Transnational political economies of technoscience

Post/Socialist semi-periphery of Eastern Europe

Date: 1 September 2017, 09:00–03:30

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 326


Please note that there is a break from 12 pm - 1.30 pm.


This panel aims to conceptualize the political economies of technosciences along postcolonial, decolonial or world-systemic approaches to the Eastern European semi-periphery. Apart from poststructuralist theories and micro-ethnographies in Science and Technology Studies on the “market,” the “economy,” or “value” (M. Callon, D. MacKenzie), recent calls have emerged for a political economy of technosciences on a wider scale (P. Mirowski, T. Mitchell, K. Birch). However, while there is a considerable body of research on the concept of technoscience, STS have remained silent on connecting these various approaches to the study of post/socialist technoscience. Furthermore, the mainstream post-WWII history of technoscience tends to follow neo-institutionalist or neo-evolutionist grand-narratives of the global centre (“military-industrial complex,” “World War II regime,” “Cold War regime,” “mode 2 science,” “post-academic science,” “big science,” “triple helix,” “commercial science,” etc.), while peripheral developments are generally considered only as recipients of diffusion or belated “catching-up” attempts of modernization. However, the historio-geographical multiplicity of practices and developmental trajectories in Eastern European post/socialist technosciences transcend the liberal narrative of “socialism” as an episode in the linear development of authoritarian modernization or “high modernism,” and the ideologically constructed Cold War discourse on “socialism,” “modernism” or the “centrally planned economy.”

The panel calls into question the historio-geographical constructedness of the region in the post/socialist period, to analyse dependent development of capital accumulation, knowledge regimes, technocratic experts and technopolitical trajectories from a transnational perspective. “Post/socialism” is deliberately used to question the uneasy historical ruptures and continuities between “pre-socialism,” “socialism,” and “post-socialism”, in order to point out the geographical relativity, global embeddedness and interconnectivity of “socialisms” and “capitalisms,” while bearing sensitivity to different circulation networks and geographical scales connecting micro and macro perspectives. Recent insights of global and transnational history counter the internalism and “methodological nationalism” of isolated case studies, which departure from essential traits of the “socialist system” and its country-specific variations, and argue that the often essentialized black-boxes of “socialism” and “capitalism” or “East” and “West” should be contested and opened up for alternative in-between re-conceptualizations. Postcolonial and decolonial theory pointed out that the rather closed and provincial concept of “post/socialism,” as the Oriental “Other” of the West, should be situated in different local practices and trajectories, and also comparative and global relations. From a world-systemic perspective, “post/socialism” can be contextualised historically along long-term (longue dureé) economic cycles, and the globally uneven circulations and relations of exchange in knowledge and technology. Eastern European state-socialist ambitions and efforts of “catching-up” to the West can be conceived as a series of centralised top-down politics and governance in semi-peripheries deeply integrated into the capitalist world-system. The panel argues “semi-periphery” might be a more useful analytic term than the region-specific and spatially locked “Eastern Europe” (or similar categories) in understanding the political economic development of post/socialist technosciences, the local social and epistemological functions of knowledge embedded in transnational relations. The panel aims to answer:

• In what ways can the monolithic concept of “socialism” connected to Eastern Europe be deconstructed to overcome essentialism, provincialism and methodological nationalism?

• How do our understandings of Eastern European “socialisms” change by considering their continuities and ruptures in technoscientific or technopolitical legacies throughout pre/post/socialism in a transnational perspective?

• How were the local technopolitical and developmental strategies of semi-peripheral Eastern European technocratic groups embedded into the wider political economic relations of the global world-system?

• Were there any specifically “socialist” technoscientific regimes in Eastern Europe, and in what ways can the continuities and ruptures of epistemological endeavours or technopolitics alter our understandings of academia, political governance, and everyday lives in and after socialism?

