Programme

(T087)
What is a Problem? Problematic Ecologies, Methodologies and Ontologies in Techno-science and Beyond
Location 119
Date and Start Time 01 September, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 3

Convenors

  • Martin Savransky (Goldsmiths, University of London) email
  • Sebastian Rojas Navarro (King's College London) email
  • Patricio Rojas (Goldsmiths, University of London) email

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Short Abstract

What is a problem? What if problems have their own thickness and vitality, constituting a mode of existence of practices and things? How do practices participate in the transformation of problems? This track invites STS scholars to explore the nature of problems in techno-science and beyond.

Long Abstract

This track invites scholars to reflect upon and experiment with the question of the nature of problems across fields of thought and practice in relation to science, technology and beyond. While techno-scientific practices are increasingly called upon to develop effective 'solutions' to the problems of our time, the question of what problems are is seldom posed. Often assumed as negative states of uncertainty and methodological imperfection, problems are habitually treated as something bound to disappear in the solutions that techno-science may yield. Research in STS and beyond has challenged this assumption on historical, political and sociological grounds, stressing that solutions to problems are always 'more-than-scientific', coming into existence through the creation of socio-technical arrangements that rearticulate complex human and non-human collectives. If solutions are more-than-scientific, then the question of what a problem points to the possibility that 'the problematic' might be more-than-scientific too. Following the work of thinkers like Dewey, Deleuze and Stengers, we can experiment with the prospect of problems as more than mere states of epistemic uncertainty, and regard them as a mode of existence of practices and things as such. These ontologies of the problematic would suggest that problems possess their own thickness and vitality, constituting intrinsic phases of dynamic, complex, natural-cultural assemblages. The proposed track invites STS scholars to engage with the nature of problems from the point of view of a variety of practices and concerns, at once philosophical and pragmatic, ethical and political.

SESSIONS: 4/5/5

This track is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

On The Mode of Existence of The Problematic

Author: Martin Savransky (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I provide speculative tools that enable one to resist the temptation of treating problems epistemologically, and to articulate the proposition that problems have a mode of existence of their own: they are the noise the future makes as it is folded into the present.

Long Abstract

What is the mode of existence of the problematic? The central aim of this paper is to provide us with tools that enable one to resist the temptation to treat the concept of 'problems' epistemologically, as a matter of uncertainty and ignorance. Instead, I interrogate the question of the ontology of problems, and the function of a problematic philosophy. Through an engagement that draws and expands on the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze, Alfred North Whitehead, Etienne Souriau, and Isabelle Stengers, among others, I will propose that the mode of existence of the problematic is that of a virtual future that demands practices of actualisation and counter-actualisation- problems, I suggest, are the noise the future makes as it is folded into the present. To that extent, philosophy therefore becomes the art of tapping into the noise by inventing concepts that may endow the present with alternative compositions.

Bergson's Problematic Philosophy and the Pursuit of Metaphysical Precision

Author: Craig Lundy (Nottingham Trent University)  email

Short Abstract

The aim of this paper is to provide an outline of Henri Bergson’s problematic philosophy. Special attention will be paid to the link Bergson draws between his problematising method and the pursuit of precision in metaphysics. The implications for later thinkers of the problem will also be canvassed.

Long Abstract

The aim of this paper is to provide an outline of Henri Bergson's problematic philosophy. As Bergson makes clear in the latter stages of his career, it would be accurate to describe all of his work as propelled by a problematic methodology that reconfigures the conventionally understood relation between 'problem' and 'solution'. In contrast to the tradition of seeking solutions for ready-made and inherited problems, Bergson advocates an agenda that emphasises the importance of properly articulating problems, and as such creating them, since this activity culminates not so much is their 'solution' but 'dissolution'. Moreover, Bergson suggests that this problematic methodology bears a particular affinity with the pursuit for metaphysical precision that animates his work on the nature of time, memory and the evolution of life. As such, Bergson could be said to advance a novel problematic philosophy that is at once methodological and ontological. This paper will specify how. In so doing it will also indicate the significant ramifications of Bergson's problematic philosophy for subsequent thinkers of the problem - including Canguilhem, Deleuze, Simondon and Stengers - all of whom owe a great deal to the insights of Bergson.

