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What is the Study of STS?

STS is one of almost forty Interdisciplinary Programs at Stanford. It offers a fascinating array of courses from some twenty departments and schools. Ours is one of many academic STS programs — for example, at Cornell, MIT, UC Berkeley, and Rensselaer Polytechnic — some known by other names such as Science & Technology Studies, Social Studies of Science, etc.

How does an STS major differ from a science, engineering, or medical degree? Let’s start with an old joke. Two young fish are swimming along. A frog on a lily pad spots them and remarks, “Hello boys! How’s the water today?” The two young fish mumble something to the effect of “Just fine, Grandma.” After they pass by, one young fish eyes the other and asks: “What’s water?”

Scientists, engineers, and medical professionals swim (as they must) in the details of their technical work: experiments, inventions, treatments and cures. It’s an intense and necessary focus. STS, by contrast, draws attention to the water: the social, political, legal, economic, and cultural environment that shapes research and invention, supports or inhibits it — and is in turn shaped by evolving science and technology. Some STS scholars use the analogy of a legal constitution, which determines how specific laws are made and enforced. Similarly, our built environment and our infrastructures constitute the conditions within which we live our lives. As for science, the instruments and models we design constitute the limits of what we can observe and understand. Meanwhile, funding, social needs, religious views, ethics, intellectual property law, and other sociocultural factors make some kinds of scientific advances possible while restricting others.

STS students at Stanford take two types of courses: (a) technical courses in which they learn and practice science or engineering, and (b) courses in which they study the social and historical context of science and technology. These latter courses engage students with critical aspects of how science and technology are communicated, governed, and taught, as well as how science and technology affect communication, governance, and education. Students come away with an appreciation of the powerful influence of social and infrastructural contexts and the role of human agency, political decisions, and path dependence in technical change. We believe that an understanding of these intricate dynamics – beyond simple preoccupation with “innovation” – is an essential part of being a responsible citizen today and an important educational objective of the program.

It’s liberal arts for the 21st century: an ideal preparation for life in a world constantly being shaped and reshaped by science, technology, and medicine.

STS scholarship dates to the 1930s and even before. In 1935 the sociologist Ludwik Fleck published Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, detailing precisely how a specific claim came to be accepted as scientific knowledge. Robert Merton titled his 1938 doctoral dissertation Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England. He demonstrated how the Puritan ethos of usefulness influenced not only scientific publishing, but also mining, textile, and global navigation technologies during England’s scientific revolution. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) argued that in the history of science, dramatic “eureka moments” are far less common than a slow buildup of inexplicable results, until one of multiple possible explanations for these anomalies – such as a heliocentric solar system, oxygen, or general relativity theory – is gradually accepted, altering the way in which the world is perceived and understood.

As for technology and infrastructure, Thomas Parke Hughes’s Networks of Power (1983) compared how electric power systems developed in America, England, and Germany, showing that they required not only electrical but social “engineering” to create necessary legal frameworks, financing, standards, political support, and organizational designs. In the 1980s, Stanford economic historian Paul David developed the theory of path dependence, which describes how commitment to a particular technical solution is reinforced by the “sunk costs” of training, institution-building, legal structures, and other social investments. In Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (1999), Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star pioneered the study of knowledge infrastructures, including for example the Linnean biological nomenclature or the International Classification of Diseases. These are just a few examples from a vast array of vibrant and original STS scholarship.

Since the 1970s, an academic field of STS has emerged that combines history, anthropology, sociology, economics, ethics, and other approaches to the relations between social contexts and the practices of science and engineering. Stanford’s STS program — founded in 1971 — was among its first manifestations. The Society for Social Studies of Science now hosts over 1500 scholars at its annual meetings. Academic journals such as Science, Technology, and Human Values, Social Studies of Science, and Technology & Culture provide outlets for this scholarship, which has spread to encompass studies of architecture, design, medical ethics, and many other areas. Especially important today are STS perspectives on the Anthropocene epoch, as well as on catastrophic risks such as climate change, nuclear war, synthetic biology, and autonomous weapons guided by artificial intelligence.

Stanford’s STS Program remains one of the country’s largest and strongest, situated in a university renowned as much for its humanities and social science departments as for its engineering, computer science, and natural science programs. Within a carefully designed structure, it offers students extraordinary flexibility. It’s liberal arts for the 21st century: an ideal preparation for life in a world constantly being shaped and reshaped by science, technology, and medicine.

What are students writing about and publishing in STS?

Where's the latest STS research? Have a look online at these journals: