SpeakersConvenors: Christine Hauskeller, Les Levidow, Helen Wallace
EgenisUniversity of ExeterByrne HouseSt Germans RoadExeter, EX4 4PJ
Social science research on the bio-sciences has recently expanded and become more institution-nalised, nearly three decades since such inquiry had its origins in academic engagement with social movements. Meanwhile many contentious technologies have become normalised, as well as social science research on their effects, perception, evaluations, policies and governance processses. We wonder where these developments leave critical social science.
Below we list some questions we addressed at the workshop.
Questions and Themes:
Role of social scientists: How is our role seen? How do we experience our roles in various research and public settings? How do we play the role of expert, witness, distant or engaged observer, mediator (between science, politics, law, and the ‘public’), educator of these parties, member of these groups, etc? How do we see each other in this field? How do we separate (and/or link) our roles as professional, citizen and public intellectual? How does self-censorship limit our capacity to act as critical intellectuals?
Research methods: What are the normative assumptions, epistemological limits and effects of various methods and study designs that we use in empirical social science? What do we do when we construct and hand out questionnaires, observe, interview, advertise for and engage with informants? Likewise when we study (or even create) participatory exercises such as focus groups and citizens’ juries?
Gender: Women play the role of research informants and investigators in high proportions in the biosciences, especially in social science research on them. Women are RFs and RAs, but also Directors or project leaders (by contrast to ‘hard’ sciences). Does gender influence research approaches? What special skills are brought to bear in the different roles and methods we use? Do traditional and/or new gender models influence our research field? What dilemmas arise?
Research topics: What research topics do we choose? How do we frame the issues, e.g. obstacles to technological development, problems of getting technologies to work, models of human users/objects, etc? How do we interpret and understand public unease, as well as our own? Are we personally motivated by ideas of some greater good that our work should or will serve?
Funding bodies: How do their criteria limit and/or facilitate critical research? The practical convergence of various technologies stimulates potent applications, but funding bodies generally favour single-technology studies, e.g. on genomics, stem cell science, nano-technology, neuro-science, information technology, systems biology and proto life, etc. Grant-bidding criteria can hinder the interdisciplinary collaborations needed for critical approaches. Critical social science wants to be policy relevant, but the relevance encouraged by funding bodies tends to take for granted technological usefulness and progress. How can these obstacles be overcome and opportunities found?
Social science institutions: How are contentious technologies normalised by the existence and longevity of specialised social science research institutions? When our research receives support from scientists and politicians, what is the basis for overlapping agendas?