Debating knowledge: new spaces of conversation


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IT all started with the idea of discussing in India ‘Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously’ – a report of the expert group on science and governance constituted by the European Commission, possibly as a dialogue between Brian Wynne, the chair of the expert group and Shiv Visvanathan among others. This was the time when the report of the National Knowledge Commission of India, ‘Towards Knowledge Society’, was under close scrutiny.

One mild September afternoon, walking with Shiv Visvanathan and Andy Stirling from Chichester Hall to Meeting House at the University of Sussex, I sounded out the idea with Visvanathan, to which he agreed but with an objection, ‘Conversation? Yes! But this is not the way it should be done.’ Before I could respond, Visvanathan popped a question to an unsuspecting Andy Stirling, ‘How about knowledge conversations in India?’ As against my expectation that the ever-busy Stirling would use all his English charm to ultimately declare ‘no, thanks,’ much to my surprise I heard curious inquiries about possible dates. And when the Visvanathan magic succeeded in arousing Sheila Jasanoff’s curiosity too, the conversation caravan found its mythical moment of inception.

It took 15 months of excruciating backstage preparations, numerous illuminating and destabilizing discussions with Indian colleagues and institutions, a voluminous email exchange just to find dates suitable to a range of scholars and seasons, another set of exchanges on appropriate format and structure and the accompanying paraphernalia, and several high and low moments before the drama of, what was christened as the Knowledge Society Debates, finally played out at Hyderabad, Bangalore and Delhi between 5 and 13 January 2009. The debates, eventually structured as a roundtable conference on Day 1 and a public discussion on Day 2 at each location, have been personally for me a rewarding experience, worth every moment of nerve-racking pain of managing the backstage.

I have now been asked to give a flavour of these debates from the privileged position of my all-round participation. This is not an easy task. Engaging with the intense and fascinating dialogue of three roundtable conferences and three public discussions in the word limit of this article would be nothing but an act of violence. While I thank all those whose insightful contributions made these debates a memorable experience, I must apologise for limiting my scope of this article to highlighting newer spaces of conversation that, in my limited understanding, have emerged from this dialogue. I hope to relate this Indo-European dialogue (with American garnishing) on knowledge and society with debates in Science and Technology Studies (STS) – the discipline that is often hailed as relatively more focused on the EU and US. I deeply regret that thus limiting my scope might mean that a great deal of fascinating details and deliberations would be left out of this article. I believe that what is not represented here will continue to open up further dialogues at another time and space.


A pertinent question that might emerge at the outset is: Why a dialogue between Europe and India on knowledge society? In India, as in Europe, visions of the ‘knowledge society’ have pushed science, technology and innovation into ever more prominent roles in shaping politics, democracy and public life. Knowledge society and knowledge economy are invoked equally as India positions itself in global high technology markets, and as European governments attempt to tame sceptical publics. But, in dominant visions of the ‘knowledge society’, the acquisition of knowledge is rarely questioned. Science is uniformly portrayed as a compelling public good – irrespective of the purposes or priorities to which it is bent.

India and Europe present many parallels in their engagements with the knowledge society, although divided by historical legacies and further separated by today’s techno-economic rivalries. Are there common points between European and Indian visions of the knowledge society? The questions are many and urgent: What does the ‘knowledge society’ mean? Is it the society we are, or the society we ought to be? Whose knowledge and whose interventionist ambitions count and why? What are the contending imaginaries, perspectives and drivers underpinning the intensive development and deployment of knowledge? How should a ‘knowledge society’ address risk and uncertainty, and limits of predictive control? What are the roles for civic engagement and democratic accountability? Is diversity a source of creativity and rigour or of inertia and incoherence? What do they imply for broader processes of governance and underlying relations of power?

This list of questions provided an excellent intellectual and political backdrop for the debates. Not surprisingly though, what was placed on the table for discussion acquired a life of its own and diversified in multiple new directions. This article is neither an attempt to answer any of these questions nor to summarize or review the debates. Instead it aspires to make sense of the multi-colour, multi-voice collage that eventually emerged out of these conversations, which I hope will initiate further conversations.


Calling it a travelling circus, Visvanathan set the stage at the beginning of the debates in the Hyderabad public discussion by positing three questions: What can science add to the democratic imagination? What can democracy do to science? How can democracy become problematic in the understanding of science? Visvanathan called these conversations experiments in reciprocal sociology and asked how the Indian experiences in science and democracy could become relevant for the world and correspondingly, how the EU report on Taking Knowledge Society Seriously could initiate a different debate on science and society in India.

By broadening the frame to a larger political question, Visvanathan thought that the real challenge for the Enlightenment was to combine the triangle of liberty, equality and fraternity with the triangle of sustainability, plurality and citizenship that was sensitive to violence and vulnerability. In further setting the stage and also responding to Visvanathan’s call to ‘learning to read the West’, Jasanoff proposed that the imagined monolith of the West was falling apart in the present climate of global uncertainty and crisis. Like Visvanathan, for Jasanoff too these conversations were about the mutual learning for an alternative and possibly global imagination of both science and democracy.


