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Democracy and ExpertiseReorienting Policy Inquiry$

Frank Fischer

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199282838

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199282838.001.0001

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Public Policy as Social Construct: Multiple Meanings in Sustainable Development

Public Policy as Social Construct: Multiple Meanings in Sustainable Development

(p.168) 6 Public Policy as Social Construct: Multiple Meanings in Sustainable Development
Democracy and Expertise

Frank Fischer (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter demonstrates the ways in which policy is more fundamentally a sociopolitical construct than technical/instrumental tool, as it is approached in much of policy science. Employing a constructivist sociology of knowledge, the discussion illustrates the ways in which a policy is a product of multiple realities and, as such, is as much a matter for interpretive analysis as it is techno-empirical assessment. To clarify the theoretical position, the second half of the chapter demonstrates the point through the political struggle over sustainable development in environmental policy. Beyond technical knowledge, the case points to how policies are socially experienced — in particular, how they supply citizens with the social sense of collective participation in mutual ventures with fellow members of their own communities.

Keywords:   sociology of knowledge, multiple realities, policy assumptions, politics of meaning, interpretive analysis, sustainable development, environmental politics, co-production, collaborative inquiry

In the previous chapter we saw the way in which Collins and Evans have failed to grasp the social epistemology of the public realm.1 In particular, they have failed to take into account how competing social meanings are attached to technological objects and how they can later become problematic assumptions in public decisions about technologies. It is, in fact, an epistemological error regularly committed by those still subscribing to the largely dominant technocratic approach to policymaking, including the contemporary emphasis on “evidence‐based policymaking.” It is thus important to gain a better understanding of the ways in which social meanings both infuse and interconnect the technical and social spheres. Toward this end, the foregoing discussion suggested the need for a more systematic examination of the epistemics of the policy deliberation. We set the stage for this exploration in Part III with a more detailed illustration of the socially constructed nature of public policy, focusing in particular on the role of social assumptions in policy decision‐making. For this purpose, we turn to the interplay of multiple social meanings in the discursive struggle to politically define and shape the theoretical assumptions and practices of sustainable development, an environmental policy orientation inherently socio‐technical in nature.

(p.169) Policy Assumptions: Social meaning and multiple realities

The exploration of policy assumptions is first and foremost about the meanings that we attach to actions and events. In the social world, humans understand their environment through the social meanings they assign to the elements that constitute it. Whereas physical objects have no intrinsic meanings, humans linguistically construct their social world as sets of meaningful relationships, both institutional and interpersonal. Human experience, from this phenomenological perspective, is embedded in spheres of non‐material social, personal, and cultural meaning.

People, to be sure, do not construct and reconstruct their social worlds as they please. Most of the time members of society live in a social world constructed around previously given meanings that they take for granted. As a result of their socialization, this world of meanings generally comes to them more or less as an extant, fixed reality. Many of the ideas and social understandings upon which their world was constructed are so deeply embedded in the societal institutions and practices that they are difficult to recognize or identify. Typically, they are buried in everyday practices and treated as part of the nature of things. Indeed, for many, these ideas and beliefs take on the impression in the language of the everyday world as being natural. Even when people do have an appreciation of the social construction of these ideas and understandings, the original meanings of their forefathers may not be directly accessible to them. While these ideational constructions were usually appropriate at that time, they may no longer be relevant or right for a new generation and its social circumstances. Under such circumstance they can become problematic and subject to dispute.

While most people are first and foremost products of their social environment, they also can be agents affecting the world in which they live. One of the primary features of the politics of social change is the calling of particular meanings into question. Social movements involved in issues such as civil rights, women's liberation, or environmental protection have organized their struggles around calling attention to underlying social assumptions and their less obvious implications for contemporary life. Today, for example, women are no longer “ladies” or “girls.” More than just different words for citizens of the same gender, these words identify different sets of social relationships. Anyone who fails to take notice of this runs the risk of getting quickly redressed.

This understanding of social reality is profoundly important for the way we approach the study of social inquiry, including public policy. (p.170) Dependent on social meaning—derived from goals, motives, intentions, purposes, and values—the analysis of social action has more in common with history and literature than with physical science. Rather than seeking proofs through formal logic and empirical experimentation, the investigation of social action requires the use of discursive constructs—metaphors in particular—to organize and connect different experiences based on perceived similarities. The meaning of a social experience is assessed in terms of its position in the larger patterns of which it is a part, be it a situation, a social system, or an ideology.

