Knowledge in Contention: Social Movements & the Politics of Science

October 4-6, 2007

In this workshop, which was sponsored by the ISS Contentious Knowledge Theme Project research team, we established a working intersection between two communities of scholars: those focused on social movements and contentious politics on the one hand, and those focused on social studies of scientific knowledge on the other. The former have produced a body of findings on the dynamics of mobilization, the processes of framing, the development and diffusion of tactics, and the trajectories and transformations of collective political struggle. Social studies of science have developed detailed accounts of how scientific knowledge is produced, how the credibility of knowledge claims is collectively assessed, and how scientific controversies reach closure. But while these two research communities have not wholly ignored one another, neither have they engaged in extensive interactive dialog. The potential for productive interaction rests on shared empirical subject matter and overlapping theoretical problems.

Given the central role that authoritative knowledge plays in contemporary societies, it is not surprising that its credibility is often contested. In modern states, the natural and social sciences serve as resources for decision making, tools for persuasion, and means of legitimation that allow some issues to be defined as technical and removed from the domain of mass politics. Nonetheless, knowledge claims do not command automatic respect, and contention about science often becomes a vehicle through which politics is conducted. At times, social movements outside the scientific community launch attacks on what we might call “settled knowledge;” the movement to question evolutionary biology and promote the teaching of “intelligent design” in American public schools is a salient example.

What is settled knowledge is not always clear, however; for what is settled for some is contested by others. Environmental controversies, for example, typically consist of unruly hybrids of scientific, political, legal, and ethical questions, resisting easy parsing into the tidy binaries of facts v. values or science v. politics and engaging a variety of experts and interests. Much of the knowledge claimed by environmental science is acknowledged to be partial, probabilistic, or projected from problematic data sets. Environmental controversies then illustrate a second order of contention in the politics of knowledge: in many domains, contention is not limited to challenging well-established facts, but occurs during the knowledge-making process, sometimes taking place both within and outside expert communities. The furor around the work of Bjorn Lomborg is archetypal: the challenge is not to “science” narrowly construed, but to problems of making inferences from inadequate data, uncertain theory, and (sometimes unstated) premises about the social and natural world. For the followers of Lomborg, much environmental science – and more importantly, policy – is the result of successful “political” mobilization around the environment by scientists and social movements alike. Similarly, health activists often mobilize methodological arguments and even produce technical data as they press their claims to counter currently-hegemonic understandings of disease and treatment. Notable examples include AIDS treatment activists challenging research protocols, patient groups demanding that their novel and contested diseases (e.g. “Gulf war syndrome”) be officially recognized by health care bureaucracies, and environmental groups setting up citizen’s air-quality monitoring stations outside industrial facilities.

At the workshop we fostered productive theoretical exchange about both contention involving “settled knowledge” and contention involving “knowledge in the making.” Research on contentious politics and social studies of scientific knowledge tend to approach the politics of knowledge differently, raising the prospect that each field might contribute concepts to the other. Regarding social movements, we asked whether the process and dynamics of contention have distinctive features in cases involving authoritative knowledge. Can contention over knowledge be adequately handled using existing paradigms and models, or do phenomena such as frame alignment and mobilization operate in different ways? What can the findings of studies of expertise, technical controversy, and the simultaneous production of knowledge and social order offer to research on contentious politics? Corresponding questions will be asked in the case of science studies. Does knowledge making operate in distinctive ways when it is entangled in episodes of collective political struggle? To what extent can models from the social movements literature be usefully employed to consider academic and technical controversies? In what ways, if any, would they need to be modified to address the making and unmaking of knowledge? For example, one of the large questions in social movement theory concerns institutional residues of contentious politics. Might, for example, a global biosafety regime to reassure mass publics about the safety of genetically engineered crops create both a certifying institution and particular constructions of “safety” in response to mobilized contention around biotechnology?


