September 14, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Handmaidens and plumbers: The role of the humanities and social sciences in modern academic life

A few days ago I attended a student-organised conference on interdisciplinarity, Enquire, held at the School of Sociology and Social Policy here in Nottingham. Professor Alison Pilnick, a specialist in doctor-patient interaction and conversation analysis, gave a keynote lecture in which she explored some of the pitfalls of working between disciplines. In her conclusions she said: “Don’t just turn up with the sociological toolkit to patch over the leak”. Two days later I read a wonderful article by Martin Willis on curiosity, the humanities, the sciences and interdisciplinarity in the THE, where he dissects an address David Willets gave to the British Academy in 2011 and says: “What is clear in his speech is that the humanities are presently positioned as a handmaiden to the sciences, offering titbits of insight that scientific knowledge-makers transform into utility.”

So there we have two models of ‘interdisciplinarity’, one where the humanities and social sciences are ‘plumbers’ and one where they are ‘handmaidens’. I focus here on their role as plumbers and will examine this metaphor with respect to two (plumbing) ‘models’: the deficit model of public understanding of science and the subordination-service model of the social sciences in interdisciplinary collaborations with the natural sciences.

The deficit model and the conduit model

The so-called ‘deficit model’ has been discussed in the social sciences and has increasingly infiltrated science policy thinking (see a recent example here) since the end of the 1990s. Within this model social scientists are supposed to plug holes (deficits) in public understanding of science and make science (or the science/technology/innovation pipeline) run more smoothly from inception to adoption. “According to the ‘deficit model’ of public understanding of science”, wrote Steve Miller and Jane Gregory in 1998, “the scientific community is the source – and, by and large, the censor – of the information that is transmitted in a one-way stream to the public.” In the process of this pipeline engineering of science communication, some other leaks are supposed to be plugged as well, most importantly the loss of public trust in science. Public trust is ‘repaired’.

This linear model of science communication and science-policy interaction is supposed to be outdated, but it still lingers; it might even be on the verge of a revival in the context of the impact agenda. It is linked to a model of communication that Michael Reddy dubbed ‘the conduit model’ of communication in 1979. Ideas or thoughts are filled into words as containers which are then transported between people. Information transfer is entirely passive and transparent. This is quite unlike actual communication where speakers and hearers actively engage in making sense and where meaning is not ‘transmitted’ and ‘extracted’ (or siphoned off), but jointly constructed in context. And one should also add that in this process trust can emerge but is not easily ‘engineered’.

As Miller and Gregory pointed out with relation to science communication: “The contextual approach, on the other hand [as opposed to the deficit model], tries to take account of the particular circumstances of the recipients of scientific information and of their existing knowledge and beliefs. […]. No matter how straightforward the science, the recipient of the communication will be a complex human being whose background, beliefs, and sensibilities play a large part in their reactions to scientific knowledge.”

In line with studying the deficit model from a plumbing perspective, one could also discuss various models of ‘knowledge transfer’, which argue for ‘two way exchanges’ and dialogue but are still mainly rooted in one-way pipeline and plumbing models of communication. Of course, this also applies to some ‘translation’ models of innovation. And one can ask: Is so-called ‘responsible innovation’ becoming a new plumbing model? I hope to learn more about this concept at a forthcoming lecture by Richard Jones (and be proven wrong)!

The subordination-service model

In 2001 Jane Calvert published a working paper in which she explored interdisciplinary interactions within systems biology. She pointed out, quoting Barry (2008), that one can distinguish between an ‘integrative-synthesis’ mode of interdisciplinarity and a ‘subordination-service’ mode. Her example of the latter mode is that of computer science which can be seen as performing a service to biology (although other forms of collaboration between biology and computer science are of course possible, as exemplified by the work of Natalio Krasnagor here at the University of Nottingham).

However, I believe that the subordination-service model, or the plumbing model of interdisciplinarity, is better exemplified by various social sciences providing services to disciplines and ‘interdisciplines’, such as synthetic biology, bioenergy etc. Within such initiatives, social scientists are sometimes expected to deal with ‘leaks’ in the form of ethical, legal, social issues or ELSIs, that may affect the acceptance of emerging technologies and their commercial viability. Social scientists are nowadays even expected to fix such leaks before they occur. This is sometimes called ‘upstream engagement’ or, if that cannot be achieved, they are supposed to manage the consequences of the ‘downstream’ consequences of science and technology for society. Opportunities for plumbing and water engineering abound!

In response to such developments some social scientists have published a manifesto as part of a recent meeting entitled ‘Synthetic biology and the social sciences’. This group of social scientists (including Paul Martin, who is involved in our Leverhulme project) expressed disquiet about some of the expectations that surround their work, where various forms of plumbing replace real and complex collaborations. They noted that “ELSI is not working for us”, as this model of collaboration between the natural and social scientists still relies on “dividing up responsibility of the technical and social along lines of natural and social sciences”, whereas they “see them as deeply intertwined”. ‘Intertwined’ does not easily map onto ‘plumbing’, just as the complexity of human communication does not easily map onto ‘conduit’.

For the love of leaks

In this brief blog post I can’t explore all the issues opened up by inspecting the plumbing metaphor suggested by Alison Pilnick. I want, however, to make a plea for leaks. My love of leaks is grounded in my understanding of language. For centuries philosophers and scientists bemoaned the imperfections of language, its meanderings and semantic leaks, and wanted to fix this by introducing a leak-proof perfect language, until, in the 19th century, linguists from across Europe and the United States, most importantly, Whitney, Bréal and Wegener, found that language only works and, most importantly, evolves, because it is imperfect, because it leaks. This is, I think, also true for the processes of scientific discovery, communication and collaboration. They only work because they leak and we sometimes have to embrace these leaks rather than wanting to fix them.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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