9th Conference European Sociological Association

RN24 Science and Technology

2009-09-03 09:00:00 2009-09-03 10:30:00 Thursday, 3 September 09:00 - 10:30 Expertise and the Public in Europe Building AA, AA.223

Science and Democracy: from Technocracy to Dialogue

Much sociological work has always been aimed at influencing public policy, by documenting social problems and offering explanations of why they arise. This paper argues that recent developments in empirical sociology reinforce a pre-existing methodological case for defending a "dialogical" approach to policy over the more narrowly defined "technocratic" approach. Technocratic policy-making tends to assume that a specific solution will be most appropriate to solving a problem or improving a situation, in any particular political context. It also tends to assume that this solution, identified through scientific reasoning, will often be more complex than can be readily understood by non-experts; and, more importantly, that the views of an uninformed public may be more obstructive than constructive in getting beneficial policies adopted. The "piecemeal" technocratic approach was borrowed from applied natural science and engineering with the intention of rooting policy in proven effectiveness, avoiding dictatorial "grand designs" and so strengthening democracy. But its effect has often been to limit democratic debate, by showing some social processes and structures to be beyond dispute - matters of causal fact, not open to reshaping by rhetorical preference or public opinion.

The paper argues that a contrasting, dialogical approach is central to sociology's distinctive contribution to policy making and analysis, and has been reinforced by recent empirical discoveries. Dialogue must, in practice, complement or replace technocratic procedures because public opinion and belief are not separable from the operation of policy, or the impact of technology. A technocratic approach, even to questions rooted in the natural world (such as energy generation, waste disposal, transport and climate change), must therefore allow public opinion to react to and interact with expert opinion, and not be subordinated to it. Drawing on recent studies of decisions on major technology deployment, the paper argues that sociology has re-established the necessity of dialogue, especially by broadening of the scientific concept of risk, and drawing attention to additional socially-determined sources of uncertainty. Whilst drawing on neo-pragmatist philosophy, the paper then shows that several other strands of sociology also converge on the dialogical approach, through the way they theorise historical and survey-based research.