Where Science and Social Power Intersect

Pt. I | Pt. 2


Part 2 with Keith Warner, discussing his book Agroecology in Action, follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.

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WF: How did science and social power intersect in your study?

KW: A particularly salient feature of my field work was the divergent assumptions held by actors about the evaluation of novel practices in farming. Many advocates of alternative agriculture argue for a systems-based approach to selecting and managing technology in farming systems, and critique dominant forms of agriculture as reductionistic (or simply narrow minded). Ironically, many of the university researchers, even those in favor of "sustainability," insist on being able to "prove" the scientific advantage of new practices or technology, but use reductionistic approaches to do so. One of the reasons I used "agroecology" in my title is because ecology asserts the need to take a systems approach to evaluating the relationship between the biotic and abiotic. Many small to mid-sized growers take a whole-system approach to evaluating a reduction in the use of pesticides, or an alternative practice of cultivation. Some of them are skeptical of what they perceive to be narrow scientific criteria used by research to establish viability in farming. Leaders of several partnerships critiqued the "transfer of technology" pipeline approach to extension (or field education) as well as the expert-lay imbalance of social power. I explore this more fully in a forthcoming article in Science, Technology & Human Values titled "Agroecology as Participatory Science."

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Excerpt from a University of California Cooperative Extension training manual (no date). This schematizes the "transfer of technology" or, technology pipeline, approach to agricultural extension.

These observations sent me back to study the critique of the publicly-funded, land grant university system which has funded most agricultural science and technology development. This critique pre-dates most STS literature, dating back to Aldo Leopold (1940s), Rachel Carson (1960s), and Jim Hightower (1970s) in the more popular realm. To follow up on Hightower's work, Larry Busch and Bill Lacey wrote Science, Agriculture and Politics of Research in 1983. I review this literature, and update it with more recent currents in STS.

WF: How do you tackle the "ecology" of values and ethics through your engaged STS work?

KW: Inspired by Latour I wanted to describe how agricultural science is put in action, but to talk about alternative agriculture, which led me to study agroecology. This is a sticky term that takes on additional meanings in various national and institutional contexts. From what I can tell, it was first coined in Central America and Mexico as scientists worked with ethnobotanists to articulate a preferable alternative to the Green Revolution and its socio-environmental externalities. As originally conceived, agroecology drew from traditional farming practices, but sought to explain and improve upon them using the contemporary science of ecology. From my coursework at UCSC, I learned about conservation biology as a self-consciously value-laden science; its practitioners were unapologetic about its normative orientation. Conservation biology is a science with a moral purpose. All the conbio studies in the world are of little value if they only prove that a species has gone extinct. Agroecology is defined with the explicit goal of fostering more sustainable farming systems, so it too is value-laden. It also has a normative dimension.

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Bruno Latour's Circulatory System of Science (adapted from FitzSimmons 2003 who adapted it from Latour 1999). Says Prof. Warner: "Scientific knowledge, technological objects, and resources circulate through this diagram, which describes how alternative agriculture actually works, in my opinion."

I crafted this book as an intervention, in keeping with trends in what some folks are calling "engaged STS," which seems particularly appropriate for examining how people are trying to use science to foster a more sustainable society. I drew from the time-honored technique in social sciences of wandering around with subjects and asking them the most obvious, "dumb" questions. I think of engaged STS as being able to do this, and then hold up a mirror to the (lay-farmer or university expert) scientists I spent time with. I wrote the first 1/3rd of each chapter by narrating what I observed about the circulation of science in the field to the university to the market and back again. These chapter openings are designed to be fun and engaging, and people who read the book tell me they are.

My hope is that this will allow for a range of audiences to engage the material in the book. For those who have planned or participated in these kinds of collaborative partnerships can better understand how they can be constructed and made to work. To those outside agriculture, this book shows that another world is, in fact, possible if we are able to direct resources to support alternative ways of generating and exchanging scientific knowledge. Ultimately, those who make decisions about scientific research priorities and funding have a great deal of social power, and I hope this book can (in the words of Latour) mobilize the public to pressure those in power to create an agricultural science system that serves the common good.


Pt. I | Pt. 2

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My hope is that this will allow for a range of audiences to engage the material in the book. For those who have planned or participated in these kinds of collaborative partnerships can better understand how they can be constructed and made to work.

I've recently started a site, the information you offer on this web site has helped me tremendously. Thank you for all of your time & work. "You do ill if you praise, but worse if you censure, what you do not understand." by Leonardo DaVinci.

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