Epistemic Modernization and Social Movements

By David J. Hess

I am interested in the epistemic modernization of the relations among the scientific, industrial, political, and civil society fields.

For centuries scientists have had to defend the precarious autonomy of their concepts, methods, and research agendas from attempts by governments, religions, and industries to influence them. Of course, extra-field influence can be generative. For example, the needs of the military and industry have helped to spur the development of whole research fields, from thermodynamics to chemistry. However, the funding priorities of the patrons of science also shape the contours of dominant and subordinate research programs in many research fields, and the resulting dominant research programs are not always aligned with a broad public interest. In the twenty-first century, the neoliberalization of the academy and the increasingly close connection between scientific research and intellectual property have resulted in an asymmetric convergence of industrial and academic science, so that the scientific field as a whole has become increasingly oriented toward its producer pole of applications (see Vallas and Kleinman 2008, Albert 2003, Moore et al. 2011).

I use the term “epistemic modernization” to refer to countervailing processes that have emerged in the politics of scientific research. The processes are driven in part by the diversification of the social composition of the scientific field (see Harding 1998) and in part by the activism of social movement organizations (SMOs) and the incorporation of lay perspectives into research programs. For example, when engaging in struggles over regulatory policy, SMOs often identify the existence of undone science, that is, the systematic non-production of knowledge that, from the perspective of SMOs, could be of broad public interest (Frickel et al. 2010). Some scientists rebuff such critical analysis of the politics of research agendas, but some scientists also respond to them by opening up their methods to public participation, by altering their research priorities, and sometimes by developing new research fields (Brown 2007, Frickel 2004). The responses can also involve negotiation between scientists and SMOs in which both give some ground to arrive at research programs that are mutually valuable (Clarke 1998).

In response to the exchanges with lay knowledge and mobilized publics, scientists occasionally also step into the public sphere to form counterpublics that challenge the epistemic grounds of dominant policies. The vetting of research in public requires complex strategic decisions, such as the choice to produce knowledge that can be used in court cases but retains political neutrality or to produce knowledge that can provoke media coverage and trigger additional research (Allen 2003). Scientists may also mobilize collectively to form organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (Moore 2008). In some cases the scientists who challenge dominant policies are located in subordinate positions of their research fields, and they form alliances with social movement organizations (Hess, 2011). However, scientific counterpublics may also emerge in cases where scientists have a high degree of consensus, but the consensus is rejected by a threatened industry. In that case, the threatened industry may fund scientific contrapublics of industry-friendly scientists who produce an image of dissensus in the media (see Oreskes and Conway 2011). The second broad dimension of epistemic modernization involves challenges to the epistemic assumptions that guide industrial and technology policy.  Often social movement, community, and allied organizations encounter a scientized regulatory field, that is, a political field that is geared toward policy-making by insiders and experts (Kinchy 2012, McCormick 2009). Although technical analyses such as risk assessment are a valuable adjunct to democratic decision-making, under conditions of scientization they are used to close off public participation and limit participation in the policy field to those who have considerable technical capital. Scientized and technocratic governance offers great benefits to coalitions of industry insiders and their allies in government, but such governance can trigger a legitimation crisis if SMOs can make a broad case that important public interests are being excluded from the policy process. In response, policymakers may increase opportunities for public participation, but they tend to do in ways that limits the capacity for SMOs to bring about policy reform. For example, some consultative processes have excluded SMOs on the grounds that they are stakeholders, that is, equivalent to industry groups, and the consultations are limited participation to lay individuals. By limiting public participation to the individualized, lay public, policymakers can control representations of the “public” and its interests, and they can weaken the claim of SMOs to represent a broad public interest against the sectional interests of industry (Hess 2011). Yet even when SMOs are allowed to participate, they face the dilemma of participating in a terrain of scientized decision-making (for example, by recruiting counter-experts or producing their own “civil society” and “lay” research) or of rejecting such participation and advocating instead for a broadening of decision-making criteria (see Hess 2009, Kinchy 2013, Ottinger 2013).

