What Is STS at Stanford? The Short Answer.

STS is one of forty-two Interdisciplinary Programs at Stanford offering a fascinating array of courses from 20 departments and schools. It is one of many STS programs at universities around the world (a.k.a. Science and Technology Studies, Social Studies of Science, etc.). It is a promising and productive way of understanding the world, pursuing a career within it, and making a worthwhile contribution to it.

STS students at Stanford take two types of courses: (a) Technical courses in which they do science and technology and (b) courses in which they study the social and historical context of science and technology, involving their global, ethical, political, organizational, economic, and legal dimensions. Through these courses, students engage with critical aspects of how science and technology are communicated, governed, and taught, as well as how science and technology affect communication, governance, and education. At issue is what science and technology make of the world and what the world makes of science and technology.

As for the research tradition that informs those working in STS, we might begin with Robert Merton who actually used STS in the title of his doctoral dissertation Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England in 1938. He demonstrated that science and technology did not develop independently of society, driven by their own inner logic, but were highly influenced, in this case, by the Puritan pursuit of usefulness. He found evidence of this in the growing number of scientific articles of the day, just as this Puritan sensibility shaped mining, textile, and global navigation technologies during England’s seventeenth-century scientific revolution.

Another landmark study is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, in which he demonstrates that the dramatic “ah-ha” breakthrough of discovery is far more often, in the history of science, a matter of researchers stymied by inexplicable results, until one of the explanations for these results – be it a heliocentric solar system, oxygen, or x-rays – is gradually accepted by others and alters the way in which the world is perceived and understood.

Where Merton studied society’s influence on science and technology, and Kuhn analyzed the historical shaping of science, another key figure, Sheila Jasanoff, has examined how nations and courts, as well as grassroots movements, address issues such as climate change, biotechnologies, and risk management. Since the 1990s, her research has been exploring how science, law, and politics intersect in nuclear power plants and genetically modified food. She makes it clear, as do the others, that STS is a way of exploring earlier and current aspirations to create a better world through the scientific, technical, and social elements of our future together.


Further Reading

Where’s the Latest STS Research?

There’s our undergraduate journal: Intersect: The Stanford Journal of Science, Technology and Society. Also, have a look online at the STS research in these journals: