ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Siting, policies and the use of science/ technology as politics by other means

Contact Convenor: Simone Abram

Dept of Town and Regional Planning, The University of Sheffield
Geography and Planning Building
Winter Street, Sheffield S3 7ND

Tel: 0114 222 6907

Panel abstract

We know that science and technology are socially embodied, and that they follow their own patterns of rationality and logic. We also know that much governmental activity is channelled through apparently scientific forms. The theme for this workshop, though, is the extent to which scientific or technological knowledges are surrogates for political argument. That is, to what extent are technologies or scientific rationalities used in place of political or ideological argument in governance, that is, to define a realm of thought or discourse?

The question becomes apparent in, for example, conflicts over where developments are to be sited, whether these are power stations, dams, palaces, holiday homes or housing estates, where technical arguments over the best location for particular forms of infrastructure can come into conflict with arguments about the identity of places and of environmental and aesthetic quality. But scientific rationalities also dominate many other realms of governance, such as health systems, educational programmes, etc. If we consider systems of knowledge such as accountancy and demographic projection as technologies, how do we then characterise governmental processes that adopt these technologies as their rationality? How do technological details dominate political choices? Are scientific debates self-referential to the point where other factors (sacredness of sites, or genealogical claims) cannot be debated in the same arena? How can scientific or technological arguments be brought into political debates alongside other forms of rationality? This workshop invites ethnography-based accounts of the role of scientific or technological arguments in governance.

Rationalising risk: arguing over safety on the Firth of Forth

Achim Schlueter, University of Newcastle

The language of safety and risk invariably pits competing logics of scientific measurement and modelling and personal experience against one another in an unequal fashion.  This paper draws on ethnographic fieldwork to explore the ways in which scientific forms of rationalisation coexist and interact with economic as well as moral rationalisations concerning environmental risk and industrial redevelopment in Grangemouth, Scotland’s main petrochemical centre and a town dominated by the BP complex.  In a context of a new round of redundancies at BP, new insecurities surrounding the future of the company’s Grangemouth site, and several recent accidents, as well as controversy over planning applications from other chemical companies, the town has been pushed into unusually searching self-scrutiny and doubt about both safety and economic security.  Industry (management and unions), regulators, the Scottish Executive, residents and the local media contribute unequally to this ongoing debate, employing different rationalities, in which scientific and technological arguments make up only part of the picture.  The paper seeks to understand why certain actors choose certain modes of rationalisation and how communication between those different rationalities is difficult and challenging.  The final part of the paper draws out parallels and differences with a twinned study conducted concurrently in Ludwigshafen, Germany.

Knowledge, truth and power: foreign science in official and academic discourses about homosexuality in reform-socialist China

Anna Boermel, University of Oxford

When confronted with unprecedented challenges in times of rapid socio-economic change, political elites often turn to foreign models for guidance. Spurred on by the urge to come to terms with new developments in their own disciplines, academics frequently engage with scientific knowledge created outside their own cultural setting. How does this process of knowledge acquisition and localisation proceed when professional interests collide ? Is it adequate to suggest that ruling political elites use scientific knowledge to maintain the status quo while academics, and social scientists in particular, are intent on questioning the prevailing portrayal of social reality?

This paper explores these themes based on an analysis of the selective appropriation of North American and Western European medical and social scientific knowledge about homosexuality by governmental and academic elites in reform-socialist China. After four decades of enforced silence, official and academic discourses about homosexuality began to take shape from the mid-1980s onwards. This paper accounts for the sudden emergence of these discourses and analyses their development. Political and academic elites, it is argued, use foreign scientific knowledge very strategically to further their professional interests. The paper suggests that what is at stake in their competing discourses about homosexuality are issues critical to governance: competing claims to the truthful portrayal of social reality as well as notions of personhood and the maintenance of social order.

