Contentious Knowledge: Science, Social Science and Social Movements

2006–09 Theme Project


Summary of Accomplishments
Open-access Lectures
•     Kickoff- Lecture (slides)
•     Video Seminars
    Capstone Lecture (video slides)



Initial Proposal (pdf)

Consider this: Why do some claims to scientific or social-scientific knowledge become authoritative and consensual, whereas others raise storms of social protest and political conflict? Why do some forms of “contentious politics” around knowledge claims remain isolated and localized, whereas others spread to new sites or establish linkages to a broader set of actors and issues? The 2006-09 Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS) theme project examines the emergence and diffusion of social protest around authoritative knowledge, as well as the effects of such protest on policy and institutional change. Ronald J. Herring and Kenneth M. Roberts, both professors of government, co-lead the project.

Scholars participating in the project conduct research on political contention in a variety of knowledge spheres, ranging from social protest against dominant paradigms of economic development to the varying success of global social movements that contest the safety of genetic engineering (i.e., the “Frankenfood” debate). Associated faculty and post-doctoral fellows will explore how expertise informs policy debates; how such expertise becomes authoritative, and why it is sometimes contested within epistemic communities, policymaking circles, and civil society; how civic groups and social movements that contest authoritative knowledge emerge, spread, and frame knowledge claims; and how these social actors elicit or impede innovation in public policy and governing institutions.

Social movements often defy the expectations of scholars – most likely because they involve complex motives and mechanisms derived from interdisciplinary sources. Thus, it is likely to be work at the intersection of fields such as political science, sociology, anthropology, economics, psychology, bio-ethics, and the natural sciences that is needed to understand the mechanisms and forms of leverage that convert social protest into political innovation, and to predict the factors that impede such innovation. Ultimately, the goal of this theme project, as well as the ISS, is to build a culture of excellence in social science research through collaboration across the disciplines and the colleges that will have a lasting impact at Cornell.