Ethnographies of Objects. Descriptive and Analytical Approaches in Science & Technology Studies. PhD Workshop

Ethnographies of Objects. Descriptive and Analytical Approaches in Science & Technology Studies. PhD Workshop

Mercator Forschungsgruppe "Spaces of Anthropological Knowledge" an der Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Vom - Bis
06.06.2016 - 10.06.2016
Julie Mewes

Organized by Julie Mewes, Josefine Raasch and Estrid Sørensen

Objects are central to all of our means of social interaction. Over the past decades Science & Technology Studies have been virtuous in developing methods for studying objects from a social science perspective. The literature often presents results pointing to the social lives of objects along with conceptual discussions of objects and materiality. It rarely discusses in detail the methodological techniques of how to go about actually studying objects. Passoth (2012) even points to a lack of systematic analytical concepts for studying objects.

Focusing on ethnographic approaches, the aim of the workshop is to improve doctoral students' observational, descriptive and analytical tools to interrogate the manifold ways in which objects are entangled in our everyday lives.

The workshop focuses on research practices and on methodological implications. There will be a strong emphasis on working with participants’ own research. Prior to the workshop participants hand in written descriptions of objects from their research and these are discussed throughout the workshop and rewritten during practice units. Furthermore, participants’ writings will be commented on by the lecturers.

The workshop is funded by the Mercator Research Group “Spaces of Anthropological Knowledge”.


Objects, artefacts or materiality were early on central and even defining for Science and Technology Studies. STS study science together with technology due to the basic insight that science and indeed any knowledge are produced by way of technologies (Latour & Woolgar 1979).

But technology also soon came to be a study in its own terms as it was pointed out that shaping technologies implies building society (Bijker et al. 1987). From the beginning the methods for studying technology were primarily ethnographic. Ethnography seemed particularly useful for reaching beyond understandings of technology as passive tools over which humans have control, and who in themselves lack agency.

As it has been shown over and over again, objects and human agency may be separate in discourse and analytics. However when attending to, and particularly when being involved in technological practices, it becomes clear that in practice any definite boundaries between humans and objects often vanish. With its principle of general symmetry (Latour 1993) Actor-Network Theory even came to emphasize the need to treat social and material phenomena on the same terms in empirical research.

With his notion of network and hybridity Latour (1993) emphasised the need to study the entanglements of social and material processes, just as Haraway (1988) with her notion of the cyborg emphasised the always already technical character of the human being. Star and Griessemer’s (1989) notion of boundary objects points to the coordi-nating function objects may gain, just as Star and Strauss (1999), with inspiration from feminist technoscience, pointed to the invisible work done not only by women but also by objects and other members of society that tend rather to be granted the role to serve than to being served. It was also Star together with Ruhleder (1994) who suggested the notion of infrastructure and thus pointed to how objects melt into their environments and become transparent even though continuous work is done to keep the infrastructure stable and the objects transparent.

Mol and de Laet (2000) pointed to how an object such as a Zimbabwe bush pump may not be stable at all, but vary over time and space. They suggested that objects may take a fluid shape. From Mol (2002) we furthermore learn that objects may, like bodies and other phenomena be multiple. Law (2002) points to the decentral charac-ter of objects.

Outside the Euro-American sphere Verran and Cristie (2012) discuss how different material objects enable and hinder indigenous memory practices, and Holbraad, Wastel and Henare (2007) nicely demonstrate how helpful things are to think through when trying to understand distant cultures. Reviving a theme in STS that at least goes back to Winner’s (1980) “Do Artifacts have Politics?”. Nootje Marres (2012) analyses how politics is done through materiality. In recent years the much discussed “turn to ontology” in STS (Sismondo 2015 or Woolgar & Lezaun 2015) is founded on the emphasis on materiality and the crucial importance of taking objects into account in any social science research.

Despite the increasing attention given to objects in Science and Technology Studies and the vast amounts of concepts available for studying objects, discussions in STS are mainly of conceptual or methodological nature.

