By Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe
While looking up another of Callon's books recently, I ran across this 2010 publication and bought it immediately. Callon has not been as well read as Latour, at least on this side of the Atlantic, but I've found his insights into actor-network theory to be extremely valuable - particularly the question of how groups form around controversies. That, in fact, is what this book is about.
In Acting in an Uncertain World, Callon and his coauthors tackle the question of how to make democracy work in an increasingly technical, specialized world. "Science and technology cannot be managed by the political institutions currently available to us," the authors charge (p.9), because scientific and technical controversies are becoming increasingly specialized while impacting more people. The general public don't have the expertise to make decisions about highly technical issues, but we also can't leave high-impact decisions up to specialists in a democracy. Such decisions include "GMOs, BSE [a.k.a. "mad cow disease"], nuclear waste, mobile phones, the treatment of household waste, asbestos, tobacco, gene therapy, genetic diagnosis" (p.9) - and we could also throw in anthropogenic global warming, a controversy that is the current Ground Zero of the problem Callon et al. discuss. Examine the discourse around that issue and you'll see the same dilemma: the public is impacted by any decisions made about global warming (particularly the rapidly industrializing Third World, which is only now realizing the basic economic benefits of industrialization, including food security and lengthening lifespans), but only specialists are deemed to have the deep expertise to make informed decisions. This skew, this disjuncture between expertise and democratic decision-making, has resulted in (among other things) hard and sometimes unfair questions about the nature and motivation of that expertise (see Climategate).
(Side note: Climate change is one of Yrjo Engestrom's examples of a "runaway object," an object(ive) of multiple activity systems that transcends and can't be contained by any particular activity system. Reading Callon's book helped me to rethink Engestrom's argument - and to wonder whether a "runaway object" is actually an attempt to introduce a notion of the public into an analytical theory that has no other mechanism for dealing with the public. More on this later, I'm sure.)
But Callon et al. don't want to replace our democratic institutions. Rather, these institutions "must be enriched, expanded, extended, and improved so as to bring about what some would call technical democracy, or more precisely in order to make our democracies more able to absorb the debates and controversies aroused by science and technology" (p.9).
In particular, Callon et al. are interested in
hybrid forums - forums because they are open spaces where groups can come together to discuss technical options involving the collective, hybrid because the groups involved and the spokespersons claiming to represent them are heterogeneous, including experts, politicians, technicians, and laypersons who consider themselves involved. They are also hybrid because the questions and problems taken up are addressed at different levels in a variety of domains, from ethics to economic and including physiology, nuclear physics, and electromagnetism. (p.18)
Callon et al. take some pains to distinguish the key issue here, uncertainty, from the "false friend" risk (p.19). In a nutshell, risk is "a well-identifiable danger associated with a perfectly describable event or series of events" (p.19). We know what might happen, and we can usually estimate or calculate its probability and develop contingency plans for dealing with it. Risk implies certainty about conditions (p.20). But uncertainty involves, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, the "unknown unknowns": or, "we cannot anticipate the consequences of the decisions that are likely to be made; we do not have a sufficiently precise knowledge of the conceivable options, the description of the constitution of the possible worlds comes up against resistant cores of ignorance, and the behavior and interactions of the entities making them up remain enigmatic" (p.21). Or, "We know that we do not know, but that is almost all we know; there is no better definition of uncertainty" (p.21). And in these cases, "the only option is questioning and debate, notably on the investigations to be launched. What do we know? What do we want to know? Hybrid forums help to bring some elements of an answer to these pressing questions" (p.21).
Callon et al. take the position that "controversies enrich democracy" (p.28); but for that to happen, we must use controversies as a mode of exploration. They allow us to see overflows, places where proposed solutions jump their defined parameters, "give rise to unexpected problems by giving prominence to unexpected effects" (p.28). "Each decision-making process requires a work of opening out, of diffusion, if only because of the need to mobilize the actors who will enable the project to be brought to a successful conclusion" - and "deciding is opening Pandora's Box by permitting actors previously held at arm's length to take part in a dynamic to which they quickly contribute" (p.30). Such sociotechnical controversies reveal the stakes and makes the network of problems visible and debatable (p.31).
An aside here: In Network I claimed that ANT doesn't really have an account of learning. But here, we (sort of) have an ANT book on learning and development - which is to say, a book on setting up dialogical spaces of hybrid forums in which controversies are defined and clarified so that participants can explore and learn (p.35). This learning "leads to the discovery of mutual, developing, and malleable identities that are led to take each other into account and thereby transform themselves" (p.35). Hybrid forums bring together specialists and laypersons, citizens and representatives (p.35).
