- Established Sentiments, Alternative Agendas, and Politics of Concretization
This essay discusses some of the political and practical efficacies, which constructivist science and technology studies (STS) is imagined, intended, or presented as having. I refer to the ways in which authors make arguments and claims about such efficacies as the politics of concretization: the concretization of why, how, and in which circumstances it matters to be a constructivist. It is important to consider which argumentative resources STS and SLS (science and literature studies) have access to and draw upon when defining their fields and their relationships to other social and political arenas; not least so, as social science and humanities research is increasingly called upon to legitimate itself in broader societal terms—for instance, under the banner of mode 2 knowledge production.1 Under this rubric, such research is increasingly discussed in terms of the public relevance and usefulness it is capable of providing. However, the criteria of utility according to which such evaluations can or should be carried out is rarely opened up for scrutiny, and the definitions and notions guiding the determination of the useful and the relevant are often narrow. This can have potential consequences on many levels: from the individual researcher struggling to do research [End Page 217] on a “useless” topic, to the relative apportioning of funds among disciplines and institutions and the infrastructure of education more generally.
The concretization of disciplinary capacities is obviously not controlled solely from within; nevertheless, arguments generated from within academic fields about the kinds of goods they are capable of providing take part in shaping public and political understandings of what ought to be expected from such fields. Among other ways, this is done through rhetorical constructions, which show the importance of specific kinds of research and their potential societal contributions, and thereby link it up with other areas and concerns in various ways.2 Further, the constructions of the useful that are promoted by prominent researchers are likely to influence administrators and policy makers, not least when such constructions converge with existing policy discourses. There is thus good reason to consider how this happens, for what reasons, and with what consequences.
To get an analytical grasp on the issue, I make use of the term “politics of concretization.” I use it to characterize the relations a text (or other pronouncement) tries to establish among itself, its intellectual environment, and its (hoped for) readers. I am particularly interested in capturing the rhetorical tendencies exhibited as one pronounces on the strengths of one’s research and emphasises the goods it provides. Often, this is done in juxtaposition with other studies, which are implicitly or explicitly presented as failing to meet a set of values and that one can therefore claim to supersede. The politics of concretization thus involves at least two aspects. First, it illuminates how an author works to control the relation between his text and its reader by providing guidelines for how it should be read. And second, it shows how an author attempts to demonstrate some form of superiority or other through his/her capacity to deliver according to these guidelines in a better manner than competing texts and arguments.
The politics of concretization is manifested in very variable ways [End Page 218] though in my estimation, it takes two main forms in present constructivist and cultural studies in science and technology. Both of these lean on a sense of the merit of being “normative.” The first of these forms is most readily available from scholars of overt political orientation, and it has been used to argue that while such “approaches” as post-structuralism and constructivism have perhaps provided some insights, their value is nevertheless limited because they fail to engage critically with the powers that be. This is the well-known charge of “complicity.” The second orientation is often found in the work of researchers located in practical or “applied” environs, such as policy institutions and management departments. Here, too, it is repeatedly argued that such studies fail to properly cash out their value; but in this version of normative argumentation, it is because they are viewed as insufficiently capable of providing practical...