The failure of social scientists, including Collins and Evans, to connect or relate empirical findings to the social understandings of those under investigation is very much related to the disputes which have arisen. In their case, they take the understandings associated with technological society and its practice as clear and given; for them they are beyond challenge. By embracing the meanings of this dominant world, and thus treating their propositions as if they were based on unquestioned views, they in effect assign to them the sociocultural understandings of the political and economic elites of technological society. In doing so, they fail to recognized that much of the politics associated with technological controversies—of the kind that they wish to bring to an end—represents challenges to these understandings advanced by subordinates groups. This failure to translate and discuss empirical findings in the wider context of social meanings germane to the full play of politics underlies the charge of social irrelevance that has often plagued social science, including the social studies of science and technology. If the subtle pretence that empirical findings speak for themselves has managed to endure in much of academic social science, it can more quickly become a problem in an applied field of inquiry such as policy analysis, where the explicit goal is to facilitate real‐world decision processes. Policy processes are entirely interwoven with dominant and competing systems of social meaning.

Policy meaning: Intepreting assumptions

The investigation of politics, and thus the making of public policy, is about politicians, interest groups, and citizens who hold multiple and changing meanings about the political actions and events that transpire in the world in which they operate. Indeed, the creation and recreation of meaning is a crucial dimension in the political manoeuvre for advantage—whether it be about the construction of beliefs about events, policies, problems, or (p.171) political leaders. Such meanings, typically reflected in the assumptions we hold about the world and how it works, are basic to the mobilization of support for particular actions. And the same, of course, holds true for efforts to immobilize the political opposition.

The potency of political language does not stem merely from its description of the world as empiricists have maintained. Rather, it comes from its construction and reconstruction of the world—its interpretations of past experiences, its evocation of the unobservable aspects in the present, and constructions of possibilities and expectations for the future. These features make language a powerful constitutive force within politics. And, as such, the ability to use it effectively is an essential resource in the politics of policymaking.

Such constructions are worked out and in significant part conveyed through symbols. Created through language and communicative interaction, symbols signify the meanings of particular events and offer standards for judging what is good and bad. Edelman (1977, 1988), for example, illustrates how words such as ‘welfare’ generate images that cause people to reject the claims of groups in need of social assistance. Because the interests of different groups give rise to diverging meanings, as Edelman (1988: 15) put it, national security is understood differently by each of the parties concerned with it (e.g., the various branches of the arms forces, the General Dynamics Corporation, that firm's workers, the Women's International Leagues for Peace and Freedom, and potential draftees). In this sense, a problem is the result of negotiations among groups with competing definitions. This can, of course, be understood as interest group politics, but it differs from the standard approach that sees each group pursuing its own interest in a particular context. Here groups have different interests, but they also define and understand the problems and interests differently.

What is more, the reasons political actors generally offer for their policy objectives are rationalizations designed to persuade particular audiences. Various theorists have shown the way different actors employ particular words in defending policy positions or marginalizing their opponents. Competing political actors speak and write as if their language is a transparent lense through particular events and objects might be observed. But while purporting to be honest, rational, clear, and informative, such actors typically use language that is often one‐sided, illogical, or patronizing. It is common for such speech to be filled with false metaphors, misleading analogies, and obscure ambiguities. Ideological arguments, as Edelman has demonstrated, are generally advanced through a (p.172) “dramaturgy of objective description,” which masks the performative function of political language (Edelman 1998: 15). In the name of such description, the acceptability of the policy argument ultimately depends on how effectively it succeeds in rationalizing a situation to its intended audience.

Basic to the policy process, then, is a struggle over social and political symbols invoked by competing actors (Maynard‐Moody and Kelly 1993: 71). Indeed, the symbolic categories into which different problems and solutions are placed will ultimately determine the policy initiatives to be undertaken. On this view, the competing actors in the policy process, including professional policy communities, operate in a web of independent associations fused together through shared symbols. Such groups envision policy ideas that relate to particular conceptions of the “good society” as they struggle for common as well as personal interests (Stone 2002). The constructivist approach to public policy, for this reason, rejects the idea that individual interests are simply given. From this perspective, the analyst needs to interpretively account for how citizens get their images of the world in which they live, how they are socially constructed, and the ways these images shape individual interests and policy preferences.

Policy, as such, is a social construct rather than a self‐defining phenomenon. As a sociopolitical agreement on a course of action or (inaction) designed to resolve or mitigate a problem, a policy is a created discursively. From a constructivist perspective, the political agreement upon which a policy rests refers to an understanding based on a set of normative and empirical beliefs embedded in narrative story‐line. As such, there can be no inherently unique decisions, institutions, or actors constituting a public policy that are only to be identified, uncovered, and explained (Heclo 1972). Public policy is, in this regard, an analytical category with a substantive content that cannot simply be empirically researched; more fundamentally, it has to be interpreted. Hence our understanding of a policy and its outcomes cannot be separated from the ideas, theories, and criteria by which the policy is analysed and described (Majone 1989: 147).