Hybrid forums, in fact, sound a bit like Robert Jungk's future workshops, which partially inspired participatory design. These themes are familiar, but applied to scientific and technical controversies (rather than existential threats, as Jungk's work was) across societal scale (unlike PD).
To better understand hybrid forums, Callon et al. take us through the ANT concept of translation. In this context of scientific and technical development, translation involves three phases:
- From the macrocosm to the microcosm: specialists reduce the world to the microcosm of the laboratory so that they can simplify, prune, and reconfigure it for study (pp.48-49).
- In the small world of the lab: specialists turn the phenomenon into its traces and signatures (inscriptions), a chain of equivalences that can be manipulated and studied (pp.51-59).
- From the microcosm to the macrocosm: specialists return the laboratory results back to the wide world (pp.59-68).
Certainly this is a huge issue. The last several decades have worn out public faith that scientific and technical change will be universally good, and that faith has been replaced by the wary question: how will this affect us? As Callon et al. put it in the next chapter: "There is nothing ... more rigorous than a group of non-specialists who want to know why they endure unbearable misfortune" (p.80 - in the context of a community enduring unusually high rates of cancer). So we begin to see the public, or public groups, engaging in all phases of Translation: from translation 1 ("taking part in the formulation of problems," p.76) to translation 2 ("taking part in the research collective in order to broaden and organize it," p.83) to translation 3 ("turning back to the world," p.89). In each translation, we see citizens engaging dialogically with the scientific process. Take the question of whether sheep in England are being affected by the fallout from Chernobyl.
Despite the scientists' fine self-assurance, and maybe even because of it, the shepherds remain skeptical. First, because the specialists have already been wrong once and it does not seem unreasonable to think they could be wrong again. The sequel proves moreover that their fears were well founded: some months later the experts recognize that the observed radioactivity is half due to Chernobyl and half to what are discreetly called "other sources." Later because a serious analysis would have required data from before 1986. Now, despite the farmers' and their representatives' repeated demands, these data were never supplied, the administration finally acknowledging that they did not exist, implicitly admitting that it had not done its work. The cocktail of arrogant certainty, a background of secrecy, and poor work could only arouse the non-specialists' mistrust. In fact, in the farmers' opinion, the most serious thing is not so much that the experts made mistakes, or even that they botched their work, but clearly that they hid all this behind a self-assurance deriving from their status as scientists or experts. (p.92)
In this story from 1986, we might find ourselves cheering the shepherds, who stood up for their way of life, demanded accountability, and exposed scientists' secrecy, sometimes-shoddy work, and overreliance on authority. But change the date to 2009, change the issue from Chernobyl to global warming, change garden-variety stonewalling to failure to comply with FOIA requests, and change the botches to shoddy data-keeping practices, and you get last year's so-called Climategate controversy. You may or may not be cheering at this point, and you may find yourself listing the ways in which this more recent, "hot" controversy is different - but the basic issue is still the same, whether we are talking about "GMOs, BSE [a.k.a. "mad cow disease"], nuclear waste, mobile phones, the treatment of household waste, asbestos, tobacco, gene therapy, genetic diagnosis" (p.9). In all of these, "science says" is no longer enough when people's livelihoods are at stake or when people no longer trust the gatekeepers. In all of these, political decisions are being made, not democratically and publicly, but in seclusion by specialists. "If translation 1 does not reconstitute the networks of interests, translation 3 will end in failure," Callon et al. conclude dolefully (p.103).
So how do we get past this impasse? Callon et al. discuss various forms of cooperation between secluded research and research in the wild (p.125), and between the aggregation of individuals and the composition of the collective (p.131). These hybrid forums aim for some mix of delegative democracy (conducted by scientific specialists or specialized political representatives) and dialogic democracy (conducted collaboratively, by all interested parties) (p.135). Chapter 4 describes the basic ideas behind the hybrid forum, while Chapter 5 discusses how to organize them, including criteria and comparisons with similar efforts.
In all, this book was extremely valuable. It moves toward a macrodevelopmental, proactive approach to ANT that has too often been missing. It hints at an ANT account of learning. It moves in the same general direction as some of Latour's later work, but in more concrete ways. It provides a methodology for developing hybrid forums, and in doing so, helped me to connect ANT with some of the more politically oriented work in other literatures. It provides a possible point of connection with Developmental Work Research and with participatory design. And it's written in a riveting way. If you have interest in any of these aspects, please do pick up the book.