Often SMOs identify undone science and use it with precautionary rationales to ground stronger regulatory reform. In response pro-industry coalitions frame such rationales as anti-scientific and anti-progress because they rest on the potential risks, uncertainties, and ignorance associated with technological development rather than on “sound science” that clearly documents risk. Thus, the condition of undone science is turned back against social movement leaders and reformers, who do not have the resources to produce such knowledge on their own. Nevertheless, there are conditions under which precautionary politics can be relatively successful. For example, where there is an alternative technology and an identifiable health risk, precautionary politics can make some headway (Hess and Coley 2013). Likewise, where there are broad coalitions with a common frame and bridge brokers, precautionary politics can also be successful (Mayer 2008).

SMOs may also opt to operate outside the realm of scientized decision-making. Alternative industrial movements are incubators of new technologies and products (e.g., organic food, alternative medicine).  The long-term result of such movements is often a process of incorporation and transformation into the existing industrial regime, sometimes with help from a countervailing industry (such as the nutritional industry for struggles to develop less toxic cancer drugs). In parallel with these movements are industrial opposition movements (e.g., anti-GMO food, anti-nuclear energy), which advocate for a moratorium on an industrial process or technology and sometimes achieve design changes or a partial moratorium. In these relationships with science and technology, social movements can trigger transition processes in large sociotechnical systems, but often with historical outcomes that fall far short of their original visions of change. Here, one is less in the world of scientized policy reform and more in the world of “object conflicts,” that is, broad design conflicts over the trajectories of technological development, but the design conflicts are in turn related to the politics of research agendas (see Hess 2007).

References and additional reading:

Albert, Mathieu. 2003. “Universities and the Market Economy: The Differential Impact on Knowledge Production in Sociology and Economics.” Higher Education, 45:147-82.

Allen, Barbara. 2003. Uneasy Alchemy. MIT Press.

Brown, Phil. 2007. Toxic Exposures. Columbia University Press.

Clarke, Adele. 1998. Disciplining Reproduction. University of California Press.

Frickel,Scott, Sahra Gibbon, Jeff Howard, Joana Kempner, Gwen Ottinger, and David Hess. 2010. “Undone Science: Social Movement Challenges to Dominant Scientific Practice.” Science, Technology, and Human Values 35(4): 444-473

Frickel, Scott. 2004. Chemical Consequences. Rutgers University Press.

Harding, Sandra. 1998. Is Science Multicultural? Indiana University Press.

Hess, David. 2007. Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry. MIT Press.

Hess, David. 2009. “The Potentials and Limitations of Civil Society Research: Getting Undone Science Done.” Sociological Inquiry 79(3): 306-27.

Hess, David. 2011 “To Tell the Truth: On Scientific Counterpublics.” Public Understanding of Science. 20(5): 627-41.

Hess, David, and Jonathan Coley. 2013 Wireless Smart Meters and Public Acceptance: The Environment, Limited Choices, and Precautionary Politics.” Forthcoming in Public Understanding of Science.

Kinchy, Abby. 2012. Seeds, Science, and Struggle. MIT Press.

Mayer, Brian. 2008. Blue-Green Coalitions. ILR Press.

McCormick, Sabrina. 2009. Mobilizing Science. Temple University Press.

Moore, Kelly, Scott Frickel, David Hess, and Daniel Kleinman. 2011. Science and Neoliberal Globalization: A Political Sociological Approach. Theory and Society 40(5): 505-532.

Moore, Kelly. 2008. Disrupting Science. Princeton University Press.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik Conway. 2011. Merchants of Doubt. Bloomsbury Press.

Ottinger, Gwen. 2013. Refining Expertise. NYU Press.

Vallas, Steven P. and Daniel L. Kleinman. 2008. “Contradiction, convergence and the knowledge economy: the confluence of academic and commercial biotechnology.” Socioeconomic Review. 6:283–311.

Hess, David J. 2013. Epistemic Modernization and Social Movements. Mobilizing Ideas Blog, April 5, 2013.  Mobilizingideas.wordpress.com. Invited contribution.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Politics of Science

One response to “Epistemic Modernization and Social Movements

  1. Pingback: Precautionary – Proactionary | Reason & Existenz

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