Knowledge Politics

By Scott Frickel

Since at least the 1970s, the intersections of science, technology and social movements have proliferated across the political sphere. Highly diverse in form and substance, these lines of connection are transforming the way societies make knowledge and press for social change. David Hess has described this general process in broad social-historical terms, arguing that society has entered an era of “epistemic modernization,” which is characterized by two dominant, counter-veiling trends.[i] 

From above, epistemic modernization is signaled by the imposition of market-oriented, “neoliberal” public policy. Such policies are often legitimated in public discourse through appeals to scientific expertise, privileging narrowly framed technical issues over broader issues relating to human values and societal well-being, a process that Jürgen Habermas has described as “scientization.”[ii] Perversely, the scientization of public policy undermines science itself by progressively reducing the capacity of government and social institutions to create and disseminate knowledge that societies, rather than markets, actually need. Last week’s passage of a Senate Bill to restrict National Science Foundation funding in political science to “research projects that the [NSF director] certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States” [iii] and the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act,” also signed into law last week, which “protects genetically modified seeds from litigation suits over health risks posed by the crops’ consumption”[iv] are just two recent examples of this.

But this trend toward a staunchly neoliberal science bumps up against a counter-veiling impulse toward the democratization of science and expert knowledge more generally. From below, epistemic modernization is marked by a groundswell of collective action – only some of it recognizably contentious – that is perforating the boundaries that once insulated science from the rest of civil society and functioned to preserve and reproduce the social authority of “the experts.” Although that cultural boundary was never absolute, today it is rapidly dissolving. From right, left and center people are challenging scientists’ monopoly on truth and questioning the idea, once largely taken for granted, that science-as-delivered serves a universal social good. Recent books by Abby Kinchy and Gwen Ottinger, among others, describe these collective challenges to the technoscientific management of civil society and the responses of corporate and academic science.[v] These dynamics are new, astonishingly diverse, and not well understood. Scholars and activists alike should be paying close attention.

I think the newer stream of scholarship, focused on the intersections of science, technology and social movements, should be required reading for graduate seminars in political sociology and social movements. Why? Because epistemic modernization is changing the politics of knowledge in ways we can’t easily understand or anticipate. I don’t think I’m overstating the case to suggest that questions of epistemology – how we know, what we know, and who gets to know – are becoming (have become?) central to social movement. Struggles for social change are now more than ever struggles to make and control knowledge. In the context of those struggles, technoscience is both a target of social protest and a means for organizing it.

Traditional approaches to theorizing collective action are late to this game and seem relatively poorly equipped to make good sense of it. Recent major efforts to build theories of contentious processes or strategic action all but ignore science and scientists.[vi] This is a missed opportunity that cries out for corrective attention. We need to rethink what we think we know about experts (who are warm-blooded, political beings like everyone else), about activism (which, in scientific domains is often most effective when it is not contentious), and about organization (which, to be sustaining, may require a better appreciation for the diversity of scientific cultures and the dynamic patterns of scientific work). Organizers and activists also would probably be well-served, in many instances, by rethinking how to conduct effective campaigns or build lasting social movements in an era when “facts” so easily become weapons or when one’s opponents and allies might both work in laboratories and use “Ph.D.” after their names. Simply put, we live in a society that is organized and governed by expert systems. Activists and scholars who ignore this brute fact of political life do so to our collective detriment.


[i] David Hess. 2007. Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[ii] Jürgen Habermas. 1970. Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics. Trans. by Jeremy Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press.

[iii] Jeffrey Mervis. 2013. “Congress Limits NSF Funding for Political Science.” Science 29 March 2013:Vol. 339 no. 6127 pp. 1510-1511; DOI: 10.1126/science.339.6127.1510

[iv] Lindsey Boerma. 2013. “Critics Slam Obama for ‘Protecting’ Monsanto.” CBS News online (March 28); http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57576835/critics-slam-obama-for-protecting-monsanto/ (retrieved March 31, 2013).

[v]  Abby Kinchy. 2012. Seeds, Science, and Struggle The Global Politics of Transgenic Crops. Cambridge: MIT Press; Gwen Ottinger. 2013.  Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges. NY: NYU Press.

[vi]  See Doug McAdam, Sydney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. 2001. Dynamics of Contention. NY: Cambridge University Press; Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam. 2012. A Theory of Fields. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Politics of Science

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