The standard “production model” of policy, emphasizing efficiency and effectiveness, fails to capture the nature of the process (Stone 2002). The essence of policymaking, as Stone emphasizes, is the struggle over ideas and their meanings. Recognizing that shared meanings motivate people to action, as well as forge individual strivings into collective understandings, ideas are the medium of exchange in policymaking. They constitute a mode of influence as powerful, some would even say more powerful, (p.173) than money, votes, or guns. In this view, policymaking is regularly a discursive struggle over the assumptions that shape problem definitions, the boundaries of the categories used to explicate them, the evaluative criteria for their assessment, and the meanings of the ideals that guide particular actions.

Viewed in this way, each policy‐related idea is a normative argument—or rather a set of interrelated arguments—favouring different ways of looking at the world. The task of the policy analyst must then include an examination of the multiple understandings of what otherwise appears to be a single concept, in particular how these understandings are created, and how they are manipulated as part of policymaking strategies. Uncovering the hidden arguments embedded in each policy concept, Stone (2002) explains, can illuminate and even at times resolve the political conflicts that would otherwise only appear to be on the surface of the issue.

More than an instrumental strategy for public intervention, a policy must also be conceptualized and interpreted as a symbolic entity, the meaning of which is determined by its relationship to the particular situation, social system, and ideological framework of which it is a part (Fischer 1995). As Yanow (2000) puts it, policies are neither symbolic nor substantive. They are both at once. Even purely instrumental intentions are communicated and perceived through symbolic means (Yanow 2000: 12). The creation and implementation of a policy is about the creation of symbols, with programme names, organizations and rituals, even the design and decor of buildings being part of the process. In this formulation, notions of cause and effect need not disappear, as critics of interpretive analysis often argue, but the focus on such relationships does not take precedence over interpretive analysis.

Much of the best constructivist research has to do with determining how something comes to be considered a policy problem. In the constructionist view, the problems which governments seek to resolve are not just considered to have an ‘objective’ base in the economy or material structure of the society, but are also constructed in the realm of public and private discourse. As Edelman explains (1988: 12), such problems come into discourse, and therefore into existence as reinforcements of ideologies,” not because they simply exist or are essential for social well‐being.

Given these subjective—and thus less observable—dimensions of policy, it is difficult to justify the dominant “rational” modes technical analysis. On those rare occasions when social well‐being is not closely linked to value differences and objectives are comparatively non‐controversial, the standard technical approach to policy analysis—adjusting efficient means (p.174) to political ends—may suffice. In the real world of policy politics, though, the majority of the situations involve much more than the logic of effective means to achieve social goals. Moreover, means and ends are often inherently connected in such ways that make it difficult to see which is which. Is, for example, the death penalty a means to a necessary end, or it is an evil end unto itself? It depends on whom you ask.

Despite the emphasis placed on discovering the objective facts pertinent to a controversy, policy decisions thus turn as often as not on the meanings that the issues generate. Indeed, it is precisely that events are assigned different meanings by different groups that makes them politically controversial. Even when groups can come to an agreement on disputed facts, the question of what these facts mean to those in the situation is still open. A question such as whether drug addiction originates from the social inadequacies of the drug addicts themselves or is the product of particular social pathologies of life in poor neighborhoods does not lend itself to unambiguous empirical answers.

To be sure, political news coverage and politicians' speeches about policy issues lead people to believe that policies are about factual problems and technical solutions, or at least that they should be. But the political construction of policy problems attaches them, both explicitly and implicitly, to normative symbols of right or wrong, good and bad. Contemporary conservatives, for example, often search for and insist on policy solutions that fit their ideological emphasis on free market‐oriented solutions, regardless of the characteristics of the particular problem. Independently of any demonstrated effectiveness in eliminating a problem, a solution that emphasizes a greater role for government will be opposed as leading to the wrong kind of society. It is in this sense that a solution often goes out looking for a problem to solve.

Rather than taking the actions and assertions of politicians and policymakers as straightforward statements of intent, accounts of policy problems and issues need to examine and include the varying presuppositions about the meaning of social and political events. While factual information is not to be neglected, policy actions need to first and foremost be seen as resting on interpretations that reflect and sustain particular beliefs and ideologies. To be sure, empirical data and information play a role in policymaking, but their meaning is determined by how they fit into the particular arguments of a social context and the ideological framework brought to bear on it. Whereas the policy analyst can investigate the empirical dimensions of a problem and inform the political players of their findings, these research findings cannot be confused with an (p.175) explanation of policy politics. The meaning of the ‘facts’ to the political actors is determined by political discourses and the meanings they assign to them can never be divorced from the political struggle—often that is what they are about. The social problems that enter the policy process are thus social constructions built on an intermingling of empirical findings with social meanings and ideological orientations. To understand how a particular condition becomes constructed as a problem, the range of social constructions in the discourses and texts about it need to be explored in the situational context from which they are observed.

