December 3, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making concepts public: Experiments in ‘conceptual show and tell’

The ‘Making Science Public’ project subsumes nine subprojects led by people from a wide variety of disciplines, such as anthropology, geography, veterinary science, biosciences, sociology, science and technology studies and linguistics. During recent conversations and team meetings it has become clear that some concepts which have an obvious meaning for some members of our group, have no obvious meaning for others. As we are working within a ‘making science public’ project, we therefore thought that it might be a good idea to make some of the conceptual tools we use public or explicit, i.e. share them amongst each other and, through this blog, the wider community of scholars. So we all came together for one of our regular meetings, but instead of just presenting progress reports, we engaged in what we called  ‘conceptual show and tell’. What follows is a summary of notes taken by myself and Beverley Gibbs.

Geographical imaginaries

The first concept brought to the table was that of spatial or geographical imaginaries. This was chosen because in a previous meeting I had reported that a physicist, not related to the project, had told me that he had come across this concept but didn’t understand it. Spatial imaginaries are shared understandings of a particular spatiality (space and place, spatial scales, from local to global). They are cognitive frameworks but also more than that, as they structure and influence actions and have material effects. The term has been widely deployed since the cultural turn in geography and is associated with the works of Jacques Lacan and Henri LeFebvre who wrote a seminal book entitled The Production of Space which launched a more constructivist understanding of space. In the discussion one member of the team linked the term to one used in science and technology studies, namely Jasanoff’s ‘socio-technical imaginaries’ and another pointed out that the cultural turn was also important within anthropology, especially with relation to fieldwork. We then discussed further links with concepts used in the sociology of expectations (visions of the future that have impacts on material investment) and with the concept of imagined communities. In terms of science, one member of the team is using David Livingstone’s book Putting Science in its Place, because if we want to understand the process of making science public we have to know where science is carried out, as well as where people imagine science to be carried out.


The next concept that was brought along was that of post-politics, used by geographers since the turn of the millennium. This concept has its roots in continental philosophy and political theory. Historically, post-political thinking needs to be located at the nexus of the end of the Cold War and post-communism and the rise of neo-liberalism as a global enterprise. As such, it can be construed as the Lefts’ response to the resultant lack of alternative political visions. This context is particularly notable in the work of Slavoj Žižek, especially his thoughts about the ‘degeneration of the political’. The “post-” in the notion of post-politics therefore does not so point to temporality (one thing having been succeeded by another thing) but instead indicates a foreclosure of politics where politics has been supplanted by technocratic, administrative and managerial procedures. The role of scientific advice in policy making here is seen as part of such procedures. Other writings relevant to an understanding of the idea of post-politics includes Chantal Mouffe ‘s work on agonism and Erik Swyngedouw’s  on discussions of apocalyptic imaginaries in climate change debates (see spatial imaginaries above and fantasmic logic below). Both bodies of work signal a political inability to address issues of public concern without taking recourse to technological, scientific or managerial framings. Swyngedouws’ work exemplifies this particular well in relation to climate change. Here, as elsewhere in the post-political literature, public participation is seen as part of a system of technocratic management where political engagement and acting is actively foreclosed, which has important implications for one of the many meanings of ‘making science public’.

Deficit model

The third concept presented was that of the ‘deficit model’. This term was coined by social scientists criticising a rather naive view that making science more public in the sense of transferring scientific knowledge to ‘the public’ (assumed to be lacking that scientific knowledge, i.e. having a knowledge ‘deficit’) might increase public acceptance of science and increase public trust in science (the 1985 Bodmer report on the ‘public understanding of science’). Critics of this uni-directional transmission model of knowledge (or ‘deficit model’) argued that thinking about public understanding of science in this way is misguided, as the heads of those to whom knowledge or information is transmitted are neither ‘epistemically vacuous’ (I love that phrase!) (empty of knowledge) nor do they (the heads) float in a vacuum. People have all sorts of contextual and embodied knowledge that might be used (by them or indeed by others) to assess scientific claims. They also live in a variety of contexts that provide them with understandings that those supposed to transmit ‘the knowledge’ might not have. So engagement between various groups of people with various types of knowledge is better than mere ‘transmission’ of knowledge from one group to another. While this is certainly the case, one should not forget, however, that there also are gaps in knowledge on both sides of the imaginary transmission pipeline which might need to be filled with information before mutual understanding can be achieved (the mutual deficit reduction model?). In this context the tool of ‘conversation’ might be quite useful (or what others call public dialogue, engagement etc.). It was also pointed out that ‘epistemic vacuousness’ can sometimes be something that is treasured and that there can be strategic and/or political roles for ignorance (e.g. ‘epistemic closure’ as a preferred stance adopted by some on American right, for example).


