In a recent Making Science Public post, Chris Toumey asked is STS trivial? Since I’ve written about Science and Technology Studies (STS) on a number of occasions, I found it an interesting post and posed a question in the comments.
Chris has very kindly written a new post in response to my question. It describes various qualitative methods used in STS. There are historical perspectives, comparative case studies, ethnographic approaches, and thick descriptions. These can also be combined with quantitative methods to make testable hypotheses.
I found this all very interesting, but it wasn’t quite what my question was getting at. I was trying to ask something subtler than simply “how is research conducted in STS”? I’ll try to clarify using the astronomy example that Chris uses at the end of his post.
Chris suggests that sometimes what is done in astronomy can be more like the historical sciences than the experimental sciences. It’s true that astronomy is an observational science and that there are situations where an observation might imply something that we can’t directly test. However, when we do infer something from such observations, this is typically because we’ve either tested the hypothesis with other observations, or we’re relying on very well-established physics.
Essentially, we’re still relying on an understanding that has been developed by following a pretty standard, quantitative, scientific method, even if there are situations when we infer something from observations that we can’t use to specifically test some hypothesis. So, the question I had posed was essentially that if research in STS does not typically involve something equivalent to hypothesis testing, then how can one infer anything general from the qualitative research that takes place?
In other words, if there is nothing comparable to the standard scientific process, then surely all you can do is use the qualitative methods to describe various specific situations, such as a specific history, or a comparison between different cases, or ethnographic studies of specific groups. If one is going to draw broader conclusions from these qualitative studies, then this presumably has to be based on an understanding that has been tested in some way.
So, my question was essentially how can STS draw any broad conclusions from its studies if there isn’t something akin to the standard scientific process? Although I found Chris’ description of research practices within STS very interesting and it did clarify some things, it didn’t quite address what I was actually getting at with my question.