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A thematic transition in STS?

Hebe Vessuri
Traduction de Bernadette Goth
Cet article est une traduction de :
¿Una transición temática en los estudios CTS? [es]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Une transition thématique dans les STS ? [fr]


The world seems to be increasingly integrated offering more opportunities for collective action. A whole series of public goods such as world peace, world health, the environment and global knowledge must be protected. Unless the international community attends to these goods collectively their survival may be jeopardised. A considerable share of the world’s wealth is in the hands of large corporate stakeholders, who have the means of ensuring the enduring provision of these global public goods. In this context, the relationship of the multinational corporate sector with the United Nations must be questioned as well as the implications of this relationship for the future of global goods and the 2030 Development Agenda.

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1Science has accompanied European expansion in the formation of the modern world and has actively taken part in projects to build the Nations of the post-colonial world. The existing order has promoted capacity building (educational, scientific and technological), knowledge transfer (scientific, technological and organisational), copying of institutional models (governance, infrastructure and organisation of industry), and the ideology of knowledge serving to dominate nature as European powers have achieved modernity and dominated societies have laboured in their efforts to enter into the modern era. Science and technology studies (STS) have inherited this modernisation process. They have explored both the socio-historical nature of science and technology and the models developed so that these may be transferred to the rest of the world where other conceptual schemes and schools of thought prevailed. They have underlined the fact that the production of knowledge is a social construction (Pinch & Bijker, 1984; Searle, 1995; Hacking, 1999), performed in specific places and under particular circumstances (Livingstone, 2003). The situated dimension of knowledge has posed an especially difficult challenge for developing countries given their need to master the local conditions of scientific development (Waast & Mouton, 2007).

2However, the current description of knowledge is different. Knowledge is represented as a network made up of multiple interrelated nodes and as a dynamic system that is very unlike the linear structure of disciplinary rhetoric, which prevailed several decades ago. The metaphor of unity and the values of universality and certainty have been largely replaced by others. These new values emphasise the plural and relational nature of a complex world. The values of control, domination and expertise have hence been redefined by the values of dialogue, interaction and negotiation (Rip, 2010; Ravetz, 2012). It is not yet known whether this can be considered as a good, bad, neutral, ambivalent or complex change.

3The growth of political intermediation institutions can be observed (think tanks, political thinking networks and places and consultants specialised in reforms). The way these operate is defined in terms of the production, circulation and implementation of models and strategies aiming to modify the agenda. The proliferation of political networks, made up of “operationally independent” although “structurally related” organisations, at both a national and global scale, is blurring the borders between State, Economy and Civil Society. In STS work, there has been an increased focus on opportunities to influence public policies. In this new institutional framework, think tanks, consultants and training companies are supporting local infrastructure development policies and influencing dominant western political discourse, either directly or via local systems of power. They often have specific access to political systems owing to the way they are enmeshed in relational networks. They do not benefit from natural authority and legitimacy although these qualities are strengthened through their management practices and intellectual activity. The “aura” of intellectual and independent authority spreads confusion since the ideas touted are often linked to political and economic interests (Ball, 2012).

4A basic component of development aid today can be broadly described as the “importing” by national elites of “innovative policies developed elsewhere” and the imposing of policies by multilateral agencies and/or the processes of structural convergence. This is all part of a wider whole comprising new forms of philanthropy and assistance for scientific development and education, growth commodification and capital expansion processes and the search for new business opportunities.

5Since objectives and rules have been set to select means, regulate operations and check results, non-governmental organisations have been playing an increasingly important role in governance functions. This is particularly relevant in the science field, which, although properly governed internally by its own members, i.e. researchers, is also governed by its interactions with the society in which it is involved (European Commission, 2009). The multiplication of supranational organisations and multinational corporations active in the financing of research has contributed to the redefinition of the scientific and technological research space, by drawing it out of the former prevalent paradigm of national science. The expansion and acceleration of global interconnectivity is having powerful socio-economic and ideal implications in terms of international system reconfiguration, partly stimulating the emergence of new economic spaces that question existing political borders (Mathews, 1997).

