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  • Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy
  • Sheila Jasanoff (bio)
Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy. By Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009. Pp. 288. $35.

For years, the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) has been saddled with a reputation for empirical narrowness and lack of theoretical ambition. Preoccupied mainly with practices in labs and clinics, STS scholars—according to their critics—have shied away from challenging political questions, preferring the small canvas and empirical focus of object-centered case studies. While this approach produces sometimes brilliant accounts of things as they are, it does little to illuminate alternative visions of worlds as they ought to be.

Like all generalizations, this criticism of STS was never fully justified. Broad critical studies of science and technology have continued to be written, though these tend to be more the work of social historians, feminists, and students of postcolonial science than of leading European and American contributors to contemporary sociologies of science and technology. Lately, however, the wheel has turned. Prodded by recurrent debates about the future of science and technology, and by debacles such as the mad cow epidemic in Britain and the rejection of genetically modified (GM) crops across Europe, STS scholars are once again directing their attention to politics. Foremost on the agenda is the issue of democracy. How in today’s technology-saturated societies can people exercise control over futures dominated by expert knowledge grounded in the closed world of the laboratory?

This book by Michel Callon, among the most respected names in STS, and his distinguished Parisian colleagues Pierre Lascoumes and Yannick Barthe squarely addresses that question. Opening with scenes from a 1999 STS meeting in Japan, the authors focus on the consensus conference, then recently imported into Japanese debates on gene therapy, as a device for restoring the citizen’s voice in governing science and technology. What, though, is the purpose of such a procedure? Is consensus an end in itself or are deeper issues at stake? [End Page 204]

Not surprisingly, given Callon’s seminal role in developing actor-network theory and the sociology of exchanges between humans and non-humans, the authors approach the matter of democracy by breaking down conventional boundaries. The things of the lab, they argue, are no longer containable within the secluded spaces of scientific research. Physicists and engineers may design and build nuclear power plants, for example, but energy—whether released by plan or by accident—does not remain within the plant. Germs or chemicals, radioactive particles or GM crops, escape all attempts at isolation; indeed, most technological innovations are meant to circulate in society. Experiments are in this sense never purely scientific, but always social. And inasmuch as their consequences flow into everyday lives, they should be open to democratic supervision and control.

But people’s entitlement to participate is not only due to their status as unintended subjects of experimental overflows. In the book’s most original turn, lay citizens are seen as fully on a par with experts, in that they too are researchers. When misfortune strikes, such as an industrial accident or a child’s unexplained illness, it is often the victims who ask the most difficult, probing questions. They become investigators too, only their research is “in the wild”; their experience of science and technology occurs outside the lab, as elements of the entire human condition.

How should communication take place between those who conduct the “secluded research” of orthodox science and the “researchers in the wild” who seek to understand phenomena undisciplined by specific laboratory practices? The authors strongly advocate for hybrid forums in which new collaborations will form. They distinguish two kinds of democracy—deliberative and dialogic—the former designed to aggregate people in forming the general will, the latter designed to promote collaborative research, and so to explore new identities and new worlds. Dialogic forums should be particularly favored, the authors suggest, not only because they further the production of richer, more robust forms of knowledge, but also because they allow for the emergence of new social identities and collectives, thereby democratizing democracy itself.