By naming a policy one way rather than another, diverse and contradictory responses to a spectrum of political interests can be either revealed or hidden. Because an emphasis on policy differences and inconsistencies can generate unwanted political conflicts, policy names are often designed to reassure or assuage citizens and politicians. To offer an example from an otherwise highly techno‐scientific issue, politicians speak of nuclear weapons as “peace‐keepers” rather than deadly missiles.

Finally, it is important to recognize that ambiguous meanings often have important political functions. Seeking to satisfy different interest groups at the same time, government policies frequently comprise a sequence of ambiguous claims and actions that contain logical inconsistencies. Given the would‐be irrationality of the process, policy scientists—technocratic analysts in particular—have devoted a good deal of energy to developing strategies for circumventing this inconvenient aspect of political reality. What they have generally missed, however, is the degree to which ambiguity enables conflicting groups to find ways to live with their differences. By helping to bring together citizens with varying policy preferences, ambiguous meanings often facilitates cooperation and compromise. Enabling politicians to blur or hide problematic implications of controversial decisions, ambiguity can assist in sidestepping barriers that otherwise block consensus‐building. People who benefit from the same policy but for different reasons can more easily find ways to agree.

Furthermore, policies designed to deal with social problems are important determinants of which actors will have the authority and power to deal with the issues they raise. As Baumgartner and Jones (1983) point out, when a policy is presented as dealing with a technical problem, professional experts will tend to dominate the decision process. It is point clearly reflected in Collins and Evan's conception of technical problems in the public realm. But when the political, ethical, or social dimensions of a problem are seen to be the primary characteristics, a much larger group of participants usually becomes actively involved. The point (p.176) is evident in the arguments of those who have taken issue with their call for a Third Wave; objecting to technocratic expertise, they call for public deliberation.

In the remainder of this chapter we turn to environmental policy to provide a more specific illustration of the role of policy meanings. We focus here on the way in which social and political meanings have initiated and influenced the development of a high profile policy agenda, namely the pursuit of sustainable development. Given that the professions of planning and policy science have largely developed a technical understanding of environmental crisis, the inherently socio‐technical nature of sustainable development lends itself to a comparison of conventional and constructivist approaches. What follows by way of comparison is unabashedly offered in the form of a critique, largely as it has been developed and advanced by critical environmental theorists. Toward this end, we need to begin with the critique of technocratic reason seen to be at the root of conventional environmental policymaking.

Decontextualized knowledge: Technocratic policy science and the environment

The policy sciences, as we have seen, have largely developed as a product of neo‐positivist epistemology. The technical rationalism of this mode of thought gives rise to a technocratic form of consciousness quite different from other worldviews and cultural orientations (Fischer 1990, 1995). Basic to its rationalistic worldview has been a fairly ambitious, if not arrogant, epistemological assumption—namely that the positivist method is the only valid means of obtaining “true knowledge.” Still today such knowledge is seen to supply the only solid basis for solutions to many of our economic and social problems, in particular environmental problems. It is seen to facilitate the rational design of social and ecological systems in ways that enable us to better produce and manage, if not altogether eliminate, the persistent conflicts and crises that now plague them.

More specifically, this worldview gives shape to an abstract, technical formulation of society and its ecological problems. Conceptualized in technical terms, ecological problems are freed from the cultural, psychological, and linguistic contexts that give them social meaning. Breaking off connections to tradition and “ordinary knowledge” through the power of its unique abstract language, this rationalist form of thought creates an illusion of cultural and historical transcendence which, in turn, sustains a (p.177) sense of political, cultural, and moral neutrality. In pursuit of the most efficient problem‐solving strategies, typically expressed in the precise but abstract models of mathematics, experts appear to objectively transcend partisan environmental interests and the politics of meaning to which they give rise. Their technical methodologies and modes of decision‐making are said to strive for value neutrality, if they are not in fact “value free.”

This technical—“value‐neutral”—understanding of environmental action is manifested through an administrative conceptualization of problem solving and policy formation. Basic to managerial strategy, the objective is to move as many environmental problems as possible into the realm of administrative decision‐making, where they can be structured and accessed in technical terms. Such problems are thus interpreted as issues in need of improved administrative design and technical decision‐making; their solutions are to be found through the application of managerial techniques, including environmental planning and policy analysis. A conviction fundamental to contemporary techno‐managerial strategy, it has come in environmental policymaking to be identified with the managerial understanding of “ecological modernization.”

