Mobilizing Science and Remaking Knowledge: Implications for the Social Sciences
Article first published online: 8 FEB 2011
© 2011 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues
Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy
Volume 11, Issue 1, pages 325–328, December 2011
How to Cite
Iyer, A. (2011), Mobilizing Science and Remaking Knowledge: Implications for the Social Sciences. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 11: 325–328. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-2415.2011.01228.x
- Issue published online: 15 DEC 2011
- Article first published online: 8 FEB 2011
2009 ). Mobilizing Science: Movements, Participation, and the Remaking of Knowledge . Philadelphia , PA : Temple University Press . ISBN 978-1-4399-0009-3 ( 218 pp ., $58.50 ).(
McCormick's book investigates a specific type of social movement: democratizing science movements (DSMs) which challenge the conventional scientific paradigms that inform government policy and which also use science to further their goals of influencing such policies. However, her analysis can be broadly applied to every scientific discipline whose findings and methods contribute to the development of public policy. McCormick develops a theoretical framework to understand how activists can effectively democratize science and to assess the social structures that pose obstacles to such efforts. She examines various ways in which social movements can participate in science and, in so doing, considers the direct relationships between social movements, science, and government institutions. This book thus has the ambitious aim of examining “ how movements intervene in processes where ‘science converts knowledge into power’ and…‘how power converts interests and power into science’ (Harding, 1998a, p. 51)” (p. 5).
McCormick's analysis goes well beyond psychology's traditional emphasis on the individual, as she captures the organizational, political, and societal processes that influence these social movements. Not surprisingly, her theoretical grounding has a broad base, including sociological frameworks of social movements and social change, work on participatory action research, and feminist epistemology. The book is well written and makes a strong case for its broad argument. It is a compelling read for researchers who study collective action and social movements, as well as for any scholars who wish to reflect on the process of creating and disseminating scientific knowledge.
McCormick proposes in Chapter 1 that all DSMs share a set of common characteristics, including the conditions in which they were formed, their goals and tactics, their collaborative structures, and the danger they face of being co-opted by government and scientific institutions. McCormick substantiates this analysis with evidence from two DSMs that are quite different in terms of the issue being contested, characteristics of movement participants, and political context. The first is the Environmental Breast Cancer Movement (ECBM) in the United States, which seeks to draw attention to issues of causation and prevention of this disease. Largely built by middle-class and upper-class White women, this movement changed the focus of breast cancer research from a model focusing on individual-level factors (e.g., genetics or use of the contraceptive pill), to a more group-based model emphasizing environmental factors (e.g., exposure to toxic chemicals in a particular neighborhood). The second is the Anti-Dam Movement (ADM) in Brazil, which protests government practices that displace local populations with little compensation. This movement was largely built by poor, rural, men and women, and it changed the conception of dams from sustainable sound policy to problematic projects with negative social and environmental consequences.
In Chapters 2 and 3, McCormick describes three main conditions in which DSMs are likely to emerge: (1) when a group is negatively impacted by a government policy that has been informed by science; (2) when corporations control the research process, which results in citizens’ having limited access to science; and (3) when citizens have limited ability to participate in the process of political decision making. The second condition is arguably the most controversial, and McCormick devotes a fair bit of time to developing this argument in Chapter 4. She describes the ways in which government, corporate, and scientific interests can intersect to shape every aspect of the scientific process, including the questions that direct the research projects, the theoretical frameworks developed to explain phenomena, the strategies used to identify and recruit samples, the operationalization and measurement of key variables, the interpretation of findings, and the dissemination of this knowledge to the general public. For instance, the predominant paradigm in breast cancer research is a biomedical one, which focuses on biological (i.e., individual level) factors that increase the risk of this disease. Such an approach ignores possible environmental factors that play a role in breast cancer and thus does not consider a potentially important explanation in causation and prevention of this disease. McCormick explains that the biomedical approach has curried favor among scientists and corporations for several reasons. First, it fits well with traditional biomedical concepts of disease causation. Second, such research is easier to design, test, and get funded than research focusing on environmental factors. Third, a number of pharmaceutical companies have invested heavily in development of medical treatments based on the biomedical approach. As a result of these various factors, limited resources and attention have been directed to an environmental paradigm that would investigate how exposure to industrial materials may place entire communities of women at risk for breast cancer.
