Ontology in Science and Technology Studies

Science and technology studies (STS) analyses ontologies (definitions of reality) as empirical phenomena, whereas in philosophy, ontology is concerned with what there is in the world. STS focuses on how new theoretical insights and novel instruments create or construct new objects or make visible entities that may have been around for a while. STS draws attention to the coproduction of “nature” and “society” in scientific practices. For example, only after the development of microscopes could scientists make claims about the nature and existence of bacteria, not previously visible to the human eye. In the 19th century, Louis Pasteur’s laboratory changed the world by adding microbes to it (Latour, 1988). The microbes were written into nature and society as epistemic objects, in effect expanding what can be observed and studied by biologists. Another example is the ways in which fertility treatments challenge notions of what counts as motherhood: Egg donation, gestation, and raising a child can now be separated in ways that were impossible 100 years ago. The possibility to shift perspectives has implications for the ontological status of things. Instead of a single category of “mother,” there are multiple categories and roles including egg donors, surrogates, and carers. This entry explores the “turn to ontology” in STS, discussing its background and development, as well as implications for reflexivity in knowledge production and research methods.


STS does not study how one understands the world as given, but how constructs are shaped in understanding and rewriting. Joan Fujimura (1991) first noted the “ontological turn” which followed upon the “reflexive turn” (Woolgar & Ashmore, 1988) and the much older linguistic one (Rorty, 1967/1992). The world is populated with “epistemic objects” at an increasing pace. Through the coproduction of nature and society, we recognise ourselves as constructs among the constructs (Luhmann, 1990).

Unlike epistemological concerns about the status of theoretical constructs, STS did not pay explicit attention to ontology during the 1970s and 1980s. STS scholars focused on topics such as laboratory practices (including the ways in which instruments, classifications, and organisms are created, established, and translated from one context to another), the emergence of scientific fields (including the rise of big science, inter- and transdisciplinarity), and policies for science, research and development (R&D), and innovation. In other words, STS researchers studied how facts are made; how technoscientific knowledge is created, stabilised, and circulated; how and why some facts come to be regarded as true; and how and why some artefacts become successful. Much attention was given to understanding differences in norms and practices among scientific disciplines or epistemic communities as they went about the collection, analysis, and representation of data, and the associated activities of model and theory building. Constructivist STS examined both material and representational practices.

Since the 1990s, attention shifted from the social construction of science and technology toward what is constructed in their wake: epistemic objects coproduced in a changing world. For example, from an STS perspective, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a classification coproduced by psychiatrists, brain scans, parents, children, and educational systems. Another example comes from STS itself: Performance indicators such as citation counts can be considered as epistemic objects constructed in STS (including scientometrics). These indicators are performative in that they can be expected to change career patterns and research agendas.

The constructivism–realism debates of the 1980s and 1990s provided an important starting point for understanding ontology or ontologies from the perspective of STS. Key foundational assumptions of STS include the following: Reality (and everything in it) can be considered as sociocognitive constructs; the technosciences play an important role in defining reality; and power and authority to define reality are unequally distributed. The objective of empirical analyses in STS, especially of case studies, has been to show how technoscientific practices shape the world, and how much symbolic and political work is needed to provide the world with new epistemic objects. A strong realist perspective takes preexisting objects and relationships as given, whereas the constructivist perspective assumes that reality is (co-)constructed and that constructs are real. As Giambattista Vico (1710/1968) wrote: “what is true and what is made come together” (verum et factum convertuntur).

Ontological Turn

In her book entitled The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (2002), Annemarie Mol heralded “the ontological turn in STS.” Mol’s fieldwork in a Dutch hospital led her to consider the ways in which atherosclerosis was defined and represented differently among patients and professionals. A leaflet aimed at patients described the disease as the gradual obstruction of the arteries, whereas different medical specialties might emphasise blood flow in the lower legs or pain in the feet. Her ethnographic fieldwork involved interviews with patients, doctors, technicians, plus many observations of interactions between such people, including medical consultations and operations. Mol concluded that many different things which are labelled “atherosclerosis” are brought together through classifications, paperwork, images, and case conferences. She claimed that by studying medical (or other) practices, it becomes clear that ontology is always layered and multiple. Objects cannot be easily aligned or compared as they only “exist” in relations among practices (Mol, 2002, p. 157).