A Problematic Concept: Spiritualism as Techne in Modern Technoscience

Author: Adam Nocek (Arizona State University )  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I suggest that Deleuze and Guattari’s formulation of problems and concepts in What is Philosophy? provides a useful framework for understanding what critics describe as the “new-age-y” turn in Stengers’ recent work on modern technoscience.

Long Abstract

It is well known that much of Isabelle Stengers' work on modern science and in more recent years, Alfred North Whitehead, is filtered through (and very often enhanced by) the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In this paper I suggest that Deleuze and Guattari's formulation of problems and concepts in What is Philosophy?—namely, "all concepts are connected to problems without which they would have no meaning" —provides a useful framework for understanding what critics describe as the "new-age-y" turn in Stengers' recent work. In particular, I contend that Stengers' use of sorcery, magic, animism, and the wisdom of Neopagan goddess, Starhawk, is a response to a problem posed in the context of modern technoscience. Drawing on Stengers' own cosmopolitical framework, I demonstrate that these long-discredited practices in the modern West answer Whitehead's call to develop "civilized modes of appreciation." Thus, pre-modern technai, such as magic and witchcraft, are meaningful in the context of a particular problem: How does one cultivate scientific civility in the 21st century?

A Non-anthropocentric, Alchemical Response to the Problem of Solidarity

Author: Xin Wei Sha (Arizona State University)  email

Short Abstract

An experimental atelier adapts media art, speculative performance, poetic engineering, critical studies of technoscience to pursue an "alchemical" response to the problem of solidarity. An alchemical approach would start non-anthropocentrically. How can it trellis ethico-aesthetic play?

Long Abstract

I tell the story of a cosmopolitical and experimental approach to the problem of solidarity across difference: Even if my kind of people and your kind of people each attain what our peoples want, why should I care about you? This approach requires a critical engagement and re-construction at individual, collective, and institutional scales with the methods and self-conceptions of several worlds of practice: media arts, experimental performance, engineering lab, interaction design, social justice activism, ecological activism, radical philosophy. We can see this amalgamation of incommensurate worlds as an alchemical response to what Stengers and others call capitalist sorcery and barbarism.

Architect Christopher Alexander called for a physics fusing matter and value à la Spinoza, rather than matter formed only by geometry (Einstein) or number (Pythagoras). With makers and theorists I explore the qualities of matter construed as laden with value, to borrow Bilgrami's phrase. I transmute Whitehead's axiom of process philosophy, "How an entity becomes constitutes what the entity is," to move from a concern about values of objects to concerns about value-generating or value-signifying processes. On one hand the conceptual project reconstructs care - the primordial to politics - in terms of textural natality—perceived as poiesis, as stuff not objects, hence alchemy not sorcery.

On the other hand, the Topological Media Lab (topologicalmedialab.net) and now the Synthesis Center (synthesiscenter.net) have built arguably non-anthropocentric techniques and tactics for conditioning the felt experience of an experimental event to trellis ethico-aesthetic play.

Individuals as problems: psychology between individuation and the 'illusion of subjectivity'

Author: Patricio Rojas (Goldsmiths, University of London)  email

Short Abstract

I analyse the idea that examining individuals as problems –rather than studying individual psychic life- is a richer task for psychology. Such a proposal, I claim, faces psychology with exciting prospects, but it should not simplify the questions of what does ‘individuals as problems’ entails

Long Abstract

This presentations experiment with the proposition that, rather than understanding 'individual psychic life', psychology should devote itself to the analysis of 'individuals as problems' (Tucker, 2012). Such an invitation, made under a Deleuzian framework, seeks to provide psychology with a non-reductionist and processual understanding of experience. Moreover, it encourages efforts to deploy the specific patterns of processes of heterogeneous relations that compose specific and perceivable forms of individuation. It is tempting to celebrate this new way of understanding the possibilities of psychology since it avoids what can be understood as the 'illusion of subjectivity' (Duff, 2014), i.e. it's evanescent and mediated character. Under that scope, subjectivity is an illusion psychology frequently grounds in an equally illusory reified, single-bounded, autonomous subject. What this paper seeks to propose is that along with embracing the idea of psychology as the task of experimenting with individuals as problems -and the new forms of subjectivity that might entail- we would do well by asking what kind of problems individuals are, and what does it mean to cultivate 'individuals as problems' as the raison d'etre of its work. This question becomes more relevant if we consider that a connection with the problem of individuation is implied and that Deleuze himself intriguingly stated the following formula: each individual -human or not- is a singular essence that expresses itself in characteristic relations of the differential relation type, differential relations under which infinite collections of infinitely small bodies belong to the individual.

