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Jonathan Banda

STS 5105
November 18, 2015
Neoliberal STS and Reflexive Sociology

In Neoliberalism and the History of STS, David Hess argues that the historical
trajectory of STS theory, in significant ways, parallels the political shift from social
liberalism to neoliberalism. Hess calls for a reflexive approach based on Bourdieus field
sociology, one that would not only provide a better account of the relationship between
neoliberalism and science, but that would also interrogate the influence of neoliberal
thought within the field of STS itself. Hess is extremely careful to avoid drawing a
simplistic causal relationship between neoliberalism and mainstream STS theory, but
the relationship he describes is decidedly vague and conceptually unsatisfying.
Moore et al. argue that one needs to exercise caution in attempting to show the
direct and explicit linkages between challenges in the scientific field and neoliberal
globalization (511). Likewise, Hess avoids suggesting causation in his analysis; instead,
neoliberal thought parallels dominant STS theory, and sometimes it inflects it (178).
Hess also uses the Weberian term elective affinity to suggest some underlying
cultural resonances between the two (p. 187). Nevertheless, over the past several
decades, neoliberal values and practices seem to have colonized many other fields,
including science. Therefore, while it is prudent to avoid the short circuit of
deterministic interest-oriented models, STS scholars must also account for asymmetric
relationships between fields. For example, in his theorization of the relationship
between (neoliberal) capitalism and the life sciences, Kaushik Sunder Rajan argues: the
life sciences are overdetermined by the capitalist political economic structures within

which the emerge.1 Overdetermination (a concept he attributes to Louis Althusser),


he argues, suggests a contextual relationship instead of a causal one, yet also describes
how certain fields disproportionately set the stage in which others develop. For
critical analyses of neoliberalism, therefore, identifying co-production is not enough;
science and the politics may be co-constituted, but not on equal terms.
Hess uses Bourdieus concept of misrecognition to describe how the
correspondence between fields (in this case, political and intellectual fields) becomes
invisible. Following this argument, agent-focused analyses like Latours are celebrated
as epistemic innovations, without questioning their correspondence with political
ideologies like neoliberalism. For Bourdieu, however, there was more at stake with
misrecognition. Insofar as actors fail to recognize the operations of power that
constitute social domination and inequality (or, more precisely, misrecognize them as
natural), they enact what Bourdieu calls symbolic violence, or the violence which is
exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity.2 Symbolic violence is not an
intentional, conscious form of domination but is instead embedded in actors very
perceptions of the world. Unequal social positions, therefore, come to make sense to
both those who benefit and those who are relegated to the margins of society. The social
world of late (or neo-) liberalism, as anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli argues, is
saturated with quasi-events in which suffering, death, and exhaustion are ordinary,
chronic, and cruddy rather than catastrophic, crisis-laden, and sublime. 3 These quasi1Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2006), 6.
2Pierre Bourdieu & Loc Wacquant, An Invitation to reflexive sociology (Cambridge:Polity,
1996), 166. Emphasis in the original.
3 Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late
Liberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2011), 13.

events are rendered invisible (or made natural) in part by neoliberal practices and
values. The reflexive sociology that Hess advocates, therefore, would question how
neoliberalism, science, and the study of science are implicated in the unequal
distribution of suffering and harm in society, while leaving conceptual space to examine
the possibilities for agency, resistance, and transformation.