March 20, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

The co-production confusion

The word co-production is used a lot around me. However, the situation is quite confusing. Upstairs, in the public policy corridor, it is used in one way; downstairs, in the Science and Technology Studies (STS) corridor, it’s used in another way. So I set out to get to the bottom of this confusion. But of course, as Feynman famously said about something completely different: “There is plenty of room at the bottom” – so I won’t be able to cover all the fine nuances and meanings swirling around the word co-production. There are also related words to take into account, such as co-design and co-creation, but I’ll ignore those today.

I’ll start at the beginning with the prefix ‘co-‘ and how its meanings are defined in the Oxford English Dictionary. Then I’ll do the same for co-production itself. After that I’ll present the relatively easy meaning of co-production in public policy; then the more challenging meaning of co-production in STS.

Co – the prefix in the Oxford English Dictionary

According to the OED, this prefix is of Latin origin. “In Latin the preposition com- (which as a separate word was written in classical Latin cum) was shortened to co- before vowels and h […] co- has come in English to be a living formative, the use of which is no longer restricted to words beginning with a vowel, but extended to all words of analogous kinds, including native English or other words, as well as those from Latin. The general sense is ‘together’, ‘in company’, ‘in common’, ‘joint, -ly’, ‘equal, -ly’, ‘reciprocally’, ‘mutually’.” (Italics added)

Interestingly, the OED also points out that this prefix “occurs also as a variant form of words of Latin origin or type, where the regular form is com-, con-, cor-: e.g. co-centric, co-natural, co-numerary”. One of the most prolific users of this type of co- was somebody called Bishop Ken, who also used co-produce for the first time. “co-produce  v. a 1711   T. Ken Hymnotheo (1721) III. 370   The great Terraqueous System [to] co-produce”. The Thesaurus description alongside this entry says: “the external world » abstract properties » creation » [verb (transitive)] » mutually or at the same time”. This again is interesting, as we have moved away from the meaning of ‘co’ as ‘together’, ‘in company’, ‘in common’, ‘joint, -ly’, ‘equal, -ly’, ‘reciprocally’, ‘mutually’” to mutually or AT THE SAME TIME. As we shall see, the focus of the STS meaning is on ‘at the same time’ while the focus in public policy is on ‘jointly’.

Co-production in the Oxford English Dictionary

This entry is quite short with only a few attestations. The meaning of the word is given as: “A joint production; the process or result of financing the production of (or, more rarely, of producing) something, esp. a film or television programme, jointly by two or more organizations, often from different countries; a film, etc., so produced.” Co-production as joint production was first used in 1959 in the context of the film industry.

This meaning of co-production was recently acknowledged by the STS scholar Sheila Jasanoff in an interview for Future Earth, when she saidWell, I think it’s important to distinguish two versions of co-production – the Science and Technology Studies one and the commonsensical one. I distinguish what I mean by co-production from what I jokingly refer to as Miramax co-production, the kind you see referred to when the film credits roll.” She did not talk about the public policy meaning (which is also overlooked by the OED) and to which I come now.

Co-production in public policy and public services

Co-production in public policy is a concept that has direct semantic links with collaboration and is rooted in the joint production sense of co-production. There is some overlap with the STS concept in some of its incarnations through a focus on publics and participation. However, what matters to public policy people using this word is social partnership and joint governance. The concept was first used “in the late 1970s by Elinor Ostrom and colleagues at Indiana University to explain why neighbourhood crime rates went up in Chicago when the city’s police officers retreated from the beat into cars” (Wikipedia). Ostrom and others recognised that public services “rely as much upon the unacknowledged knowledge, assets and efforts of service ‘users’ as the expertise of professional providers” (there are some synergies here with STS concerns).

