On The Limits of Knowing: Ignorance, Promises and Political Economy of Knowledge

Dates: August 29 & 30, 2017  | A 4S Pre-Conference
Location: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Organizer: Mark Robinson, Creighton University School of Medicine
Website: http://tinyurl.com/jbf8afp

How do we make sense of the increasing role of ignorance or problematic facts in knowledge regimes? The social mechanics of truth and knowledge have been a central concern within Science, Technology and Society (STS). Yet, the engineering of ignorance and the sense of an increasing imperviousness to facts/knowledge show brightly the limits of analytical approaches to science, technology, and innovation that ignore the role of political economy in contemporary knowledge practices. Important questions about the shaky status of facts — and the vicissitudes of knowers — emerge in a panoply of contexts: in the spread and purchase of myths through digital platforms; in the growing acknowledgement of large-scale scientific irreproducibility / unreliability; in the increasingly commercial imperatives placed upon academic knowledge production; and as highlighted in recent anxieties about strategic public ignorance and global democratic politics. In each context, one sees the fragility of approaches that assume that we are all rational actors working with — or even beholden to — uncompromised facts.
Considerations of agnotology–the area concerned with the emergence, use, and instrumentalization of ignorance—has become rather urgent in light of recent sociopolitical events marked by the sense of an increasing imperviousness to formal modes of knowledge and knowing, reflecting what some have termed, a post-truth, post-factual society. Breathless critics point to seismic U.S. and global political shifts such as Brexit, the recent U.S. elections, and the rise of the far right in Europe as evidence of a mounting epistemic crisis — an unceremonious dethroning of truth, facts, and rationality.
Yet, and perhaps paradoxically, these epistemic crises also show the power and purchase of alternative universes of knowing  — alternative worlds replete with their own logics, beliefs, and systems of veridiction and value. It also brings into view the way that unstable, complex or problematic knowledge works in tandem with or as a key component within larger social and economic paradigms. Agnotology (Proctor and Schiebinger 2008) references the “cultural inducement” of ignorance and false knowledge. However, what the agnotological impulse also reveals, especially in its more postmodern sense (Mirowski 2013), is the glaring limits of knowledge models that willfully ignore the technologies and techniques that enable and engineer ignorance and the subsequent instrumentalizing or capitalization of problematic, unverified, contested or merely promised knowledge. In this world, gilded visions of social, political and technological futures obscure long, flagrant histories of failed promises; empirically impossible promises are conferred the status of actualizable futures. Ways of mapping or understanding technoscience and innovation that rely on decontextualized epistemic assumptions reproduce a long debunked strain of determinism whereby facts and knowledge are understood to be the primary animating force that powers decisions, behaviors, institutions, emergence and belief. Perhaps, even the notion of agnotology itself performs such a determinism by treating ignorance as marginal – as rare, rather than prolific or perhaps, inherent to knowledge practices. At the same time, the recent focus on issues of value and valuation returns our attention to the ways that knowledge practices operate as sites for the engineering and enactment of particular values (Dussage, et al 2015) in a variety of domains from global health (Adams, et al 2016) to the global bioeconomy (Birch 2016). In each case, value(s) warrant intervening and transforming knowledge systems and infrastructures.
For political economic analyses of knowledge change, knowledge has always been inextricable from the economic and political. Larger considerations of culture, sociopolitical systems and economic formations (Lave, et al 2010) were inextricable from theorizations of technoscience, knowledge programs and political ideologies. Much like the agnotological lens, political economy necessarily redirects our analyses towards institutions, economic imperatives, charismatic actors, culture and myth, promissory economies, the cultivation of susceptible subjects, the strategic use of complexity, and the workings of political systems as key components in the analysis of knowledge modes, especially as they animate technoscience and innovation. Yet, perhaps our attention ought to consider the challenge of changing knowers. More than ever, recent events have brought into relief the role of knowers’ orientations (Beckert 2016; Harding 1993; Robinson, forthcoming) in analyses of knowledge transformation.
We invite papers that explore a wide range of approaches to these themes, including the following:
  • The Precarity of the Expert / The Fact
  • Freedom from Expertise / The Politics of Expertise
  • Values and Valuation in Science, Technology and Medicine
  • The Risks of Knowing & Knowledge
  • The Economics of the Unknown / Known
  • Evaluating Unstable or Unproven Knowledge
  • The Geography of Alternative Knowledge
  • Diverse Knowers and Knowing / Feminist Knowledge
  • New Approaches in Social Epistemology
  • Fruitful Falsehoods / Meaningless Facts / The Politics of Deniability
  • Commercial Imperatives in Research and Innovation
  • Scientific Ambiguity and Environmental Science
  • Pharmaceutical Markets / Clinical Ambiguity
  • Social Media & The Geography of Rumours
  • Complexity and Scientific Decision-making
Exploring case studies from science, technology, medicine as well as economics and innovation, this workshop aims to bring together a broad range of scholarship across a variety of fields and approaches.
Please send proposals and questions to both MarkRobinson (@) creighton.edu and EmmaWojnicki [at]creighton.edu. Send abstracts by March 18, 2017.
Advisory Panel: 

