Q&A with Janet Vertesi, Author of Shaping Science: Organizations, Decisions, and Culture on NASA’s Teams

Professor Vertesi specializes in the sociology of science, knowledge, and technology. Her primary research site is with NASA’s robotic spacecraft teams as an ethnographer. Her books, Seeing like a Rover: Images and Interaction on the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (Chicago, 2015) and Shaping Science: Organizations, Decisions, and Culture on NASA’s Teams (Chicago, 2020) draws on her ethnographic studies of missions to Mars, Saturn, and the outer planets to examine how organizations matter to scientific discovery. Vertesi is also a leader in digital sociology, whether studying computational systems in social life, shifting research methods online, or applying social insights to build technologies along different lines. She holds a Master’s degree from Cambridge and a PhD from Cornell, has received several grants from the National Science Foundation, and has been awarded top prizes for her work from the ASA’s Science, Knowledge and Technology Section and Communication, Information Technology and Media Section, and the Society for Social Studies of Science.

For further information, visit https://sociology.princeton.edu/people/janet-vertesi

In Shaping Science, Janet Vertesi draws on a decade of immersive ethnography with NASA’s robotic spacecraft teams to create a comparative account of two great space missions of the early 2000s. Although these missions featured robotic explorers on the frontiers of the solar system bravely investigating new worlds, their commands were issued from millions of miles away by a very human team. By examining the two teams’ formal structures, decision-making techniques, and informal work practices in the day-to-day process of mission planning, Vertesi shows just how deeply entangled a team’s local organizational context is with the knowledge they produce about other worlds.

Using extensive, embedded experiences on two NASA spacecraft teams, this is the first book to apply organizational studies of work to the laboratory environment in order to analyze the production of scientific knowledge itself. Engaging and deeply researched, Shaping Science demonstrates the significant influence that the social organization of a scientific team can have on the practices of that team and the results they yield.

For more details, visit http://shapingscience.net/

Interview by Shiv Issar

1. This is your second book on the planetary science community. Could you briefly tell us about how Shaping Science builds upon your previous ethnographic work?  

Shaping Science builds on over a decade of ethnography with planetary scientists. I began as a PhD student with a Mars mission. Although I had a long stream of research in scientific images that culminated in my dissertation and first book project, I was fascinated by how the scientists talked about their mission teams like living organisms with personalities all their own. It was all structure, no agency! I resolved to study this teamwork as my next project and so I conducted my PhD research while researching this project at the same time, then wrote the grants that allowed me to conduct the comparative study with the second team. the book builds upon this prior immersion within a science team and within a scientific community but it also speaks to a pressing question that emerged through the first ethnography. Watching the same people at the same institutions working at the same time in the same field, who do science differently because their teams are organized in different ways, really helped me to really develop the core ideas in Shaping Science.

2. Shaping Science offers three recursive principles that make up what you have termed as the framework of “organized science”. How does this framework relate to the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) and the social construction of technology (SCOT)? 

I trained with people like Trevor Pinch, Mike Lynch, and Simon Schaffer, so indeed the book is deeply indebted to those constructivist schools.  But I build on the classic STS negation of the distinction between ‘the natural’ and ‘the social’ that we see in the work of people across the constructivist spectrum and beyond. Think in the vein of Epistemic Cultures or States of Knowledge, but instead of arguing for the role of states or disciplines in knowledge work, I look to how organizational variation produces different scientific outcomes differs across varying contexts. My focus is on the micropractices of organizational work that both produce organizational structures and are accountable to local organizational ways of doing: the detailed textures of organizational communication, the way that labor is divided up, the ways in which specializations are asserted, the ways in which boundaries are made, and the ways in which people naturalize forms of working. So I combine constructivist commitments with today’s tools of organizational sociology to show how organizational orders matter to how knowledge is produced, how these objects are understood, and how instrumentation functions. 

