Rethinking Society for the 21st Century: Developing a Science and Technology Studies Perspective

In 2017 the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP) will publish a research-based report on action-driven solutions to the most pressing challenges of our time, ‘Rethinking Society for the 21st century’.

Schot is coauthoring on the science and technology studies (STS) chapters alongside colleagues from across disciplines. To comment on the draft to help ensure the quality of the debate and the report take the opportunity to visit the commenting platform on the IPSP website. Following a consultation workshop at the beginning of 2016, the original contributors suggested that there are five perspectives on science, technology and innovation that are deeply implicated with how we fundamentally think about social progress, how it is framed, assessed and therefore, researched and reported. In a world where disparities in wellbeing, resources and power are widening, the IPSP project explores how we can make a better society for the 21st century. It brings together 250 social scientists contributing to 22 thematic chapters, on topics such as cities, the future of capitalism, supranational organisations and ‘the pluralization of families’. Further contributions and debate is sought by the IPSP, to add your perspective and ideas visit the commenting platform. 

The role of science and technology in social progress is one of four special cross-cutting themes identified as bearing upon all issues, and which should, therefore, inform the approach to challenges and opportunities in different areas of social life. The five key observations that will inform the chapters authored by Professor Schot are:

1. The social and technological co-produce Social Progress

Social progress arises from both technological and social advances. Science and technology studies (STS) brings sensitivity to relationships and alignments between the social and the technical. This happens through observing and analysing phenomena such as ‘sociotechnical systems’, ‘practices’, ‘assemblages’ and ‘scripts’. In relation to social progress, STS scholars ask questions such as: which alignments of actors and institutions produce better outcomes for social issues such as poverty, the distribution of power and climate change? So for example, we might consider how regulatory innovations such as taxes on greenhouse gases better ‘align’ the societal goals of a future free from the negative effects of climate change by subsidizing the roll-out of new technologies such as new renewable energy production. Indeed, STS might help further our inquiry so that we can ask questions about how such alignments are produced, for which purpose and by whom? Accordingly, the focus should be on the socio-technical co-production of policy and institutions by a multitude of actors (not just those we usually consider traditional ‘policy makers’) through processes of co-evolution, and co-construction.

2. Many different actors innovate in a myriad of ways

STS focuses assessment and analysis on the different types of practices, systems and alignments, and the diversity of actors involved in these. In this context, social progress may mean the participation of more actors and more practices. This includes ‘minority practices’ such as amongst communities on the margins of society. Furthermore, many different actors may be innovators. If we are to take seriously this latter point, then the focus of inquiry needs to shift towards technology in-use (beyond individual use) and into new contexts. This has been championed by India’s Honey Bee Network. Often the focus of academic inquiry begins and ends with appropriation, i.e. something coming into the social setting or an innovation process that is appropriated. Yet old technology and the re-making of configurations should not be overlooked.

3. Social progress unfolds along multiple pathways

Rather than unfold in a single unidirectional path, there are multiple possible pathways for innovation and progress. Decisions over which path to take are therefore socio-political choices. STS gives consideration to alternative and multiple pathways towards social progress by investigating hidden alternatives, path dependencies and notions of democracy. We see these issues emerge in controversies such as GM agriculture, where binary ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ positions mask both an informed debate on these technologies and alternative innovations. Progress may be defined as having alternative solutions, and incorporating minority practices. Therefore a definition of social progress may mean flexibility for working on various pathways simultaneously, thus keeping them open and dexterous.

4. Going beyond ‘catching-up’ in connecting the local and the global

Progress is often framed in terms of a ‘global race’ in which there are leaders and laggards. However, multiple pathways necessitate the need to go beyond framings and methods of ‘diffusion’ and ‘catching up’ (such as in the framing ‘developed’ and ‘developing’). Rather, STS scholars advocate a ‘circulation perspective’ in connecting the local and the global that considers building up the global through the circulation of knowledge as well as the distribution and appropriation of benefits. For example, a historic circulation perspective will consider the United Kingdom, not as the epicentre of the 18th century Industrial Revolution, which was diffused outwards, but rather a node in a wider network that dynamically appropriated benefits from other nodes. Social progress in this context may mean maximum local flexibility for local appropriation and the fair distribution of benefits. Indeed, we might heuristically ask within given cases, “is there appropriation from the marginalised, by whom and for what?” The focus should then be on bringing together various scales and the relations between them, e.g., the local and the global, rather than employing universal and harmonising models.

