EASA, 2006: EASA06: Europe and the world

Bristol, UK, 18/09/2006 – 21/09/2006


Public knowledge: redistribution and reinstitutionalisation

Location Dept. Arch Anth LT2
Date and Start Time 19 Sep, 2006 at 11:30


Cathrine Degnen (Newcastle University, UK) email
Alberto Corsin Jimenez (Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)) email
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Short Abstract

This panel aims to provide ethnographic and anthropological substance to the political philosophy of 'publicisation': to investigate some of the forms that society is taking today in its redistribution as public knowledge.

Long Abstract

Knowledge is currently undergoing some remarkable institutional relocations. Universities are reorganising themselves into interdisciplinary schools, and are signing collaborative knowledge-transfer agreements with industry. Industry, in its turn, is increasingly involved in redefining its stakes in/against nature and society. An example are bio-prospecting projects, where pharmaceutical companies are coming up with new conceptions of what makes the public domain, and are relocating the market within this. The public itself is evanescing into new political objects, as in economists' parlance of global public goods, where the social form of the market now contains its own (potential for) externalities. We seem to have entered, therefore, a new political era, where those with stakes in knowledge have the power to say what society is all about (hence the label knowledge society), and where the appearance of knowledge as a social object becomes the defining criteria of a new political philosophy: the politics of publicisation (Hayden), or what Latour calls Dingpolitik, the move to making things public. This panel aims to give ethnographic and anthropological substance to the political philosophy of publicisation. We hope to elucidate the ethnographic forms that the new public forums (Helga Nowotny et al. call them 'agora') are taking in our anthropological contemporary. Society's political reinvention in an array of public objects is modelled on, and casting off, new claimants and claims over the social contract: ethics, governance, trust and knowledge are but some of the categories of association that are being redeployed in the claim to make society more robust. Our aim in this panel, then, is to investigate some of the forms that society is taking today in its redistribution as public knowledge.

Chair: Alberto Corsin Jimenez
Discussant: Susan Wright


Administrating knowledge as a global public good

Author: Alberto Corsin Jimenez (Spanish National Research Council (CSIC))  email
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Long Abstract

Economists' traditional definition of the ideal public good has two main features: its benefits are non-rivalrous in consumption and non-excludable. Non-rivalry means that my consumption of a good does not prevent others from consuming it too; my consumption is no rival to yours. Non-excludability means that everyone has access to the good, that no one is excluded from it. Public goods are also often defined as a special case of externalities: where the positive or negative effects of the externality are seen to 'spill over' into the public sphere.

Bringing these two definitional strands together, what stands out about the economists' definition of knowledge as a global public good is how the consumption function carries its 'externality' within: that is, how publicness becomes defined by an internal moment of the market, in this case, consumption. The question of the 'public goodness' of knowledge is therefore subsumed under the question of the kinds of market movements that it elicits. This allows for two further concessions to the commoditisation of knowledge: talk of 'claims over', or 'rights in' knowledge evokes the notion of distribution, and the associated rhetoric of the efficiency of resource allocation.

In this paper I take issue with the social theory that locates the public goodness of knowledge in the institutional workings of the market. I intend to show that neither 'distribution' nor 'efficiency' are things or events that take place 'outside', in the market; nor are they qualities of the market, that define whether a good is public or not. The public (as a signifier or community of value) can never be something outside society, but must be seen instead as a point of inflection in society's own re-distributional moments: the public as simultaneously means-and-end of social self-consciousness.

. In particular, I want to suggest that an important space for the creation of public value for knowledge today lies in processes of institutional administration. Administration stages 'the public' for an institution's use of knowledge. It is often through administrative processes (e.g. research proposals, email correspondence, grant review processes, institutional audits, etc.) that knowledge internalizes its 'external' publics. Institutional administration is thus a first stop in the consolidated distribution and allocation of knowledge as a fund of public value.

The paper draws on and contrasts examples of administrative processes in higher education environments in the UK today, and the history of corporate welfarism and state-business relations in 1920s Chile, in order to ask questions about the objectification and movement of knowledge 'inside' or 'outside' institutions. My interest is to explore how and when 'public goodness' makes knowledge, morality and institutional sociality come together, and to further interrogate the conditions under which knowledge becomes productively public.

Anthropology as public knowledge: lessons from undergraduates

Author: Elsa Rodeck (King's College)  email
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Long Abstract

Applying Moore's notion of 'concept-metaphor' (2006) to the case of anthropology, I use the example of the anthropology undergraduate classroom to think about the ways in which the contemporary production of anthropological knowledge can be understood as 'public'. The undergraduate classroom provides a route into exploring how different understandings and perspectives of anthropology meet and transform. Can this transformation of knowledge be understood as making anthropology 'public'? Do current conceptualisations of students as 'consumers' and the learning of 'skills' as knowledge 'outcomes' redefine the position of anthropology as 'public' in this location?

