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Home > Focus > The Politics of Science and the re-definition of democracy (part 1)

The Politics of Science and the re-definition of democracy (part 1)

by Mariachiara Tallacchini [1], 21 April 2008

The fourth Lecture of the Fondazione Giannino Bassetti will feature prof. Sheila Jasanoff, professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University, one of the authors of the report to the EU "Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously [2]". Sheila Jasanoff [3] will speak at Milan State University on May 6th on "Making the facts of life. The comparative politics of Bioethics". She will also give a seminar at the premises of the Foundation in Milan on May 5th on "Social imaginaries and master narratives in the politics of science".

Mariachiara Tallacchini [4] offers here an introduction to Jasanoff's STS approach.

The Politics of Science and the re-definition of democracy
by Mariachiara Tallacchini

Science & Technology Studies (STS), the social study of science, is not widely known in Italy and has only appeared in the cultural panorama in recent years. This area of study brings together various interdisciplinary interests and research topics and has its origins in the nineteen seventies and eighties (1), when philosophy, the sociology of science and anthropology met at their interface: research lines interested in the meaning and the impact of technology on society, the social analysis of risk and uncertainty, the constructivist approach to epistemology, the ethnographic study of scientific activity and in the analysis of the demarcation procedure between disciplinary systems (boundary work).(2)

Not wanting to simplify the multiplicity of lines of research represented, it is the attention towards the complex socio-cultural roots of scientific knowledge that characterises Science & Technology Studies, for its intimate links with social science, for the dimensions of power-knowledge implicit within, for the relationship between science and society and for the role that science occupies within society (3) and finally for the way in which science itself permeates political and judiciary institutions. At the core of the research carried out by STS academics we find the concrete dynamics that integrate science, technology and social practices; or, maybe more so, the reasons for which techno science - the term frequently used to underline the social and operational inseparability between science and technology - is not adequately understood, if not in continuity with other social systems.

The type of reflection that these investigations propose is not primarily aimed at understanding the criteria for the validity of scientific knowledge but above all the practices through which science constructs its own social "credibility": in other terms the ways in which the assertions of the scientists become part of society-wide knowledge through negotiation and peer-review.
Within this conceptual framework, what makes the position of Sheila Jasanoff peculiar is her specific attention to normative questions - ethical, legal and political - connected to the evolution of technoscience. (4) The approach that looks at science in society appears to be appropriate to make a close up analysis of how the language of science, politics and law, mix to create new concepts, new institutions and new forms of public life and democracy. What makes her work innovative is that she places herself at the intersection between the analysis of scientific-technological knowledge and normative reflections, demonstrating that the apparently distant language of science and technology on one side and of ethical, juridical and political systems on the other - descriptive the first and prescriptive the second - reciprocally generate and support each other.

The particularity of Sheila Jasanoff's perspective not only consists in having used a deconstructionist approach for the analysis of the institutions involved in the regulation of science, but also in having suggested that this method, aimed at the implicit assumptions and premises in scientific discourse, law and politics, can become a precious tool in the normative world. This allows for the clarification of how reference to the presumed objectivity of science can become a strategy to assign authority to non democratically legitimated powers.
This amalgamation of the STS approach and normative themes creates an even newer and less explored research sector, not only in our cultural panorama: in fact the same thesis also refers to the academic and institutional culture of American science policy, whose predominantly intellectual approach remains anchored to a positivist and reductionist vision of scientific knowledge and the concept of neutral objectivity in scientific regulation: an ideology that is crystallised in the expression "science speaks truth to power". (5)

Sheila Jasanoff, born in Calcutta but educated in the United States has taught Science and Technology Studies at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University since 1998, after having worked for many years at Cornell University where she founded the first department of Science & Technology Studies.
In more than twenty years of constant scientific production the author has incessantly questioned the implications that a constructivist vision brings to a contemporary liberal democratic society, where scientific knowledge becomes the principal, most accredited, legitimate and legitimating source for providing a cognitive background to juridical norms. (6)

This work has become in time more and more systematic: from the recognition of how knowledge inspires norms, to the practices that transform sources of knowledge acquisition into normative sources, to the complex process of the translation between descriptive and prescriptive languages. This systemitisation is apparent in the pages of "Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States", providing a passage through state's powers in its various relationships with science.

