Call for papers

12. The role of science in the context of power

Coordinator(s): Ketil Skogen, Olve Krange, Helene Figari and Håkon Aspøy (Norwegian Institute for Nature Research)

Science between a rock and a hard place – how should sociology respond?

Sociologists have often studied the role of science in modern societies in a context of power, explaining how science is intertwined with power structures in multiple ways. When the state acts, its actions are normally based on (or legitimized by) expert knowledge and advice. Studies of working-class and rural culture have described a deep skepticism of academic forms of knowledge, rooted partly in an experience of precisely the connection between expert knowledge and power. Sociologists have commonly taken a stance in defense of lay knowledge and taken it upon themselves to expose how expert knowledge often contributes to perpetuation of power relations. But what happens when science comes under fire from powerful actors, as we can see in so many fields today? This is not least the case in the environmental sector, where elaborate efforts are undertaken to undermine climate science and established knowledge in other areas that has previously guided government and set the premises for public debate. A main goal is to create an impression of scientific disagreement, and large resources are used to accomplish this.

These well-funded and well-organized efforts at undermining science have become much bolder than before, and at the same time the opposition against “elites” (and their expert knowledge) has been growing in disadvantaged segments of the population. Powerful corporate and political actors seem to hitch onto this unrest, and construe themselves as defenders of common sense and as allies in the struggle against illegitimate elites – meaning in essence the highly educated middle class, the media and indeed the state (which is taken to be synonymous with a bureaucracy populated by middle-class academics). They cast themselves as victims of the same marginalization that “ordinary people” experience, thus furthering their own (economic) interests while simultaneously stoking grassroots anti-elitism.

Despite historic class antagonism, there has always been a convergence of interests between workers and the owners of “the means of production”: Material production and resource extraction tie them together in a common destiny. Facing all kinds of threats to those activities, seen as originating in the ever more powerful middle class and its “over-reaching” state, this alliance has had a substantial boost. The “war on science” is at the heart of the backlash we now see in the environmental sector, but also in many other policy fields.

Undermining science (and thus for example environmental policies) from a position of power in order to protect material interests is not the same as challenging it from below and exposing its relation to power structures. However, it is often made out to be the same. It is important to critique the role of science and expert knowledge as instruments of power, but it is equally important to distinguish this from an “anti-elitism” that is really about something else: precisely to consolidate power and secure economic interests.

How should sociology respond to these developments? We invite presentations dealing with all aspects of “the war on science, not least in the context of contemporary social unrest. We are especially interested in contributions that address the dilemmas we have outlined above, and tasks for sociology that emanates from them.