Spring 2013

James Collier
Office: 252 Lane (Bay 5, 2nd floor)
Hours: 11:00-12:00 T,R and by appointment
(C) By request

Course Description

"The normative," writes Stephen Turner (2010), "is the small boy with the stone against the massive force in modern philosophy of naturalism, materialism, physicalism, and causalism; forces that draw their power from the success of science." STS, too, draws its power from the success of science. In this course we will examine STS as the setting for normative debates. The central debate we will take up regards the apparent distinction between normative philosophical approaches concerned with what science ought to be, and empirical sociological approaches concerned with what science actually is. In addition, we will examine normative theories of technology in relation to conceptions of the good life. Our judgments about the normative in STS may well shape our approaches to scholarship as we consider the question: Are STS practitioners, and supporters, in a position to determine what science and technology ought to be and to tell scientists, technologists and the public what they should do about it?

Learning Goals

• To identify and examine issues regarding normativity as a term, concept and framework in Science and Technology Studies;

• To consider and analyze how we locate normativity;

• To form questions, identify keywords, pose responses, initiate discussion and lend syntheses on issues involving normativity;

• To examine, both individually and collectively, principles and practices for conducting academic inquiry.

• To tell the story of normativity in STS.

Online Design

Before the age of content management systems a few well-intentioned, though foolhardy and often bewildered, educators made course websites. I was among them. As my bewilderment gave way to fascination, I continued to make course websites. Now the practice helps me plan the course, think through ideas and develop and organize materials. And as I find the romantic idea of an open democratic society on the Web hard to shake, I passively encourage the use of my materials, and meaningful participation on our wiki, by an interested pubic.

My background contributes to the idiosyncratic approach found before you. While the digital execution of my pedagogical motives seems quite clear (to me at least), the practical execution of my intentions in the site layout may not be as "crystalline" to the user. What follows, then, is a peak into my thinking (a bit scary, that) regarding how you might best access and use this site. In that spirit, allow me to indulge a too familiar simile.

I view the course website as our home. The home page is the front door through which one can, and perhaps should, should enter the course. I encourage you to bookmark the home page and to access our course materials directly and not through Scholar (it being an entrance found through the garage, perhaps) — unless you so choose.

The course calendar is the central room of our house. All activities run through the course calendar. Each time you come to our website, I suggest consulting the calendar first.

I view Scholar much like a finished garage — a space for storage and to hang out, play and talk. Many neat tools (the gradebook, for example) inhabit the garage but, depending on the task, I prefer a hands-on approach.

The Wiki I see as an outdoor space — a front porch, perhaps, or patio — that hosts thoughtful conversations and lively debates and where friends may visit as they will.

Our online home has many other rooms designated by the main menu categories (see above) — such as the Assignments and the Syllabus — that I encourage you to explore. Still, if you will forgive the repetition, the course calendar provides a guided approach to our online resources.

Absent my more or less colorful description, please fully acquaint your self with all the elements of the course website, the Wiki and Scholar and determine how you might best take advantage of the course resources and your learning goals through our online presence.

Course Narrative

Every course assumes and, hopefully, tells a story. Let me at least outline some likely themes of our story by offering a series of loosely related questions and provocations that put some key words and concepts in play. I trust these questions, and my broad reply, will make explicit some assumptions guiding the course design. Please challenge both my questions and assumptions. In so doing, we will craft a more cogent narrative.

Off and on in my academic career, I have been involved in the field of social epistemology — more specifically, the domain of "political social epistemology." Social epistemology of this type finds its origins in Social Epistemology (1988) by Steve Fuller and in the journal, founded by Fuller, of the same name. From the opening of Social Epistemology:

... [S]ocial epistemology ... has a normative interest, namely, in arriving at a kind of optimal division of cognitive labor ... In other words ... the social epistemologist would like to be able to show how the products of our cognitive pursuits are affected by changing the social relations in which knowledge producers stand to one another (original emphasis, 3).

Science, of course, stands as an unparalleled example of an"optimal division of cognitive labor". Particularly in the postwar era, the compelling results of science's wildly successful labor invited both the celebration and critical scrutiny of historians, philosophers and sociologists. Sociology, since its founding, emulated empirical science. Why not, then, develop a social "science of science" that might "more optimally" divide cognitive labor through, among other things, a reflexive awareness of researchers' situatedness (e.g., the strong programme)? Ought not the findings of a "more optimal" science lend a basis for changing and improving the practices of traditional science? And given these findings, and resulting normative judgments, are STS practitioners, and supporters, in a position to determine what science and technology ought to be and to tell scientists, technologists and the public what they should do about it?

Perhaps the narrative of this course leads to more questions than answers. In that spirit, then, let us work together to craft and pursue better questions regarding what normativity is, generally, and in STS, specifically; how we might better understand the relationship between description and prescription; where we locate normativity; whether or not we can, or wish to, avoid normative obligations; and, finally, if normativity leads to authoritarianism. We ought to know, yes?


Grading Criteria

Leading Discussion: Question Formation, Keyword Entry, Class Discussion, Synthesis

Each group will pose questions and post keywords to the appropriate forum on the wiki will lead the class discussion. Each group member will revisit the questions, keywords and discussion and post a synthesis to the wiki. Members of the class will evaluate the presentation through an on-line form. Scores and comments will be forwarded to me. I will share comments, anonymously, with the presenters. I will provide an overall assessment of the presentation. (Please refer to the Question Formation assignment.)


Class members not leading a given week's discussion will provide 350-500 word responses to selected questions to the appropriate forum on the wiki. As the responses are time sensitive, you will not have an opportunity for late submission. Responses will be evaluated, given the number completed, as follows:

    • 3 responses: A
    • 2 responses: B
    • 1 or nill responses: F

Essays and Exams

I will provide feedback on Essay and Exam One. You may revise these assignments as many times as you wish during the term. I will average the grades. Given the timing of Essay and Exam Two, you will not have the opportunity to revise.

Concept Narrative

Given the highly experimental nature of the assignment, risk and imagination yields reward. The components of the assignment — discussing selected readings, documenting the collective process, developing the concept narrative — lend opportunities for assessing progress.


Texts are listed as they appear in the course:

• Stephen Turner. Explaining the Normative. Polity, 2010.

• Jerome Ravetz. Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems. Transaction. 1995.

• Andrew Feenberg. Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity. MIT. 2010.

• Steve Fuller. The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies. Routledge. 2005.

• Steve Fuller. Social Epistemology. (1.8 MB) Indiana University Press, 1988.

Honor System

This course follows university policies pertaining to academic honesty and plagiarism. If you any have questions please ask me, or consult the Honor System web site.

Principles of Community

This course adheres to Virginia Tech's Principles of Community. If you have any questions, please ask me or consult the Principles of Community web site.

Norms in STS