Risk and uncertainty: Taking cue from Jasanoff on the ways in which the current debates on risk and uncertainty are redefining the understanding of knowledge and democracy, I would like to first engage with the discussions on risk and uncertainty and then revert to the themes of diversity, directionality and democracy later in the paper. Apparently contrasting experiences on policy and governance of risk in India and Europe came up during the discussion. Wynne shared how risk had become a dominant discourse and practice around the regulation and governance of innovation in the UK and Europe, and how other related debates over benefits, purposes or ends, and alternatives, had become moribund.

European policy encompasses two principal roles for science: informing innovation-oriented research and responding to risks and regulation. While the EU’s Lisbon agenda is committed to using science to build the most competitive global knowledge economy by 2010, the EU public has especially become a prominent actor animated by the concerns over risks and the directions of change that these innovations imply. This, the policy actors (mis)characterise as risk-averse and hence also innovation-averse public. The attitudes and concerns of the public are assumed to be only about risk and not about innovations and their driving aims and visions, and accordingly risk is made into a defining discourse of the governance of science, technology and innovation.

Wynne was concerned that risk science as a dominant basis for governance denied the realities of difference in three related aspects: public rights to different imaginations of good collective life; recognition of the diversity of alternatives; and recognition of ‘the epistemic other’– which Wynne defined as ignorance and unanticipated consequences denoting the implicit limits of scientific knowledge. Discussing the same issue, but putting it differently, Stirling called this key condition the ‘inherent insufficiency of knowledge.’ Stirling argued that the efficacy of knowledge was insufficient to yield normative positions and authorities. Both Wynne and Stirling argued that accepting the insufficiency of knowledge would open up other ways of comprehending, as Stirling put it, knowledge about knowledge; and as Wynne proposed it, acknowledgement of the legitimacy of public concerns, which are otherwise misunderstood as unfounded risk concerns and made into a basis for processes of governance.


So far this has been quintessentially a European story. What happens in a location like India? Rajeswari Raina (Delhi roundtable) creatively used Stirling’s quadrangle of insufficiency of knowledge and presented a radically different policy scenario. She discussed two extreme scenarios of which the (in)sufficiency of knowledge was used by the Indian state as a denial of responsibility and refusal to act to prevent threats to health and environment. On the one extreme, in the case of arsenic pollution, even when the risks were sufficiently known, the Indian state did not stop subsidies for arsenic-polluted, groundwater-irrigated rice cultivation in the name of ensuring food security for the public good. The inaction of the state was embedded in the political choice of public value of food security and was not influenced by the evidences of risks and threats. Let me take a little diversion here before returning to Raina’s second extreme scenario.

Several contributors to the debates portrayed the Indian state as privileging the political over evidence and sound science (to put it in the language of European policy). E. Haribabu (Hyderabad roundtable) felt that policies in India were based not on evidence but on political expediency. Dinesh Abrol (Delhi roundtable) described how a series of debates on development soon after independence found a closure in politically choosing a particular public value, food security, at that time.


Referring to the same historical period, V. Balaji (Hyderabad roundtable) pointed out that during the formative phase soon after independence, the scientific community communicated primarily with the political class and not the civil servants. Balaji also felt that the science related decisions were to a large extent determined by the respect that an individual or a group of scientists enjoyed in the eyes of the political class. The discussion on the Indian scenarios thus powerfully privileged the political in shaping scientific and technological decisions. The question is: Whose agency, politics and power finds ascendancy and why? Abrol in fact passionately argued for opening up the black box of power and agency with a view to understanding the interrelationship between knowledge and society.

A quarter century back Langdon Winner wanted to open up the black box of artefacts to discover if the artefacts had politics.1 Winner’s troubling questions are no longer answered in STS, unless if, outrageously, the answer is envisaged in the negative. The more pertinent question that emerged from the knowledge society debates is: How should this black box of politics, power, knowledge and agency be opened up? This question connects the discussions on risk and uncertainty with those on democracy. Jasanoff (Hyderabad roundtable) poetically answered this question by asking another: ‘Why do sinners’ ways prosper?’ She preferred not to ask how power should be divided or how it should be understood, but instead how it persists. I will return to Jasanoff and her ‘sinners’ ways’ in my discussion on democracy later in the paper.


Returning to the second of Raina’s extreme scenarios, in this case the Indian state’s refusal to take action on the basis of ‘we don’t know enough’. Referring to some recent publications, Raina argued that a substantial increase in the incidence of rabies was related to feral dogs feeding on carcasses of cattle administered with anti-inflammatory analgesic drugs. Indian policy and science establishment refused to acknowledge this situation, hiding behind the excuse of no-knowledge. There is no dearth of such examples with regards to the Indian state. In face of these contrasting experiences – risk, on the one hand as a basis for action for the European governance, and on the other, as a point of denial for the Indian policy responses – what emerge are some fundamental commonalities.