Convenor / Commentator

Zoltán Ginelli (Eötvös Loránd University Budapest)


Manuela Boatcă (University of Freiburg)


Róbert Balogh (Hungarian Academy of Sciences)

Leyla Sayfutdinova (University of Eastern Finland)

Tina Schivatcheva (King’s College London)

Victor Petrov (Columbia University)

Narcis Tulbure (Nicolae Iorga Institute of History / Bucharest University of Economic Studies)

Zoltán Ginelli (Eötvös Loránd University Budapest)



Róbert Balogh: Popularizing popular tree: Socialist development and transnational agenda

Poplar tree species became a favoured species of international forestry research from the 1930s. The establishment of the International Poplar Commission within the framework of FAO formalized this process in 1947. Recent activities of IPC and various research centres show that poplar species continue to play an important role globally. By mid-1950s poplar also assumed a key role in Hungary, and due to its growth rate it became the most propagated species of the afforestation campaign that lasted until the 1970s. The campaign for increasing the area covered by poplar species was a major interface between newly founded cooperatives and forestry authorities. Moreover, by the 1950s the Poplar Research centre at Sárvár, in Western Hungary, became a prominent European site of research into poplar hybrids. I argue that the study of technopolitics in the case of poplar species takes historical analysis beyond the concept of the “Eastern Bloc” and “catching up,” and warns against seeing “Western” academia as neutral vis-as-vis pseudo-scientific “East,” even if the phenomena/species studied existed in a politically charged context. First, this paper discusses the uncertainty around the biology, ecological impact and context of these species by reconstructing contemporary Hungarian debates, and mapping the changes of the area covered by poplar species in forested areas of the Great Plains and near the research centre. Next, I locate the uncertainties around poplar species in Hungary within the transnational discourse on the importance of poplar in making up for shortage of timber and in the development of underdeveloped – mostly former colonial – regions. Third, I juxtapose these uncertainties and debates with the development of poplar projects after 1990, and the way IPC has changed in composition and structure in the last three decades.

Leyla Sayfutdinova: Developing the nation: The modernizing mission of Soviet Azerbaijani engineers

This paper examines the role of Soviet Azerbaijani engineers in the hierarchy of knowledge in Soviet Union. During Soviet period, Azerbaijan was industrialized in accordance with Soviet modernization project and the ideology of technical progress. In addition to a network of industrial enterprises, Azerbaijan also possessed a number of research and design institutions, incorporated into the union-wide vertically integrated scientific-production associations. Although industrialization in Soviet Azerbaijan was directed from Moscow, where the scope of work, production targets and more generally the direction of development was determined. The relations between technological centers (Moscow and Leningrad) where central institutions were located were highly asymmetrical, with engineers from “the Center” acting as teachers, and engineers from Azerbaijan as learners in this relationship. At the same time, Azerbaijani engineers served as 'modernizers' within Azerbaijan, educating those from less developed areas. They also participated in the process of knowledge transfer to other less developed areas of Soviet Union, notably Central Asia. Based on over 30 interviews with Soviet educated engineers in Azerbaijan, I argue that the participation in the Soviet modernizing and civilizing mission mitigated the discontent that could arise from the awareness of the asymmetry of relations with the Union center.

Tina Schivatcheva: Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the aerospace development imperative

The study will analyze the developmental pathways of (semi)peripheral states within historical context, as it concerns their participation in aerospace exploration and aerospace industrial development. Empirically, the analysis will be substantiated by three case studies: Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine; each drawing on a state, which has been engaged in a different manner and to a different degree with space exploration and the aerospace industry. Knowledge and human capital are the foundations of innovation and competitiveness and the three states share a common historical legacy of participating in the Soviet Space programme. Consequently, the analysis will discuss the main features of the past legacy of the three states from the perspective of their global embeddedness, dependencies and interconnections. Bulgaria has played an active supporting role in the Soviet space programme. At the same time both Kazakhstan and Ukraine have held positions of leadership in the Soviet aerospace development. Ukraine has been a traditional global leader in aerospace and aircraft production. The country’s space programme is one of two direct Soviet space program descendants (the other one being Russia). Ukraine’s Soviet heritage – the famous Antonov aerospace industrial conglomerate has been the country’s national champion. Kazakhstan also draws on extensive traditions and experience, dating back to Soviet times; the Baikonur Cosmodrome is still the world's first and still the largest operational space-launch facility. The paper will compare and contrast the developmental trajectories of the three states, by investigating both the material and ideational foundations of development innovation in the aerospace sphere.

Victor Petrov: Cybernetic wars: The Bulgarian computer industry, technocracy, and reform 1970-1990

Agricultural Bulgaria became the Eastern Bloc’s biggest supplier of computer devices by the 1970s, and thanks to COMECON specialisation, it accounted for up to 45% of all electronics in the alliance. The creation of this industry also resulted in the flourishing of a technical class that made, thought with and thought about these devices and their application to the economy and society. By the 1980s this industry, much more open to the West and Global South than other areas of the Bulgarian economy, had resulted in the bifurcation of the class that was involved with it – a handful of technocratic managers and high-ranking party members involved with the strategic direction of the sector; and thousands of engineers, technicians, and intellectual workers who produced the machines but also wrote about the effects they have on governance.

