Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2003


Technology and Risk: Public Perception and Social Assessment

Course cancelled

Lecturer: Professor Brian Wynne,
Centre for Science Studies,
Lancaster University, UK

Main disciplines: Technology and Innovation Studies,
Political Science, Sociology
Dates: 4. - 8. August 2003


Objectives
This course will attempt to examine the ways in which human dimensions of science and technology are understood and represented in contemporary processes of conflict, debate and decision-making about new technologies like genetic manipulation and genomics in agricultural and health domains. It will therefore provide sociological and anthropological perspectives on scientific and other representations of nature and environment as the field of intervention in nature by modern science and technology.

The issue of risk has become a defining feature of modern society's encounters with such problems, after the work of such theorists as Beck and Giddens. Technology has been examined as a social entity by the field of social studies of science and technology, defining scientific knowledge and technological paradigms as fundamentally similar instrumental cultures. This course will therefore examine risk as a modern 'scientific' discourse of social and environmental assessment of technology. It will analyse this multifaceted scientific discourse sociologically, so as to expose various social and human commitments and contingencies shaping these 'regulatory' sciences, and proceed to ask what are the consequences and implications of the widespread attempts in recent years to make such sciences more participatory, transparent and accountable to public stakeholders and citizens.

This sociological analysis of 'risk' knowledges will lead on to an examination of the roles of 'lay' perceptions of 'risk' in relation to scientific expert knowledge in modern conflicts about technologies like nuclear power and genetic technologies. This will then be extended globally, into analysis of the relationships between indigenous and scientific knowledges in development contexts and in the increasingly globalised networks of knowledge and commercialization which are occurring over biodiversity and bio-prospecting. This includes the attempts to document and data-base indigenous knowledges of nature as ways of protecting them and giving them ownership rights over products derived form such knowledge which has often been openly public and social, contextual knowledge, not subject to control by property-ownership cultures.

One can therefore define this course as a sociology of knowledge approach to understanding the roles of modern science in a globalising world, and understanding better the problems involved in rendering those sciences more democratically accountable and legitimate.

Seminar discussions may include issues such as:


Outline of Lectures

Note! The following classification of required and supplementary readings is prelimiary and will be revised shortly.

Lecture 1: An Introductory Overview - Views of Technology and Science as Historical Processes
This, introductory overview will describe the views of science and technology as deterministic, thus shaping and confining the dominant view of the overall problem of 'social control of technology'. The 'social construction of technology' perspective will then be compared with this, and the relations between these and views of science as a historical process will be analysed, for example through the work of Merton and co-workers, and the post-Kuhnian sociology of scientific knowledge, as well as the Frankfurt critical theory associated with Habermas and Marcuse.

Required readings:

Supplementary reading:


Lecture 2: Environment and Risk as Critical Discourses of Science and Technology
This lecture presents a classification of concepts of risk, and discusses the role of risk assessments in the study of the environment, with reference to technological change and social learning.

Required readings:

Supplementary reading:


Lecture 3: Technology as Society - what is involved?
This lecture discusses the role of technology in society: notions of rationality emerging from technology, how technological development is embedded in social developments, and the limits and possibilities of technology assessment.

Required readings

Supplementary readings:


Lecture 4: Framing Risk as a Social Assessment Discourse: technocracy or democracy?

Required readings:

Supplementary readings:


Lecture 5: Uncertainty and Risk as Science : the conundrum of ignorance and unpredictability
This lecture discusses how risk is framed in social assessment discourses. What are the relative impacts of the forces of technocracy and democracy?

Required readings:

Supplementary reading:


Lecture 6: Understanding Public Risk Perceptions (i) psychometric approaches
This lecture provide an overview of psychometric approaches to the understanding of how risk is perceived in the public sphere.

Required readings:


Lecture 7: Understanding Public Risk Perceptions (ii) cultural and sociological approaches
This lecture provide an overview of cultural and sociological approaches to the understanding of how risk is perceived in the public sphere.