Most fundamentally, such technocratic thinking fails to identify the distinction between two basic modes of reason, one technical and the other sociocultural. Each of these forms of reason pertains to different and autonomous realms of human activity. Whereas the sphere of economic production is governed by technical criteria such as efficiency, the world of everyday social life (including family, culture religions, and politics) is negotiated through social meaning and normative reason. Although each sphere is intertwined with the other, analytically they must be conceptualized as separate spheres governed by different modes of reason. Technocratic thought, however, fails to recognize these distinctions and has inappropriately applied its technical criteria to the society as whole. Such technical reason, through its unquestioned belief in technological and material progress, obscures an underlying epistemological concatenation of the two separate realms of human activity. Planners and managers blur distinctions between the worlds of economic production and social interaction, thus making it difficult for many to distinguish between the priorities of the economic system and the values and goals of the social realm. It is not that people should necessarily reject modern‐day economic and technological progress, as some radical environmentalists have argued, but rather that they should establish their own meaningful relationships to it through processes of intersubjective discourse (Habermas 1973). This failure to examine the fundamental (p.178) questions of value and social meaning posed by technological progress and the environmental crisis to which it has given rise presents a deep seated paradox: as technologically based affluence increases in advanced industrial societies, so does the sense of both meaningless social drift and environmental insecurity among the citizens who benefit from the material output.

Inherent to this strategy is a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, form of authoritarianism. Once the idea that we can empirically calculate and administratively design “the right way” to accomplish our environmental goals is accepted, there is little reason to engage in the exploration of other views. The “rational” person is the one who agrees to submit to the technical and administrative knowledge derived through the proper application of expert methodologies. The authority of the expert, in this view, should take precedence over the democratic exchange of opinions draw from the everyday world of ordinary reason. In the process, questions of meaning are taken for granted; they do not come into question.

Underlying the hubris of this position is an anthropocentric understanding of the world. “Technocratic man,” in this perspective, has managed to construe humankind's unique powers of the mind as legitimation for his own rapacious appropriation of the physical world. Nature, in short, is tamed and subordinated to serve man's own economic needs. Emphasizing the mechanistic character of the physical laws governing nature, this worldview takes nature's creator to be something of an engineer. Organized according to the laws of nature, human as well as physical nature, the environment is seen as posing a constellation of “problems” that can best be technically and administratively engineered by experts. This, in fact, has led some to foresee a kind of environmental technocracy (Ophuls 1977). In this view, such questions will be turned to an enlightened environmental elite capable of making the tough decisions based on the technical facts of the situation (Bahro 1987). Collins and Evans, one might assume, would concur.

Sustainable development as social construct: Socio‐cultural assumptions and the politics of meaning

The repercussions of this technocratic mentality and its methods, as environmentalists point out, are especially striking in today's ecological crisis. What began several hundred years ago as the techno‐industrial exploitation of nature's resources for unlimited industrial progress today (p.179) constitutes a serious degradation of the ecosystem. Although substantial amounts of research and development monies are being poured into the search for technological solutions, much of this misses the point. By and large, the approach is governed by the same kind of technocratic thinking that gave rise to the problem in the first place. Rather than looking for new relationships between technology, nature, and society (emphasizing conservation and a more efficient planning and control of economic growth), experts move forward on the premise that future technologies and better managerial practices will themselves get us out of our present fix. Ignoring the need for a new “existential balance” among productive technologies, nature, and human purpose, the technocratic response to the ecological crisis is described by many of its opponents as a paradigmatic example of metaphysical crisis.

It is not that technical considerations are irrelevant to the ecological question, but rather that the need to attend to the ways in which ecological degradation is more fundamentally a sociocultural problem is even more important. Toward this end, as environmentalists have argued, we need to better understand how the technical dimensions of ecology are interwoven with complex social, intellectual, and institutional realities that create the ecological problem. Rather than simply accepting the utilitarian criteria of economists and planners—standards that neglect basic questions concerning the nature of social needs and the extant patterns of consumption, as well as the art of reflecting on them—environmentalists insist on meaningful discussions about needs, social values, and human purpose. Instead of substituting such discussion with techniques of risk and liability assessment, normative deliberation about the more basic sociocultural aspects of sustainability has to take place. The task is thus to find a sustainable balance between the technical and the social. Specifically, technical objects and analyses have to be examined in the social contexts that supply them with meaning.

The challenge is readily apparent in the struggle to define and shape the concept of environmental sustainability. Sustainable development, as initially advanced, is an inherently normative concept aimed at redressing the ecological imbalances among industrial development, environment degradation, human health, and the social relations underlying them. Through the concept of intergenerational equity, sustainable development depends on answers to a host of profoundly important questions—normative questions—about the responsibility of present societies and their communities to the future, the relation of the rich to the poor, the distribution of the costs involved in environmental clean up, questions (p.180) about the relative merits of relying on markets or states, the relation of individual freedoms to the collective good, as the well as questions about our appropriate relationship to other species.

