Tag Archives: participation

Troubled by Heterogeneity?: A simple example to illustrate why we might or might not be

Fresh perspectives on modern understandings of heredity and development over the life course can be opened up by examining the ways that research and application of resulting knowledge address—or suppress—heterogeneity in a range of senses (including individual particularity and variation around a mean).  Let me illustrate why we might or might not be troubled by heterogeneity through a personal story that involves the simplest sense of heterogeneity, namely, a group made up of two distinguishable subgroups.

At my annual physical when I turned 50 my doctor recommended a regimen of half an aspirin a day to help prevent a stroke or heart attack.  Not long afterwards I learned that some fraction of the population is resistant to aspirin—it does not produce the desired anti-platelet effect.  This subgroup is, however, still subject to aspirin resulting in an increased risk of serious gastrointestinal bleeding.  Could I find out if I was in the resistant fraction?  My doctor informed me that health insurance companies do not consider testing to be a justified expense for healthy subjects.  It was, he advised, up to me to decide whether to take the daily aspirin.  Some Internet follow-up on my part revealed that testing for resistance is possible, but is undertaken only when patients under treatment for a cardiovascular attack do not seem to be showing the anti-platelet effects of aspirin intake.  Would I devote energy to find others with similar concerns about their aspirin-resistance status and agitate for access to testing?  No—I went along with the health insurance company’s determination and followed the doctor’s advice to make a personal choice, in this case, not to take the daily pill.

With hindsight, my decision was a good one—recent research indicates that in all healthy subjects the decreased average risk of a cardiovascular event might not outweigh the increased average risk of gastrointestinal bleeding (Seshasai et al. 2012).  Yet, these newer findings aside, consider my experience at the time.  In the doctor’s initial recommendation, aspirin-resistant and normal subgroups were treated as a single group of over-50s, all of us subject to the same positive trade-off between cardiovascular and gastrointestinal risks.  The doctor could have been troubled by the heterogeneity within this group, especially after I raised my concerns.  Instead he invoked the rhetoric of patient choice and the constraints of the health insurance system.  I entertained the possibility of joining with others to agitate for testing to determine which subgroup we belonged to.  In the end, I complied with my doctor’s framing of my position, namely, I should see myself as a member of an over-50s group subject to a degree of uncertainty about the positive trade-off.

In this story we can see the three parts of a broad contention—

•  Research and application of resulting knowledge are untroubled by heterogeneity to the extent that populations are well controlled—As the story conveys, I did not comply with my doctor’s initial recommendation, but accepted his subsequent advice.

•  Such control can be established and maintained, however, only with considerable effort or social infrastructure—The authority of medical professionals was not sufficient to achieve my compliance, but the rhetoric of patient choice and the reimbursement guidelines of the health insurance system eventually were.

•  The interplay of heterogeneity, control, and social infrastructure provides an opening to give more attention to possibilities for participation instead of control of human subjects—The Internet gave me a means to go beyond the consultation with my doctor.  It would have been my first port of call if I had embarked on a journey of finding whom to collaborate with to agitate for change in the guidelines for aspirin-resistance testing.


Figure 1. Schema that summarizes the contention in the text.  The contention applies both to the modern understandings of heredity and to interpretations of science in Science and Technology Studies (STS). (Colored text narrates the connection between terms linked by the curves. Zigzag lines indicate a tension or contrast, e.g, populations are harder to control if members of the population are able to participate in ways that draw attention to heterogeneity within the population.)

Heterogeneity and Data Analysis: Coda: Heterogeneity and Control


Several of the vignettes speak to a broad contention I would make about heterogeneity and control:  In relation to modern understandings of heredity and development over the life course, research and application of resulting knowledge are untroubled by heterogeneity to the extent that populations are well controlled.  Such control can be established and maintained, however, only with considerable effort or social infrastructure, which invites more attention to possibilities for participation instead of control of human subjects.  On the control side, people can be made to fit types in many ways: through stereotyping, screening and surveillance, population health measures, diagnostic manuals in psychology, reassignment surgery, ignoring non-conformers, and so on.  On the participation side, Taylor (2005) describes diagramming of intersecting processes to expose multiple points of engagement, “mapping” by researchers of the complex situations they study and their own complex situatedness, and well-facilitated participatory processes.