6It is already clear that large multinationals have a growing influence over the United Nations’ development agenda since Official Development Assistance (ODA) was redefined. This redefinition is putting more public funds into the hands of businesses, while social accountability is absent from the different agreements between these companies and the United Nations. This has gone so far as to allow major private stakeholders privileged access to the post-2015 agenda while they are also able to reap the benefits of involvement in the drawing up of international standards (Richter, 2003).

7In some of the poorest countries in the world, foreign direct investment (FDI) far exceeds official development assistance (ODA). What does this mean for the economic growth of such countries? Does it herald the end of aid? Or is this just hype? Over the last few years, FDI has focused on the resource extraction sector with considerable impact on host populations. Such investment stimulates local economies, creates jobs and even helps to build infrastructures, as in Africa and Latin America. The extent of this impact has not yet been fathomed. Given that international flows continue to change, understanding how the impact of FDI in relation to ODA affects countries benefiting from it will be essential if its positive effects are to be maximised while its negative effects are minimised.1

8As they have grown and their power has increased, multinationals have become major stakeholders in global political discussions about the eradication of poverty, development, the environment and human rights. Greater market concentration has placed a considerable amount of power in the hands of a small number of these companies. In the finance sector especially, their power over the global economy is disproportionate (Morvaridi, 2012).

9The corporate sector has been active in various processes and initiatives relating to the Post-2015 Development Agenda, including the High Level Panel (HLP), the Global Compact, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and, to a lesser extent, the Open Working Group (OWG) and the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF). The most preoccupying aspect with respect to these initiatives is that several of them were launched by the UN Secretary-General outside of the intergovernmental process. The Global Compact began as a political discourse prepared for the former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and, as such, in the opinion of the Joint Inspection Unit, the UN’s oversight body, lacked a “clear and articulated mandate”. Similarly, in the light of its extra-budgetary funding, it placed the UN in a risky situation where “any external group or actor(s) may divert attention from the strategic goals agreed to promote interests which may damage the reputation of the United Nations.”

10A large number of people involved in the Post-2015 Agenda process play an active role in resource extraction, technology, the chemical and pharmaceutical sectors, and the food and beverage sectors. Furthermore, among the observable changes with regard to the growing influence of corporations, there are ideological influences. For example, it can be heard that the only worthwhile “dreams” in the new development agenda are those concerning the conversion to entrepreneurship, or that gender discrimination should be abolished so that “women might inherit and possess goods and have an enterprise”. And, first on the list of what women should have access to is “financial services” rather than “infrastructure” and “the full range of social services”, which was a central part of the public agenda. Corporate language permeates the assessment of sustainable development, suggesting that progress must be measurable and offer a “good return on investment” to justify the efforts. However, nothing is said about what must be done when the efforts required are not a “good investment”.

11Another notable aspect today concerns the way the use of public money is promoted: “the huge potential of using public funds to catalyse and step up private financing for sustainable development” (HLP report), or “the leveraging effect of development aid for private sector investment” (Global Compact report). At a time when many developed countries are suffering from recession and have lowered their ODA budget, the idea of using private philanthropic funds seems normal and reasonable. However, alarmed voices worrying about the possibility of creating precisely the opposite effect can be heard; in other words instead of private resources supporting public funding, public funding (ODA) would be used to cover the risks of private investment. Losses would be socialised while the profits would remain private and often tax-free. The recent experience in many countries shows that these “innovative” mechanisms are often inefficient, badly regulated and can lead to corruption in the countries agreeing to them.

12Currently, large corporations are benefiting from the public image of the UN blue flag while their access to privileged information and high level contacts is facilitated. In some African countries, for example, the alliance of major pharmaceutical companies with the UN has allowed them to win lucrative contracts with the State to the detriment of local small and medium-sized companies.

