A transcript of a work-in-progress presentation about ontology, epistemology, and pedagogy— specifically, my ontology, epistemology, and pedagogy. More specifically, how they might be affected by our current time of crisis.
On the presumption that the dynamic flux of ecological and social complexities cannot be well understood from an outside view…
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.)
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)
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:
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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|
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.