From Value to Valuation: Pragmatist and Hermeneutic Orientations for Assessing Science on the International Space Station

Paola Castaño (2021)

American Sociologist, pp. 1-31. Open access.

Abstract. Based on a study of the International Space Station (ISS), this paper argues that – as a set of orientations for sociological inquiry – pragmatism and hermeneutics are confluent frameworks to examine valuation as a social process. This confluence is grounded on their common attunement to valuing as a problematic and relational process, their equally common updates with theories of institutions, and a further conceptual development regarding the temporalities of valuation. I advance the argument in four steps. First, looking at how the question about the “scientific value” of the ISS is far from settled, I show how valuation is always about something considered problematic and indeterminate. Second, characterizing the ISS at the intersection of different criteria of assessment, I stress the nature of valuation as a fundamentally perspectival and interpretive process, and show how a hermeneutic approach can complement some of the limitations of pragmatism in this regard. Third, I look at the question of institutions considering how some modes of assessment sediment more successfully than others. Fourth, I argue that, while providing insights towards it, pragmatist and hermeneutic approaches to valuation have not fully grasped its temporal nature as a process, and outline ways to open this line of inquiry. I conclude with some ideas for studies in sociology of science to re-entangle detailed case studies of scientific practice with the study of how institutions make claims of worth about the nature of science, I propose ways to extend these arguments to other studies of what I call iridescent institutions, and I make some considerations about our stance as sociologists in these valuation disputes.

Extract: “Diverse Stakeholders with Equally Diverse Criteria to Assess Worth Given its broad promises and areas of operation, the ISS is embedded in what, using Boltanski and Thévenot’s (2006) terminology, is a plurality of grammars of evaluation. Regarding research, the station holds the heavy weight of accountability for its “science return,” and articulates it in terms of benefits and impact. Program officials characterize the complexity of the undertaking in these terms: “Because of the unique microgravity environment of the ISS laboratory, the multidisciplinary and international nature of the research, and the significance of the investment in its development, analyzing ISS scientific impacts is an exceptional challenge” (ISS Program Science Forum, 2018, 39). More specifically, the task entails, again in their words, developing “appropriate metrics to communicate the impacts of ISS utilization, which have come in both tangible and intangible forms” (Ruttley et al., 2017, 1163).” (p. 8)

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