They rarely engage with the practicalities of actually doing ethnography with objects:

- How are objects sampled? How do they resist research?
- How to make objects speak or make them visible?
- How to study objects as symbols, tools, agents, media, etc.?
- How – and why – do I avoid an ethnocentric description of objects?
- Is it allowed to do interviews? What other methods are useful?
- How do I take the perspective of an object, etc., etc.?

We expect workshop participants to bring such and similar questions with which they are confronted in their research practices. The workshop will alternate between lectures, discussions, an excursion and writing exercises, just as space will be provided for informal intellectual and social exchange among participants.

- Bijker, Hughes, Pinch (1987). The social Construction of technological Systems: new Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press.
- Christie & Verran (2013). Digital Lives in postcolonial Aboriginal Australia. Journal of Ma-terial Culture 18(3): 299-317.
- De Laet & Mol (2000). The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology. Social Studies of Science 30(2): 225–263.
- Haraway (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599.
- Holbraad, Henare, Wastel (2007). Thinking through things – Theorising artefacts ethnographically. London, Routledge.
- Latour & Woolgar (1979). Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press.
- Latour (1993). We have never been modern. Harvard University Press.
- Law (2002). Mechatronics and the design of intelligent machines and systems. SIGSOFT Softw. Eng. Notes 27(3): 93-93.
- Marres (2012). Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics. Palgrave.
- Mol (2002). The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice, Duke University Press.
- Passoth (2012). Dinge in der Wissenschaft. Handbuch Wissenschaftssoziologie. S. Maasen. Wiesbaden, Springer Fachmedien: 203-211.
- Sismondo (2015). Ontological turns, turnoffs and roundabouts. Social Studies of Science: 1-8.
- Star & Griesemer (1989). Institutional Ecology, Translations and Boundary Objects - Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeleys Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science 19(3): 387-420.
- Star & Ruhleder (1994). Steps towards an Ecology of Infrastructure: Complex Problems in Design and Access for large-scale collaborative Systems. Proceedings of the 1994 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA, ACM: 253-264.
- Star & Strauss (1999). Layers of Silence, Arenas of Voice: The Ecology of Visible and Invisible Work. Comput. Supported Coop. Work 8(1-2): 9-30.
- Winner (1980). Do Artifacts Have Politics? Daedalus 109.1: 121–136.
- Woolgar & Lezaun (2015). Missing the (question) mark? What is a turn to ontology? So-cial Studies of Science 45(3): 462-467.


The workshop is application/practice-oriented and is based on exercises and reflec-tions within the group. Three experts in the field, Jeannette Pols, Estrid Sørensen and Helen Verran will give lectures on methods and analyses within the ethnographic studies of objects. Each student is required to submit ethnographic descriptions in advance to the workshop.

The submitted descriptions are commented on and discussed by both lecturers and participants, just as time slots are reserved for the rewriting the descriptions and trying to build-in the insights achieved through the course. In addition, a one-day excursion to the German Mining Museum is planned, during which we collectively will produce ethnographic descriptions of selected objects that we encounter in the Museum.

Day 1 (starting after lunch): Presentations of the participants and their research ob-jects. Lecture by Estrid Sørensen on the ethnographic gaze on objects. Exercises: Observation/ Description

Day 2 Morning: Lecture on ethnographic description by Jeannette Pols
Afternoon: Discussion of the submitted papers + writing exercises

Day 3 All day field-trip to the German Mining Museum, observation/description exercises
Evening: Workshop dinner

Day 4 Morning: Lecture on Analysis by Helen Verran
Afternoon: Discussion of the submitted papers + supported rewriting of the own descriptions

Day 5 Morning: Peer comments on revisions and final discussions.


Jeannette Pols, Socrates Professor, Institute for Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam

Helen Verran, Associate Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at Charles Darwin University

Estrid Sørensen, Professor for Cultural Psychology and Anthropology of Knowledge at Ruhr University Bochum


Julie Sascia Mewes
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