SPT v2n1 - Lay Knowledge and Public Participation in Technological and Environmental Policy

Number 1
Fall 1996
Volume 2


Jose A. Lopez Cerezo, University of Oviedo and INVESCIT; and Marta Gonzalez Garcia, University of Minnesota and INVESCIT

The aim of this paper is to attempt to answer a key question of current STS scholarship and activism alike. Namely, what role should lay knowledge play in an adequate managing of technology and environment-related issues? On the basis of the intrinsic limitations of expert knowledge, the potential utility of local knowledge, and the need for political legitimacy, we argue for an active role for lay knowledge in technological and environmental policymaking. In our view, public participation should not end with a political sensitivity to public perceptions or public opinion; it should actively involve lay knowledge in order to achieve firm political legitimacy and a technically efficient policymaking in environment or technology-related issues. In the second part of this paper, we will apply our general argument to a case study of forestry policy: the so-called "eucalyptus problem" in Asturias, northern Spain.

This paper is not an elaborated and finished work but a research project still under development by an interdisciplinary working group within INVESCIT, a Spanish interuniversity research center in science and technology studies.

The central question of this paper to repeat is: What role should lay knowledge play in an adequate management of technology and environment-related issues?

Some Procedural Points

What is meant by "expert or lay knowledge" and by an "adequate" policy concerning technology or environment-related issues?

An adequate policy will be understood here as a policy which is both efficient and legitimate.

We consider an efficient policy to be one that counts on sufficient resources (cognitive, material, and organizational) in order to fulfill given aims within a set agenda.

We will not enter into the question of the contextual dependence of the concept of efficiency. There is no such thing as a general or objective way for actions or processes to be efficient. It always depends on the measuring rod. Still, emphasizing this point would only render stronger our general argument here in favor of active public participation. (See Mitcham, 1994: 225 ff. )

And a legitimate policy is a policy that has social support either in the form of a positive public perception or in some form of explicit democratic support (e.g., referenda or parliamentary decisions).

Of course, both requirements are causally related in the actual world because (i) a prima facie efficient policy can fail because of social resistance, and (ii) the efficiency of a given policy can bring about its social acceptance, but they should still be independently considered given that their relationship is not a necessary one. (For the relevance of organizational aspects in the characterization of technological or environmental policymaking, see Gonzalez Garcia et al., 1995. ) Thus efficiency and legitimacy will be seen here as individually necessary and jointly sufficient for an adequate policy.

Concerning knowledge , adopting a pragmatist (instead of a realist) standpoint, we view this as a network of beliefs enjoying the property of warranted assertability.

This characterization of knowledge, of course, contextualizes knowledge as the claims or assertions which are generally accepted as warranted within a given social (cultural and historical) context.

Accordingly, it is the cultural variable (within the social context) that makes the difference between lay and expert knowledge: it is the difference between claims held as warranted by the relevant scientific community or by corresponding lay believers.

Who are those "corresponding lay believers"? These will be taken as all those people who have some knowledge in virtue of their direct involvement or their personal interests (political or otherwise) concerning the problem at stake (e.g., agricultural regulations, waste disposal, energy consumption, fishing policy) and do not hold relevant scientific credentials. When speaking of those directly involved we will refer to "local knowledge"; a more general category, also including those politically concerned (such as green activists), will be referred to by the term "lay knowledge." Due to the pragmatic character of these concepts, it is only through case studies that more precision can be obtained.

The Problem in Focus

In our view the role of lay knowledge in adequate policy formulation depends on the following:

First, on the nature of expert knowledge, i.e., whether or not the social context of expert knowledge provides it with an epistemic excellence which renders it self-sufficient for dealing with given technological or environmental problems (as asserted in the academic tradition and criticized in STS studies).

Second, such a role also depends on the potential utility of lay knowledge in order to contribute in the long run to an effective (not merely legitimate) solution of the problems currently tackled by expertise.

We next discuss these two points in turn.

The Character of Expertise