Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry: A Discussion with Author David Hess

Part 1 | 2 | 3

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The World's Fair sits down with David Hess, author of Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry: Activism, Innovation, and the Environment in an Era of Globalization (MIT Press, 2007) and Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, NY.

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David Hess is a longtime leader in the field of STS. Like few scholars, this claim holds true by reference to academic leadership, mentoring, research, and community involvement. His past books, Science and Technology in a Multicultural World (Columbia University Press, 1995) and Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction (New York University Press, 1997), to name but two, reveal his deep-set analyses of science and technology in various social settings and his appeal to a range of scholars working to provide more thorough research on similar topics. In keeping with this, his newest book, Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry, at once brings together research in social movements and social movement theory with STS and offers a possible blueprint for future research about science, technology, and society. The back cover says it "explores the interaction of grassroots environmental action and mainstream industry and offers a conceptual framework for understanding it." But that's sort of a dense summary, so we decided to talk more about it.

This is the fifth in our series of "Author Meets Bloggers" posts, where we talk to authors about their new work. (See them all here.) What follows is part one of a three-part conversation about Alternative Pathways. We encourage you to post questions or comments for Professor Hess and other readers.


THE WORLD'S FAIR: The book is about alternative pathways in science and industry, so I suppose the first question is, what are mainstream pathways?

DAVID HESS: You could think about science and industry as composed of fields in Bourdieu's sense, where there are dominant and nondominant networks. In scientific research fields the mainstream pathways are the networks of researchers who control the major departments that reproduce the field by editing the journals, producing the graduate students, winning the most grants and awards, and running the academic societies. Of course the networks are very porous, and it is not always possible to characterize research fields in this way, but it is a helpful way of thinking about science, especially for the issues that I want to address. In industrial fields the mainstream pathways are the technologies and products put on the market by the leading corporations in each field.

TWF: Realizing that this question likely is best answered by saying, 'well, there's this whole new book about that,' I'll still ask: and how, more or less, do alternative pathways differ?

DH: In research fields the alternative pathways represent disagreements over methods, conceptual frameworks, and/or problem areas to be investigated. Because the research fields are aligned to varying degrees with the goals of government and industry, the alternative pathways can develop from ties to social movements. In industry the alternative pathways include what I call the industrial opposition movements, such as the antinuclear energy movement, and technology- and product-oriented movements, such as the renewable energy movement. Over time the pro-alternative technology movements tend to carve out new markets and become absorbed into the dominant industries.

TWF: Why do we need alternative pathways in science and industry anyway?

DH: They emerge when there are differences over which agendas and problem areas best match a broad public interest. Clearly, everyone will try to frame their research and new technologies as matching a broad public interest, but the alternatives emerge when the dominant directions of research fields and industries lose credibility.

TWF: And do we need to train scientists and engineers to seek them out? Or do we need new professional structures (new kinds of companies, new forms of government agencies, new NGOs, et al.) to make these alternative pathways feasible?

DH: Some of the alternative pathways in science get government funding, such as research on complementary and alternative medicine, organic food and agriculture, green chemistry, and solar energy. However, often the research budgets are only a small percentage of the budgets for the broader research area, and the research networks dedicated to the fields are generally marginalized. So it would be possible to increase government funding in targeted areas to make them more attractive. In the industrial fields, another strategy for innovators of alternative technologies and products has been to recruit countervailing industries to provide funding, and I go into some cases where innovators who have received a poor reception from the target industry have received some support from a related industry.

TWF: This is about industry and activism, and saying that is but to repeat part of your answers above, but...can scientists and engineers maintain professional credibility if they get tagged with an activist label?