Does the contention about heterogeneity and control make sense in data analysis?  Does it have relevance beyond heredity and life course development?

(completing a series of posts—see first post)

Collaborative production of knowledge: Health, environment, and publics

The workshop “Collaborative production of knowledge: Health, environment, and publics” in Arouca, Portugal aimed to

make sense of the growing attention to the collaborations with the public (or different selection of the public) in the production of knowledge about health and environmental concerns. All research is collaborative-even solitary scientists have to secure audiences if their findings are to become established as knowledge-so why emphasize collaboration in health and environmental research? The workshop will consider the diverse reasons that might be put forward to explain that emphasis. How are different angles on collaboration related in theory and practice? In what ways can scientists, science educators, science shop organizers, and researchers in history, philosophy, and social studies of science conceptualize, interpret, teach about, and engage in the collaborative generation of knowledge and inquiry? What can we learn reflexively from our own experience in an interaction-intensive workshop around these questions?

Applications were sought from teachers and researchers (including students) who are interested in promoting the social contextualization of science through interdisciplinary education and outreach activities beyond their current disciplinary and academic boundaries.

At the start of each day participants undertook daily writing on the theme of the workshop.  My own writing makes up the next few posts.

22 May 2011

The growing attention to collaborations with the public in the production of knowledge about health and environmental concerns represents, I believe, a confluence of a number of streams:

  1. “Science for the People” and similar slogans were promoted by radical organizations during the 1970s.   However, scientists pushed back against local democratic accountability and pushed for the “freedom” for their research to be directed by corporations (and to share in profits).  The growing attention to collaborations with the pubic involves a push back against that pushback.
  2. Environment, health, and environmental health issues in particular involve activists who push for changes in policy, expose or exploit controversies in the science, and, in some cases, become conversant in the science and push for changes in funding priorities and regulations.  Collaboration with the public in this case means collaboration with these activist subsets of the public.
  3. Health and, to some extent, environmental remediation require people to follow advice or guidelines from authorities.  Physicians and environmental managers often lament the “lack of compliance” among members of the public.  Collaboration is valuable so these professionals can see the extent to which lack of compliance is rational resistance, can draw models or best practices from successful communities, and can co-develop policies that are more likely to be implemented and maintained.  In short, collaboration is a pragmatic move for professionals who want their advice to be taken up.
  4. The shifting social, economic, and political conditions means that ongoing innovation, monitoring, and adjustment is needed.  The “unruly complexity” of health and environmental situations does not allow for overarching, once-and-for-all knowledge to be established.

Developing an ethical framework for participatory processes that integrate environmental concerns, ecological science, values, and action, with special attention to interaction among diverse social agents

One outcome from a Cary conference discussion group on ethics of participatory process. The link describes the processes leading to this (and other) outcomes; the result below is necessarily cryptic, but maybe explored in future posts as a starting point for a “enactable, contingent social theorizing.”

Outreach to listen & engage with diverse others, risks notwithstanding Embrace difference so far as to destabilize privileged position/ing Embrace difference in theory & practice so moving forward deconstructs privilege as it constructs through collaborative projects Mindful, reflective action in a changing world needs ideas, action, and positions to be put in tension with those of others so that theory and action are dynamic and deeply participatory
First priority to empowering vulnerable & less powerful
Build connections among diverse parties as a basis for planning & conducting practical environmental projects
Walk the talk in actions as consumers that lessen our footprint If some local actions are consistent with Big Visions, other actions are grounded in specific places A changing world needs a dynamic ethics that allows for but goes well beyond Big Visions and local actions
Keep Big Visions in tension with action grounded in specific places
Nudge ethical theorists to be dynamic: No theoretical difference without difference in (messy) action Scientists & ethics both committed to dynamical theory of ethic in action in a changing world
Scientists become explicit about their ethics for knowledge-making in specific places
Reflective practice: Listening, probing, creating new connections, reflecting, opening questions Mindful, patient cultivating of practice that is critical, reflective & generative
Take the time & silence it takes to prepare us to participate

Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World II

During the first two days of talks at “Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World: Values, Philosophy, and Action” there was no reference to challenges 1, 2 or 3—on accountability at a distance, participatory process ethics, and translocal interventions (see previous post).  Does this mean I should start working on challenge 4 (i.e., interpreting and responding to frameworks that do not pay attention to the first three challenges)?