Interview on 4S Backchannels blog: “Rethinking value in bio-economy” — Kean Birch

Here’s an interview I’ve just done with Aleka Gurel for the 4S Backchannels blog.”Rethinking Value in the Bio-economy with Kean Birch: New Research in ST&HVAleka Gurel21 August, 2016In this series of Backchannels posts, we’ll be highlighting new research in the 4S journals, ST&HV and ESTS. Here, Backchannels interviews Kean Birch, author of the recent ST&HV…

via Interview on 4S Backchannels blog: “Rethinking value in bio-economy” — Kean Birch

New Book Proposal on “Neoliberal Bio-economies”: Open for Comments

I have just submitted a book proposal to Palgrave Macmillan. The title of the proposed book is “Neoliberal Bio-economies? The Co-construction of Markets and Natures” and its general description is as follows:

“A growing number of politicians, policy-makers, academics, commentators, and others globally have identified the ‘bio-economy’ as an important pathway for societal transitions towards a more sustainable future. The promise held by the bio-economy concerns the ability of societies to replace existing fossil fuel inputs in their economies with new bio-based inputs: for example, replacing petroleum with biofuels; oil-based chemicals with biochemicals; plastics with bioplastics; and so on. Conceptually then, the bio-economy is a termed used to reflect the sustainable use of biological, renewable materials in the development of bio-based products, services, and energy that substitute for existing fossil fuel-based products, services and, energy, as part of a broader societal transition to a low-carbon future. Although the bio-economy represents a potentially broad vision of future sustainability, certain policy options and pathways are preferred over others, especially those dominated by prevailing neoliberal ideas about the importance and roles of markets, technoscientific innovation, and nature in society. As such, the bio-economy has come to increasingly reflect neoliberal constructions of markets and the corollary constructions of nature in particular ways as the solution to global environmental problems.

This book is the first attempt to synthesize existing research on the bio-economy and empirically analyse the co-construction of markets and natures in the bio-economy as a policy response to global environmental challenges like climate change. It draws on over a decade of research on the bio-economy around the world, but especially in Europe and North America. The overall objective of the book is to examine what sorts of markets (e.g. price, contract, monopoly) and natures are being imagined and constructed in the pursuit of the bio-economy. Consequently, it aims to unpack neoliberalism and neoliberalization of nature(s) as concepts, as much as the concept and practices of the bio-economy.”

If you have any comments on the proposal then do feel free to post them on this session at Academia.edu


UK-Canadian Frontiers of Science: The changing political economy of research & innovation — Kean Birch

A video of session on the changing political economy of research and innovation (CPERI) that I helped organize at the UK-Canadian Frontiers of Science event – see Twitter handle #UKCanFrontiers – organized by The Royal Society and The Royal Society of Canada in March this year. It doesn’t have my talk in it (hopefully that’ll…

via UK-Canadian Frontiers of Science: The changing political economy of research & innovation — Kean Birch

4S/EASST Open Track: “Turning Things into Assets”

Here is a link to the track and papers in it.


Kean Birch (York University, Canada)
Fabian Muniesa (Mines ParisTech, France)

Short Abstract

An increasing number of STS scholars are engaging with assets as objects of inquiry. An asset is a thing that can be owned, traded and capitalized as a revenue stream, often involving the valuing of discounted future earnings in the present. One key question emerges: how do things become assets?