Since the positing of sustainability as the over‐arching environmental goal, however, environmental planners and policy agencies have steadily mis‐translated the concept into a technical strategy for programmatic reform of existing socio‐economic relationships. It is an approach often called “ecological modernization” (emphasizing technology, cost‐benefit analysis, and market strategies), a strategy designed to technically guide and manage the future of advanced industrial society.2 Toward this end, universities now train sustainable development experts to think in terms of calculating and planning the “carrying capacities” of regional and local ecosystems through the efficient application of such “ecoknowledge.”

In the textbook, all of this might sound good. But in the real world of environmental politics, the assumptions—both technical and social—upon which the strategy is built are estimable. Most obvious is the fact that our knowledge is nowhere sophisticated enough to reveal the limits of nature, thus permitting us to exploit resources safely up to that limit. As environmentalists point out, we are only barely beginning to develop the capability to measure accurately and predict the phenomenon of climate change. The idea that such environmental change can literally be monitored and managed with the kinds of precision suggested by many economists and planners, it is argued, is more a scientific ideology than a certainty within our reach, especially not within the critical time frame posed by global warming.

Building social consensus: Deliberating the assumptions

Because science cannot answer the critical questions with any certainty, both the nature and implications of such complex environmental issues, they remain open to interpretation. In such situations, even technical knowledge is open to interpretation and thus easily translated into political disagreement. Each party to the dispute can use this interpretative ambiguity to argue the case according to their own needs and interests. Those who support action to stem the growth of greenhouse gases can point to the amassing evidence. Those who oppose the costs of such interventions can stress that it has in no final way been proven. In such (p.181) cases, science actually intensifies rather than mitigates environmental politics. Instead of solving the problem, it only becomes another sort of political ammunition interests groups and their counter‐experts fire at one another.

Beyond this inability to provide widely accepted scientific predictions, the technocratic approach poses a subtler, but much more politically significant concern related to the very definition of environmental problems. In order to frame an environmental problem, technically it is necessary to hold constant the basic structures and processes of society. This is typically achieved by assuming people's common interests in dealing with environmental efforts. While this might seem to encourage unified environmental action, it tends to conceal the economic assumptions, social choices, and risks that in fact block such action. By treating existing social and political structures as fixed, such models serve to draw attention away from the competing interests and understandings of differentiated social groups and nations, especially those among the rich and the poor, that are basic to grasping the causes of the problem, let alone the complicated political task of shaping acceptable solutions. Such inattention to national and localized political economies almost ensures that scientists, both natural and social, will continue to be fail to anticipate emerging conflicts and thus lead to false predictions. By setting the problem outside the context of social conflict, the “neutral and objective” pretences of scientific and technological solutions further work to block effective political consensus‐building. Once the problem is analytically abstracted from the political realm, citizens and their governments tend to be separated from the environmental consequences of their actions; it obscures their need to assume responsibility for the outcomes. By treating environmental degradation as the negative effect of the social and economic activities that characterize our daily lives instead of everyday life as the cause of the degradation, scientists can concentrate on finding “technical fixes” to mitigate problematic side effects. Such solutions, of course, merely focus on pollution at the “end‐of‐the pipe,” rather than the more challenging task of reinventing production processes to eliminate the need for the pipe. As such, they cover over the need to examine how pollution is more fundamentally a sociocultural problem related to the industrial way of life and the social assumptions that supply it with meaning.

Many fear an effort to open the door to a broader political examination of the underlying social assumptions of the environmental problem. Indeed, this is one of the key concerns that attracts people to the technocratic approach. For them, the technical problem is weighty enough; (p.182) attaching it to a whole host of conflictual questions about the competing ways of life—issues and assumptions about the social distribution of wealth, political participation, corporate control, government regulation, etc.—is only to court political gridlock (Bast et al. 1994). Without necessarily denying the pressing nature of these social and economic problems, so the argument, the urgency of the environmental problem should exempt it from such considerations.

This position, however, fails to confront the socio‐technical foundations of the environmental problem. Which is another way to say there is no escape from dealing with the underlying social assumptions; environmental politics ultimately turns on them. In this regard, the challenge poses two problems. One is the scientific task of building analytical models capable of including the dynamic effects of social as well as natural systems and how each influences the other. Basic here is the need to learn how to link models of endangered ecosystems with the human actions and sociopolitical processes that foster and sustain them. Especially important is discovering how to interconnect the multi‐levels of government, local, national, and global. Such research involves figuring out how to account for the fact that regions have a certain autonomy in terms of the larger systems of which they are apart, as well as the fact that bioregions and social systems often do not coincide in space and time.

