Science, Technology and Society: An Interdisciplinary Academic Field

By Cutliffe, Stephen H. | National Forum, Spring 1989 | Go to article overview

Science, Technology and Society: An Interdisciplinary Academic Field


Cutliffe, Stephen H., National Forum


Science, Technology And Society

An Interdisciplinary Academic Field

The interdisciplinary field of science, technology and society studies--now widely recognized by the STS acronym--emerged from the widespread social upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s. Activist groups claiming to speak on behalf of the public interest (in such areas as consumerism, civil rights, and the environment), together with protest demonstrations against the Vietnam War, multinational corporations, nuclear power, etc., set the tone of the period. Within this context, there emerged a critique of the idea of progress, a critique quite radical by American standards. Following a collapse in the late 1960s of a twenty-year-long translation of science and technology into economic prosperity for the American working class, there emerged the recognition that it was also becoming necessary to cope in practical ways with an accumulated burden consisting of the negative impacts of science and technology. For example, the passage of the Clean Air and Water Acts (1970, 1972) and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (1969) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1970) were reactions to this new perception. Cognate changes in the approaches of a number of academic disciplines also took place during this period. The history of science and of technology, the philosophy of science, and the beginnings, at least in this country, of the philosophy of technology and the sociology of science and technology reflected a shift from internalist-oriented subdisciplines to progressively more externalist, sociologically oriented interpretations of the mission of academic disciplines. The shift was expressive of the same intellectual and social forces that precipitated STS.

Voices began to raise doubts about the beneficence of science and technology, began to question whether science and technology were the unalloyed blessings that society had generally come to believe they were. Intellectuals from a variety of perspectives suggested that there were negative externalities associated with these blessings long assumed to be the primary legacy of science and technology. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) raised serious questions about the hazards associated with chemical insecticides such as DDT and in many ways helped to crystallize the current environmental movement. John Kenneth Galbraith in The Affluent Society (1958) and The New Industrial State (1967) suggested that in the industrial state, economic power had shifted from consumers and the marketplace to a "technostructure" within the corporation that controlled technology for the sake of the growth of the organization. Galbraith warned of the instability of an economy keyed to production for its own sake. Preceding Galbraith's work was Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, an expose of the advertising industry as a creator of wants, artificially generating consumer demands while glossing over the absence of real choice. Both authors viewed production as driven by production goals, not true consumer needs. Ralph Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed (1965) claimed to document the dangers of the Corvair, suggesting the cavalier attitude of the automobile industry toward end users.

Other books such as Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society (trans. 1964), Lewis Mumford's two volume The Myth of the Machine (1967 and 1970); Theodore Rozsak's The Making of a Counter Culture (1969) and Where the Wasteland Ends (1972); and Alvin Toffler's Future Shock (1970) --to name but a few --further extended to the academic world the argument that science and technology were inherently value-laden and often, if not always, problematic in terms of societal impact. But perhaps the most influential intellectual precursor of the interdisciplinary STS movement was C.P. Snow who in his 1959 Rede Lecture at Notre Dame alleged that there existed a widening split between "two (noncommunicating) cultures" in our society, one composed of scientists, the other of humanists, in the process creating a metaphor that shaped (and still shapes) discourse within the STS field. …

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