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Home > Focus > The Politics of Science and the re-definition of democracy (part 2)

The Politics of Science and the re-definition of democracy (part 2)

by Mariachiara Tallacchini [1], 28 April 2008

(Mariachiara Tallacchini [2] offers here an introduction to Jasanoff's STS approach - ...continues from the previous entry [3]).

...
In her more recent and complex work, published in the United States in 1995 with the title Design on nature the author turns her gaze upon the politics that have accompanied and distinguished the history of bio-technology, thus entering the legislative space and the politics of ethics and law; and completing, in a certain sense an ideal trilogy on dialogue between science and institutions (after having investigated the administrative and regulatory level and the planning and construction of new laws through the workings of the courts) .
The thing that really distinguishes Design on nature from the previous works is the comparative dimension, that not only extends the perspective from the United States context to the European Union, Great Britain and Germany, but above all reveals the most important key to reading the dynamic relationship between techno science and democracy, through an epistemological and normative comparison - trans-national and trans-cultural. Biotechnologies - which represent the first real case of a globalised but at the same time differentiated project - become the litmus test for the evaluation of the actual democracy of some of the most important "citizens' rights states".
The more subtle intention of Sheila Jasanoff's comparative method is to demonstrate how society and culture differ, and are only superficially united by the presumed universality of scientific knowledge and related technological applications. In fact, they elaborate their own peculiar forms of collective legitimization of technosientific and social innovation processes, which are difficult to export to other societies and cultures. Each of the countries described by the author is guided by its own vision that profoundly influences their receptive and re-elaborative characteristics, their refusal, acceptance or mediation processes with respect to bio technology and products. And in measuring oneself with a techno science that is rhetorically presented as uniform, everyone compares themselves to their own history, the successes and traumas, the definition and re-definition of their own identity.
The case of the European community plays a particular role within this peculiar comparison. The European Communities later united in the European Union are entities without a pre existing and definite identity, and the only ones that have tried to construct themselves and their own recognizable epistemological knowledge precisely through the biotechnology argument. For Europe, biotechnologies represent the possibility to overcome the limits of its own economic restrictions and to acquire the physiology of a citizenship-based community (polity). The realization of this passage is rendered instable by many contradictions. It has been conceptually entrusted to an ethically certified model of techno science, in which the control of the moral values implied by the choice of biotechnological development must symbolically represent the judgement (and consent) of all European citizens. The paradox of this strategy is double: on the one hand the values of all European citizens are expressed through committees of "ethical experts", on the other the "European Citizen" whose values are evoked is being forged at the very same time as the values that should represent them.
The sophisticated conceptual baggage that Sheila Jassanoff introduces and uses in her analysis arrives from many disciplinary sectors. The theoretical framework of the comparison links languages, themes and contexts unusual for jurists and policy experts: terms such as co-production; framework, here meant as a frame, a scheme or a conceptual framework; boundaries, the confines and demarcation criteria that define subjects, objects and knowledge; narratives, the narration, the master narratives and the universally known and unconsciously accepted rhetoric that accompanies and facilitates the consolidation of premises and assumptions that remain implicit in scientific, social and political choices.
The "power to define" of contexts , and of the meaning of new technologies, is at the base of a more general comprehension of the author's comparative work. Each country or judicial-political order is motivated by its own narration, comprehension and pre-comprehension of bio-technology, a Gestalt that becomes the constant reference point for successive dynamics. The framing of new bio-medic and agriculture or food technology as "products" or "processes" for example can only be explained within a historical, socio-cultural and normatively specific context. The different classification schemes for these new technologies cannot therefore represent the exercising of a universal and abstract reasoning. Biotechnologies are predominantly directed and fixed by narrations which, being organized in thematic plots, make credible and acceptable the normative positions and the strategic collocations that different countries find themselves adopting in the pursuit of their own strategies of development.
The concept of "co-production" merits particular attention, and although having been used by other STS authors, it has become in Jasanoff's case the symbol of her work and the essential key for the comprehension of the relationship between science and social order (12). According to the coproduction point of view science and all other systems involved in the construction of rules of social co-existence are involved in a game of creation, systemization, semantic sedimentation and stratification, in which descriptive and normative elements merge into one another.
Seen like this, science is a dynamic social institution, working within a definition of order that is at the same time epistemological and social. In the same way, law and politics do not find themselves in a passive receptive position in respect to science, but in one of intentional creativity: both use and modify scientific knowledge according to their own needs, establishing with great freedom what is legally relevant science, which experts are credible and how scientific data should be interpreted. The result is a mobile process, on one side an understanding of the normative context is necessary for the comprehension of the science, on the other science is the source of a lot of normative and institutional innovation.
But the language of coproduction, as interpreted by the author, acquires an extra dimension. Within the theoretical frame of STS, which tends to avoid explicit normative positions, Sheila Jasanoff uses the perspective of coproduction as a tool of self-reflexive analysis of socio-political choices. In particular, Jasanoff opens up to a conscious critique epistemological and value assumptions, which, tacitly informed upon specific juridical, scientific or political options, become "black box" in which knowledge and power sustain each other and become unquestionable.
The coproduction method is therefore used as an opening tool and a democratic guarantee. In the relationship between science and society it requests that science is authorized to speak in an authoritative way, but does not have the power to make absolute or final pronunciations, as this right belongs to society. Even though the languages composing social discourse are not all equivalent in terms of their methodological validity, they need to confront each other in a pluralistic way in terms of their social credibility. The coproduction analysis leads to a re-construction of hierarchy inspired by the values of democracy (13): intending democracy here not as the prevalence of a majority but instead as a fluid behaviour of daily experimentation that tends not to accept any language as authoritative (not even that of science) without subjecting it to public valutation and reflection (14).
In this context we find Jasanoff's attention for "civic epistemology", the amalgamation of conscience and practice that orient life and the choices of citizens and which the politic of science should take ever more seriously. After having abandoned - generally and at least at a theoretical level - the idea that the public is subject to "irrational fear" or mere "pre-conceptions" about biotechnology, and the inevitable recipient of educational campaigns about misunderstood scientific knowledge, the countries that are active in co-involvement have not yet fully used the potential contribution of citizen knowledge, whose role still remains marginal and instrumentalized.
It would certainly have been interesting to re-construct the Italian case within this comparative framework, above all through the eyes of an author that has crossed borders and cultures in many worlds. This work is entrusted to the reader, who can project Jassanoff's reflections upon the Italian picture. But if one could speculate about the image that Jassanoff would present about the relationship between science, politics and society in Italy, the importance of the conceptual and critical lens that the author gives us would remain evident.
This analytical perspective can be seen as an indispensable intellectual and social resource to look at science at democracy and at their relationship in our country in a more reflexive way; a useful resource for the elaboration of a conscience and a public debate in which, regardless of the different positions, the intellectual and civic quality of our naratives become purified and refined.


Note

12. S. Jasanoff (ed.), States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order, Routledge, London-New York 2004. (back to text)
13. A. Irwin, B. Wynne (eds.), Misunderstanding science? The public reconstruction of science and technology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA 1996; S. Jasanoff, 'Beyond Epistemology: Relativism and Engagement in the Politics of Science', in Social Studies of Science 1996, 2, pp. 393-418; H. Nowotny, P. Scott, G. Michael, Rethinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty, Polity Press, London 2001. (back to text)
14. Cfr. B. Wynne et alii, Scienza e governance. La società europea della conoscenza presa sul serio, Rubbettino, Cosenza 2008. (back to text)

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