In 1990, with "The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers", (7) Sheila Jasanoff had already started to examine the world of regulatory science (science constructed and predisposed for normative intentions), (8) analysing the political role of experts and the political dimensions hidden within the apparent technicality and neutrality of scientific expertise, in the activities of the principal American regulatory agencies.
Starting in the nineteen seventies, together with the confirmation of new technologies, the administrations with techno-scientific competence began to proliferate and acquire an ever growing importance in the regulation of science in the US. In particular The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have taken an active role in the definition of public politics in taking responsibility for health and the environment. But this role, even though obviously political, is presented and has constantly been justified using the characteristic objectivity and certainty of science, that has become a potent element of legitimisation in administrative activity and policy.

Science at the Bar: Law Science and Technology published in 1995 was the second book that Jasanoff dedicated to the relationship between science and norms and the first translated into Italian. (9)Here the analysis of the relationship between science and law directly investigated the sector most characterised by orders of common law, the judicial system. Through the analysis of numerous judicial cases, that cover a large part of the history of environmental protection, bioethics and the newly created biotechnologies in the United States, the author re-constructs the logical line followed by the American courts from the nineteen seventies through to the nineteen nineties to explain the relationship between science and society. The analysis of the different judiciary intervention phases in techno science illustrates the confrontation between the normative dimensions of epistemology and the epistemological dimensions of law. This analysis starts at the turn of the twentieth century and the initial deference that law had in relation to science (10) and arrives at the appropriation on the part of the judges of the process of the validation of scientific knowledge used within the judiciary system, motivated by the codifiable objectivity of scientific method (11). The American courts have been able to both de-construct knowledge and scientific method as well as to re-affirm the importance of the right of science as a fundamental instrument for social choice, drawing their own decision making autonomy through the application of different forms of pressure (from government agencies and legislative power, industry, individuals and associations) and re-affirming their role as representing citizens and civil society. What the American judges have not known how to do is to apply this method to themselves, neither gaining consciousness of the value judgements implicit in juridical notions nor demonstrating a greater auto reflexivity in respect to the politicization of their own institutional role.

(more on april 28 [5])


1. See S. Jasanoff, G. Markle, J. Petersen, T. Pinch (eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA 1995; D.J. Hess, Science Studies, an advanced introduction, New York University Press, New York - London 1997. (back to text)
2.T. Gieryn, Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1999. (back to text)
3. This language shift which is also conceptual has happened also within the European Commission, which has thus changed the denomination of its relevant research sector: http://ec.europa.eu/research/science-society/ [6] (back to text)
4. See T. Porter, Trust in Numbers, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 1995; I. Hacking, The Social Construction of What?, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 1999; K. Knorr-Cetina, Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make the Knowledge, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 1999. (back to text)
5. "Technoscience" is used when one wishes to stress the link between scientific research and technological applications. (back to text)
6. A. Wildavsky, Speaking Truth to Power, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, MA 1979. (back to text)
7. S. Jasanoff, 'Is Science Socially Constructed -And Can It Still Inform Public Policy?', in Science and Engineering Ethics 2, 1996, pp.263-276; 'Beyond Epistemology: Relativism and Engagement in the Politics of Science', in Social Studies of Science 1996, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 393-418. (back to text)
8. S. Jasanoff, The Fifth Branch. Science Advisers as Policymakers, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 1990. (back to text)
9. S. Jasanoff, 'Procedural Choices in Regulatory Science', in Risk: Health Safety & Environment, 4, 1993, pp. 143-161, http://www.piercelaw.edu/risk/vol4/spring/jasanoff.htm [7]. (back to text)
10. S. Jasanoff, Science at the Bar, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 1995, ed. it. a cura di M. Tallacchini, La scienza davanti ai giudici, Giuffrè, Milano 2001. (back to text)
11. This is the socalled Frye standard - from the case Frye v. United States, 1923. Following this standard, in order to establish which is the valid science in scientific controversy, the judges should stick to the "generally accepted" knowledge of scientific community ('sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs').

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Sheila Jasanoff
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