Mobilizing science: how to make facts matter

Åsa Boholm, Göteborg University

Major state driven infrastructure projects are born as visions among planners, politicians, engineers and leaders of industry. The vision entails a promise to qualitatively enhance the human condition by means of achieving an abstract generalized ‘greater good’ whether framed as environmental sustainability, economic development, market competitiveness or ‘quality of life’. The rationale of the project together with its entire ‘necessity’, is elaborated in a rhetorical process of sense making that employs words and images, juxtapositions of explanations, characterizations and justifications. As the vision matures it may meet opposition. The mobilization of ‘science’ both by proponents and opponents is essential to this process. Notions like public understandings of science, in a stronger version public engagement in science, or even ‘scientific citizenship’ are often evoked when matters of technology, science and planning are being debated. The inclusion of broader publics, phrased in terms of dialogue, transparency, trust, and participation, is assumed to lead to better and more democratic decisions. Governments (at all levels) have assigned themselves a crucial role to initiate and facilitate the implementation of these democratic virtues. This paper questions the simplistic social science dichotomies of the Public vs. Science, or Science vs. Society, apparent in this new rhetoric of democracy. Instead of ideological and normative statements we need to make out what lessons can be learned from ethnographic studies of cases where arguments drawn from science play a crucial role in organising the debate.

The political function of scientific discourse

Dr Eve Seguin, University of Aberdeen

Social sciences usually rely on the assumption that the main or only function of language is referential. Yet, discourse analysis has shown that discourse puts to work a number of linguistic and textual mechanisms that are not referential in essence, and this applies to scientific discourse as well. Once we start paying attention to these mechanisms, scientific discourse appears to influence politics not only through what it says (its propositional content or arguments) but through the way in which it constructs the objects, the realities, that are debated in the public domain.

To substantiate this claim, the paper will draw on two case studies. First, we will show that the legalisation of in vitro fertilisation in the UK was influenced by the construction of this technology in the discourse of reproductive biology in the 1960s and 1970s. This construction made IVF acceptable to actors of various political persuasions and was imported into public discourse, in particular within the Warnock Committee set up by the government in 1982 to assess the implications of the new reproductive technologies.

The second case study is the change in the risk assessment of the government’s scientific advisory committee (SEAC) on BSE. We will show that the progressive infiltration of prion discourse in UK scientific circles impacted on this risk assessment. Prion discourse conveyed an original construction of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) that could change the perception of BSE and downplay the view that it did not pose any risk to public health, a view held for years by nearly all officials and scientists involved in the management of the epidemic. The prion construction of TSEs eventually allowed SEAC to claim, at the time without any scientific arguments, that vCJD represented BSE transmission to humans.

Symbols of legitimacy: the vaccine/autism controversy as presented by the U.S. Congress's Committee on Government Reform

Maya Ponte, University of California, San Francisco

While the putative link between autism and the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine has garnered widespread media attention in Britain, it is only recently that this issue has come to the attention of the U.S. public. Much of the interest in this topic has been spearheaded by Dan Burton, chairman of the Government Reform Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. With an autistic grandson of his own, Dan Burton has taken up this cause as a personal and political crusade. Congressman Burton invites parents of autistic children, scientists who study the effects of vaccines, and regulatory administrators to serve as witnesses during committee hearings. This mixture creates an ideal case study for examining the relationship between science, politics, and personal narrative in the U.S. today.

Ideology, science and technology on trial

Ralph Heiefort, Göteborg University

Implementing a large infrastructural project in a local setting implicates an embedded political dimension. It is non-controversial to assume that there is a link between the complexity of the technology and the magnitude of the project on the one hand and the extent of the political dimension on the other. This common sense notion is based on the simple fact that – when all is said and done – it is politicians, by virtue of their office, who make the final decision of whether to implement a given project or not. In democratic societies, however, political decisions are not absolute – they can be contested in the court of law. But at what point, then, does the techno-scientific foundation of a political sanctioned project become irrelevant as such and instead turned into political argument? In answering this question I draw on scientific and technological arguments presented by The Swedish National Railway Administration before The Environmental Court when applying for permission to continue the building of a train tunnel within a natural reserve area in the southern part of Sweden. This ethnographic account illustrates Justicia’s delicate balancing of ideology, science and technology.

