Scientization or socialization? The transformation of knowledge orders in Germany, Great Britain and the US


Joint project of the Research Unit Cultural Sources of Newness and the Research Group Science Policy Studies

Current research shows that the modes of political expertise and knowledge production across countries are subject to multiple transformations. On the one hand, one can observe a scientization of public policy and an increasing relevance of statistics, evidence based policy and simulations. Instruments like monitoring or benchmarking transform different observations and make them comparable by calculative practices. On the other hand, science is being increasingly politicized by counter expertise and civil society pressure. Experts find themselves confronted with scepticism and public interference. More often than not, knowledge controversies lead to the establishment of counter-publics. These arenas of protest and bargaining constitute themselves along specific issues, risks and interests. They provide a forum for the interpretation, negotiation, assessment and justification of controversial knowledge (and non-knowledge). By using strategies of scandalising, self-presentation and campaigning in the media, civil society actors try to delegitimize scientifically accepted knowledge. Both tendencies can currently be observed, the scientization of society and the socialization of science.

Up to now there has been no comparative analysis of these changes. Based on qualitative as well as quantitative methods, the project therefore compares the causes and consequences of these transformations in three different countries. By turning to the concept of knowledge orders, we move away from a priori assumptions about the effectiveness or functionality of public policy advice. Instead, the question is posed how certain modes of expertise and practices of public knowledge production become to be perceived as reliable and how in a given society such knowledge claims are used as a basis for justifying collective choices. Knowledge orders are boundary crossing arrangements between science, politics and economics. They influence the production, circulation and objectification of publicly relevant knowledge by culturally established procedures and practices. Comparative studies have shown that countries like the US, Germany or Great Britain vary significantly in terms of expert styles, public accountability, cultures of objectivity, practices of participation and science-policy interaction. These specific institutional and cultural configurations also seem to influence the way a novelty or invention in public governance is being identified as relevant, worth to be preserved, valuable and thus innovative. The aim of the project is to identify convergences and divergences between knowledge orders in Great Britain, Germany, and the US. Focusing on major reforms in employment policy and consumer protection, mechanisms of change will be identified. Moreover, the consequences in terms of public communication on risks and non-knowledge will be explored. Conceptually, the project is based on discursive institutionalism. It is assumed that transnational expert networks and transnational regimes have the potential to discursively delegitimize the cultural and institutional premises of political knowledge production and to stimulate the institutionalization of alternative coordination arrangements.

Starting in 2011, the project is funded for three years by the Volkswagen Foundation (funding initiative “Science, the Public, and Society”). It is carried out in cooperation with the Humboldt-University Berlin (Department of Social Sciences, Research Area “Political Sociology and Social Policy”).

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Contact: Holger Straßheim (holger.strassheim [at] (subject: WZB%20Projekt) )