(rough draft made from notes taken by rapporteurs and being reworked by authors)

Panelists: Prof Wiebe Bijker and Shiv Visvanthan
Date: 29th Nov 2008

Introduction to the Panel discussion - Shambu:


The need to have some discussions on this theme arose from the public talk and discussions on ‘alternatives to Interlinking of Rivers’ organized by CWS in May this year. It was evident during the course of the discussions that no matter how involved, factual, analytic one’s scientific arguments were the scientific establishment could ignore them altogether due to the existing complacency about science and technology and its role in Indian society. Unlike most institutions in India that are open to democratic scrutiny and thereby control, the scientific elite in India in particular have largely remained outside democratic purview. This theme has engaged the attention of many KICS members since. For example Kavitha has shared the recent work of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) and its partners in using the RTI or Right To Information Act to very good effect in democratizing the debates on genetic engineering. It was felt that we should have a more detailed discussion on this theme from people who have looked at the relation of science and technology with society at some depth and get them to share their insights.

I would invite Wiebe Bijker and Shiv Visvanathan to share their views and insights on this theme.




Wiebe Bijker


In our round of introductions this morning, I presented myself as an interdisciplinary university researcher, who tries to survive by posing as ‘a one-eyed king in the land of the blind’: acting as historian among sociologists, as sociologist among engineers, as engineer among historians. When preparing for this session on Science, Technology, and Democracy, I initially figured that I would just share some experiences with you but not give a proper paper — this is not a scholarly conference after all.

However, I now realize that in this context—in our KICS Forum—I cannot play the evasive trick of this one-eyed king by trying to escape my role of academic, of a university professor. The KICS forum derives its value, I think and I will argue today, from its heterogeneity of membership: academics who work in a university, researchers working in NGO’s, policy makers working in NGO’s and state institutions, … But this will only work if each of us plays her/his role: so, no escapist manoeuvres by me allowed! I will give you a proper academic presentation—though of a very sketchy and impromptu nature.

I would like to make three main points.

  • All science and technology are political

  • To build democracy, there needs to be an engagement with science and technology– all politics is scientific and technological

  • We need ‘hybrid forums’ such as KICS to help bridge various ‘insides’ and ‘outsides’


Last week I attended a conference about natural dyeing and one of the workshops in the afternoon, organized by Dastkar Andhra. In these workshops practitioners demonstrated some of their skills and taught a bit of their knowledge. It struck me how the practice of natural dyeing—at some level—is similar to the practice of a scientific laboratory or a high-tech innovation centre. At that interesting level, the integration of expertise and skills, of technologies and knowledge, of theory and practice has very similar characteristics. This ‘blue brochure’ (beautifully produced on indigo dyed cotton hand-made paper), title “Different Voices—A communiqué from Dastkar Andhra”, nicely captures this: the use of natural dyes is

“a form of local knowledge, in that it [is] based on an understanding of the regional flora and fauna, the kind of water available, the moisture content in the air, etc. Several natural dyes also had a ritual base, in the sense that the saree or any other product dyed in certain natural colours has a definite user (or market, in the modern sense) in mind. All this meant that even the buyer/user of the cloth was close to the weaver, and both were linked through a common system of exchange practices in the rural economy.” (p.4)

This analysis is very similar to recent studies of scientific and technological practice, such as Harry Collins’ classic study of the development of the TEA laser (Collins, H. M. (1974). The Tea Set: Tacit Knowledge and Scientific Networks. Science Studies, 4, 165-186.). Here, Collins describes how it is impossible to build a TEA laser on the basis of only written (‘codified’) knowledge: the tacit knowledge, residing in the scientists’ fingertips or between their ears but not on paper, to build the laser could only be acquired by personal contact with the other group of scientists who had successfully built the first laser. The ‘blue brochure’ neatly identifies this key role of tacit knowledge:

“What is the form in which skills associated with the craft exist, and how are they acquired and transferred? Can technique be separated from a way of life? How do we understand and negotiate ownership of knowledge in these spheres? (…) Most of these are part of craft traditions where knowledge/skills have long been passed down generations. It constitutes a body of tacit knowledge, or non-codified information that lives through practice. The question of technology here cannot be divorced from the socio-cultural and economic context, of which the natural resource base is a part.” (p.3)

On one crucial point, however, I will argue that the authors of the ‘blue brochure’—Seema, Shyama, Annapurna, and Latha—are too modest, or, better: are not bold enough. I left out one key sentence from the previous quotation: “These are not easy questions to answer in any artisanal industry”, they observed. The Dastkar Andhra authors thus conjecture a difference between ‘traditional’ artisanal practice and ‘modern’ scientific and engineering practice. This difference is, I want to argue, questionable: the example of the TEA laser and many other studies in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) and the social construction of technology (SCOT) have shown that in modern contexts the role of tacit knowledge is crucial too.