Required readings:

Supplementary readings:


Lecture 8: Indigenous Knowledges and Modern Science as Understanding Nature: what is involved?
The first part of this lecture reviews our understanding of the ways in which scientific environmental knowledge represents nature, and then compares this with encounters with what is often called indigenous knowledge of nature. Many situations in which environmentalquestions and risks have been encountered involve interactions between modern forms of scientific environmental knowledge, and what are variously called, 'lay', 'local' or 'indigenous' knowledges. Some of these have been dealt with in passing by this stage of the course. But it is valuable to address the question more systematically, if far too briefly in only one session: what are the relationships understood to be between scientific and other ways of understanding and dealing with environmental processes and threats?

A key issue here is the extent to which it is valid to think of our (or others') knowledge of nature and environment as separable from the context of social and technical practices and relationships in which they are developed and used, or as an integrated dimension of their practical cultural context. If the latter is true, then this may present interesting problems to do with how transferable and standardisable we think environmental knowledge can be, or perhaps, what are the conditions required to make it so?

Required Readings (scientific environmental knowledge):

Required Readings (indigenous knowledge):

Supplementary readings (scientific environmental knowledge):

Supplementary readings (indigenous knowledge):


Lecture 9: Indigenous Knowledges as Modern Resources - the documentation-databasing of indigenous knowledge, and 'indigenous participation'?
This lecture disucsses - using primarily case study material - how indigenous knowledges may function as resources for modern environmental risk assessment.

Required readings:

Supplementary readings:


Lecture 10: Environmental Risks and Modernity - "Risk Society"?
The notion that modern society has become a 'risk society' because of its ever-intensifying dependency on the material exploitation of nature (and other humans) through science and technology, was first advanced by Ulrich Beck in 1986, and has become almost a defining discourse of current society and academic debate, not only over risk and environmental issues. After a more global excursions into the forms of encounter between modern and traditional knowledges of nature and environment, and of our ways of understanding these, we return to some questions which I will have aired in the first session, about the historical meanings of 'risk' and 'environment'.

We particularly focus here on how these potent terms have been institutionally 'domesticated' and given quite channelled meanings, which may not adequately capture the much wider range of meanings which wider society variably wishes to give the experiences and events and relationships to which they are thought to refer. The big question of reflexivity, and whether - and if so how? - social institutions can exercise it, is addressed in this session, along with critical examination of the Risk Society/Reflexive Modernisation thesis, and of the big if elusive issue of power.

This final session may also discuss various articles which describe just how much more variable and multidimensional the meanings of 'risk' can be, depending on the context. This suggests questions - which we should have opened up already through the other sessions and case-studies - about how the discourse of risk, including scientific discourses of risk, may also act as a cultural vehicle for communicating other kinds of concern and meaning beyond the direct meaning being apparently expressed. The nature of this issue, especially under increasingly globalised economic and political conditions, is worth examination.

Required readings:

Supplementary readings:


The Lecturer
Brian Wynne is Professor of Science Studies, Research Director of the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change and Chair of the Centre for Science Studies at Lancaster University. He has a degree in Natural Sciences (1968) and Ph.D. in materials science (1971), both from Cambridge University, and a M.Phil. in Sociology of Science (1977) from Edinburgh University.

Brian's work has covered technology and risk assessment, and public risk perceptions, focusing especially on the relationships between expert risk knowledge, public and other 'non-expert' knowledge, and policy decision making. Amongst many other publications he has published a book about the 1977 Windscale Inquiry into the THORP nuclear reprocessing facility proposal, and another comparing interactions between technical and institutional factors in hazardous wastes management in several countries. He has also conducted several European studies of implementation of public information requirements under the 1982 'Seveso' Directive on major industrial risks. Recent books include Misunderstanding Science?, edited with Alan Irwin. He is currently completing a major text entitled 'Risk Reflexivity and Representation', to be published later this year.

In 1981 Brian was Visiting Scientist at the EEC Research Centre, Ispra Italy, and in 1983-84 he was leader of the risk programme at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg Austria.

Brian has been a consultant on risk and related issues for amongst others, the UK government, OECD, EEC, UN, and Greenpeace UK, and until recently was a member of the Management Board of the European Environment Agency.