The mutual embeddedness of the natural and the social: towards a new understanding between science and politics

Project Details


Aim and objectives This project seeks to overcome this dichotomy. Its central aim is to investigate how a critical view of the status of scientific knowledge can be reconciled with political thinking and acting. An interdisciplinary, integrative approach will be developed to create a new perspective of the interface between science and politics. The underlying starting point is the fact that science can indeed no longer be regarded as a source of absolute, value-free knowledge claims with regard to reality. Rather, the validity and applicability of scientific knowledge should be understood from a stabilised, mutual embeddedness of the natural and the social, of science and society. From this starting point, the project sets the following three concrete objectives. Firstly, it wants to elaborate a new, integrative framework starting from the image of science as a social practice which transcends the fact-value dichotomy. Secondly, we will apply this framework to concrete socio-scientific controversies. This should also enable us to establish to what extent this offers new perspectives of the sciencepolicy interface. Starting from this new perspective, a third objective is to find concrete leads for a new understanding between science and policy. These three objectives are explained in detail below. 1. Elaborate a theoretical framework that allows both overcoming the realism versus relativism debate and explaining how scientific knowledge is becoming embedded in the current social norms and values and vice versa, in other words, how the social practice of producing, stabilising and applying valid scientific knowledge is inherently linked to political thinking and acting. A crucial starting point in explaining such a framework is the finding that the social constructivism discourse, in its one-sided social-contextual approach of scientific practice, does not allow for a symmetrical, critical analysis of the social constitutive elements of science ('sociological reductionism'; Latour, 1999). In the constructivist approach, social aspects such as values, interests and concerns are treated as a-prioris, blackboxed and as such excluded from further analysis. In this line of thought, human, personal or social concerns are the crucial factors in the settlement of socio-scientific controversies. How they end is then explained as a negotiated sorting out of competing social interests. (Nelkin, 1992; Bijker et al. 1987). But interests themselves have a social as well as a scientific history; they are themselves determined by the current social and scientific orders. What is social about science is itself subject to an unsuspected depth and complexity and vice versa. An example taken from history is that of the development of the theory of thermodynamics. The stabilisation of the 'scientific experiment' in a working, efficient steam-engine and the ensuing theory of thermodynamics cannot be understood unless we take into account the social-industrial context (e.g. the search for capacity for work) in which this happened. Equally, the subsequent development and stability of industrial society cannot be viewed apart from this techno-scientific knowledge basis. All this goes to show the need for an integrative framework that avoids the charges of both social and techno-scientific determinism and that is symmetric in the sense that it simultaneously accounts for the social dimensions of human cognition and the epistemological and technological correlates of social formations. 2. Apply the conceptual framework and investigate to what degree it creates a new perspective of the interface between policy and science As a theoretical framework, the view of mutual embeddedness of the natural and the social needs to be applied to concrete issues situated on the interface between policy and science. In this way, it will also become clear to what degree this framework creates a new perspective of the science-policy interface in the sense that it raises new questions and answers. Socio-scientific controversies, for instance with regard to the current environmental crisis, are well suited for this purpose. As suggested above, controversies contain a rich breeding ground for application as they point towards the absence of stability. (Latour,1987; Shapin en Shaffer, 1985). The process of the social and the natural giving shape to each other is most apparent where new socio-scientific phenomena emerge, such as technological artefacts and normative regulations, i.e. before things are completely stabilised and black-boxed. Once the controversy has been settled and the resulting embeddedness normalised (social order) or naturalised (natural order), it becomes difficult to rediscover the contested assumptions that were freely in play before stability was effected. (Jasanoff, 2004). More specifically, this project will study the emergence of the phenomenon of 'global climate change' in its historical scientific and socio-political context, paying special attention to the role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The question of how new socio-scientific phenomena such as global climate change are gradually integrated into our comprehension and thus obtain cognitive, moral and political legitimacy, gives a first glimpse of the new perspective that is the objective of this project. Indeed, we will look for new concentrations of power in places that are hardly ever considered in current social theory, such as the causally constructed climate models which are heaviliy relied on in global climate policy (Demeritt, 2001). 3. Starting from the new perspective, gained in working out objective 2, develop concrete leads for a new understanding between science and policy. In so far as this project succeeds in creating a new perspective of the science-policy interface, we will be able to consider new approaches to the shaping of this complex relationship. In a first stage, this will be done in the context of the case studies discussed in the course of this project. Some new approaches to the science-policy field have been given increased attention over the last years. 'Post-normal' science is the term now used to indicate a transition towards a new method for dealing with increased uncertainty in complex contemporary issues by 're-injecting' norms and values into scientific practice (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993). This approach, however, remains caught in the fact-value dichotomy in that it still adheres to the idea of a human-independent knowable reality 'out there'. Contrary to this, the current project will depart from the negation of this dichotomy and look for new leads.
Effective start/end date1/10/0730/09/14


  • Mathematics

Flemish discipline codes

  • Mathematical sciences
  • The concept of ecological debt: an environmental justice approach to sustainability

    Goeminne, G. & Paredis, E., 2008, 7th Global Conference Environmental Justice and Global Citizenship. (7th Global Conference Environmental Justice and Global Citizenship).

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference paper