Who Killed WATERS? Mess, Method, and Forensic Explanation in the Making and Unmaking of Large-scale Science Networks

Science, Technology, and Human Values 39 (2):285-308 (2014)
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Science studies has long been concerned with the theoretical and methodological challenge of mess—the inevitable tendency of technoscientific objects and practices to spill beyond the neat analytic categories we construct for them. Nowhere is this challenge greater than in the messy world of large-scale collaborative science projects, particularly though not exclusively in their start-up phases. This article examines the complicated life and death of the WATERS Network, an ambitious and ultimately abandoned effort at collaborative infrastructure development among hydrologists, engineers, and social scientists studying water. We argue in particular against the “forensic imagination,” a particular style of accounting for failure in the messy world of large-scale network development, and against two common conceptual and empirical pitfalls that it gives rise to: defaults to formalism and defaults to the future. We argue that alternative postforensic approaches to “failures” like the WATERS Network can support forms of learning and accountability better attuned to the complexities of practice and policy in the real world of scientific collaboration and network formation.



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