Speaking Across Disciplines: Illustrated Notes from a Science and Technology Studies Conference

blog DCGC1_2016I recently attended a science and technology (STS) conference at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) on the general theme of scientific relationships and scientific values. The conference featured some thirty presenters from a wide range of (almost exclusively) german-speaking institutions. Organized by the Interdisciplinary Network for Studies in Science and Technology (INSIST network), the conference was also affiliated with the Munich Centre for Technology in Society (MCTS), a multi-disciplinary institute at the TUM.

The conference highlighted many of the strengths and limitations of multi-disciplinary gatherings. For those of you who are unfamiliar with STS, it is a loose federation of social scientists who share a general interest in – you guessed it – science and technology. Sociologists, anthropologists, historians, philosophers, this criminologist, and even some wayward ‘natural’ scientists join together to try and make sense of pasts, presents and futures that are unequivocally hybrid in nature. Biological actors mix with social actors that mix with technical actors, and so on and so forth. The world is messy, so are our efforts to make sense of it, and, incidentally, so are our conferences.

Don’t get me wrong. The organizational and logistical aspects of the conference were executed with near surgical (cough, german) precision. But the challenges of speaking across disciplines were on full display from start to finish. Granted, there were recurrent themes and occasional allusions to big STS figures, such as Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, and for the first time I met face-to-face with others working on my research subject, still multi-disciplinary remains more an ideal than a reality.

We easily forget the terminological shortcuts we use within our tribes to cover as much ground as possible within our allotted twenty minutes. We also neglect the multiple meanings that our words might evoke in the minds of (disciplinary) Others. And yet, these perceived limitations are precisely the kind of constructive (or deconstructive) moments that are less prevalent in mono-cultured academic gatherings. In fact, they neatly illustrate one of the core concepts of STS theory, namely, translation.

When the biologist speaks, I try desperately to fit her words within the landscape of my existing knowledge. I translate her words so that they have meaning for me. Of course, my translation will be a reduction of her original meaning, not least because I can’t translate all of her words, but the process of translation can trigger a new set of associations that produce a new thought or unearth an old one. The process reveals that certain words are far more open to translation than others. This helps us consider which words need greater clarification when we’re on the emitting end of the equation, which words to guard against undesirable interpretations.

Translation also happens at criminology conferences. Actually, it happens every single time two things interact, even within the most intimate of relations. But multi-disciplinary settings provoke unexpected connections by exposing us to the properly foreign and asking us to fend for ourselves.

Oh, and speaking of translation, I could have definitely used a german interpreter because some ninety percent of the presentations were ‘auf Deutsch’…

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