WASS Research Theme: Knowledge in Society

While it is agreed that the world is facing important challenges (see other research themes), there are strong disagreements in society on how these can or must be tackled. Interdependent actors tend to frame problems and underlying causes differently and hence pursue different solutions and strategies to realise these.

As scientific knowledge production can have considerable influence on how problems, causes and solutions are framed and enacted, science tends to be part and parcel of the societal struggles through which the future is shaped. This inherently leads to questions and concerns about the way in which science is influenced by social interests and resource positions, and frequently leads to intensive debate about whether or not scientists’ discourses and interpretations of reality are trustworthy. Yet, for developing and realising innovative solutions to societal challenges it is imperative to accommodate and integrate diverging understandings, viewpoints and audiences.

This theme studies how and why different perspectives of reality emerge, how knowledge production is shaped by societal interests, how science and other forms of expertise interact in this process, and which prospects exists for dealing with diverging understandings in a productive manner. In view of the above, several lines of questioning are relevant.

Which processes underlie the emergence, construction and institutionalisation of different perspectives and interpretations of reality?

These questions can be answered at the level of the fundamental processes at work, but also in relation to specific problem settings and contexts. What are cognitive processes and mechanisms which affect how people interpret experiences, feedbacks, and signals from our environment? And how is human sense-making influenced and shaped in interaction with other humans? How do images, discourses and risk perceptions – for example regarding nanotechnology or animal welfare- come about? What is the role of social learning, education and/or exposure to media in this regard? Whenever competing perspectives exist, it is relevant to ask whether the interpretations that people bring to the fore reflect what people actually believe, or whether they represent strategically selected frames that are mobilised to pursue or defend social interests. A relevant feature in the context of societal problem solving is that specific perspectives tend to become institutionalised in the form of rules and regulations, disciplines, discourses, organisational mandates, routines and policies. Why and how do specific perspectives become and remain dominant? What is the role of science in this regard? When do such institutionalised perspectives become an obstacle to change and adaptation in an ever changing environment? How can institutionalised perspectives be ‘unfrozen’ again when conditions have changed? WASS researchers aim to develop a contextual understanding of these kinds of processes of reality construction, reproduction and contestation.

How and why do scientists and other societal actors interact with each other around societal issues, and to what effect?

In the past, science was regarded by many as an authoritative arbiter in knowledge disputes and as playing a positive role in societal problem solving. Nowadays, however, the credibility and authority of science as a source of evidence and progress has become an issue of societal debate. It is increasingly recognized that scientific knowledge production may be shaped by social interests, and that knowledge and technology play a role in producing and reproducing societal problems. Which mechanisms explain the apparent lack of trust between science and society in specific settings? What patterns of interaction exist between scientists and stakeholders, including the public and private sector as well as civil society organisations, in a given problem context? How do these interaction patterns and configurations shape the outcomes of scientific endeavours, and the response to these by those who are not directly involved? To what extent do differences in power and resource positions shape the outcomes of science and the direction of technology development? In view of the above it is also important to investigate the eventual societal consequences of science and technology. To what extent does science contribute to the achievement of objectives such as sustainable development, biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation? Which mechanisms and processes enable or constrain such a contribution? What are the changes are taking place in the scientific community and how does this impinge on the role, direction and impact of science? At the same time the interaction between science and societal actors must be understood against the background of continuous societal change. What is the role of easy access to information on the Internet? How do citizens use social media to organise protest or spread their discontent with scientific understandings? What does this mean for science? Can social media contribute to the ‘democratization’ of science? A deeper understanding of how and why scientists’ perspectives and technological designs are produced, received, adopted, rejected, contested and acted upon in societal problem settings is needed.

What is the value of new approaches to cross-disciplinary collaboration and knowledge brokerage for developing innovative solutions?

It is widely agreed that responding to complex problems and challenges demands research and design efforts that integrate understandings from different scientific disciplines, including the natural and social sciences. However, commonly accepted frameworks and methodologies for cross-disciplinary collaboration do not exist, and fundamental challenges remain. How can theories and insights regarding material and social phenomena - that are occurring at different scale levels - be meaningfully linked? How is the ambition to integrate disciplinary perspectives affected by the existence of diverging ontological and epistemological positions? How does this affect efforts to understand and model the dynamics of complex adaptive systems? What forms of cross-disciplinary ‘integration’ exist in actual practice? And what is the value of different approaches to cross-disciplinary collaboration for developing innovative solutions?
A relevant question is whether cross-disciplinary collaboration alone is sufficient for enhancing the contribution of science to society in complex settings, or whether this needs to be complemented with intensified interaction between scientists and societal stakeholders? In any case, there is increased interest in conceptual and methodological approaches for enhancing participation, reflexivity and ethical deliberation in scientific endeavours, as a basis for designing more acceptable and equitable socio-technical solutions to challenges in the Wageningen domain. What are the implications of these new approaches with regard to the tasks and roles that scientists and intermediaries need to perform? Who takes responsibility, for example, for building viable innovation and support networks, for demand articulation and knowledge brokerage, and for process facilitation? Are scientists and intermediaries are actually willing and able to play such new roles? How is the enactment of new conceptual and methodological approaches affected by existing institutional set-ups and incentive structures in science and society? How do different societal interests and dynamics of power affect the interaction between scientists and societal stakeholders in such interactive trajectories? And are such approaches eventually effective in realising more acceptable and equitable socio-technical solutions? Developing a better understanding of the actual practices involved in new approaches is an important condition for their further development.