes them socially affected. There is a high degree of constructivism involved in the STS way of thinking.

Around the year 1960 the American historian of science, Thomas Kuhn and others began to perceive scientific cognition as something that has historical relations as well. Until then scientific knowledge was perceived as words coming from the mouths of gifted people. After Thomas Kuhn we speak of the scientific community, ruptures and social processes affecting scientific research. The work Thomas Kuhn begun has been developed further by sociologists and social theorists, who have developed their own theories of science and how scientists are something else than just producers of knowledge. STS is that tradition. It is a break with the positivist understanding of science.

Surveillance and health-IT

CESAU: Can you give an example of an ongoing research topic in the field of STS?

Finn: At Center for STS-studies at Aarhus University there are two main trails we take particular interest in. The first is surveillance. The second trail is health-IT in a broad sense.

I myself have worked with Electronic Health Records (EHR), which is an example of a research project in the field of health-IT. The paper made record is replaced by an electronic counterpart, hence the name. And of course it is neat if you, instead of searching for a paper record or sending it from one hospital to another, are able to simply open the record on a computer. But you quickly discover that when you take a closer look at EHR it is an extremely complicated process. For example, if the doctor forgets to enter a change in the dosage of medicine – which can happen if there is no computer around – then the nurse cannot dose the medicine correctly. And in that context the organizational work becomes too voluminous. You have to be aware of the interplay between the health professionals and the technology in the given situation. EHR works in theory, but ultimately it is praxis that will determine whether something works or not. That is why STS is also oriented towards praxis.

CESAU: How do you use the STS research group at CESAU?

Finn: It turns out, that the meetings where it is possible to talk to other CESAU members assures familiarity with other environments and opens up the possibility for future collaborations. We become aware of related subjects and possibilities of talking with other disciplines, e.g. political science, anthropology and philosophy. Interdisciplinarity is an important part of participating in our CESAU research group.

A meeting on surveillance

CESAU participated in the STS group’s latest meeting the Ada-building at Department of Information and Media studies. Here we were introduced to the second trail of STS research at Aarhus University; surveillance. Researcher and professor Peter Lauritsen opened with the presentation ”The fragility of surveillance – CCTV and police work”, followed by time for discussion. In his presentation Peter Lauritsen stressed that we have a tendency to trust CCTV blindly. But the STS approach lets us include fragility in the efficiency of surveillance, and maybe change our view on surveillance.

As Finn Olesen explains, a surveillance camera is not just a piece of glass and a film recording. Many factors are at work; where does the camera point, how is the lighting, time of day, blackouts etc. You assume you can separate the technological equipment from the social processes, but in reality it turns out to be impossible.

"One will quickly discover that there are a lot of societal or social determinants involved, when one analyses technology and natural science. For example in environmental technology which is imbued with conceptions and values of society. Natural science and technology are in some way always an important part of how we think and organize our society," says Finn Olesen.