Janet Vertesi

Associate Professor of Sociology.
Office Phone
122 Wallace Hall

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.

How do science, technology and society influence each other?

As a sociologist and historian of science and technology, I am interested in many facets of the interrelation between science, technology and society.  How and why do we know what we know? What institutions and flows of people are required to craft scientific knowledge? How do social norms influence the development of technology, and what happens when those technologies move or those norms change? My research addresses these questions through many different projects. In my Ph.D. dissertation, I conducted an ethnography of the Mars Exploration Rover mission to understand how scientists worked with digital images to pursue scientific investigations on another planet. Since then, I’ve conducted several follow-up, comparative studies with missions to the outer planets, where I'm interested in the relationship between the social organization of spacecraft teams, their decision-making processes, and the scientific work that they accomplish. I have also published projects on subway maps and representations of urban space; on technology in transnational and postcolonial contexts; on GPS tracking of sex offenders; and on early modern astronomy. My work is mostly ethnographic, although I am also trained in ethnomethodology, and I especially enjoy applying my sociological insights to technology development through the field of Human-Computer Interaction.  As more and more technologies become part of our everyday lives, and as science occupies an increasingly important role in global policy debates, now more than ever it's important to understand how these tools and processes shape our contemporary experience, and to consider how we want to integrate them into our social worlds.

Selected Publications

Shaping Science: Organizations, Decisions, and Culture on NASA's Teams (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020)
Seeing Like a Rover: Images in Interaction on the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015)
With David Ribes (eds.), DigitalSTS: A Fieldguide (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).
"'Mind the Gap:' The London Underground Map and Users' Representations of Urban Space,"
Social Studies of Science 38(1): 1-32, 2008.