July 26, 2011

Seeds and sociotechnical imaginaries

One of the coolest things about Science & Technology Studies is that it blurs the line between the social sciences and humanities. Scholars from the disciplines of anthropology, history, sociology, women's studies, and political science (among others) all collaborate to understand the world from this unique lens. The benefit I enjoy from this perspective is that I can take a more creative, literary approach to some of my research. For example, just today I was thinking about this post, and something about these pictures reminded me of none other than the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale! Stick with me, and I'll actually try to make a convincing argument for the connection to climate change.

I've been thinking about how we use the "imagination" of plant DNA, genetics, breeding, biotechnology, as a future technology to help crops adapt to climate change. For example, if you take the DNA from a warmer climate plant and breed it (either through conventional crossing, or biotechnology/recombinant DNA methods) with another plant with desired characteristics, farmers can then grow that plant without having to radically change their methods or machinery. I am developing a fair amount of criticism of this imagination because of two main things:
1) Agricultural technologies and practices have radically changed over the past 50 years, and will continue to do so (thus projecting a predicable, stable yield output is somewhat futile).
2) We cannot ignore the social and economic context of global agriculture and the scope of challenges that farmers face every day (reducing the complexity of climate change adaptation).
There are also questions of what are we adapting, what are we sustaining, and who will benefit/lose out? Many people attempt to address the first two questions with science; however, they are fundamentally based on human values.

STS provides some useful tools for dealing with scientific imaginations of the future: Sheila Jasanoff calls these "sociotechnical imaginaries," which, similar to the co-production of science and society, are visions of the future that embed and prescribe certain social assumptions. Jasanoff and Kim (2009) use the example of how the United States and North Korea had very different visions of how nuclear power should be used. One technology, but two different interpretations. This goes to show another theme of STS, which is how within "sociotechnical systems," you cannot always separate technologies from their social context. The two are deeply intertwined. This also means that there are no socially-neutral technologies- they will always benefit some, harm some, and have unforeseen consequences.

So imaginaries tend to reduce the complexity of global issues, and also obscure the social implications with scientific certainties. This is very problematic, and I wonder how the continued imagination of plant genetics as a savior will hold up under climate change. Until next time, read this.


  1. Yes, you and I see GMO as a way of feeding a hotter, more extreme planet. Classic Greens see it as technological hubris that will harm the food supply. Monsanto sees it as access to new markets. Who's right? All of are, kinda.

    And yay, Climate Pragmatism!

  2. Agree, but it's problematic the way GMOs are viewed as a technological fix. Also, as we've discussed many times by now, there are certain biological constraints to GMOs that aren't taken into full account by its proponents. My imagination of the future would include GMOs, but also more conservation-based agriculture (win-win practices that are economical for farmers), and recognition of how migration and off-farm employment contribute to overall adaptation or adaptive capacity.

  3. Marci, we still need to trade our social imaginaries papers :) One important thing to point out about the Jasanoff and Kim piece is that the use of nuclear was the same (energy), but the rhetoric and policies employed to get there were radically different. They argue that the US was trying to rid itself of guilt from Nagasaki and Hiroshima; while South Korea was piggy backing off of US technologies as a way to appear "modern". And both are tied intimately to nationalism. I am working on blogging academic things...Such an exciting time in our field!

  4. Love your thinking on Imaginaries. I'm working on the sociotechnical imaginary of biomass bioenergy. Maybe we could share papers sometime? Also, have you thought about the Political Ecology conference in KY? Not sure if you've heard. Anyway, maybe we could chat not on a Blog sometime? http://www.politicalecology.org/p/conference.html

    1. Hi Wes-- I actually don't have that many papers on sociotechnical imaginaries, but I would recommend that you check out is the Science and Democracy Network and their list of resources. http://www.hks.harvard.edu/sdn/

      That conference looks great, unfortunately I'll be out of the country for my research! Feel free to email me-- it's listed in my "about me" section.


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