Across the first five chapters, McCormick describes the collaborative structures that characterize DSMs, where lay people, activists, and experts in science work together to interpret existing knowledge, develop new knowledge, and disseminate it to other individuals (i.e., through education and organizing) and to organizations (i.e., through persuasion and protest). She also describes the broad aims and tactics used by DSMs, and proposes that their focus on science includes three general aims. First, they point out any biases and political interests evident in the ostensibly objective research conducted by experts. Second, they seek to legitimize lay knowledge that is not part of established scientific paradigms (e.g., local knowledge based on direct experience) in the process of creating science and policy. They may reshape questions and develop specific hypotheses based on alternate theoretical paradigms, and then participate in collecting data to test these predictions. This provides DSMs with a legitimate scientific basis to pursue changes in government policy. Third, they seek to increase public awareness of the issue by educating individuals and groups about the conventional research and its problems. This serves as an organizing tool to harness public opinion to pressure the government to change their policies.
In Chapters 6 and 7, McCormick describes the obstacles that DSMs face in their efforts to make change. She focuses on the problem of cooptation, whereby a government or scientific institution is able to weaken the power of a DSM by limiting its influence or reach. For instance, allowing token participation in research and decision making may mollify DSM members to the point where they believe they have influenced the process, while in reality the original policy has not changed in any substantive way. The government may also proactively incorporate one or two of the DSM's demands into their policies. In this way, the DSM loses the right to claim change on their own terms, whereas the government gains credibility for having made changes in response to the movement. Less attention is then paid (by the DSM or the public) to the fact that these changes typically do little to alter the substantive impact or reach of the policy. A DSM may also face other concrete obstacles, such as a lack of resources to implement its plans.
In the final chapter, McCormick concludes that the partnership between science and activism that characterizes DSMs holds great potential for democratic practice and equitable social policies. She makes a case for the importance of holding science accountable and argues that this process will only improve the quality of science that is produced. She claims that this can result in more effective social policies being developed and implemented.
McCormick devotes almost no attention to the psychological sciences in her analysis, as her two main case studies focused on health and environmental concerns. Nevertheless, her broader argument (and most of her specific points) is applicable to the development and dissemination of knowledge in psychology, sociology, and related fields. For instance, most social scientists recognize the importance of collaborating with practitioners and the lay public, and yet few researchers are able to fully capitalize on such opportunities, whether due to lack of resources or to the constraints of hiring and promotion criteria for most mainstream academic programs. In addition to the potential loss of real-world knowledge to inform our theories and interventions, we also miss out on the opportunities to debate our scientific methods. We are as guilty as the medical and health sciences charged by McCormick of holding onto a mainstream approach to our science, which can limit our ability to be truly innovative in our methods. When practitioners and the lay public participate in our research endeavors (either by direct collaboration or by providing feedback), we can take the first steps toward democratizing our science, which will hopefully result in a more ecologically valid, and equitable, approach to the development and dissemination of knowledge.
AARTI IYER (email@example.com) received her PhD in Social Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz and is currently a faculty member at the University of Queensland (Australia). Her research investigates challenges to group-based inequality by individuals (e.g., through collective action) and organizations (e.g., through affirmative action). Her doctoral dissertation, which examined how White Americans and non-Indigenous Australians come to participate in political action to achieve racial equality, won second prize in the 2005 competition for SPSSI's Dissertation Award. In 2008, she was awarded the Jos Jaspars Early Career Award for excellence in research by the European Association of Social Psychology.