It is possible to advance a broad-brush interpretive schema (such as the one quoted below).  But it would be more interesting to tease out or “map” the intersecting processes that lead to each person’s thought and action, then use that to help them see engagements that might allow them not simply to continue along previous lines.  That’s the step I present in the last part of Unruly Complexity (U. Chicago Press, 2005).  Moreover, in the context of discussions I am facilitating at the conference on ethics and participatory processes, I might now say: Pursue participatory processes in such a way that, instead of periodic self-mapping and identifying possible points of engagement, people should get into the swing of continuous reflective practice, cultivating themselves as collaborators, and “flexibly engaging” so that they support others in their development in those directions.  Indeed, one discussion group member asked yesterday: Can something be ethical unless participatory?  To be continued…


From a multi-person dialogue at http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/popdialogue.html

Sociolo: Let me illustrate the connection between science and social action with a simple classification of environmental analyses.

I distinguish three broad analytic orientations regarding environment and society. They differ in the units of analysis-the kind of person or other agent who is involved in phenomenon-and in the implied limit-that makes the phenomenon a problem. Reso’s two-countries story gives us two of those orientations. On one island there were unequal, differentiating units, linked in their economic, social, and political dynamics, facing limits that are primarily social, and only sometimes biophysically conditioned. On the other island were uniform, undifferentiated units, which can be simply aggregated, and which face biophysical limits when they grow. I would add a third orientation, which acknowledges the existence of rich and poor strata, but does not provide an account of the dynamics that generate and maintain inequality.

What’s important is not simply that the “differentiated dynamics” orientation is, as Reso showed us, probably more faithful to the actual complexity of the world. The different analyses suggest different conceptions of what social action is favored. The “differentiated dynamics” orientation, as Activo and Reso discussed earlier, means that different people have to identify where they are positioned-or where they are trying to position themselves-within the particular dynamics of each case. The “uniform units” orientation implies what I would call moral and technocratic political tendencies (Taylor 1997 [How do we], Taylor and Garcia Barrios 1997). In technocratic formulations, objective, scientific analyses-often quantitative in form-identify the policies needed in order to restore order or ensure the sustainability or survival of society or humanity. Individuals, citizens, and countries are then expected to submit to those policies. Moral formulations, in contrast, avoid coercion and rely on each individual to make the change needed to maintain valued social or natural qualities of life. Yet in many senses the moral and technocratic approaches are allied. Both command our attention by stressing the severity of the crisis and threat to our social order. The solutions invoke common, undifferentiated interests as a corrective to scientifically ignorant leadership or corrupt, self-serving or naive governance. Moreover, although the solutions are supposed to apply uniformly to all of us, special places in the proposed social transformations are reserved for their exponents. The technocrat has a place as analyst or policy advisor; the moralist has a place as guide, educator or leader.

Ecolo: The uniform orientation seems like a straw person. Everyone recognizes that there are richer and poorer people and countries that have different effects on the environment.

Sociolo: That’s where the third “stratified units” orientation comes in, but it occupies an uncertain middle ground. Suppose contraception is promoted among the poor to curb population growth and reduced consumption is promoted among the affluent to reduce the disproportionate environmental effect of their slower growing or stable population. Are these or other stratified policies and practices meant to be any different from those given by separate uniform analyses, one restricted to the poor, the other to the affluent? If so, more needs to be said. In particular, how and why are the proposals supposed to work? This question raises the need for an analysis of the dynamics, redirecting us along the “differentiated dynamics” orientation.

Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World: Values, Philosophy, and Action

“Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World: Values, Philosophy, and Action” is the topic of the 14th Cary Conference that starts today.  Before sessions begin, let me post the themes I bring and see how they get modified or developed during the conference.

The first challenge for an ethical framework is enabling us to be accountable for the  effects of our consumption and through that economic production and through that other actions (e.g., military interventions) on people we are distant from geographically, culturally, socio-economically.  (This challenge increases further if we add time to this list.)