This paper argues that the intellectual concerns of the myriad of engineers, philosophers, educators, sociologists and others who thought about computers and cybernetics eventually pushed them to see an incongruence between the promise of socialist governance and the regime’s actual actions. At the same time, their technocratic managers, increasingly integrated into the transnational business networks that appeared in the late 1970s, were also seeking ways to strengthen their position vis-à-vis the old party elite. By the late 1980s many instrumentalised the cybernetic reform discourse present in journals and institutes in the country to attack the party on its own terms, calling for reforms that would catapult them to power. At the same time, they utilised their own economic power and links across the Iron Curtain to navigate the post-socialist world deftly and to their interest. This paper will show that the international aspect of the Bulgarian computer industry, as well as the intellectual questions it raised, were thus an important aspect of the fall of communism in the country as well as the shape of its transition to the market and democracy.

Narcis Tulbure: Post/Socialist infrastructures of knowledge: Statistics, data, and competition across the Iron Curtain

My presentation focuses on the contrasting conceptualization, production, circulation, and use of economic data across the Iron Curtain during and after socialism. With the progressive mathematization of economic science after the Second World War, statistics became of paramount importance ‘East’ and ‘West’ of the Curtain. Data about the economy was not only an object of political intervention and a means to control the economy, but became progressively an arena for political competition between the two ideological blocs. Statistical data promised to facilitate an accurate, systematic, and comprehensive view of the economy, and to allow a better visualization of the relations between resources, needs, and possibilities on which the rigorous planning of economic development was based. Starting some of the most significant disputes among political authorities and practitioners of disciplines as diverse as economic planning, economic dynamics, cybernetics, and economic informatics, I will illustrate some interweaving trajectories of persons, data-based statistical objects, and forms of knowledge that shaped the post/socialist infrastructures of economic knowledge production. At the same time, I will focus on the mirroring of knowledge about the economy and on the competition playing out in the fields of data production, distribution, and use among countries that were separated by the Iron Curtain. Global disputes over the quality, standardization, and accessibility of data during and after the Cold War stimulated statistical research and occasioned new professional trajectories in both socialist and capitalist worlds I claim, however, that forms of technical knowledge emerging in micro-communities of quantitative specialists ‘East’ and ‘West’ of the Curtain telescoped into a global competition for knowledge about the economy that was magnified by an ideological lens. Such processes of knowledge constitution, contestation, and dissemination have framed our understanding of the economy and continue to shape the world we live in.

Zoltán Ginelli: Globalizing the "quantitative revolution": The technocratic turn of socialist spatial planning in Hungary

Tracing the global circulations of a Cold War shift in science policy, my research aims to understand the historical geographies of the ’quantitative revolution’ in geography in the 1960s, focusing on Hungarian economic geography and spatial planning under socialism. Both in the ’East’ and the ’West’, this so-called ’revolution’ in quantitative spatial analysis had resulted in various adaptations of internationalized neo-classical economics and German theories of spatial planning (von Thünen, Weber, Christaller, Lösch). Cold War sciences of control such as cybernetics, systems theory, futurology, econometrics, regional science, area studies, behavioral psychology, etc. have emerged in the USA and later in the USSR, and Hungary. The geographically varied forms of this general shift should be understood in world-systemic shifts in hegemony and dynamics of actor-networks in the circulation of theories. After a turn in Soviet scientific policy following ’de-Stalinization’ (from 1953), previously banned Western (’bourgeois’) theories were adapted, generating Russian translations of American planning literature. Mathematical theories provided a ’neutral field’ of exchange between ’East’ and ’West,’ enabling the circulation of spatial planning theories from the 1960s. In Hungary, these concepts were applied by reformists under the New Economic Mechanism (from 1968), and in the National Plan for Settlement Network Development (1971). My hypothesis is that after the pre-WWII nationalist geography was succeeded by a Sovietized economic geography (1949-1960s), there was a “technocratic turn” in Hungary (1960s-1970s), parallel to the „quantitative revolution”. Understanding this shift also elucidates the lineage of socialist era traditions into post-socialist geography and spatial planning after 1989.

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