Illiberal science and STS: new directions in the studies of science in state dictatorships. The case of forensic science in Soviet Russia


Volha Parfenchyk, Universiteit Utrecht

Recent studies in the history and sociology of science have seen two converging trends. On the one hand, scholars in science and technology studies (STS) researching science practices in Western liberal democracies have contested a long-held assumption about the neutrality and objectivity of scientific knowledge (Jasanoff 2004). On the other hand, studies in the history of science in state dictatorships have disproved earlier claims that science in countries with a dictatorial regime constituted a mere product of state coercion (Kojevnikov 2004). Rather, according to them, scientists often acted independently from the state or used state ideology to conduct, what they believed to be, a 'proper' scientific research. Hence, both lines of research seem to converge on the same point: a social element stands behind all scientific research, whether produced in liberal West or in state dictatorships.

However, despite this apparent conceptual and methodological rapprochement between the two lines of research, they have rarely engaged with each other in practice. For example, STS rich conceptual toolkit has been rarely used to explore the intricacies of knowledge production in dictatorships. In my paper I will make an attempt to do so. Taking as an example the development of forensic psychiatry and psychology in Soviet Russia, I will discuss the benefits and pitfalls of looking at scientific practices in dictatorships through the prism of STS. I aim to show that, although STS has a great potential to advance our understanding of knowledge production practices in dictatorships, key STS concepts require adjustment to capture and give justice to their specificity and illiberal origins.


Creative Commons Licence



Contributed date

July 30, 2020 - 4:14am

Critical Commentary

Abstract submitted to 4S 2020 open panel on Transnational STS.