Imagining Public Debate

Notice: This is an electronic version of an article published in Science as Culture 21(3):429-433, 2012, doi:10.1080 / 09505431.2012.679729. Science as Culture is available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/csac20. For quoting or citing, please refer to the published version.

STS practitioners are living and working in an ‘age of engagement’ (Delgado et al., 2011). Having moved beyond the deficit model, and having successfully prompted a ‘participatory turn’ in scientific governance (Felt and Fochler, 2010, p. 219), STS practitioners are now fully entangled in the politics of scientific governance through public engagement (or ‘public participation’). Yet it has become obvious, in case study after case study, that the desired expansion of democratic debate through inclusion of citizen voices in scientific governance ends up reiterating a ‘politics of talk’ (Irwin, 2006). What counts as experts, publics, and citizens is produced (and reproduced) through the ‘hidden choreographies of what is put up for debate’ (Felt and Fochler, 2010, p. 221).

In Debating Human Genetics, Alexandra Plows laments this current state of affairs. Like many other STS scholars, Plows claims that public debates defined through public engagement exercises already ‘have been “framed” on many counts’ and that ‘publics have no option but to respond to issues as they emerge on terms they would not necessarily have set themselves’ (p. 20). But unlike many STS scholars, Plows does not accept that public debates must always be, in some way, partial, or that STS practitioners involved in public engagement exercises must always make various tradeoffs in the pursuit of democratic scientific governance. Instead, Debating Human Genetics models a novel STS intervention: identifying and introducing the widest possible range of participants, claims, and issues, whether actual or imagined, into a ‘holistic debate’ that (ideally) avoids the danger of establishing one political configuration of experts, publics, and citizens as the legitimate debate about an issue.

On its face, Debating Human Genetics is about ‘how and why different sorts of publics, predominantly in the UK, are debating, engaging with, human genetics and what they are saying and doing’ (p. 1). In other words, it appears to resemble similar studies of social movements, framing, and activism that chronicle efforts by various publics to participate in existing controversies over policy issues. From the outset, however, Plows uses the word ‘debate’ in a much broader sense than it is conventionally used in the controversy-focused STS field. Certainly Plows recognizes that ‘line drawing’ debates, which are often framed in ‘pro or anti format’, are most prominent in the public sphere (pp. 4-5). But the main goal of Debating Human Genetics is not to assess only these sorts of debates. Rather, the goal is to investigate into ‘what sorts of other debates about human genetics are being, or might potentially be, had.’ (p. 5).

This sounds perfectly sensible in the abstract. Actually it is quite radical, particularly in imagining what sorts of debates ‘might potentially’ be had. STS scholars tend to focus on actually existing debates, defined more narrowly as public claims and arguments made by a particular group of actors (e.g. HIV/AIDS activists, see Epstein, 1996), circulating around a narrowly-scoped issue (e.g. reproductive genetics, see Evans, 2010), or contested within a common frame (e.g. ‘doubt’, see Oreskes and Conway, 2011). Debating Human Genetics admits none of these restrictions, and indeed explicitly attempts to bring out as many voices and claims as possible around the broadly scoped issue of ‘human genetics.’ The uncommon effort to pursue ‘holistic debate’ over human genetics shapes the choices for every part of the research project and resulting book, from data collection to theoretical perspectives to presentation and organization of data into chapters. As a result, Debating Human Genetics does not much resemble other books that study publics, public debate, public engagement or public policy.

Debating Human Genetics draws its data from a variety of disparate qualitative data sources. According to the introduction, primary qualitative data for the book were collected between 2003 and 2007 as part of a broader research effort on public engagement with human genetic technologies. The research team identified several ‘social actors’ including ‘social networks, groups, and individuals’ who were either ‘predisposed to become engaged’ or who were ‘less well represented’ in public talk about stem cell research, cloning, biobanking, genetic screening, and other related human genetics issues (pp. 21-22). The reported data include discourse analysis of published texts, selections from blogs and other online fora such as e-mail lists, and notes and documentation from participant observation in workshops, protest events, and public consultation workshops. Researchers also conducted fourteen interviews with various key informants, including primarily activists and organizational spokespersons, but also a scientist, a journalist, and a civil servant.

Of course, actually existing claims and positions do not always indicate what debates ‘might potentially’ be had. For these more hypothetical claims and positions, Plows draws from a variety of other sources, including primary scholarly research, logical deduction, analogical reasoning, and even author speculation. So, for example, in the extensive discussion of ‘genetic exceptionalism’ in Chapter 6, we hear from informant ‘Alice’ the claim that genetics is taking away attention from other health issues. We hear from informant ‘Jenny’ the claim that genetics research might actually be targeting the unhealthy (e.g. those predisposed to forms of cancer). And we hear from the author that the ‘institutional racism’ within the police force has skewed the UK police DNA database, possibly leading to a potential erroneous claim about genetic predispositions toward criminal behaviour (p. 138). This levelling of one kind of existing claim with another kind of potential claim that is extrapolated from other data sources will probably strike readers as unusual.