The problems of defining and exploring a problem that might not be a problem at all. Or maybe for some, but to whom and why? Adult researchers exploring children's everyday lives.

Author: Sebastian Rojas Navarro (King's College London)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the difficulties emerging when thinking about solutions for problems which are not considered as problems by those being targeted by the solutions being implemented.

Long Abstract

This papers draws on my fieldwork experience with children aged 10 and 11, diagnosed with Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and under pharmacological treatment in a school in Santiago, Chile. ADHD is currently the most prevalent mental health disorder in children. Nevertheless, its existence has been challenged by critical approaches to the topic. In addition, the use of stimulant medication to treat the disorder has been publicly questioned, being contested by people arguing that its use correspond to a biological reductionism, whereas the origin of the problem is rather social and economically driven.

ADHD describes a symptomatic constellation which is supposedly disturbing to the well-being of the diagnosed child. Their school performance and difficulty to focus in one task has been described as problematic by specialized literature. Schools normally engages with diagnosed children in particular manners, attempting to boost their interest in school-related contents and topics. However, under the assumption that 'adults know best', both the definition of the problem -the idea of learning and behavioral difficulties- and the framing of the solution -biomedical and pedagogical approaches- leaves out of the picture the experiences and everyday lives of children themselves. In this paper I will explore to what extent are these problems and solutions really problematic or helpful to the diagnosed children. And if they are not helpful at all, how do children define what is problematic? How can adult researchers engage with this, and how can this become helpful when reflecting about research, and about potential solutions to these problems?

Problematic data? Prevalence rates, psychostimulant prescriptions and the ambiguous epidemiology of ADHD in Portugal

Author: Angela Filipe (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine)  email

Short Abstract

In the absence of reliable ADHD prevalence rates, emerging data on psychostimulant drug sales and prescriptions have become a public and problematic issue in the Portuguese context. Here, problematic data play a social role in mapping the ambiguous epidemiology of this diagnosis.

Long Abstract

In Portugal, where psychiatric diagnosis has historically not been bound to a standardised, evidence-making role, the prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) remains largely unknown. Given this gap in knowledge, ADHD clinicians have highlighted the complexity and variability of this diagnosis while relying on a combination of clinical experience and worldwide estimates to index it as the most prevalent disorder among school-age children and adolescents. With the emergence of psychoactive drug consumption data and reported high levels of psychostimulant prescriptions in this age group, however, the ambiguous epidemiology of ADHD has become a problematic issue in the media and a subject for public debate. Does this scenario reflect the clinical and diagnostic variability of ADHD, a problem of over-consumption and over-prescription of psychostimulant drugs, or a combination of factors? Inspired by the social studies of science and globalisation, and medical anthropology, this paper explores the social uses and roles of problematic data in the Portuguese context, where the epidemiology of ADHD occupies a seemingly ambiguous and uncharted territory.

The problem of prognosis in cardiology care: A pragmatist perspective

Author: Phaedra Daipha (Rutgers University)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on an ongoing comparative ethnography of hospital cardiology, I examine how physicians negotiate short-term and long-term treatment goals in daily practice.

Long Abstract

While the double presence of the future is hardly exclusive to the decision-making environment of medicine, what is distinctive about medical prognosis is that doctors must typically address this double future concurrently because of their mandate to heal. Drawing on a 2-year ongoing comparative ethnography of hospital cardiology, I identify three patterns of what I term "double vision" in cardiology practice: balancing, bridging, and switching. Each pattern of negotiating short-term results and long-term outcomes translates into distinct decisions and decision-making behavior because it is associated with a distinct view of what is at stake--what the problem is. Not surprisingly, therefore, these patterns of medical prospection vary by cardiology subspecialty and, more so, by medical specialty. In fact, especially in the context of cross-functional hospital teams, the negotiation of medical double vision (and the diagnostic and treatment decisions that result from balancing, bridging, or switching between the problematic short- and the long-term future) becomes so tangled that it can only be resolved by relying on organizationally-mandated procedural standards of care rather than professionally-mandated substantive ones.

