What is STS?
STS is a relatively new interdisciplinary academic field. Scholars in this field interrogate the complex, and often surprising interrelations between science, technology and society. How does technology affect our social life? How does science shape our worldview and culture? What distinguishes modern western science from pre-modern or non-western sciences? Is technology an application of science, or is modern science technological in its nature? These are some of the key themes that STS has brought to the fore.
Studying science and technology in their social and cultural contexts often produces unpredictable insights that reframe our understanding of the world. The invention of the telescope transformed what we meant by “seeing”, and the microscope changed our definitions of Nature and Life. The arrival of the bicycle rocked women’s fashion and transformed their social position and ideals of marriage. The infusion of Darwinian theory into the broader culture impacted people’s religious views, and nations attitudes towards the “unfit”, and each other. The arrival of the car fueled the mid-twentieth century sexual revolution in the US, alongside the Pill. Today, digital technologies have transformed the ways we think about truth, and how we choose our partners. They’ve also ushered in new forms of politics.
STS studies draw from a broad range of disciplines, including history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, political science, the arts, public policy and the cognitive sciences. The complex challenges of our times demand that we recognize the shifting boundaries and intricate relationships and co-dependencies which characterize technology, science and their place in society. Critical questions haunting our civilization today, like the COVID-19 virus, climate change, artificial intelligence (AI), or genetic engineering, cannot be approached from the exclusionary viewpoint of one discipline, but rather need to be examined from many perspectives, with history and philosophy as our guides.
The early roots of STS can be traced back to mid-twentieth century interest in the history and sociology of technology. Early precursors of STS writing include the work of Lewis Mumford concerning the profound social transformations wrought by technology over the ages (Technics and Civilization, 1934); Ludwig Fleck's inquiries into the crystallization of a scientific fact through the work of a "thought collective" (Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, 1935); And Robert Merton's study of the ethos of scientific investigation, its normative structure, and the roots of modern science in the Protestant worldview (The Normative Structure of Science, 1942).
Studies in STS have repeatedly reshaped how we think of technological objects and practices while also challenging our entrenched views on subjects like gender, objectivity, classification and statistics. In exemplar after another of STS scholarship we’ve learned how, for example, exhibitions at the Natural History Museum in New York are not really about extinct animals as much as about current images of masculinity; how the arrival of the photographic image brought about not only new ideas of objectivity, but also new forms of morality; how IQ testing and genetic screening have been co-opted by different forms of politics, and continue to shape our ideals of community and individuality, and our debates about race and education today.
Throughout its short history, STS literature has achieved a reputation for producing nuanced descriptions that forgo commonplace and misleading generalizations about the effects of technology in favor of compelling and challenging accounts of the complex networks that weave together scientific facts and human values; modes of knowing and modes of acting; science, technology and society.
STS at BIU
The Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University fosters a pluralistic approach to the discipline. While reading, teaching and applying STS literature, we keep learning from neighboring disciplines. We believe that STS can be enriched by insights from other disciplines at the interface between science, technology and society. Our faculty members bring to the program diverse academic backgrounds and are in ongoing conversation with fields such as history and philosophy of science, media studies, critical theory, cultural studies, the life sciences, political economy and more.