The organizational structure of Debating Human Genetics reflects the effort to capture as many claims around human genetics as possible. Plows recognizes that conventional approaches to organizing data by topic, actors, or themes necessarily omit some of the voices that the project is intended to bring out. So all three approaches get a turn. Chapters on stem cell and cloning, and on biobanks and databases, primarily consider claims around a controversial topic. Chapters on ‘PharmacoG’ (with G standing for both genetics and genomics), and on genetic screening and testing, primarily consider activism around a field of scientific practice. Chapters on genetic exceptionalism, informed consent, and ‘futures talk’ revolve around particular themes that cut across topics and fields or are informed by related issues. The absence of a recognizable narrative through-line necessitates extensive internal referencing (e.g. ‘see Chapter 3’). I found it confusing. But as Plows notes, ‘if the book is confusing, this is perhaps as it should be’ (p. 180).

The organizational structure of the book also reflects the sacrifices involved in including as many voices as possible in a relatively short report. Perhaps the most notable of these is the lack of any overarching or even extensive theoretical apparatus. Readers will find references to many familiar terms, including ‘framing’, ‘risk society’, ‘scientific citizenship’, ‘lay expertise’, ‘bricolage’, ‘bio-politics’, and many others. But readers should not expect to see these concepts applied or developed. They are mentioned primarily as markers to indicate that a particular claim or argument is likely an empirical instance of some theoretical concept. Similarly absent are substantial encounters with key informants (who show up primarily as names attached to brief, highly-edited quotes) or any detailed ethnographic accounts of events in which Plows or other research team members were participant observers. The focus throughout is on reporting as many claims and facts as possible in the limited space available.

Mostly because of the unusual analytical and organizational choices, the book can be frustrating. Debating Human Genetics overwhelms the reader with information. On several occasions the author abandons sentences and paragraphs entirely in favour of PowerPoint-style bullet point lists. There is also substantial slippage between the author’s evidence, which is on her admission only a ‘snapshot’ of a short period of time, and the author’s broader claims about change and possible future trajectories. Finally, because the approach is descriptive rather than explanatory, ultimately it is not clear whether this book is about ‘how discourses travel around social networks through hybrid assemblages’ (p. 187) or whether it is just about how different people sometimes say different things about the same topic. Without a more substantial theoretical framework, distinguishing between alternative explanations is difficult.

Despite some frustrations, I found the book to be provocative and interesting. I particularly appreciated the consideration of imagined future publics and claims. For example, Plows reports how various actors engage in ‘futures talk’ that enrols imagined future publics into their discussions of possible future outcomes. But even beyond reporting the ‘futures talk’ that she observes, Plows goes further by imagining possible arguments and positions that are not currently made in public talk, introducing them into the book as potential or conditional claims that might, or could, enter public debate in the future. This is useful, if unconventional. Recent STS literature has increasingly discussed how actors orient their behaviour with regard to imagined ideal publics (Barnett et al.. 2011) or audiences (Delborne 2011). Debating Human Genetics suggests that more attention should be paid to the relationship between imagined publics and potential claims.

Ultimately, however, it remains unclear what the pursuit of ‘holistic debate’ can accomplish. For those who think that STS should intervene in scientific governance in order to settle controversies or arbitrate among competing authorities, the expansion of debate from controversy to ‘holistic debate’ may simply multiply the political problems inherent in intervention, making such intervention difficult or impossible. Certainly Debating Human Genetics successfully demonstrates that any attempts at ‘public engagement’ or ‘public policy’ are necessarily limited by partial approaches to understanding public debate. This is a valuable contribution, even if reporting the empirical complexity of a broader ‘holistic debate’ comes at the expense of analytical depth. As a provocation to imagine new STS interventions, this is a book worth reading.

Michael S. Evans
University of California, San Diego

Debating Human Genetics: Contemporary Issues in Public Policy and Ethics, by Alexandra Plows, Routledge, 2011, 238 pp., $51.95/£26.99 (paper)


Barnett, J., Burningham, K., Walker, G. and Cass, N. (2011) Imagined publics and engagement around renewable energy technologies in the UK, Public Understanding of Science 21(1) pp. 36-50.

Delborne, J. (2011) Constructing audiences in scientific controversy. Social Epistemology 25(1) pp. 67-95.

Delgado, A., Kjølberg, K. L., and Wickson, F. (2011) Public engagement coming of age: from theory to practice in STS encounters with nanotechnology, Public Understanding of Science 20(6) pp. 826-845.

Epstein, S. (1996) Impure Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Evans, J. H. (2010) Contested Reproduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Felt, U., and Fochler, M. (2010) Machineries for making publics: inscribing and de-scribing publics in public engagement.” Minerva 48(3) pp. 219-238.

Irwin, A. (2006) The politics of talk: coming to terms with the ‘new scientific governance’, Social Studies of Science 36(2) pp. 299-320.

Oreskes, N, and Conway, E. M. (2010) Merchants of Doubt (New York: Bloomsbury Press).

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2019