Problems and questions in development research in Afghanistan.

Author: Tjitske Holtrop (AISSR- University of Amsterdam)  email

Short Abstract

This paper addresses the question of what a problem is through the practice of asking questions in development research in Afghanistan.

Long Abstract

This paper addresses the question of what a problem is through the practice of asking questions. Based on fieldwork as an evaluator of the Dutch military and developmental intervention in Afghanistan, I explore different modes of asking questions to show how problems do not translate into self evident, single questions and answers. Rather, the practice of asking questions in evaluation research - designing questionnaires and conducting interviews - shows that questions are part an ecology of questions (Savransky 2013) in which each require different kinds of work to get question and problem straight. In the process of both the design of questionnaires and the conducting of interviews distinct worlds are built in which not only the respective question/problem make sense but also who can ask, answer, how and why. The last part of the paper addresses a different way of questioning or raising problems: critique. In this last part I will discuss how the mode of critique- in this particular setting of how questionnaires and interviews are supposed to relate - ask questions and do problems in yet a different way.

Problem solving as world making

Author: Sandra Calkins (Free University of Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the ways in which nutritionally enhanced crops are made into a solution and how the availability of a solution shapes what is conceived to be problematic. Instead attending to either problem or solution, I explore the onto-epistemological work of problem solving.

Long Abstract

This paper draws on recent ethnographic fieldwork in Ugandan laboratories and trial fields where biologists are developing nutritionally enriched bananas as technical fix to a nutritional problem. Reflecting on problem-solving as a form of world-making, I examine evidence production that defines the scale and thrust of "the problem" and how it guides the search for only certain solutions. I show that the definition of what is problematic does not emerge from ontological dimensions of the problem but rather from pragmatics of problem-solving, such as what is technically feasible and can be accounted for in terms of efficacy and cost-effectiveness. Inspired by pragmatist writings that posit the co-constitution of problems and solutions, I contribute to debates on evidence and meliorism in STS and explore what world takes shape through the onto-epistemological work of problem solving. I suggest that instead of problems searching for solutions, some solutions may also be searching out their own problems.

Speculating with infectiousness in biomedical time.

Author: Marsha Rosengarten (Goldsmiths University of London)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on Michel Serres’ typology of three kinds of time, I reflect on how biomedical research does time and the problems this raises, mostly attributed to human users or viral and bacterial agents. I ask how might this be turned for a reformulation of the problem of infectious disease?

Long Abstract

According to Michel Serres, there are three kinds of time: mechanistic/repetitive, thermodynamic and evolutionary/ generative time which intermingle in the constituting of experience. Here I draw on Serres' typology to reflect on the manner in which biomedical research does time and the problems this raises, mostly attributed to human users or viral and bacterial agents. Bearing in mind calls for faster modes of generating research data in response to the Ebola and Zika epidemics, I ask how does the conventional RCT negotiate or, as the case may be, not negotiate its enrolling of time? How does time come to be seen as a problem when hinged to the RCT and, more broadly, biomedicine and how might this be turned for a reformulation of biomedical problems when dealing with infectious disease?

1. The Issue with Problems: Studying Problems in Digital Health with Digital Methods

Authors: David Moats (Linköping University)  email
Liz McFall (Open University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers the methodological capacities of ‘problems’ as analytic objects drawing on material from an ongoing study of the rise of health data (wearables, genomics and digitized patient records) in both the NHS and private healthcare industries using digital methods techniques.