The paper suggests that anthropological contexts of teaching and learning complicate the new models of knowledge production as conceptualised by Gibbons et al (1994), Nowotny (1999), Nowotny et al (2001). Anthropology as 'concept-metaphor' highlights the shifting understandings which are attributed to the discipline from different locations. For 'concept-metaphors' refer to common terms which take on distinct uses and meanings in different domains. This analytical category can therefore account for an interpretation of anthropology as 'public' from within the discipline. For at the same time that anthropological theory and methodology allows anthropologists to understand their knowledge as intrinsically public, dependent as it is on the ethnographic enterprise and on knowledge produced with particular 'publics', from locations of non-disciplinary contexts, or other domains, this understanding of the nature of anthropological knowledge is not shared. Is it then only from 'within' the discipline that the public nature of anthropology can be realised? Does the nature of anthropological knowledge maintain this difference between domain understandings and what does this mean for the possibilities of a 'public' anthropological knowledge?

Interdisciplinarity in a political setting

Author: Andrew Barry (University College London)  email
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Long Abstract

The thesis that research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary is widely accepted. This paper interrogates this thesis on three grounds. First, drawing on the results of an on-going study of interdisciplinary research institutions, the paper addresses the question of whether there is any unity to the phenomenon of interdisciplinarity, given the heterogeneity of interdisciplinary forms and the variety of ways in which 'society' is addressed through interdisciplinary collaborations. Secondly, the paper raises the question of to what extent research was not interdisciplinary in the past, and discusses some of the historical origins of recent interdisciplinary interventions. Thirdly, through a discussion of research policy in the UK, the paper examines a number of ways in which relations between disciplines have become more restricted, or channelled in specific directions. The thesis that interdisciplinarity is straightforwardly increasing is questionable, yet the topic of interdisciplinarity has become critical to public debates concerning the changing location and organisation of knowledge production. The paper seeks to understand interdisciplinarity as a contemporary problem, and as a political event.

Making health and wealth in the bioeconomy: innovation, knowledge, and public good

Author: David Leitner (Cañada College)  email
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Long Abstract

Recent European initiatives to create a "knowledge bioeconomy" focus in large part on reordering the relationship of universities (as sites of knowledge production) to other areas of society, most notably industrial actors. In the United Kingdom in particular a key concern of such activities within government, industry, and higher education is to redefine the scope and role of universities in British society. Such attempts imagine reorienting the purpose and practice of academic research activities to harness the potential economic impacts of that research. Although these initiatives all propose distinctly different institutional forms to accomplish this, they all take innovation as one of their major concerns.

Innovation, described by one DTI website as "the successful exploitation of new ideas", is described as an effectual producer of public good. For the biosciences, in particular, innovation serves the public good by creating both medical benefits (improved healthcare) and economic benefits (increased wealth) which are assumed to have favourable knock-on effects for all. Thus the common weal is served through the pursuit of private gain. In this context, attempts to reorient research in Higher Education Institutions are not just held to be a matter of policy, but an ethical imperative.

Based on fieldwork I have conducted since 2004 in the bioscience cluster in and around the University of Cambridge, this paper will argue that such ethical formulations are not necessarily cynical rationalizations for private gain, but are instead rooted in deeper understandings of the nature of knowledge and social relations as natural and productive resources. Such conceptions simultaneously make possible the ethical formulations I describe and set the stage for formulating particular kinds of subjectivities in a "bioeconomic" world. The potential problems these findings might pose for critics of the commercialization of research are briefly discussed.

Deliberating democratically and public knowledges

Author: Cathrine Degnen (Newcastle University, UK)  email
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Long Abstract

In 2002, the British government announced that it would sponsor a three-pronged process of inquiry into genetically modified food and crops. The inquiry was to include a science review, an economic review, and a public debate. This gesture was interpreted by many as a pro-GM Government's response to a broadly anti-GM British public. The public debate, to be run at arm's length from the Government by a Steering Board, was tasked with organising and running a process of deliberative consultation on genetic modification with members of the public. Entitled "GM Nation?", the public debate (in conjunction with the science and the economic reviews) was promoted as a way to fully inform Government decision-making on whether or not genetically modified crops should be commercially produced in Britain.

This paper examines the ways in which 'the public', 'public opinion', and 'public knowledge' became imagined and then mobilised by the Steering Board in its (very public) performance of accountability, consultation, and deliberative democracy. The Steering Board envisaged the public debate as a way of tapping into 'local networks' and 'the grassroots' of public opinion, glorifying the debate as a robust channel into real public knowledge. In contrast to this particular vision of the public and public knowledge, I present findings from ethnographic research into public understandings of genetically modified food. Conducted outside of governmentally authenticated sites during 2003-2004, this fieldwork overlapped with "GM Nation?". However, it highlighted very different issues in terms of public, knowledge and expertise, such as trust, secrecy, and building authority through kinship relations.