DH: You're right to assume that members of the dominant networks of a research field may seek to undermine the credibility of challengers, and that there are various ways to manage the credibility struggles that can emerge. Kelly Moore [in her forthcoming Disrupting Science, and elsewhere, as readers will find out in a forthcoming author-meets-bloggers forum] suggests that by forming public interest science organizations scientists can maintain credibility while also engaging public interest issues that involve research programs outside the mainstream. Barbara Allen [Director of STS at Virginia Tech's Capital Region Campus in Northern Virginia] has also explored some of the strategies and the trade-offs that scientists face individually. One strategy is to become an activist scientist and play out controversies in the media, with the hope that the publicity will lead to more research. Another approach is to distance oneself from activist groups and publish research for a peer-reviewed audience. My suggestion is also to show how innovation--- the creation of new technologies and products--- can be one platform for activist politics. This strategy is fraught with the potential for cooptation, as I discuss, but it should be recognized as part of the general field of social change politics.


Continue with the next two parts here: Part 2 | Part 3


Author-meets-bloggers I: Michael Egan, on Barry Commoner, science, and environmentalism.
Author-meets-bloggers II: Cyrus Mody on nanotechnology, ethics, and policy.
Author-meets-bloggers III: Saul Halfon on population policy, demographic science, and women's empowerment.
Author-meets-bloggers IV: Kevin Marsh on wilderness, forestry policy, and environmental politics.

Future featured authors will include Lizzie Grossman (independent journalist), Hannah Landecker (Rice U.), Shobita Parthasarathy (U. Michigan), Aaron Sachs (Cornell U.), Kelly Moore (U. Cincinnati), and numerous others.


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Hello author and others,

First of all, I think your (Hess') point that innovation is an effective platform for activist politics is excellent. As reluctant as someone might be to change the way they do something, say to make whatever it is they are doing more environmentally-friendly, who is going to say no if there is a technology to support the change that is easy and cheap? I really feel like most people have good intentions and want to do the right thing, and working on making it easier for more people to do the right thing is an excellent way to focus one's energies.

I had a few questions at this stage of the conversation, if anyone wants to weigh in:

-Here in Boston there's been a lot of talk about protest against biotechnology (because of that conference that was here a few months ago), and there's always protest all over the place for different causes. I wanted to know what Hess and people think about protest as a form of activism... Is it effective? Do people listen? How does it stand as a form of interaction between mainstream industry and an alternative voice? Part of my interest here stems from conversations with people who were vehemently anti-GMO, but didn't really know why -- the "Frankenfoods are just BAD! creepy! I don't want to eat them!" argument -- so I'm interested in when is it helpful to be vocally against something, and when is it just kind of annoying, and how can we educate ourselves to avoid the latter.

-I'm also curious about actual data to support or break down my feeling that people want to do the right thing. Do any readers out there work in fields where they are trying to get people to adopt an innovative technology? What have people experienced out there? Is there a lot of resistance to the change, or are people pretty for it? What factors influence the amount of resistance against a particular technology?

good things to think about, thanks David Hess, thanks World's Fair.

Dear Kate,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. On the first issue, I do think protest action can be effective. I look at a series of movements that engage in some kind of industrial opposition, including anti-GM food protest. You make a good point that protest is more effective when people have good reasons to support their decision to protest. Of course, some mobilizations of protest are more effective than others, and their effectiveness depends on many factors, including what they define as a successful outcome and where and when they are acting. I suggest that in antitechnology protests a frequent outcome is a partial moratorium, such as the achievement of a ban on some types of the most allergenic GM food, or the achivement of GM labeling, but not a complete ban on all GM food. But I also want to suggest that being "anti" is often not enough, especially when dealing with the politics of technology, and that protest action can be even more effective when combined with pro-alternative action. For example, anti-GM food mobilizations are potentially much more effective when combined with pro-alternative politics in favor of sustainable, local food systems. (That's what the cover photo is meant to imply.)

About your second question, there are a lot of factors that might affect adoption of innovative alternative technologies, such as relative cost, ease of use, fit with lifestyle, and so on, but I'd rather step back on this issue and read about what experience other people have had with the adoption of innovative technology.

Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.


Hello David (and Kate, and others),

First of all, I look forward to reading this book, it sounds very interesting indeed.