Mol’s work inspired others, not only those interested in healthcare but also in urban design, recycling, and other practices, both mundane and professional. As a result, by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, there was much debate about an ontological turn in STS. Steve Woolgar and Javiar Lezaun (2013) distinguished between the philosophical study of ontology and the emphasis of STS on empirical analyses of ontologies. STS emphasises the unstable processes by which ontologies come into being.

Questioning the “Ontological Turn”

The claim of an ontological turn was highlighted in a special issue of Social Studies of Science, edited by Woolgar and Lezaun (2013). Bas van Heur, Sally Wyatt, and Loet Leydesdorff (2013) questioned its significance on the basis of a scientometric analysis of the STS literature. Is an ontological turn visible in the relevant literature? Using articles and journals from the Web of Science and from the journals listed on the website of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S, the largest international professional association for STS), these authors concluded that the metaphor of an ontological turn has inspired similar work in other disciplines, enabling them to import ideas from STS. They found that discussions of ontology were most visible in philosophy, ethics, and religion. Both psychology-related disciplines and the computer sciences use the term ontology frequently. However, in the computer sciences, the term is used in a very specific way: Ontologies are created for domains to define and delimit the categories, properties, and relations between the concepts, data, and entities that constitute the domains. Sociology, geography, and management studies also refer to ontology and ontologies, as developed by STS scholars.

Based on detailed coauthor, coword and citation analyses, and on close reading of key articles, van Heur, Wyatt and Leydesdorff (2013) distinguish a three-part development in discussions of ontology. As mentioned earlier, the first phase concerns the invocation of ontology in debates on realism and constructivism. The second phase is concerned with the role of instruments and classifications in establishing relations of diversity and stability. The third phase concerns the broadening of these debates about ontology across disciplines. The phases overlap and coexist, but this distinction may help to understand the debates. Although an almost eightfold increase in the use of the word ontology was found in the social sciences and the humanities, more detailed analysis raised questions about the extent of a turn towards ontology. The authors concluded that there is not (yet) a shared STS-wide understanding of ontology. Rather, there are these three parallel and largely disconnected discourses, each addressing other audiences.

The ontological turn could also be considered as a turn from previous ontologies. In the early 18th century, Vico, for example, assumed a single ontology to which one has access by coproducing it. The ontological turn in STS, however, implies that a plurality of ontologies can be entertained in a network without an ex ante preferential solution to the ontological puzzle which is thus generated. “There is no preestablished harmony, Leibniz notwithstanding, harmony is post-established locally through tinkering” (Latour, 1988, p. 164).


In the Internet era, the concept of “living in a bubble” can be considered as reflexive awareness of the constructed ontologies in which we live, and by which we are constrained and enabled: a world of expectations. From the perspective of radical constructivism, the constructs are considered the “inter-objective” foundations of a technoscientific evolution. Intentionality provides “a concrete ontology and a theory of science” (Husserl, 1929, p. 159) amenable to empirical investigations. Instead of “observing” a given as (“big”) data, one begins with the formulation of expectations and the articulation of meaning. Expectations can then be tested against observations using, for example, χ2 as a statistic. Here, being reflexive raises issues of “truth.”

Within STS, the “reflexive turn” (Woolgar & Ashmore, 1988) means that the constructivist criticism of the dualism between representation and object should not only be directed at the claims of scientists but also at constructivist STS itself. If the claims made by natural scientists are contingent and constructed, then the same must apply to the claims made by the social scientists who study them. This resulted in a number of experiments, using new literary forms and irony, in order to demonstrate awareness of the constructedness of one’s accounts. This approach to reflexivity was prominent throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, but has declined, as such an approach to reflexivity makes it difficult to make both knowledge-based decisions and normative reflections.

At a methodological level, the understanding of research objects as constructs has implications. For example, if a medical researcher is interested in how a new medical device might be taken up, it makes a difference if he or she considers the potential users of the device as patients in need of care, as future patients worried about their long-term health, or as consumers interested in the latest gadget. Similarly, if a social scientist wants to understand how people react to the device, the choice of method (e.g. interviews, surveys, discourse analysis of advertising) will bring different kinds of potential users into being. The expectations of both social actors and social scientists guide the observations. The constructs can be robust to the extent of inducing behavioural changes. For example, the construct of “climate change” has driven out the previous construct of “global warming” for political reasons: “Global warming” connotes a trend which one may wish to consider as one among other possibilities in an ongoing process of change, whereas “climate change,” though still euphemistic, suggests a condition in need of action. Different metaphors open other horizons of meaning and therewith potentials for action.

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