A 2007 article by Tony Bovaird encapsulates the public policy meaning of co-production quite well. It states that “In recent years, there has been a radical reinterpretation of the role of policy making and service delivery in the public domain. Policy making is no longer seen as a purely top-down process but rather as a negotiation among many interacting policy systems. Similarly, services are no longer simply delivered by professional and managerial staff in public agencies but are coproduced by users and their communities.” Some “authors emphasize the participatory dynamics inherent in the definition of the term ‘governance’ by referring to ‘hybrid governance’ and ‘co-governance’”. (This might also be of interest, published on 1 January, 2019)

Co-production in Science and Technology Studies

In STS co-production has a quite different meaning, which is not recorded in the OED and which doesn’t seem to be linked to the public services meaning. As I said above, there are semantic links between the two senses of the word established through reference to publics and participation made by both groups of users of the concept. Of course, when used in the context of STS, the concept of co-production also focuses much more on science and technology than the public services meaning.

According to Sheila Jasanoff, who, alongside many other seminal STS researchers, helped to establish the concept in the STS sense, co-production refers to the fact 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. […] Scientific knowledge [..] both embeds and is embedded in social practices, identities, norms, conventions, discourses, instruments and institutions (Jasanoff, 2004: 2-3). She also distinguishes between ‘constitutive co-production’ and ‘interactional co-production’. ‘Interactional’, again, does not mean collaborative; the concept focuses on emergence and change of practices and institutions related to science and politics.

What it all means, I think, is that there is always a political side to science and technology and that society and science shape each other — ‘mutually and at the same time’, but not necessarily through ‘collaboration’. Think about the first hominid to invent fire. Knowing how to make fire became much more than knowing how to make fire; it entailed knowledge about how to wield power; it changed material and social environments and created new ways of living, new types of society. And so it has been with science and society ever since. We make and change the world we live in in terms of creating the environments we live in through advances in science and technology and – at the same time – we create ways of living in these environments in an orderly fashion (by creating governments, laws, norms, institutions), for good or for ill.

While the public policy meaning of co-production focuses on participatory governance or co-governance, the STS concept of co-production is used to subject such processes to critical scrutiny, especially when science and scientists get involved in what has been called regulatory science.

A mingling of meanings

In the context of an increasing convergence between disciplines, of more and more collaborations between natural and social scientists on large research projects, and of growing imperatives for publics to participate in research design, practice and policy, it is not surprising that the two clusters of meanings around co-production collide, converge and to some extent fuse together, thus creating some confusion.

One can find, for example, people using co-production as meaning ‘making things together’ or even ‘making music together’, while still referring to Jasanoff’s work. An example is this assessment of collaborations between natural and social scientists in the context of genomics: “Practitioners from various disciplines must balance many different interests in order to pursue knowledge co-production (Jasanoff, 1987, 2004). Yet, before knowledge co-production will sound like ‘making music together’, to use a famous metaphor (Schütz, 1964; Luckmann, 2008), more must be accomplished than just balancing interests. Shared concepts of collaboration need to be developed that function as common denominators, just as the accentuated backbeat and the melody motif work together in a good rock tune.”

Interestingly, the music metaphor of co-production is linked to the work of Alfred Schütz who, in 1965, wrote an article entitled ‘Making Music Together’ in which he literally studied how musicians and audiences ‘tune into each other’. Schütz taught Luckmann and Berger, whose book, “The Social Construction of Reality“, has influenced the social sciences enormously, including, I would think, the social constructivist framing of co-production in STS.


Where does this leave us? Basically, there are two communities divided by a common language, namely the public policy and public services community whose work is grounded in a literature that is quite different to STS, and the STS community who rarely make reference to the public policy and public services literature. In between we have a wide stretch of conceptual space where the two senses of co-production cross-fertilise each other and coalesce sometimes with other concepts such as collaboration, co-design and co-creation. It is my impression that when the STS concept of co-production is used in practice or in the context of empirical analyses, it tends to shade into the public services meaning. This hunch needs, of course, to be followed up by some empirical research….


I’d like to thank Sophie Richardson, who first made me aware of the public services meaning of co-production, and Eleanor Hadley Kershaw for our chats about co-production… (and here is Eleanor’s thesis on the topic)

Added, 8 October 2019: Good 2018 academic article by Clarke A. Miller and Carina Wyborn @rini_rants about all this here HT @jlehtoma

Image: Armenien weavers in Van, 1907

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