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Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: The Politics of Local Knowledge

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The tension between professional expertise and democratic governance has become increasingly significant in Western politics. Environmental politics in particular is a hotbed for citizens who actively challenge the imposition of expert theories that ignore forms of local knowledge that can help to relate technical facts to social values.
Where information ideologues see the modern increase in information as capable of making everyone smarter, others see the emergence of a ...

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Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: The Politics of Local Knowledge

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Overview

The tension between professional expertise and democratic governance has become increasingly significant in Western politics. Environmental politics in particular is a hotbed for citizens who actively challenge the imposition of expert theories that ignore forms of local knowledge that can help to relate technical facts to social values.
Where information ideologues see the modern increase in information as capable of making everyone smarter, others see the emergence of a society divided between those with and those without knowledge. Suggesting realistic strategies to bridge this divide, Fischer calls for meaningful nonexpert involvement in policymaking and shows how the deliberations of ordinary citizens can help solve complex social and environmental problems by contributing local contextual knowledge to the professionals’ expertise. While incorporating theoretical critiques of positivism and methodology, he also offers hard evidence to demonstrate that the ordinary citizen is capable of a great deal more participation than is generally recognized. Popular epidemiology in the United States, the Danish consensus conference, and participatory resource mapping in India serve as examples of the type of inquiry he proposes, showing how the local knowledge of citizens is invaluable to policy formation. In his conclusion Fischer examines the implications of the approach for participatory democracy and the democratization of contemporary deliberative structures.
This study will interest political scientists, public policy practitioners, sociologists, scientists, environmentalists, political activists, urban planners, and public administrators along with those interested in understanding the relationship between democracy and science in a modern technological society.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“For the student of environmental science and its relationship to public policy, this book is invaluable for its broad bibliographic base and its careful and elegant theoretical reasoning.” - Helen Ingram, Environment

“[A] well-crafted critique of expertise and neopositive social science. . . . Citizens, Experts, and the Environmental Studies synthesizes the most important work on lay ways of knowing and makes major theoretical contributions to the field. . . . This is an ideal book . . . .” - David N. Pellow, Contemporary Sociology

"[A] more fundamental and more scholarly critique of the role of science in environmental policy. . . . [R]eaders . . . are rewarded by learning a great deal about the subject through clear, well-written prose."

- Helen Ingram & Bryan McDonald, Natural Resources Journal

"[A] commendably ambitious book which does not simply make the conventional case for democracy but also explores wider issues of epistemology and the status of expertise. . . . [A]n important contribution to the contemporary discussion over citizenship and expertise." - Alan Irwin, Environment and Planning A

Citizens, Experts, and the Environment is real achievement. Building on his earlier work, Fischer presents a synthesis of a ‘postpositivist’ public policy approach and locates it clearly in contemporary environmental concerns and epistemology.”—Patsy Healey, Centre for Research in European Urban Environments, University of Newcastle

“An impressive, interesting, and multifaceted work. Fischer provides the reader with a wide and fascinating range of theoretical and policy-oriented materials, weaves in real life problems of public participation (or lack thereof) from around the world, and effectively brings together important concerns.”—Alan Mandell, State University of New York, Empire State College

“This is a very carefully crafted work that asks critical questions rarely asked well in policy studies and utilizes literatures not typically read in policy analysis circles. In doing so, Fischer effectively challenges the dominant mode of organization in advanced industrial society. A masterfully-executed study.”—Timothy W. Luke, Virginia Polytechnic and State University at Blacksburg

David N. Pellow
“[A] well-crafted critique of expertise and neopositive social science. . . . Citizens, Experts, and the Environmental Studies synthesizes the most important work on lay ways of knowing and makes major theoretical contributions to the field. . . . This is an ideal book . . . .”
Helen Ingram
“For the student of environmental science and its relationship to public policy, this book is invaluable for its broad bibliographic base and its careful and elegant theoretical reasoning.”
Alan Irwin
"[A] commendably ambitious book which does not simply make the conventional case for democracy but also explores wider issues of epistemology and the status of expertise. . . . [A]n important contribution to the contemporary discussion over citizenship and expertise."
Helen Ingram & Bryan McDonald
"[A] more fundamental and more scholarly critique of the role of science in environmental policy. . . . [R]eaders . . . are rewarded by learning a great deal about the subject through clear, well-written prose."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822326229
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 12/28/2000
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Frank Fischer is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University in Newark and member of the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy in New Brunswick. He is the author of Evaluating Public Policy and Technocracy and the Politics of Expertise, among other books, and has coedited a number more, including The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning, also published by Duke University Press, and Living with Nature: Environmental Politics and Cultural Discourse.