Long Abstract

STS has historically focused on a variety of indeterminate objects such as controversies, matters of concern and issues because they help disclose previously blackboxed, backstage phenomena or heterogeneous entanglements which cross domains of social life. But what are researchers to do when our objects refuse to conform to these familiar shapes? This paper considers the methodological capacities of 'problems' using two types of digital methods developed with specific kinds of 'problems' in mind: the issue crawler (Rogers and Marres 2000) which studies the formation of public issues through hyperlink networks and co-word analysis (Callon et al 1986) which identified the role of 'problematizations' in scientific papers. We will test these tools on empirical materials from an ongoing study of the rise of big data in healthcare industry, including wearables, genomic data and digitised patient records. These new possibilities, which may have consequences for privacy, wellbeing and the payment and provision of healthcare have yet to take hold as either a highly contentious public issue or as a more procedural technological development. How does one study an emergent, problematic future which is in many ways failing to take hold and lacks definition? Do 'problems' demand different kinds of methods and approaches from STS researchers? What practical/methodological problems do such 'problems' present for STS?

Problematizing, establishing, demonizing: the uncanny case of microplastics in waters

Author: Sven Bergmann (Universität Bremen)  email

Short Abstract

How is a something like plastic concentration in waters made into a problem? How was the concept of microplastics established and measured and what does that signify? What is more, how is the STS problematization of how an ecological problem is problematized problematic, too?

Long Abstract

The increasing concentration of (micro-)plastics in waters ranks among the most challenging ecological problems. Despite of being ubiquitous, as a problem it is still in the process "of becoming". Although first observations of synthetic polymers in the ocean date back to the 1970s, public awareness began three decades later when first reports of the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch appeared. The story of the garbage patch is an intriguing example of how matter of facts have been transformed into matters of concern and vice versa (de Wolff 2015).

After the concept of microplastics was introduced in 2004, the problem shifted to the scale of measuring concentrations. But what does a high concentration of microplastics in the environment mean? Contrasted to "natural" or "normal" concentrations of plankton and larval fish in the waters or sand on beaches, microplastics have become an uncanny matter that shift between an aesthetic and a hazardous/toxicological problem.

The paper will discuss how from an anthropologist and STS perspective entanglements of anthropogenic materials like plastic and waters can help to reflect the (inter)dependencies of individual bodies and societies with plastics and thus challenge simplistic notions of solution and purification of the natural from the social/cultural. Indeed, the danger seems to be that "siren urgency with which environmental problems are cast as universal/catastrophic" carries with it the implication "that being concerned about how such problems are constructed (...) is a trivial/unaffordable nicety" (Whatmore 2013: 173).

Following the Problems - Historicizing Grand Challenges

Authors: David Kaldewey (Forum Internationale Wissenschaft Bonn)  email
Julia Schubert (Forum Internationale Wissenschaft, University of Bonn )  email
Daniela Russ (Forum Internationale Wissenschaft)  email

Short Abstract

Pressing societal problems such as climate change, energy security and demographic transitions are not simply given but have specific trajectories. Distinguishing between phenomena and discourses, the paper illustrates how these problems have become stabilized as “grand challenges”.

Long Abstract

Pressing societal problems such as climate change, energy security and demographic transitions are nowadays famously framed as "grand challenges". Far from being real representations of states of uncertainty, what constitutes a "problem" and what counts as a "solution" varies across time and context. In our contribution, we propose to follow the trajectories of some prominent "grand challenges". By distinguishing between assemblages of phenomena and changing discourses, we trace their origin and transformations, as well as the proposed solutions through history and through various social and cultural contexts.

In our view, a problem emerges from an unstable relation between phenomenon and discourse. Since this relation needs to be constantly stabilized, problems themselves are elusive and fragile. On the one hand, when we attempt to fix a phenomenon, we observe different historical and cultural framings. For example, societies were always exposed to resource scarcity of some kind. Yet it was only in the 20th century, under specific sociotechnical conditions, that notions such as "energy crisis" or "energy security" became relevant boundary objects linking science, policy, and the economy. On the other hand, the same discourse can denote different phenomena. For example, "demographic change" has always been perceived as problematic, but the phenomena it denotes in various contexts range from the threat of overpopulation to consequences of ageing and shrinking populations.

In our paper we present three case studies that reconstruct the trajectories of prominent problems: climate change, energy security, and demographic transitions. By doing so we historicize the concept of "grand challenges".

This track is closed to new paper proposals.