The next concept to be presented was that of ‘sociology’ and an appeal was made to affirm the social in science and in politics as a means of attending to, and critiquing, the pervasive influence (now the defining context) of the market on both science and politics. The presenter of the concept made us realise that certain dates have come up in our discussion which might signal important turns in social understanding of science and vice versa, such as the 1950s and the 1980s. These ‘dates’ signal shifts in the relationship between publics and science – including social science – as well as publics and the market: shifts that are mutually constitutive of each other and may enable us to see problems of science and publics as not only specifically about the natural sciences (and also to bring in the market, potentially for critique). The post-WWII period saw the expansion of the welfare state and the founding of the NHS, public institutions underpinned by social scientific expertise, working in conjunction with state bureaucracies. This could be characterised as a period in which a social contract existed between science and the public, mediated by/with the state. From the 1980s onwards this social contract has been undermined by a policy agenda, pursued by various governments, of privatisation of public services (including the education system, universities especially) and the introduction of free market principles to many areas of the economy that had previously been regulated by the state. This led to the growth of a new, consumerist politics, in which science and policy makers now find themselves struggling to make arguments about the value of the work that they do in terms of ‘value for money’ and ‘impact’. This state of affairs has emerged since the end of the Cold War, with various social science traditions (e.g. anthropological expertise, contested by corporate interests in landmark land rights cases) becoming the first ‘targets’ for market-inspired critique in the early 1990s. Asserting the value of ‘sociology’ (defined in its broadest sense, with a small ‘s’ and synonymous with ‘social science’) as a discipline for understanding these transformations could help recover some of the conceptual ground lost to neoliberalism – a ground that, once recovered, could provide stronger foundations for understanding between science and politics. This led to a discussion of how ‘participation’ had quite different meanings in the 70s and 80s, more akin to ‘mobilisation’. Neoliberalism was another concept we discussed… but I’ll leave that out for the sake of space!


A fifth concept was that of ‘interpretation’ and in the spirit of ‘show’ and ‘tell’ we were shown a book by Dvora Yanow on ‘How Does a Policy Mean’ which has become somewhat of a bible in ‘interpretive policy analysis’, which sits between a positivist approach and a relativist approach. IPA assumes there are facts but we interpret them in different ways. What IPA doesn’t do so much is look at WHY people tell the stories they do, why they leave certain things in and leave certain things out. Alongside interpretations one should also look at practices. Glynos and Howarth – Logics of Critical Explanation – look at practices (rules, social logics and political logics). They distinguish between various types of ‘logics’, such as social, political and fantasmic. They claim that the latter type of logic is better able to explain why people get gripped by particular stories of awe and apocalypse (see apocalyptic imaginary above), for example.


And finally we came to the concept of co-production. The person who had brought the concept along had worked in an international organisation where co-production had a rather practical and instrumental meaning. It meant involving a wide range of stakeholders in a meaningful way in the work they do (also called co-design). In STS the term has a more theoretical meaning. In each context the meaning of the term has different implications in relation to the agency of those involved in processes of ‘co-production’. According to Jasanoff, co-production is the idea that ‘the ways in which we know and represent the world (both nature and society) are inseparable from the ways in which we choose to live in it’. Her book States of Knowledge focuses in particular on how knowledge-making is incorporated into state-making/governance and how practices of governance influence the making & use of knowledge (not just technology). The term is potentially useful because it allows for the production of order in nature and society ‘to be discussed in an idiom that does not… give primacy to either‘ – it therefore avoids both social and technoscientific determinism. Some in the group still needed persuading though of that usefulness, as the concept was seen as bringing together what might not actually have been apart (science, society, politics) and of being quite close to the meaning of politics. But this happens when a concept is brought to the attention of those uninitiated into a particular field of knowledge.


These are only summaries of other people’s summaries of concepts, interpretations of interpretations if you will. Whether what I have written here really encapsulates the meanings that these concepts have for those who use them in our team or for others who use them in different and overlapping disciplines is another matter. So, why is this important? The process of telling each other about some of the concepts we use brought them out of the shadows and into the light, opened them up to discussion and also set us on a path of mutual learning and, hopefully, mutual understanding. I am looking forward to further debate and also shorter blog posts on individual concepts by those who actually know them well!

Image: Converging shadows on the Downs at the University of Nottingham (Brigitte Nerlich)

Posted in interdisciplinarity