Sheila Sen Jasanoff (*1944) is a foundational figure in Science and Technology Studies (STS). The STS wiki project regards her as ‘perhaps the single most important early contributor to incorporating the study of law, policy, and politics in STS’. Her work has also had a significant impact on risk theory and risk governance, particularly in Europe. Jasanoff regards societies’ relationships to science and technology as one of the key defining features of our time (2004a). In her work, she traces the co-production of scientific knowledge and decision-making, particularly within institutions and through policy. Her focus on co-production is placed against the search for a singular truth and draws attention to the way different institutional set-ups and participation models, for instance, in different countries, produce different regulatory responses. Jasanoff calls this process ‘civic epistemologies’ (2005). In addition, her work emphasises the emergence of new institutions in the wake of new events and constellations (2004a).
For instance, her concept of ‘technologies of humility’ acknowledges the limits of knowledge and control in the process of decision making (e.g. on potential ‘risks’) and the inherent normativities in any system that might pose obstacles. She argues that such a perspective necessitates a redistribution of expertise among traditional decision-makers (experts, policy makers) and other publics. The contingency of knowledge and the amorphous nature of risk, in combination with the relative fixity of practices, also affects for her what sort of questions we can ask. An example is climate change, a global issue of which we only have limited knowledge and which presents a serious challenge to our existing frameworks (2010). For these ‘experiments without borders’, Jasanoff argues, new ‘forums without borders’ are needed that are able to include a ‘multiplicity of voices’ (2006; 2014).
To face such challenges, Jasanoff proposes to orient the search for ‘technologies of humility’ around four ‘focal points’, which she describes as ‘framing, vulnerability, distribution, and learning’ and that translate into questions such as ‘what is the purpose; who will be hurt; who benefits; and how can we know?’ (2003: 240). These can help move beyond narrow ways of dealing with issues. In a 2014 interview on the Future Earth blog Jasanoff explains and distinguishes between different levels of co-production:
“You might think of weak co-production as people sitting round a table to produce robust knowledge that is more useful, more robust, because people will buy into it, because they’ve already bought into the making of it. But in strong co-production you are not just constructing a representation of the world as it is, but also concurrently a representation of the world as you want it to be in various ways.”
Sheila Jasanoff has sometimes been criticised for overemphasising epistemology (how we know) over ontology (what things are), since ontology is such a strong interest of STS despite its reality-destabilising project (e.g. actor network theory’s investment in ‘nonhuman’ and ‘things’). While admitting to an emphasis on epistemology, Jasanoff has also suggested that ‘my co-production is much more about ontology (what a thing is) and norms (how things ought to be) than about knowledge – though of course you need the knowledge as well. What I say is that we have co-production of science and social order, of is and ought.’ Rather than lacking in occupation with ontology, it could be said that Jasanoff’s work urges us to examine how ontologies, including those from within science and technology studies, are politically and culturally produced. Further, it demands of us to take the limitations of our culturally and politically produced differences into account when dealing with decisions on new phenomena and creations that transcend human borders, temporalities and concepts.
Jasanoff, Sheila (2003) ‘Technologies of Humility: Citizen Participation in Governing Science‘ Minerva 41: 223–244.
Jasanoff, Sheila (2005) Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
Jasanoff, Sheila (2006) Experiments Without Borders: Biology in the Labs of Life (LSE Lecture from 15 June 2006)
Jasanoff, Sheila (2010) A New Climate for Society. Theory, Culture & Society 27 (2-3).
Jasanoff, Sheila (1986) Risk Management and Political Culture (New York: Russell Sage Foundation).
Jasanoff, Sheila (1990) The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Jasanoff, Sheila (1995) Science at the Bar: Law, Science, and Technology in America, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Jasanoff, Sheila and Long Martello, Marybeth (2004) Earthly Politics: Local and Global in Environmental Governance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
How does Sheila Jasanoff view institutions and decision-making processes?
Discuss a recent controversy around a new technology or science with regard to 1) who was called upon as ‘expertise’, 2) whether new models of decision-making were trialled or called for, 3) whether it called previous knowledge or societal boundaries into question.
Science and Technology study is know for its challenge to the notion of a ‘singular truth’. How does Sheila Jasanoff’s work compare with other approaches, for instance with Donna Haraway’s notion of the ‘modest witness’?
If you were a policy-maker, how would you make use of Sheila Jasanoff’s ideas?
How does Sheila Jasanoff’s work provoke questions about globalisation and the global distribution of expertise?
Submitted by Angela Last