These broad, agenda-setting questions were explored not in the abstract, but through empirical papers addressing four specific themes pertaining to knowledge in contention:

  • Scientists and movements: objectivity and engagement. How do scientists and social movements interact? Do scientists participate in movements in distinctive ways? What shapes the nature of their involvement in contentious politics? How have they responded to unexpected challenges to their activities? In what situations do scientists themselves become important movement entrepreneurs? Are there perceived trade-offs between scientific credentials rooted in objectivity and status as expert in partisan movements?
  • Claiming and contesting expertise. How are different forms of authority (technical credentials, the expertise of experience, the expertise of cultural authenticity) claimed, weighed, assessed, and challenged? How do transnational media figures, such as Vandana Shiva, emerge in movements and what structures and processes sustain their visibility? How do mass media and other gatekeepers assess the credibility of putative experts (including scientists, movement spokespersons, pundits, think tanks, transnational NGOs, etc.)? How are international counter-science networks established and maintained?
  • Knowledge, identity, and the politics of classifying humans. What role does knowledge production play in the emergence of new identities and movements? How are knowledge claims about the existence or nature of social groups asserted, challenged, and maintained? How do new groups emerge and what role does knowledge making play in the process of forming identities and articulating grievances? These issues will be explored in connection with the politics of disease categories and racial and ethnic classification.
  • Making contentious knowledge: strategic choices, resource mobilization. Under what circumstances do social movements work to produce their own knowledge (e.g., by building environmental monitoring systems or conducting their own epidemiological studies)? How do they build resources for constructing such knowledge? How are their knowledge claims received? To what extent do they adopt the symbols of science (“studies show…”) as opposed to contesting “Western science” itself? For example, the emergence of “plural knowledges”/local knowledge/metis in development discourse as superior to hegemonic/western/techne/colonial/imperialist science is available as a strategy to challenge hegemonic models of both economics and natural science. How do movements make such strategic choices? How does a movement decide, for example, to burn test fields of transgenic crops, rather than challenging the results of the tests or performing its own alternative tests?

Background Readings

Jasanoff, S. (2005). Law’s Knowledge: Science for Justice in Legal Settings. American Journal of Public Health, 95 (S1) , S49­S58. (Note: this article appears in AJPH’s Supplement 1: Public Health Matters.)

Latour, B. (1991). The Impact of Science Studies on Political Philosophy. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 16 (1), 3-19.

McAdam, D., Tarrow, S., & Tilly, C. (2007, forthcoming). Comparative Perspectives on Contentious Politics. In M. Lichbach & A. Zuckerman (Eds.), Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure: Advancing Theory in Comparative Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jamison, A. (2006). Social Movements and Science: Cultural Appropriations of Cognitive Praxis.Science as Culture, 15 (1), 45-59.

Agenda and Abstracts




Speakers include:

Michael Bosia, Political Science, Saint Michael’s College
Ulrike Felt, Social Studies of Science, University of Vienna
Ron Herring, Government, Cornell
Stephen Hilgartner, Science & Technology Studies, Cornell
Andrew Jamison, Dev. & Planning, Aalborg University
David Kneas, Forestry & Environmental Studies, Yale Univ.
Javier Lezaun, Law and Science, Amherst College
Manjari Mahajan, Science & Technology Studies, Cornell
Brian Mayer, Sociology, University of Florida
Tom Medvetz, Institute for the Social Sciences, Cornell
Jenny Reardon, Sociology, UC Santa Cruz
Paul Robbins, Geography & Regional Dev., Univ. of Arizona
David Schleifer, Sociology, New York University
Rebecca Slayton, Science, Technol. & Society, Stanford

Organizing Committee

Durba Ghosh, Department of History
Ron Herring, Department of Government
Stephen Hilgartner, Department of Science & Technology Studies
Janice Thies, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences
Anneliese Truame, ISS Administrative Coordinator

Workshop Format

Because the workshop will be multidisciplinary, invitees will be expected to read some background material. Speakers will give talks on their research addressing questions relevant to one of the above themes. Each speaker will also be expected to prepare a brief, future-oriented statement identifying research questions and opportunities (~5 pages). All speakers will be expected to provide (a) the short future-oriented statement and (b) an abstract of his or her talk for circulation one month in advance of the meeting.

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