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Project probes how social and political actors challenge expertise

What do climate change, genetically modified food and models of economic of development have in common?

They're all areas in which "authoritative knowledge" derived from the natural or social sciences has influenced public policy debates and boiled over into social and political conflicts that still haven't simmered down.

The nature of these conflicts, and the dynamics that produce them, were the focus of the ISS's 2006-09 Contentious Knowledge theme project, explained Kenneth Roberts, who led the team with Ronald Herring, also a professor of government.

The diverse team included political scientists, sociologists, a microbiologist and a historian, Roberts said. "We brought together two different strands of scholarship, one looking at the social construction of knowledge and the other exploring the dynamics of social movements or contentious politics."

The team came to the subject knowing that these conflicts involve such "social actors" as protest movements and nongovernmental organizations. These actors often have either economic and political interests or social and cultural values that conflict with authoritative knowledge and prompt them to contest it, said Roberts, who also directs the ISS. Other actors, however, may use knowledge claims perceived as authoritative to advance their own interests or values.

With its diverse approaches, the team shed new light on the intersection of these two strands of scholarship and delved deeper into understanding the role of social actors in both constructing and contesting authoritative knowledge, Roberts said. "We've been able to clarify how different social actors mobilize, make connections among themselves and frame their interests and beliefs in ways that allow them to support or challenge that expertise." On climate change, for example, scientists, think tanks, business groups and social movements have all participated in a debate about knowledge claims that have become increasingly authoritative over time.

The team has collected its findings into a significant body of scholarship that includes two new seminars -- one on biotechnology and development, another on social movements in Latin America -- as well as a forthcoming book on the diffusion of social movements from Cambridge University Press. A second major volume and a series of forthcoming books and articles are in progress, Roberts said. "We will continue to collaborate in the years ahead."

For more about the project, see http://www.socialsciences.cornell.edu/0609/contentious_desc.html.

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Simeon Moss