Stanford campus, front entrance, Quad, Memorial Church.

Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

A Brief History of the Field

Stanford’s STS Program is one of the country’s largest and strongest, situated in a university renowned as much for its humanities and social science departments as for its engineering, computer science, and natural science programs. Within a carefully designed structure, it offers students extraordinary flexibility. It’s liberal arts for the 21st century: an ideal preparation for life in a world constantly being shaped and reshaped by science, technology, and medicine.

Over 90 years ago...

STS scholarship dates to the 1930s and even before. In 1935 the sociologist Ludwik Fleck published Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, detailing the social processes involved in how a specific claim came to be widely accepted as scientific knowledge. Robert Merton titled his 1938 doctoral dissertation Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England. He demonstrated how the Puritan ethos of usefulness influenced not only scientific publishing, but also mining, textile, and global navigation technologies during England’s scientific revolution. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) argued that in the history of science, dramatic “eureka moments” are far less common than a slow buildup of inexplicable results, or "anomalies," until one of multiple possible explanations for these anomalies – such as a heliocentric solar system, oxygen, or general relativity theory – is gradually accepted, altering the way in which the world is perceived and understood.

Networks of Power

As for technology and infrastructure, Thomas Parke Hughes’s Networks of Power (1983) compared how electric power systems developed in America, England, and Germany, showing that they required not only electrical but social “engineering” to create necessary legal frameworks, financing, standards, political support, and organizational designs. In the 1980s, Stanford economic historian Paul David developed the theory of path dependence, which describes how commitment to a particular technical solution is reinforced by the “sunk costs” of training, institution-building, legal structures, and other social investments. In Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (1999), Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star pioneered the study of knowledge infrastructures, including for example the Linnean biological nomenclature or the International Classification of Diseases. These are just a few examples from a vast array of vibrant and original STS scholarship.

Essential to understanding today's challenges and reimagining our future

Interdisciplinary and dynamic, an academic field of STS has emerged since the 1970s that combines history, anthropology, sociology, economics, ethics, and other approaches to the relations between social contexts and the practices of science and engineering. Stanford’s STS program — founded in 1971 — was among its first manifestations. The Society for Social Studies of Science now hosts over 1500 scholars at its annual meetings. Academic journals such as Science, Technology, and Human Values, Social Studies of Science, and Technology & Culture provide outlets for this scholarship, which has spread to encompass studies of architecture, design, medical ethics, and many other areas. Especially important today are STS perspectives on the Anthropocene epoch, as well as on catastrophic risks such as climate change, nuclear war, synthetic biology, and autonomous weapons guided by artificial intelligence.