Long Abstract

An increasing number of STS scholars are engaging with assets as interesting objects of inquiry, worthy of our analytical gaze. Scholars of the bio-economy – e.g. Birch and Tyfield (2013), Cooper and Waldby (2014), Lezaun and Montgomery (2015), Martin (2015) – have sought to differentiate asset from commodity markets in order to analyse the resulting socio-ethical implications, while scholars in the social studies of finance – e.g. Doganova and Karnøe (2015), Doganova and Muniesa (2015), Muniesa (2012, 2014), Ortiz (2013) – have sought to understand how assets are constituted by and come to constitute, in a performative fashion, valuation processes. By asset, we mean a thing – e.g. patent, business model, technology, land, forest, skills and experience, CV, bodily function, personal popularity, pollution emissions, building, infrastructure, life form, molecule, etc., etc. – that can be owned, traded and capitalized as a revenue stream, often involving the valuing of discounted future earnings in the present.

In the recent STS literature mentioned above, one key question emerges: how do things become assets? What this question requires us to do is tease apart the (techno-economic) configuration of assets and capitalization; that is, the tangible materiality and intangible knowledge that enable things to be turned into assets (or not). It leaves us with many more questions about where to take any critique of capitalism and technoscience more generally. First, this might be the threat of assetization stifling innovation, promoting the pursuit of rentiership (i.e. extraction of value through property ownership) over entrepreneurship (i.e. creation of value through development of new products and services). Second, it might be the implications of capitalization in reshaping how we think about things (including ourselves), turning them into a purely financial calculation of costs and benefits over other concerns (Chiapello 2015).


In light of these issues, we invite contributors to address but not limit themselves to the following questions:

  • How might we conceptualize the difference between commodities and assets? What does this difference mean for our understanding of value and valuation?
  • How are things turned into assets? How are they capitalized? What sort of techno-economic configurations does this involve? What are the implications? Does this entail new or old forms of rentiership?
  • How might we use concepts like assetization and capitalization in place of dominant terms like commodification, marketization, privatization, neoliberalization, etc. as a critique of capitalism?
  • How does capitalization differ with different materialities? How can we recognize the material traits of assetization?
  • How is the logic of the asset transforming science and technology? What is driving science and technology policy in the era of the business model?


Birch, T. and Tyfield, D. 2013. “Theorizing the Bioeconomy: Biovalue, Biocapital, Bioeconomics or… What?” Science, Technology and Human Values 38(3): 299-327.
Cooper, M. and Waldby, C. 2014. Clinical Labor: Tissue Donors and Research Subjects in the Global Bioeconomy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Lezaun, J. and Montgomery, C.M. 2015, “The Pharmaceutical Commons: Sharing and Exclusion in Global Health Drug Development,” Science, Technology and Human Values 40(1): 3-29.
Martin, P. 2015. “Commercialising Neurofutures: Promissory Economies, Value Creation and the Making of a New Industry”, BioSocieties, doi:10.1057/biosoc.2014.40
Doganova, L. and Karnøe, P. 2015. “Clean and Profitable: Entangling Valuations in Environmental Entrepreneurship”, in A. Berthoin Antal, M. Hutter and D. Stark (Eds.). Moments of Valuation: Exploring Sites of Dissonance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 229-248.
Doganova, L. and Muniesa, F. 2015. “Capitalization Devices: Business Models and the Renewal of Markets”, in M. Kornberger, L. Justesen, J. Mouritsen and A. Koed Madsen (Eds.), Making Things Valuable. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 109-215.
Muniesa, F. 2012. “A Flank Movement in the Understanding of Valuation”, Sociological Review 59(s2): 24-38.
Muniesa, F. 2014. The Provoked Economy: Economic Reality and the Performative Turn, London: Routledge.
Ortiz, H. 2013. “The Limits of Financial Imagination: Free Investors, Efficient Markets, and Crisis”, American Anthropologist 116(1): 38-50.
Chiapello, E. 2015. “Financialization of Valuation”, Human Studies 38(1): 13-35.