But even more important for present purposes is the second challenge concerning the policy implications drawn from such models. That is, how do we move from an analytical understanding of the environment to the political task of forging a policy consensus around a particular model of the problem? In so far as each conceptual model of the environmental problem portends a particular impact on the sociopolitical world, the affected groups invariably seek to fend for their own interests. Given that these issues raise complicated problems related to burden‐sharing, especially between the haves and have‐nots, it is inevitable that each negatively affected group will do more than merely examine the technical data. Straight away, they zero in on the social assumptions that differentiate their ways of life. If the assumptions are disputed, the analysis is little more than a useless exercise.3

The question, then, is how do we take action in face of both scientific uncertainties, relative socioeconomic inequalities, and competing social assumptions? The answer is found in political coalition‐building. Beyond technical analysis, environmental solutions have little value unless they (p.183) can generate the political consensus necessary to adopt and implement them. For this reason, there is no choice but to open the environmental debate to a wider discussion of the economic and social assumptions upon which it rests. Viewed in this way, the problem has to be turned upside down. Before technical analysis can play a meaningful role there need to be basic understandings about who gets what, when, and how. Toward this end, citizens and the larger public need to be brought into the policy deliberations (Irwin 1995; Fischer 2000).

Given the nature of the social and political conflicts that accompany environmental deliberation, this is a formidable assignment. It means the development of a more participatory form of democratic decision‐making than generally practiced in contemporary Western societies. It requires innovating new mechanisms for bringing together scientific expertise and democratic political deliberation. Required is a new epistemological understanding of these interactions. As argued earlier, this involves replacing the scientific framework with a multi‐dimensional postempiricist perspective that recognizes the place of both empirical and normative modes of reason (Fischer 1995, 2003).

The co‐production of environmental knowledge: Implications for collaborative inquiry

From the constructivist understanding of scientific activity we have learned the ways in which knowledge is co‐produced by science and society. Co‐production, as Jasanoff (2004) explains, focuses on the ways in which the world is known and meaningfully represented. The natural world and society are together inseparable dimensions of the world in which we choose to inhabit. Knowledge in its various forms—and material embodiments—is at the same time a product of the social activities that constitute a particular form of life. That is, society is an organized embodiment of knowledge; science, in turn, works with the support of societal institutions. Formal knowledge and the technologies derived from science, as Jasanoff (2004: 2) puts it, are both embedded “in social practices, identities, norms, discourses, and institutes—in short, in all the building blocks of what we term the social.” The approach, as such, emphasizes the social cognitive understandings, meanings, and commitments fundamental to science while underscoring as well its epistemic and material foundations.

Co‐production, as a postempiricist interpretive process, is central to a proper understanding of environmental science (Forsyth 2007). Most (p.184) fundamental, it shows the ways in which the objects of environmental study are constructed and shaped by social understandings, particularly as reflected in language and discourse. For an easy example, notice how the meaning of environmental terms ranging from bad weather, climate change, or global warming can all refer to the same phenomena but lead to quite different social understandings and thus policy implications.

Similarly, Latour (1993, 1987) has argued that such combinations of technical findings and social framings give rise to socio‐natural entities that he calls “hybrid” objects. Hybrids are common or ordinary objects that have the appearance of being real, unitary, and uncontroversial. In practice, however, they reflect diverse sets of historical framings and social experiences specific to particular actors and societal formations. The term, as such, refers to the social factors, both historical and contemporary, that have contributed to and shaped what is referred as reality. Hybridization is employed to help reveal the temporal processes through which social‐natural objects or “quasi‐objects” get bound together through sociopolitical discourses. It shows, for example, the ways in which a Western society's understanding of nature is a social construction resulting from a merging of a range of scientific findings, diverse experiences, and social norms. For this reason, efforts to create clear‐cut rational explanatory devices for determining the causal relations between nature and society necessarily fail. Beyond empirical measurement, we have to look at the processes of “translation” through which networks between natural and social objects permit us to identify the way people experience nature.

From this co‐productive perspective facts in both the physical and the social worlds thus depend to varying degrees upon underlying assumptions and meanings that define their objects and events. What is taken to be an established fact is in effect the decision of a particular community of inquirers who work within a particular set of theoretical presuppositions. Customarily, of course, we simply accept a particular view of the world; the presuppositions that undergird it are taken‐for‐granted and seldom come into question. Not only does science take its questions from the social understandings of society of which it is a part, scientific claims are the relative products of a community of practitioners who establish the evidential criteria and guide the research processes through which truth claims are decided. The communities that render these opinions, as social bodies, constitute hierarchies of practitioners organized in significant part around their own internal power structures, interests, and status claims that are part of society more generally (Kuhn 1962).