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Read an Excerpt

Citizens, Experts, and the Environment

THE POLITICS OF LOCAL KNOWLEDGE
By FRANK FISCHER

DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2628-1


Chapter One

Democratic Prospects in an Age of Expertise

Confronting the Technocratic Challenge

Much of the history of ... progress in the Twentieth Century can be described in terms of the transfer of wider and wider areas of public policy from politics to expertise.-Harvey Brooks

The language and iconography of democracy dominates all the politics of our time, but political power is no less elitist for all that. So too the technocracy continues to respect the formal surface of democratic politics; it is another, and this time extraordinarily potent means of subverting democracy from within its own ideals and institutions. It is a citadel of expertise dominating the high ground of urban-industrial society....-Theodore Roszak

Everywhere in the world, democratic institutions are gaining new adherents, with American democracy widely seen as the model to emulate. In the flush of such post-Cold War enthusiasm, however, the fact that U.S.-style democracy has been experiencing its own troubles has too often been overlooked. To be sure, there have been no shortages of analyses of such problems: Why do so many Americans show such little interest in voting? Why do they hold their politicalinstitutions in such low esteem (Dionne 1991; Barber 1984)? Why has the level of public discourse devolved to that of simplistic television commercials (Bennett 1992)? And so on. Following in this line of inquiry, this work seeks to take up a critical aspect of the question that has received far too little systematic attention; namely, how can citizens participate in an age dominated by complex technologies and expert decisions (Fischer 1990)? Indeed, no other aspect of the contemporary "democracy question" can be more important.

The basic question I pose here is scarcely new. In the 1920s, John Dewey (1927) forcefully raised it in his book The Public and Its Problems. Engaging the challenge to democratic governance in the emerging twentieth-century industrial society, Dewey asked how a mass public could deal with the increasingly complex nature of the problems presented by a highly differentiated, technologically driven society. How could citizens participate in political decision making so obviously dependent on the knowledge of experts?

Indeed, Dewey identified a paradox. As the importance of the citizen grew in the political realm-thanks to the expansion of basic rights in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries-the phenomenon was paralleled by the growth in power of large corporate and governmental organizations directed by managerial and technical expertise. Thus in just that period in which the political influence of the citizenry was taking shape, it was undercut by the rise of bureaucratic organization and technical expertise.

Large-scale industrial society transformed the very nature of everyday life. No longer did most people provide their own necessities-grow their own food, supply their own means of transportation, build their own dwellings, and so on. In industrial society all these basic goods and services are mass-produced and marketed through large, highly interdependent, impersonal structures and functions ever-increasingly dependent on expert systems. Given these features of industrial society, in particular the central role of expertise, Dewey saw little future prospect of well-integrated political communities organized around a knowledgeable citizenry. Under these new social arrangements, individual citizens could no longer easily comprehend the processes through which their daily needs were satisfied. As a consequence, they could no longer be expected to easily determine their own interests. Such a situation, he worried, could lead large numbers of citizens to embrace simplistic or false ideas. In their search for social reassurance, such citizens could easily fall victim to ideas antithetical to democracy, fascism and communism being the primary twentieth-century examples.

How is it possible to overcome the challenge posed by this unprecedented level of social and technical complexity? The answer for Dewey was a division of labor between citizens and experts. On the technical front, experts would analytically identify basic social needs and problems. On the political front, citizens could set a democratic agenda for pursuing these needs and troubles. To integrate the two processes, Dewey called for an improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion, and persuasion. Indeed, in his view, the need for such improvements was the problem of the public. Debate would require the participation of experts, but they would act in a special way: instead of rendering judgments they would analyze and interpret. If experts, acting as teachers and interpreters, could decipher the technological world for citizens and enable them to make sensible political judgments, the constitutional processes designed to advance public over selfish interests could function as originally intended.

Since Dewey's time, the progress of democracy has been disappointing. Although Western democracies exhibit high degrees of interest group involvement, levels of individual citizen participation (as ample political and sociological research shows) have declined rather than expanded. While the interpretation of this phenomenon is complicated, as we will see in chapter 2, it has led many to question the very capacity of the citizenry to render judgments on the complex issues that define our times.