13Taking into account the increasing influence of the private sector in political discourse and the establishment of the agenda, the question is whether partnership initiatives and those involved allow for undue and unmonitored influence over the development programme and governments’ political decisions. Is the proliferation of institutional partnerships contributing to the continuous weakening of the United Nations system and preventing inclusive development strategies? Will the Post-2015 Agenda funding become increasingly privatised, depending on voluntary and unpredictable financing channels fed by philanthropic foundations or individuals? The absence of monitoring and account rendering mechanisms for social matters means that it is unknown which instruments can guarantee that associations such as the new partnerships with the private sector for UN proposals are open, transparent and socially accountable.

14As they stand today, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are proving to be part of this process. It seems that they could become a means of smuggling companies inside global decision-making, implementation and monitoring (Vessuri, 2016). These associations are diluting and weakening the responsibility of States, which are no longer at the heart of the action, hence fostering power asymmetries.

15The authors of an open letter to the United Nations signed by Noam Chomsky and others (2015), argues that:

The SDGs claim they can eradicate poverty in all its forms by 2030. But they rely primarily on global economic growth to achieve this tremendous task. If such growth resembles that seen in recent decades, it will take 100 years for poverty to disappear, not the 15 years the SDGs promise. And even if this were possible in a shorter timescale, we would need to increase the size of the global economy by a factor of 12, which, in addition to making our planet uninhabitable, will obliterate any gains against poverty. […] we must address two critical issues head on: income inequality and endless material growth. […] then much of the improvement in the position of the impoverished must come through reduction in the enormous inequality that has accumulated in the last 200 plus years.

16Whether globalisation is reversible or not remains to be seen. But, in the meantime, the world is becoming increasingly integrated, offering more and more possibilities for collective action. A series of public goods such world peace, world health, the environment and global knowledge must be protected because if the international community does not turn its collective attention to such goods it is unlikely they will be preserved. Whether there is a fair balance between the public and private sectors remains an open question, and a system is indeed needed to finance public goods. A large share of the world’s health is in the hands of major corporations, who could contribute to the protection of global public goods. In the emerging rhetoric of international authorities, these major corporate players argue that they are contributing. However, their arguments and, above all, their actions leave much to be desired and are hardly convincing. Yet, it is clear that they are changing the face and operational bases of science and technology and this should be studied with the right level of focus.

17Thus, it can be seen that today STS studies must address a series of research topics involving several new components. Among these there is the study of the proliferation of new actors: NGOs, think tanks, new brokers, new forms of financing, styles and approaches to accompany the initiatives of multinationalcorporations, the rise of “public” policies in relation to the social sciences and their role in the definition of thematic, theoretical and methodological approaches, the growing instrumentalisation of the social sciences and the loss of a vibrant critical attitude. The changes operated on the UN owing to the increasing interference of the private sector, the new influence of “philanthrocapitalism” and the 2030 Development Agenda represent other open questions together with the change in direction of development policy and assistance to poor countries and the transformation of public goods in the current configuration of the world economy.

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Hebe Vessuri, « A thematic transition in STS? »Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances [En ligne], 11-2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, consulté le 01 avril 2020. URL :

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Hebe Vessuri

Social anthropologiste, John Desmond Bernal 2017 Prize to the Distinguished Contribution to the field of Social Studies of Science and Technology awarded by the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4s), and Oscar Varsavsky’s 2014 Prize to the Professional Trajectory given by the Latin American Society of Social Studies of Science and Technology (ESOCITE), her research interests focus, among other things, on knowledge production and distribution in the current context of globalisation, the social knowledge accompanying the transformations of contemporaneous societies, expert knowledge and the crisis of social critics. She is a member of the Centro de Investigaciones en Geografía Ambiental (CIGA) in the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and of the Instituto Patagónico de Investigaciones Sociales y Humanas (CENPAT-CONICET) in Argentina.

Adress: Centro de Investigaciones en Geografía Ambiental (CIGA), Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Campus Morelia (Mexico).
E-mail: hvessuri[at]

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