Social Studies of Science on: Repair, publics, and “body dirt”

The June edition of The Social Studies of Science has three articles of interest to discard studies (details below). Social Studies of Science, or Science and Technology Studies (STS), critically examines the social processes through which scientific and technical knowledge is created, evaluated, challenged, spread, accepted, refuted, transformed, and fit back into social relations and culture. STS and discard studies share the conviction that “waste” is not given in nature, but is created, and thus study processes of waste becoming. Following Mary Douglas’ idea that, “Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (1988: 36), both disciplines research how “systematic ordering,” “classifications of matter” and “inappropriate elements” are created and naturalized in social-technical systems. An important topic in both disciplines is how scientific and technical objects and forms of “dirt” are open to debate. “Pollution ideas are the product of an ongoing political debate about the ideal society,” notes Douglas “…[P]ollution beliefs uphold conceptual categories dividing the moral from the immoral and so sustain the vision of the good society” (1982: 36-7). Science plays a role in this, sometimes explicitly, as when “scientists are often asked to contribute to help resolve… policy issues that are unfolding amidst a complex, volatile mix of clashing values, differing preferences, and opposing, often mutually exclusive, societal priorities” (Lackey 2004: 2). Sometimes the use of science to determine what is and is not out of place is less overt, but no less present. The following articles take some of these less overt engagements as their point of study:
This article looks to propose a new way to understand the repair of failing large sociotechnical systems. Leaving aside romantic valuations, repair always involves a certain degree of normalization. Derived from conceptualizations by Foucault, repair as normalization is understood as a particular form of power that, first, recognizes a certain normal state to which the failing system should evolve and, second, develops different strategies to reach it, usually involving the deployment of particular disciplinary devices. The ultimate aim of such practices is usually not only the improvement of the system but centrally the maintenance of a certain kind of power. In order to show the empirical usability of such conceptualization, the article analyzes the case of Transantiago, a thoroughgoing reform of the public transport system of Santiago, Chile. The start of Transantiago in February 2007 was marred by multiple failures, becoming one of the biggest public controversies in the country in recent decades. Given this, several different strategies were developed to repair such failures, understanding them explicitly as normalization. The article analyzes two particular strategies: attempts to change the negative ‘public perception’ about Transantiago through the use of quantitative indicators and the introduction of an unexpected type of infrastructure to increase the overall speed of the system. Finally, the conclusion analyzes how the conception of repair as normalization can help us better understand the complexities involved in dealing with failing large sociotechnical systems such as Transantiago, pointing to the need to sometimes move beyond repair.
Making waste management public (or falling back to sleep) by Myra J Hird, Scott Lougheed, R Kerry Rowe, and Cassandra Kuyvenhoven
Human-produced waste is a major environmental concern, with communities considering various waste management practices, such as increased recycling, landfilling, incineration, and waste-to-energy technologies. This article is concerned with how and why publics assemble around waste management issues. In particular, we explore Noortje Marres and Bruno Latour’s theory that publics do not exist prior to issues but rather assemble around objects, and through these assemblages, objects become matters of concern that sometimes become political. The article addresses this theory of making things public through a study of a small city in Ontario, Canada, whose landfill is closed and waste diversion options are saturated, and that faces unsustainable costs in shipping its waste to the United States, China, and other regions. The city’s officials are undertaking a cost–benefit assessment to determine the efficacy of siting a new landfill or other waste management facility. We are interested in emphasizing the complexity of making (or not making) landfills public, by exploring an object in action, where members of the public may or may not assemble, waste may or may not be made into an issue, and waste is sufficiently routinized that it is not typically transformed from an object to an issue. We hope to demonstrate Latour’s third and fifth senses of politics best account for waste management’s trajectory as a persistent yet inconsistent matter of public concern.
When mothers of preterm infants are unable to produce sufficient volumes of breastmilk, neonatologists in many Western countries prescribe pasteurized donor breastmilk. Breastmilk has a paradoxical presence in the neonatal intensive care unit: while it has therapeutic properties, it also has the potential to transmit disease. National health authorities and local neonatal intensive care unit policies each delimit the safety of donor milk by focusing on the presence or absence of pathogens. It is in this light that breastmilk from the human milk bank is both sought and legitimated to minimize safety concerns. This research uses data arising from an ethnographic study of two human milk banks and two neonatal intensive care units in the United States, and 73 interviews with milk donors, neonatal intensive care unit parents and clinicians. The primary research question framing the study was ‘What are the underlying processes and practices that have enabled donor milk to be endorsed as a safe and legitimate feeding option in neonatal intensive care units?’ This study is framed using three key principles of Latour’s ‘new critique’, namely, adding to reality rather than debunking it, getting closer to data rather than turning away from fact and creating arenas in which to assemble. As a result, conceptions of donor milk’s safety are expanded. This case study of donor milk demonstrates how Latour’s new critique can inform science and technology studies approaches to the study of safety in health care.
For more on discard studies and STS, see Discard Studies as Science and Technology Studies (10/2013)
Works Cited:

Douglas, M. and A. B. Wildavsky (1982). Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. Berkeley, University of California Press

Douglas, M. (1998). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge.

Lackey, Robert T. 2004. “Normative science.” Fisheries. 29(7): 38-39.

2 thoughts on “Social Studies of Science on: Repair, publics, and “body dirt”

  1. Reblogged this on Alex R. D. Zahara and commented:
    A new paper by the Canada’s Waste Flow research group will be published in the June issue of Social Studies of Science (details below). The article Making Waste Management Public (or Falling Back to Sleep) is about how publics do (or don’t) assemble around waste as an issue. The paper is written by Dr. Myra Hird, Scott Lougheed, Dr. Kerry Rowe, and Cassandra Kuyvenhoven.

  2. Thanks Alex. We’re always happy to showcase new articles and projects. Looking forward to the June publication.

Comments are closed.