“Organized science” as a framework, then, argues that we need to understand scientific teams as organizations with their own forms of talk, strategies for decision making, and local orders; that this order infuses their scientific findings, their data circulation patterns, their instruments and their career paths; and that these findings loop repeatedly to tighten the knot between organizations, epistemologies, and ontologies. That last point is important, because unlike the early constructivist school I’m not just looking at knowledge work – the planets and instrumentation feature too. The organizational entanglements between people, objects, and instruments allows me to analyze how organizational orders play a role in naturalizing particular configurations as well. And the book speaks to organizational sociology from STS too. I think they can learn from how we don’t take any distinctions for granted – and in organizational sociology that includes things like formal/informal, structure/culture, even boundaries between institutions and nations. Instead I’m always trying to figure out how those boundaries are constituted and upheld through local practices.

3. You have characterized planetary science mission work as expansive and likened it to the nature of work within total institutions. How does this schema apply to the Helen spacecraft community, given that it functioned as a virtual organization with distinct, local “idiocultures”?    

Yes, the Helen community that I described did function as a virtual organization, and because it was a matrix organization it allowed many different local cultural flowers to bloom. Studying Helen was like studying the United States, where everyone has their own state and everyone does things differently, and you can’t always generalize between, say, Texas and Rhode Island. But despite this variety in how decisions were made and problems were solved, there was still an overarching culture to planetary science that made it truly all encompassing, working on these missions was not a job where people went home at the end of the day. It’s not just that they work long hours, or that they are astute fans of every science fiction series imaginable, or that they marry others within the field; they also they decorate their bodies with tattoos of their spacecraft and their objects of study and wear clothing and jewelry that incorporates their mission work. It was Weber’s “Science as a vocation” on steroids! So yes, despite local cultural differences in decision making and forms of talk, I would still characterize planetary science work as taking place in a total institution. There certainly was no escape!

4. Shaping Science reveals that “fair” conflict resolution plays a central role in upholding scientific heterogeneity within complex organizational structures. In the absence of formal adjudication, what did conflict resolution look like within the Helen and Paris missions?

Well, conflict resolution looked different within the Helen and Paris visions because the ways in which each culture dealt with conflict differed dramatically, and what they thought a good resolution to a problem was be, also differed. Fairness in conflict resolution was only a value on the Helen mission: Paris scientists would have found that concept entirely foreign and not compelling at all. I should note here that what they’re fighting over, that is what needs to be fair, is spacecraft resources, basically the problem of telescope time: time, bites, data volume on board, power, the resources that enable science. Dividing these resource up was the primary thing that needed deciding, sometimes on an everyday basis.

On the Paris team, a charismatic collective, fairness wasn’t as important as unilateral agreement, which didn’t have to be fair. There was a story they told about an early moment on the team when someone suggested that everyone take a vote on what they wanted to do and the PI of the mission said, “No, we don’t vote here!” He didn’t want to create factions or exacerbate divides: everybody had to agree. The whole point a fairness is to make sure that everybody gets their piece of the puzzle, but on Paris there was only one puzzle and everybody needed to see themselves in it. Conflicts over resources were resolved through articulating commitment to the common cause. I draw a lot on the literature on other charismatic collectives and organizations, typically religious groups and activist organizations, but I also hope to contribute to what we might understand about places like tech companies in Silicon Valley.  

Meanwhile, fairness was important on the matrix team, Helen, because it was such a federation of cultures and incommensurate needs and desires from an interdisciplinary team. But I show that “fairness” isn’t a static or easily identifiable thing: in fact, each local part of Helen did fairness differently. They had completely different practices in each subgroup for determining fairness. This meant when they had to come together and negotiate across multiple teams, there were many versions of fairness afoot — even though everyone was equally committed to the fact that the negotiations should be “fair.”

5. In your book, you offer a critique of homophily and network effects within scientific organizations. Could you elaborate on how gendered identities and robust networks bear implications for both, scientific findings, and career trajectories within the domain of planetary science?