My argument does not contradict the historical analysis of the Dastkar Andhra authors, that codifying efforts in the past robbed the local craftsmen of their knowledge and allowed industry to ‘black-box’ this knowledge (as I would cal it) and start large-scale production. The STS claim about the inevitable tacit character of knowledge is specifically relevant for the front of research, for the innovative edge of technology. Stealing natural dyeing knowledge from artisans and then black-boxing it will also modify (and typically decrease the quality) this knowledge. One conclusion, then, is that there will always be a quality difference between the artisanal mode of knowledge production and the industrial one. Another conclusion is that there are good opportunities for innovation in indigenous knowledge and technology systems, which may restore some of the initiative and quality superiority. The general conclusion of my first point for the KICS Forum, this is that all science and technology (the southern as much as the northern, the traditional as much as the modern, the artisanal as much as the industrial) is political.

That brings me to my second point: to remind you that all politics is scientific and technological. I do not want to argue this in any detail now—it is obvious to all of us (and with Shambu I can add some relevant publications to the KICS distribution list or to the future website). The combination of the previous point (all science and technology are political) and this second point (all politics are scientific and technological) should, I think, form the basis for our discussions of today’s theme of science & technology & democracy; it forms, I think, even the core of KICS’ mission.

This combination of two observations about the nature of the relationship between science, technology, and politics generates a host of issues and questions, and of possible research programmes and action campaigns. All discussions about democracy somehow relate to the fundamental theme of how to balance autonomy and solidarity. When our KICS focus on knowledge is added, this theme assumes a specific form. In the past few days I noted, for example, the following:

  • How to intervene in this village to stimulate innovation and strengthen its economic and social fabric without making the people in the village dependant on us (that is: Dastkar Andhra) and thus weaken their autonomy?

  • How to build new knowledge systems, transcending the unfruitful distinction between traditional/modern and recognising the intricate relation between the technical and the social?

  • How to get change in society while strengthening society: working inside and outside, with and against, mainstream institutions?

  • How to collaborate with mainstream institutions (such as the World Bank) without being hijacked or betraying our own principles?

As some of these questions suggest, these issues of democratisation of what I like to call our ‘technological culture’ always entail bridging and boundary work. Democratization is not merely a matter of state politics. It is also about engineering alternatives, recognizing the politics of knowledge. It is also about intervening in mainstream policies. It is about taking on multiple roles. It thus is necessary to formulate the relation between different discourses: internal and external to a scientific system, a technological system, a political system, a village; and to develop strategies to link and bridge these externals and internals. Then we can hope to connect the building of democracy with the innovation of science and technology—and, indeed, to formulate a science policy for the people, which hen will be as much a democratisation policy, or a technology policy, or a livelihood policy, or …

This brings me to the third point of my presentation, focusing on this bridging role of fora such as KICS. My key point is that an individual (researcher or activist, engineer or politician) cannot do both at the same time: act in two radically different, and often opposite, realms. (S)he can do it alternating, as most successful scientists and activists demonstrate, but not simultaneously. Last week I saw a nice example of this. Kavitha gave a very convincing presentation at Shambu’s workshop on “Science Studies Tools for Policy Analysis” in Bhubaneswar. Her paper “Civil Society Groups Engaging the Scientific Establishment —The case of anti-GE work of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture” was explicitly and consciously cast as an activists’ account of how to fight genetic engineering industry. However, by just deleting/adding a few lines this presentation could easily be turned into a balanced and comprehensive scholarly paper—indeed, I half-jokingly proposed to offer Kavitha an honorary doctorate in STS. But, I would argue, she cannot play both roles simultaneously. That is where KICS comes in. KICS is, in my view, essentially a hybrid forum: a forum where likeminded people with different backgrounds meet to help each other relating to these various internal and external discourses. Because of the hybridity of KICS, the forum can do simultaneously what I as individual can do only alternating. That is why I should not escape and accept my role of academic here; that will allow me to learn and benefit from interaction with others in this forum who play their role as activist or policy maker (and hopefully vice versa).

I want to make this into a more general claim: that democracies in our current times, in which we need to integrate science, technology and society with unprecedented intensity, do need such hybrid fora. Policy makers, activists, and scholars need hybrid fora to be able to act in properly flexible ways, assuming multiple identities, and working from varied perspectives. Internally, members of such a forum can critically question each other. Formulation of radical alternatives without the immediate pressure of real world and mainstream institutions is thus facilitated. Externally, they will use different discourses—engaging, strategically adapting, sometimes making compromises. (Last year, in the first KICS forum meeting, I have discussed the example of the women committees on housing in the Netherlands.) Hybrid fora provide a safe haven to experiment and to formulate radical alternatives. They are one of the additional instruments that are needed to democratize today’s technological culture, which cannot adequately be governed by 19th Century notions of democracy in all our national constitutions alone.