(p.185) A second interpretive consideration of particular relevance to environmental protection is that of uncertainty. In matters of risk, the degree to which science can answer and resolve the complex questions about risk is uncertain, even limited (Ravetz 1999; Novotny 2003). Not only is the evidence often soft, there are simply too many factors contributing to the uncertainty of scientific explanations. This does not render science useless, but it does mean that its judgments have to understood as important considerations rather than as definitive answers. Those engaged in the decision‐making process always need to weight the various social and pragmatic considerations against the technical uncertainties. What is the best thing to do under the circumstances? Should we accept synthetic biology and support its efforts to invent new life forms? Is it moral and ethical to tinker with nature in this way? What if it leads to the manipulation of species, human and animal? How about the possibility of creating dangerous organisms that medical and governmental bodies are unable to bring under control? In short, do the potential scientific and medical benefits out weight the risks, often unknown? These sorts of judgments require a multi‐disciplinary deliberative perspective. Decisions under such circumstances are best reached by discussing things from different points of view, both scientific and normative. We need, in short, to consider the range of competing perspectives that can legitimately judge the normative implications of the different choices and assess them against the goals and values of the communities at issue. Scientific communities, for this reason, are only one of the bodies capable of making judgments about reality. Other groups grounded in different forms of rationality can also make relevant judgments about the same phenomena. At specific points, as the social studies of science and co‐production have shown, this also includes lay people with relevant social and empirical experiences (Sillitoe 2007). Not only do citizens often possess particular facts of the situation that are needed by the decisionmakers, their legitimation and motivation are frequently essential for the effective implementation of environmental policies and regulations.

This integration of empirical and normative inquiry requires a framework of practical reason that organizes and guides such deliberation. Such a framework includes technical information but places it within the situational, societal, and ideological contexts in which public policies are embedded (Fischer 1995). In addition to incorporating norms and values, such an approach can also go considerable distance toward overcoming a knee‐jerk resistance to science on the part of some citizens. To this end, the task is to set up a dialectical exchange between the theoretical knowledge (p.186) of the expert and the sociocultural reason of ordinary citizens, including lay knowledge relevant to the decision. The challenge has led to a focus on participatory or collaborative inquiry of the type we examined in chapters 3 and 4 and to which we again return in chapters 9 and 10.

Finally, this constructivist, co‐production understanding of scientific inquiry also helps us to better comprehend the nature of a process that has long created consternation among students of politics—namely, why citizens often fail to use the information that they often have at their disposal (Kuklinski 2007)? Research about public opinion typically concludes that citizens don't have much information about the relevant policy issues of the day and that when they do, they fail to take it into account. The assessment in this chapter shows this judgment to be misleading, even though not altogether wrong. It is indeed the case that citizens often appear indifferent to empirical evidence, or at least particular facts and findings. More specifically, citizens prove to be selective with the uses of information; when it doesn't fit into their own interests and ideologies, they often suppress or ignore it. But this is more than ignorance or irrationality, as it is generally portrayed. Such judgments fail to recognize that policy information is judged as well against the assumptions that it supports. As such, the cognitive behaviour of the citizen is more that a simple lack of use, an indifference to knowledge. Given that politics is about supporting or changing a particular state of affairs, people in politics use different frames of reference to determine the relevance and thus applicability of particular pieces of information. Fundamentally, they are less interested in proving something—one way or another—than following a course of action grounded in their belief systems. In this sense, it is true that they can ignore fact and findings for ideological reasons, but not because they are irrational. Valid information about a policy orientation that one doesn't want will be slighted or ignored. An assessment of its use can only be determined by examining the information against particular normative assumptions and standards. It is a point missed when opinion researchers simply focus on the use of facts, without looking at the way they are judged by competing belief systems.


This chapter examined the ways in which policies rest on social understandings, in particular meanings that are often embedded in their underlying assumptions and thus less apparent. As a response to Collins and Evans's (p.187) failure to understand how technical knowledge is co‐constructed in particular social contexts, the discussion examined the ways assumptions and ideologies, as well as the motivations and intentions associated with them, determine how people orient themselves to empirical findings of policy‐relevant research. Technical information, to be sure, plays an important role in the evaluation of policy goals and objectives; it is essential information for the assessment of the causal and strategic relationships related to the instrumental achievement of objectives. But, as we have seen, policies are first and foremost judged in the social world of politics in terms of how they resonate with the assumptions and meanings that organize and structure the competing political beliefs and ideologies. The chapter then turned to the case of sustainable development to offer an illustration of the co‐production of social meanings in the discursive struggle to define and shape the policy assumptions and practices of environmental reform.

In the next chapter we further explore the role of meaning through an examination of the narrative form of knowing. Narrative story lines, as we shall see, are the primary vehicles for the discursive organization and communication of social meaning. As such, they serve as important vehicles of sociopolitical understanding and thus policy learning. (p.188)


(1) Social epistemology refers to the investigation of the social dimensions of knowledge and and the socio‐institutional and political processes that influence and shape its production. See Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy.

(2) On ecological modernization, see Young (2000) and York and Rose (2003).

(3) The history of the relations between rich countries of the north hemisphere and the poor countries in the southern half since the first Earth Summit in Stockholm in 1972 has been a story of disagreement about social and political assumptions (Leis and Viola 1995).