I totally agree with your comment, David, about how combining "anti" flavoured protests with positive alternatives can potentially be more effective at eliciting change�it forces people to be taken seriously rather than simply dusted off as "lefties".

To address your question, Kate, about the point at which protesting becomes "annoying": I think this might happen when no feasible or well-thought-out alternatives are suggested. For example, one of the most common alternative to GMOs I run into by those with anti-GMO leanings is organic farming. However, while organic food avoids some of the problems associated with GM food, it creates a wealth of other problems, not least of which is affordability. Accepting that an issue like GMOs is extremely complicated, reading literature from all sides of the debate, and engaging in discussions about the pros and cons of GM foods (and also, importantly, the pros and cons of alternatives) will foster educated opinions and the ability to articulate good alternatives.

I think what should be at the forefront of global food problems is, as David points to, striving to promote sustainable and locally grown produce, rather than automatically jumping to the organic farm (as many anti-GM folks tend to). Also, GM foods are not necessarily unsustainable and don't need to be from far-off places.

I look forward to further discussion,

By Jacqui Monaghan (not verified) on 13 Aug 2007 #permalink

Dear Jacqui,

I agree that the GM food issue is very complicated. I'm not an expert on the topic, but I do teach on it, and my main argument for GM food, as for other controversial new technologies, is to look at design.

In other words, some types or designs of GM food are better than others, and we can work out a way of thinking about them. For example, humans have been genetically altering plants for millennia, but they have generally only altered closely related plants. If GM food involves genes from closely related plants that humans have consumed for a long time, and if the alterations provide important new benefits, such as rice with high levels of needed carotenoids, then maybe we should have a different approach to them than for other types of GM food. At the other extreme, importing genes from very different species that have not been consumed by humans, present no general benefits other than enhancing profits for biotech companies, and are laden with risks of allergic reaction or environmental contamination are at the other end of the spectrum.

A similar approach can be taken with organic. If "organic" is defined to allow irradiation and synthetic inputs (or even sludge), is based on monocropping and industrial-scale production with low-wage farm hands, and is marketed in long commodity chains that consume huge levels of fossil fuel, we might have a different approach to it than we do for locally grown organic that comes from a small farm with good labor practices and careful attention to sustainability issues.

The general idea here involves taking we call an "STS perspective" on technology, to provide a way of thinking about controversial new technologies by focusing on the details of design and asking which design attributes are more and less desirable.

So I think you're really onto a good way of thinking about these issues.


Dear David,

I agree with everything you have said, especially your bit about the type of GM technology we're talking about.

I think a lot of people don't realize the difference between potentially good GM technologies and technologies that are designed specifically for biotech profits. I tend to believe that GM technology itself is not "bad" (we have learned so much about living things because of this technology) but that it has been manipulated by certain corporations for economical gain (everyone's favourite example being the "suicide" gene).

However, the technology doesn't have to be used this way--it can be used to accomplish the goal that most people would like to see in agriculture--less chemical use, higher nutritional content, environmentally safe practices, etc.

Thank-you for your thoughts. Again, I look forward to reading your book.


By Jacqui Monaghan (not verified) on 15 Aug 2007 #permalink


Thank you for your comments on GM food. The point about distinguishing between types or designs clears up a lot of my own thinking and is well put. I think that it's really easy for people to attach emotions to symbols or brand names, for example feeling like anything under the "GM umbrella" is just "bad". Whenever I get into arguments about this with people who are very anti-GM, I think I forget as much as they do that the umbrella covers things that are very different. It's important to break down terms like that and ask what is really going on with each example. In my opinion, that's sort of the problem with the whole GM or organic labeling movement - it tells you *something* about the product you're buying, but you're really not aware of what that something is, or if it is in line with your actual moral goals. For the most part, I'd think that when you see a label, it immediately brings up your idea of what that concept means rather than the idea of the person or committee who applied the label.

That got a little wordy -- all I really wanted to say was Thank you!