5. Social progress is not given, and knowledge about it arises from social processes.

It should be clear from this discussion that STS scholars generally advocate plural understandings of progress, rather than interpreting progress in a unitary, and linear fashion. Practically, this means looking for different and multiple expectations and imagined futures. When considering historic cases we may explore processes of choice and contingency. In representing progress, we need to be reflexive and responsible in how and why we select.  In short, knowledge arises from social choices and processes. There is no ‘innocent’ form of description, be it numbers, categories, definitions, visual representations, or the stories we tell. We need only consider the often-privileged role of the economist in contemporary governance arrangements to see how different (epistemic) communities use different languages and discourse, and the disparate authority these may carry. Numbering, for example, is one dominant way that allows us to capture certain facets of progress, but qualitative representation is as deeply implicated in forms of closure as quantitative. Here STS may contribute a perspective on the conditions and contexts on which claims of description are based.

This final observation that knowledge arises from social processes has important implications for the work of IPSP authors. A strength of STS is in accounting for context. By doing this, STS approaches reveal diverse knowledge communities, a point which builds on early perspectives that innovation or knowledge production may be done by many actors. Put simply, STS can make visible the daily and ordinary work that people are doing well in contributing to social progress. The flip side of social progress, however, is inequality. STS may have an even more vital role in addressing inequalities as it has already made significant contributions to perspectives on power in relation to technology and innovation. These perspectives run through each of the five points, above, which discusses power in relation to knowledge, a topic neglected in many discussions of social progress. The value of STS is its ability to assess how certain knowledges and technologies (e.g. military innovation) relate to different levels of power. Thus STS is well placed to discuss inequalities that arise through asymmetries of power and the structuring of society through which asymmetries may be addressed.

In January of this year Science, Technology and Society (STS) authors met to reflect on work so far and consider emergent themes. The perspectives given above stem from this discussion. Further key panels have taken place in 2016 culminating in one taking place at the SPRU 50th Anniversary Conference in September 2016.

2016 Panels on Social Progress Conducted by Professor Schot


Singapore, Friday June 24th, 10:00-12:00
Plenary session: A Critical Conversation about Science, Technology and Social Progress
Chair: Bruce Seely.
Participants: Johan Schot, Introduction to the IPSP and general STS approach; Suzanne Moon, Religions, Communities, Ideas and Practices; Itty Abraham, Violence, Wars, Peace and Security.
Commentator: Wen-Hua Kuo


Barcelona , Wednesday August 31st
Plenary session: A Critical Conversation about Science, Technology, Innovation and Social Progress
Moderators: Fred Stewart and Ulrike Felt
Participants: Johan Schot, Introduction to the IPSP and the STS contribution; Eden Medina, Supranational Organizations and Technologies of Governance; Andy Stirling, Multiple Directions of Social Progress; Saurabh Arora, Social Progress a Compass


7th – 9th September, Brighton, UK
Plenary session: A Critical Conversation about Social Progress
Chair: Judith Sutz
Participants: Johan Schot, Introduction to the IPSP; Sheila Jasanoff, Paradoxes of Democracy and the Rule of Law; Andy Stirling, Multiple Directions of Social Progress; Phil Scranton, The Future of Work
Follow-up session: Dialogue session about the work of the IPSP, with three more contributions:
Saurabh Arora, Social Progress a Compass; Raphie Kaplinsky, Markets, Finance and Corporations: Does Capitalism has a Future; Judith Sutz, Inequality and Social Progress

Copyright © 2017 Johan Schot