The second challenge is bringing into interaction not only a wide range of researchers, but a wide range of social agents, and the challenge of keeping them working through differences and tensions until plans and practices are developed in which all the participants are invested.  This might be called the ethics of participatory process.

A third challenge is how people in the participatory process above address the contributions or resources, intellectual and material, that people outside that heterogeneous collectivity offer or withhold.

A fourth challenge is to interpret and respond to frameworks that do not pay attention to the first three challenges, that put forward Big Themes that do not delve explicitly or directly or primarily into the messy politics of participation among diverse social agents, e.g., “We must act now to save the earth,” “All sentient beings have rights,” “Trees have standing,” “Humans have to see ourselves as one species among the millions,”  “Maintaining biodiversity is essential for human survival.”  These themes may seem interesting to debate and refine or reject, but the fourth challenge calls for them to be measured by the ways they shape practice that does or does not address the first three challenges.  (An analogy: Conservationists might be genuinely concerned about the species lost as the tropical rainforest is cleared, but what are they learning and doing about the social and economic dynamics that embed the people who are clearing the forest?)

One Big Theme that I have invoked is the idea, which I draw from John Berger’s essay “Why look at animals,” that the changes in what humans do to animals prefigures the changes in the ways dominant human groups treat subordinate human groups (in Berger’s essays, peasants and immigrant workers are such subordinate groups).  If we ask how this transfer from human-animal to dominant-subordinate human relations happens in real socio-historical practice—and what we might do about that—I think we quickly get back to the first three challenges.  If not, then this Big Theme invites interpretation in the spirit of the fourth challenge.

Is the new genomics reconfiguring kinship and family?

This is the title of a 3-week problem-based learning case for a graduate course on Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology.  One week into the case the instructors gave mini-lectures on how their own work would apply to this topic (audio, visual aids).  The following are notes from the presentation.

0.  Preliminaries

Science <-> Interpretation <-> Engagement

My work involves cross-fertilization between science and interpretation of the social context in which science is produced, as well as cross-fertilization between interpretation of the social context in which science is produced and action to modify that context and thus the science.  (Evidenced in the title [and contents] of my 2005 book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement.)  Two relevant concepts:

Reciprocal animation

Close examination of conceptual developments within the sciences can lead to STS questions about the social influences shaping scientists’ work or its application, which, in turn, can lead to new questions and awareness of alternative approaches in those sciences.

Heterogeneous construction

•  many diverse elements linked together over time (intersecting processes) ->

•  things have multiple contributing causes ->

•  there are multiple points of engagement =

points at which the courses of construction could be changed.

1. Science (i.e., an issue that my background as a scientist [in plant breeding] has led me to identify)

Underlying heterogeneity is a significant un(der)acknowledged issue in genetics and genomics, especially in debates about the technical concept heritability, a concept that is drawn on in wider nature-nurture debates.

2. STS interpretive inquiries (in the spirit of reciprocal animation)

a. historical (look at origins of the heritability in agricultural breeding)

b. submission for publication as a probe into social dynamics of science (look at the ways reviewers and editors discount the technical issues raised)

c. conflation of family and population  — see http://bit.ly/Conflation, “The conflation of family and population helps explain why the Nature vs. Nurture formulation persists”

-> d. historical again, review early eugenics (based on a and c, examine whether the conflation is central to the formulation of eugenic science and politics,e.g., when concerns about the decline of the British Empire lead to advice about marriage choices)

3.  Engagements

Participatory postscripts in a new book project, Troubled by Heterogeneity? From the prospectus for the book:

“Of course, there is no guarantee that specialist readers will accept my critical reconstructions of established accounts that have neglected heterogeneity [see 2b above]…. [T]herefore, I… introduc[e] experiments designed to allow diverse readers to pull on strands that interest them and thereby contribute to a collective result over which I have less control.


“A blog will juxtapose two kinds of entries: a. Stories shared by family members, care-givers, and other actors—including STS researchers—that amplify the PKU picture of diverse influences shaping pathways of development over the life course for those with distinct genetic conditions…; b. Claims that molecular biology and biotechnology will allow genetic information to reshape human life.  Readers would be invited to contribute entries of both kinds as well as to make comments contrasting the claims with infrastructure-building measures (including measures sometimes taken by the same researcher making the claims).”

The initiation of this blog will occur shortly.