Over the same period, moreover, professional experts have failed to ease the problem. Rather than adopting the role of teacher or educator, as Dewey had hoped they would, experts have largely set themselves off from the mass citizenry. Instead of facilitating democracy, they have mainly given shape to a more technocratic form of decision making, far more elitist than democratic. Dahl (1989, 337) captured this concern in his assessment of existing democratic arrangements. The increasing complexity of social problems, giving rise to increasing specialization and the expansion of elite "public policy specialists," puts the Western polyarchies in the position of being replaced by a "quasi-guardianship" of autonomous experts, no longer accountable to the ordinary public.

To make matters worse, over the past decades we have come more and more to learn that the experts are themselves incapable of answering these questions. Not only do experts lack answers to the complex technical questions that confront us, but expertise itself turns out not to be the neutral, objective phenomenon that it has purported to be. Indeed, it has all too often served the ideological function of legitimating decisions made elsewhere by political rather than scientific means. Nowhere, as we shall see, has this phenomenon been more evident than in environmental politics, one of the most technologically driven of the policy fields.

In recent years, this concern with both the complexity and uncertainty of our problems has lead influential political theorists to rethink their positions on the prospects of democracy. For instance, Bobbio (1987) sees the project of political democracy as being unable to fulfill its promises in complex modern societies. The expanded involvement of technical experts in policy making and the increasing process of bureaucratization serve as major structural obstacles to the fulfillment of the original democratic ideal.

Similarly, complexity is one of the main issues that troubles Habermas in his ongoing effort to spell out a theory of deliberative democracy. Whereas in his early writing Habermas shared Dewey's optimism about the possibilities of meaningful citizen participation, he has adopted a more pessimistic tone. In his view, "unavoidable complexity" imposes the need for important qualifications in the elaboration of participatory democracy. Shifting away from his earlier theory of radical democracy, Habermas suggests that democracy may not apply to all realms of decision making. This, of course, remains a contested theory. But the fact that one of the leading political theorists of our time has decided that the evidence suggests that the complexity of modern societies poses constraints on the full democratization of societal decision making calls to attention the seriousness of the question.

The central goal of this work is to put the relationship between citizens and experts together in a new way, one capable of making good on Dewey's initial proposal. As the effort depends on an understanding of both political and epistemological developments that have evolved in more recent times, the foundations of the position need to be developed before addressing the solution directly. Toward this end, the rest of this chapter is devoted to complexity and the rise of expertise, focusing in particular on technocratic politics and its implications for democracy and citizen participation.

Complexity and the Age of Expertise

To be sure, one of the classical questions of political science and sociology has been the issue of the relation of knowledge to power (Fischer 1990, 59-76; Ezrahi 1990). Much of the writing about this problem, however, has been theoretical. When translated into the more practical question of the relation of the citizen to the expert, our knowledge of the relationship remains disturbingly inadequate. This is especially unfortunate, given that in our highly complex technological society, the experts have moved to center stage.

In this age of expertise, the question of knowledge and competence cuts across the entire spectrum of political and governmental issues. For this reason, policy questions today present the complicated task of not only coming to grips with expert analyses of sophisticated technical issues but also understanding how different citizens arrive at their own judgments about such issues, including their understandings of the experts themselves. Moreover, the increasing unwillingness of citizens to accept uncritically the trained judgments of the experts has become one of the central issues of our time. Indeed, as we shall see, it is one of the primary political dynamics of environmental decision making (Hays 1987, 329-62).

Such conflict between citizens and experts poses a dilemma. The need for specialized expertise bears directly on how much citizens can know about the choices they confront. Not only does this directly involve the technical dimensions of policy questions, but it concerns as well the value trade-offs and other consequences that follow from the implementation of such policies (Hill 1992). Decision-making procedures, in this respect, must take into consideration the authority and influence that different actors have on the final choices. Should such decisions be left to the experts? What level of influence, for example, should the views of the general public carry when compared, for example, to those of scientists, administrators, elected officials, engaged community leaders, and activists? Who is more capable of judging whether a power plant or a new regulatory program serves the interests of the public?

How we devise solutions to these questions is structured by our assumptions about citizens' cognitive abilities to participate in discussions about complex issues, including their methods of assessment. Such assumptions, unfortunately, are often based on fundamental ideological perspectives-political liberals typically call for more public involvement; conservatives, for less. As such, the issue is bound up as much with competing interests and ideologies as with well-founded evidence.