My favorite chapter of this book is Chapter 9, “Personalities.” It is my hope that this chapter will be read alongside Sharon Traweek’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” chapter as an ethnographic explication of how inequalities are done in science. In short, what I observed in the field were these extremely robust friendship networks, forged through Graduate School training and to some degree mission work, in which individuals came together around shared masculinities and femininities. These networks were not only homophilous, they were arranged hierarchically. That means that there were certain women’s networks that were more powerful than certain mens’ networks, leading people outside the organization to believe that women had made tremendous gains in the organization and perhaps gender didn’t matter so much — when really, gender was a significant organizing principle. Race was functioning at a whole other exclusionary level too: these are deeply white networks, and there are few scientists of color in the field, an issue that I am actively working with this community to address. Additionally, the chapter explains what I colloquially call the Ellen Pao problem: the whole issue of, “we have lots of women around here, we just don’t like her.” Like the ousted CEO at Reddit who was unable to win her case arguing sexism at work as there were other women around, I explain why certain women are singled out for tokenism and are organizationally ostracized, despite working with many other competent women.  So overall the chapter pulls together a lot from organizational sociology of inequality with science studies to explain how particular kinds of interactional network effects produce continual inequalities in the sciences.

6. To call your ethnographic fieldwork “multi-sited” would be reductive, as its breadth and scope unquestionably parallels that of spacecraft work. Are there any methodological recommendations that you would like to pass on to members of the SKAT community who are keen on modeling their work on the basis of yours?

This field work was multi-sited in many ways. There is the technically incorrect version of multi-sited, which is just to say that this all took place at multiple places. I used to joke with planetary scientists that they had to put on collectively as many air miles as it took for their spacecraft to get to the planets they studied! Traveling to move among different parts of the community took a toll on me and my family. It was also multi-sited in that I tried to move among different parts of the organization. A lot of times, organizational sociologists come into an organization at a particular level, like among the executive, or on the shop floor, and they don’t get to see what it looks like from other positions or participating institutions. I tried hard to see the mission from as many vantage points as possible, building on the whole concept of partial perspectives. And to further elaborate on partial perspectives and its contribution to the multi-sitedness, at one point I employed a team of ethnographers to go in and observe the mission from different vantage points. What was important was not simply that we were at different places per say, it was that we were really different people, with different embodied presences. Triangulating and coordinating amongst our accounts allowed us each to get a much better sense of our own positionality and the kinds of ways in which are the data we were acquiring was being filtered through that position.  And then there’s the sense of multi-sitedness as Marcus intends it: this is a space of many flows. Here a big part of my work aims to decenter centers and look instead at the networked relations between what we want to call centers and peripheries. I believe this is very important to do, but it can feel threatening to the community because the narrative that emerges is not a narrative that they recognize from a particular privileged place. NASA teams rely on public engagement for funding, so that can feel very threatening to a team under study.

Finally, of course, I have worked with remotely collaborating teams for fifteen years. So, watching the world suddenly move to remote work under Covid19 was just like watching everybody take on the attributes of the field site that I knew so well – complete with forgetting to hit the mute button! I recommend my paper in STHV, Seamful Spaces, on how methodologically to approach the kind of remote work we are seeing and what’s going on as people are working across multiple modalities.

7. Lastly, could you tell us a bit about the projects that you are currently engaged with, and what you are planning to work on next?

My work with the planetary scientists continues! Here I’m inspired by people like Sharon Traweek and Harry Collins who nurture longstanding engagements with certain scientific communities. In 2016 I went back to the field, this time embedded with a mission to Europa, and in about 2019 I joined a team that is trying to send an interstellar probe to the interstellar medium outside our solar system. Currently I’m writing a book about budgets and budgetary crises, which develops a vocabulary and analytical sensibility for how we in science studies should talk about money in scientific and technical projects that draws on relational socioeconomics. That’s in collaboration with my postdoc David Reinecke. Another key thing I’m working on now is the diversification of the planetary sciences and how we might address the white space that is the scientific community that we study. That came out of an interest in organizational future work, and in watching the scientists themselves train up in bystander intervention and social science to get the ball rolling on their DEI work. Here my inquiry with these scientists is increasingly becoming participatory forms of interaction, and I’m getting excited about working with multi-institutional teams from an STS perspective on diversity, inclusion, and justice. In an entirely separate line of work I’m working with students to build anti-racist technologies, and in my spare time I’m busy undermining the personal data economy by hacking cell phones and working with alternative technological systems. So, I stay busy!

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