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“He taught me the trade”

“He taught me the trade”

Wiebe Bijker inspired byTrevor Pinch

His field – Science, Technology and Society studies (STS) – is so new and interdisciplinary that professor Wiebe Bijker does not have a single master. “In the traditional sense, someone who led you by the hand.” But there is someone with whom he walked hand in hand and took a dive into the deep end: Trevor Pinch, a Briton.

If you ask Bijker, professor of Technology and Society, who his source of inspiration was, you get a list of names, one for every part of his discipline. There is Verhagen, who taught him when he studied physics, Doorman, the analytical philosopher who pulled him into research, Nauta, who introduced him to political and social philosophy, and Boskma, “the prototype of an STS researcher.”

But he learned most from his peer Trevor Pinch, now professor of Science & Technology Studies and Sociology at Cornell University. They met for the first time at the beginning of the nineteen-eighties at a congress in Austria, where Bijker presented an article with a colleague. “I worked for the university of Twente at the time. There was money available for a fellowship for half a year. We had been asked to keep a look out for someone during the congress.” They decided on Pinch.

When he arrived in Twente, Pinch and Bijker, both interested in the role of science and technology in society, worked on what was to become the basis for STS and specifically technical sociology. “I had come from a secondary school, where I had been a physics teacher. Trevor already had a PhD. I learned the trade of social science research from him: how to interview, how to process data, how to negotiate with the editor of a journal. We dared to take a risk, try something new, but Trevor also had a good feel for what other scientists and editors wanted to see. He knew how far we could go.”

Their joint research was a success. After a presentation in Paris, there was a workshop for researchers with the same interest. This resulted in a book, which according to MIT Press, is one of the most influential books they have ever published: The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. “After about two years, we heard that American students referred to it as the school bus book, because of the bright yellow cover. When your book has a nickname, you know it is a hit.”

When we wrote the book, Pinch was back working in England. “We wrote long letters to each other. A PhD student at Cornell is now studying them. Our research itself has become the subject of research. That is a true dream.”

In the following years, the two stayed in contact. “We went on holiday together with our families and stayed with each other. Pinch has been to Maastricht twice for a fellowship and two years ago he received an honorary doctorate. I was his honorary supervisor. There is a congress once a year in our field. If no one else comes along – I once brought my daughter, he his wife; both, by the way as conference participants with their own papers – we share a room. We used to do that because of lack of funds, now we do it to catch up. It is cause for raised eyebrows; two old professors in one room. But we don’t care.”

This is a series in which scientists talk about a person that inspired them most

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