The next two sections outline these two rival perspectives, that of progressively oriented liberals and that of the political conservatives. One of the central issues in the contemporary variant of this debate is the role or significance of an overarching concept, the "information society" (Lyon 1988). It offers a useful wedge into this discussion.

Expertise and the Information Society

The Celebration of Technology

The most important contemporary expression of the central role of expertise has been the discussion of the "postindustrial society" and its latest variant, the "information society" (T. Forester 1985; Poster 1990, 21-42; Luke 1990). Both terms designate a social formation in which the codification and use of knowledge become fundamental organizational principles of society (Bendiger 1986). The reproduction of "information value" rather than "material value" is seen increasingly to be the driving force of this new societal formation. Information value gives rise to industries based on the computer sciences, telecommunications, robotics, and biotechnology (concerned with breaking the information code of life itself). These burgeoning "information industries" are widely recognized as transforming the very economic and social fabric of Western societies (Castells 1996). Today their symbol has become the computer and the so-called information highway connecting computers throughout the world.

The arrival of the information society is much celebrated in many elite circles, economic and political as well as intellectual. Distinguished management writer and guru Peter Drucker sees the dramatic expansion of information as ushering in a profoundly important new era with unprecedented societal implications (Drucker 1993). Arguing that the information or knowledge society has already created a postcapitalist society promising a global transformation, he writes that "knowledge is the only meaningful resource today" (Drucker 1993, 65). The "traditional factors of production-land, labor, and capital-have not disappeared, but they have become secondary. They can be obtained, and obtained easily, provided there is knowledge" (also page 65). For Drucker, information is an objective utility for achieving desired economic and social outcomes. Its application, in his view, is the essence of innovation.

As Drucker focuses on the economic aspects of this new information era, so the futurist Alvin Toffler regularly writes and lectures on the social and cultural implications. He describes this "Third Wave" as a system radically changing the nature and extent of human interactions. The offspring of the union between computing and telecommunications, the information society promises an all new kind of society. As Toffler puts it, "what is now occurring ... is in all likelihood bigger, deeper and more important than the industrial revolution.... the present moment represents nothing less than the second great divide in human history" (Toffler 1993, 21).

In his books, Toffler (1991; 1993) outlines a vision of national transformation through information access. In his view, we are entering the "Knowledge Age," as part of the "Third Wave" of history. The new wave ushers in a society in which knowledge replaces matter-natural resources or energy-as a source of power. It is a power that will flow through interconnected computers, or in "cyberspace." The central role of societal institutions in this new formation is to remove the barriers that hinder or impede the shift of information from institutions to individual citizens. Government is advised to remove "second wave" laws and regulations from the telecommunications and computer industries. The absence of restrictions will return power to self-reliant citizens; we are seen to stand on the threshold of a brave new libertarian future.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Citizens, Experts, and the Environment by FRANK FISCHER Copyright © 2000 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Preface....................ix
PART I Citizens and Experts in the Risk Society....................1
1. Democratic Prospects in an Age of Expertise Confronting the Technocratic Challenge....................5
2. Professional Knowledge and Citizen Participation Rethinking Expertise....................29
3. Environmental Crisis and the Technocratic Challenge Expertise in the Risk Society....................47
4. The Return of the Particular Scientific Inquiry and Local Knowledge in Postpositivist Perspective....................68
PART II Environmental Politics in the Public Sphere Technical versus Cultural Rationality....................87
5. Science and Politics in Environmental Regulation The Politicization of Expertise....................89
6. Confronting Experts in the Public Sphere The Environmental Movement as Cultural Politics....................109
7. Not in My Backyard Risk Assessment and the Politics of Cultural Rationality....................124
PART III Local Knowledge and Participatory Inquiry Methodological Practices for Political Empowerment....................143
8. Citizens as Local Experts Popular Epidemiology and Participatory Resource Mapping....................147
9. Community Inquiry and Local Knowledge The Political and Methodological Foundations of Participatory Research....................170
10. Ordinary Local Knowledge From Potato Farming to Environmental Protection....................193
PART IV Discursive Institutions and Policy Epistemics....................219
11. Discursive Institutions for Environmental Policy Making Participatory Inquiry as CivicDiscovery....................221
12. The Environments of Argument Deliberative Practices and Policy Epistemics....................242
Appendixes....................263
Notes....................279
References....................299
Index....................329
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