A leading laboratory in the field of Science and Technology Studies
The Center for the Sociology of Innovation (CSI), founded in 1967, became one of the world’s leading research centres in the field of Science and Technology Studies in the 1980s, when Michel Callon and Bruno Latour among others developed a new approach known as the «sociology of translation» or Actor-Network Theory (ANT).
Actor-Network Theory proposed an alternative to the debate between realism – knowledge as a reflection of an outside reality – and constructivism – knowledge as the product of human activities -, a debate in which the latter was accused by the former of relativism (knowledge being seen as nothing more than the expression of a certain state of society at a certain point in time). By examining the actual production of reality and knowledge from a resolutely pragmatist point of view, this new approach made it possible to revive the debate on new terms.
Actor-Network Theory focuses on analysing the practices of actors, and has developed several concepts – translation, socio-technical network, mediation – for the understanding of the way in which knowledge or innovations are progressively constituted and in turn transform our societies.
To simplify to the extreme, we could say that describing the world in terms of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) means highlighting the network of relations in which actors, material devices, and entities of the natural world are caught and through which they mutually define one another. From this perspective, the scientist’s or innovator’s work chiefly consists in transforming this socio-technical networks by suspending certain associations and creating new ones, through “interessment” devices. In Michel Callon’s canonical study of the “domestication” of scallops in Saint-Brieuc Bay, collectors constitute this type of device, designed to “interest” the scallop larvae by encouraging them to attach themselves rather than being carried away by the currents or eaten by predators. The larvae that attach themselves to the collectors become, in turn, an interessment device for the fishermen who are forced to adopt new fishing methods. If the devices are able to stabilize a new state of relations between the different entities, then the operations of translation initiated by the researchers are considered as successful, resulting in a new state of production and scallop market, and new knowledge on the scallops themselves, in the construction of which they were stakeholders. From this point of view ANT overcomes the accusation of relativism associated with constructivist theories.
Callon, M. (1986), Éléments pour une sociologie de la traduction : la domestication des coquilles St-Jacques et des marins pêcheurs dans la baie de St. Brieuc, L’Année Sociologique, numéro spécial La sociologie des Sciences et des Techniques, 36, 169-208. (Link to english version →)
See also :
Akrich, M., Callon, M. and Latour, B. (2006), Sociologie de la traduction. Textes fondateurs, Paris : Presses des Mines. (Link to Les Presses des Mines →)
An approach initially centred on the core activities of research and innovation
Until the mid-1990s, the CSI had concentrated primarily on the study of research and innovation as such, with a specific focus on three complementary themes:
– the anthropology of science and technology, which proposed a new description and understanding of scientific, technical and cultural innovation;
– research and innovation policies revisited in terms of this new conceptualization of the development of science and techniques;
– the construction of markets and uses, a theme which has made it possible to show the active role of market intermediaries and users in the transformation of socio-technical networks, and thus their participation to the innovation process.
A redeployment of research at the interface between STS, sociology, economics and political science
From the mid-1990s, the CSI extended its practical and theoretical research work from those areas in which its expertise was renowned, such as science and techniques, into new territory: the environment, transportation, security, services, health, communication, tastes, etc.
After defining the terms of an innovation-centred sociology, the CSI aimed to show how taking objects into account – a crucial ANT standpoint – makes it possible to address a number of classical issues from a new angle:
– mainly in political science: how can the production of a common will be reconceptualised and decision making in situations of extreme uncertainty be facilitated?
– but also in economics: how can the analysis of markets be revisited when the role played by technical and calculating devices is taken into account?
– and in sociology: how can one analyse the construction of people, subjects, collectives, tastes, competencies, etc., when one no longer relies on a sharp divide between individuals or defined groups, on the one hand, and devices or products, on the other?
Its more recent work revolves around three main sets of questions, which may overlap in certain areas:
– the formats of technical democracy: social experimentation, public debate and the creation of collectives
– the economy in the making: socio-technical devices, economics, management science and performativity
– the constitution of individuals and collectives: mediation, attachments and forms of experience
« Involved » research
From the outset, research at the CSI has always been carried out in partnership, in the broad sense of the word, encompassing both its financial and scientific dimensions.
Current research contracts primarily involve partnerships with the public sector. Since 2008, its main funders have been:
– the ANR (Agence Nationale de la Recherche) as well as various French agencies (HAS, AFSSET, INCA, INHES, etc.) which together account for 55% of the Centre’s contracts;
– the European Commission: 7 European projects – the CSI taking in charge the coordination of 4 of them – and a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (40% of the CSI’s contract-generated income).
There has been a strong tendency in recent years to experiment with new forms of collaborative research. For example:
– a group of researchers (physicists, modelling specialists, geologists, sociologists, economists, etc.) published a volume aimed at renewing the analysis of the implications of nuclear power;
– a collaborative project that brought together activists, sociologists, legal experts and scientists resulted in the drafting of a bill in parliament to legally institute participative democracy and citizen conferences;
– a seminar with assistant nurses and coordinating nurses afforded the opportunity to collectively formalize the experience of home healthcare workers, which on the whole is seldom verbalized or studied and is granted little attention;
– focus groups with representatives of patient organizations allowed for collective learning and a formalization of their experiences in a book articulating their testimonies to a more thematic analysis.
The CSI was instrumental in the creation of the Observatory for Responsible Innovation, an independent think tank for the development and discussion of measures and methods to promote responsible innovation; Fabian Muniesa, a researcher at the CSI, is the Executive Director of the Observatory. Observatory website →
A centre open to international exchange
– One third of the members of the CSI are from abroad
– The centre receives an average of 4 to 5 visitors annually, for visits of at least two months
– Since 2008, members of the CSI:
› have authored or co-authored 155 publications of which 65 (42%) in foreign languages (mainly English);
› have been involved in 7 European projects and one Starting Grant from the European Research Council.
A wide range of teaching activities
Members of the CSI participate in teaching at various levels:
– PhD Programme: since 1991 the CSI has supervised 45 doctoral theses, equivalent to an average of 2.3 PhD degrees obtained every year. It offers high quality working and teaching conditions. Most PhD graduates find jobs in higher education and research.
– Engineering Programme at Mines ParisTech:
› Six courses (one in English, in the framework of the Athens exchange weeks). These include compulsory courses on the analysis of scientific and technical controversies, aimed at raising future engineers’ awareness of the social, ethical, political and economic implications of the development of innovation;
› The Minor in Public Affairs and Innovation provides Mines ParisTech engineering students with training in the analysis of the political dimensions of scientific, technical and industrial activities. The training focuses in particular on the regulatory issues, the instruments of consultation, and more generally on the making of public policies.
– Master’s Programmes outside Mines ParisTech: courses in the framework of Master’s programmes in France (e.g. at Paris I and Paris III Universities and Sciences Po) and elsewhere (e.g. the International University College of Turin)
– Specialized Master’s Programme at Mines ParisTech: teaching and supervising for the ISIGE’s Master’s degrees in Environmental Management and in Health and Environment.
– PhD training: seminars at Mines ParisTech (PhD students in all disciplines), at within international collaborations (e.g. the Copenhagen Business School, and at the EISAM in Brussels)
– Executive education: the “Management Associatif” Programme proposed jointly by the CSI at Mines ParisTech and ADEMA (Association pour le développement du management associative).