Conflicting rationalities; science, morality and genetic engineering in the Norwegian food industry

Sara Skodbo, University College London

Moral rather than scientific rationalities and technologies of governance have so far dominated the governance of genetic engineering in Norway. Consensus processes and inclusion have characterised decision-making, with the establishment of lay panels and extensive public hearings on the basis of the føre-var (precautionary) principle. Expertise and scientific knowledge provide little legitimisation for policy-making. Yet despite the broad consensus among Norwegian regulators, government, retailers, consumers and food manufacturers on the need to exclude genetic technology from the market, Norwegian companies persist in their pursuit of genetic innovation. And, despite stringent market controls, genetically modified organisms have made their way on to the Norwegian market.

The paper argues that the persistence of genetic technology, backed as it is by international systems of regulation and control, challenges Norwegian traditions of non-scientific forms of governance, and more explicitly scientific rationalities of governance are coming to the fore. Scientific rationalities are gaining in legitimacy, and the emergence of conflicting rationalities poses severe problems for regulators. The paper presents ethnographic material from multisited fieldwork among consumer groups, government and industry actors. 

Picking up the relay baton – about the curious revival of colonial ethnography by the South African government and its reconstruction of ‘an African culture’ in the local and international arena and the impacts of the transfiguration of ‘tradition’ on developments in so-called ‘traditional communities’

Andrea M. Lang, University at Bielefeld, Germany

The paper offers some reflections on constructions of “traditionalism” in South Africa today originating from my field research on “Accommodation Strategies of Traditional Leaders in Post-Apartheid South Africa” for a PhD from the University at Bielefeld, Germany.

The ANC’s views on “traditional leaders” seem to have moved over the past 10 years from a rather negative attitude towards a critical approach, trying to restrict their influence on purely cultural aspects to a now uncritical glorification of traditional African rulership and the traditional way of life. Curious enough, these attitudes appear to stem solely from assumptions, interpretations, and inventions by colonial and apartheid ethnographers rather than empirical research by critical South African (or other) research scientists.

Although such constructions can be reassuring in developing a Black identity against White critics in a political or bureaucratic environment and may help to shape unity amongst African governments and to gain an own identity in negotiations with international but often “western-dominated” institutions they have devastating effects on the dynamics and problems within communities living under traditional leadership. Whereas conflicts in some torn communities are ignored and the fractions are virtually left alone to solve out the problems innovative concepts of other “traditional” communities how to adjust to the challenges of social and economic transformations and to develop own modernities are completely ignored.

Alaska North Slope Gas Development 2000-2002

Arthur Mason, UC Berkeley

Since the 1970s, energy producers, pipeline corporations, the United States and Canadian federal, state, provincial, and local governments have discussed the possibility of bringing Alaska's vast quantity of North Slope natural gas to markets in the continental United States. What was needed was a pipeline to transport the gas, yet questionable economics continuously blocked realization of this project.

The energy crisis that overwhelmed America in winter of 2000 highlighted the need yet again for increasing domestic sources of natural gas and drew the troubled Alaska gas pipeline project back to the center of trans-national energy debate. This paper engages critically with factors, interests, and players that converged to define this window of opportunity and examines the complexity of decision making that defines energy development in America today.

I identify a set of questions under the title Regulatory and Fiscal Uncertainty which deals with U.S. federal and state political jurisdiction on pipeline development. I show how federal and state legislation becomes tightly linked to articulation of stakeholder interests, such as tax regime, pipeline route selection, environmental review and rights of applicants.

Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted over a two year period in which I served as Energy Coordinator for Alaska Governor Tony Knowles.