In both India and Europe, knowledge is conventionally defined in the narrow sense as scientific evidence. ‘Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously’ shows how expert declarations and (what are called) ‘sound scientific’ judgments of risk are intrinsically shaped and framed by social values and political interests embodied in routinised habitual ways of institutional thinking. Behind the veneer of facts and evidences thus lie values and politics, in Europe as in India. The separation between the façade and what lies underneath, thus rests on a distinction between facts and values, something that Jasanoff passionately proposed we must go beyond. I will return to the distinction between facts and values by relating it with another dichotomy.

This reciprocal sociology of policy responses to risk and uncertainty in both Europe and India has relevance for another debate involving a different dichotomy. Ashish Rajadhyaksha (Bangalore roundtable) placed the performative agency of the Indian state at the suture between normative structures and the actual functioning system. Rajadhyaksha coined an elegant term – ‘the innate elusiveness of a supposedly functioning system’ – to denote a degree of inexplicability implied in musings about how Indian democracy ‘works’ in the face of apparent chaos (quite like Indian traffic). He pointed out that every narrative has two layers: one that is available to everybody to understand, the layer of accountability, reason, rationality, and law; and the second of covert logic, the way things actually function. For Rajadhyaksha, the way it actually functions is the kind of knowledge that is not easily susceptible to democratic checks and balances.

Extending this understanding to the topography of the Indian state, Rajadhyaksha felt that the gap or distinction between the two layers of public knowledges – the normative structure supposed to be functioning along certain lines and the secret structures functioning in lieu of those that don’t function – is capable of generating extreme forms of violence. The existing system, however, requires the normative system – how things are supposed to be – to measure up against its own functioning. In my opinion, the distinction between facts and values probably resides in these different layers – whether one calls them ‘supposed to be’ and ‘actually is’, or counts them as ‘knowledges available for democratic scrutiny’ and ‘knowledges that elude such analysis’. Interpreting Rajadhyaksha’s analysis, when facts are available for scrutiny, values remain elusive to democratic checks and balances.


A similar argument, and this is entirely my interpretation, came up in M.V. Ramana’s (Bangalore roundtable) meticulous discussion on safety issues related to nuclear reactors. Ramana has done fabulous work as an independent expert on unravelling implicit assumptions behind nuclear energy science. At some stage in his presentation, Ramana pointed out that there are limits to how far an independent expert can penetrate the scientific world of nuclear breeder designs. Ramana felt that it would need a breeder enthusiast or a well-trained nuclear expert to unravel all the safety assumptions incorporated in the breeder designs. The limits to outsiders’ view of science can possibly be attributed to the tacit forms of knowledges not available to outsiders. But in my interpretation, Ramana’s admission of limits alludes to the ‘innate elusiveness’, not so much to denote the inexplicability of the functioning system as Rajadhyaksha does, but to account for something akin to values that are deeply ingrained in science and not easily susceptible to analysis and explanation and hence to democratic scrutiny.


Continuing with the reciprocity of visions of risk and uncertainty between India and Europe, I want to raise yet another distinction between the way the relational categories of society and state in India, and publics and policy governance in Europe, get constructed with respect to controversies on science and technology. ‘Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously’ discusses at length how publics (in plural), though never fully there are always imagined, constructed and performed through the very processes of participation and governance. The performative agency of publics is thus subjected to and constructed through governance models. Jasanoff, in her extensive work on civic epistemologies, has shown how political culture plays out in technological debates and how it affects the production of public knowledge and technological decisions. Jasanoff grounds her comparative cross-national concept of civic epistemology in the categories of: consensus-seeking, contentious, and communitarian.2

Despite the plural in publics, one wonders how deeper fissures based on ethnic, socio-economic and cultural values and ethics might articulate in scientific and technological controversies. Engaging with Jasanoff’s call to find a new imagination of social contract, Sitharamam Kakarala (Delhi roundtable) posed a somewhat similar question: To what extent should the consequentialist imagination of risk – chaos, disorder, threat to life – be a basis for the social contract and citizenship? Kakarala was searching for an epistemic basis to introduce different notions of ethics to democratize science, something that could also serve as a foundation for a radically different imagination of social contract and citizenship. Where could one possibly find what Nancy Fraser called the ‘subaltern counter-public’?


The category of public(s) does not easily find currency in the Indian debates on knowledge politics. In fact, a number of contributors pointed out that on the site of politics of knowledge and development, the performative agency of the Indian state articulates distinctly different relationships with different socioeconomic sections of society. This also reflects in the everyday forms of understanding, coping with, and responding to risks and uncertainties. E. Revathi (Hyderabad roundtable) discussed a range of different forms of social and environmental risks faced by the farmers of dry land areas. Discussing the lack of access to health services by poor people, Purendra Prasad (Hyderabad roundtable) pointed out that the notion of risk is highly individualised in the Indian context, yet another route by which the state escapes its responsibility towards poor and marginal section of society.

On an entirely different tangent, Nishanth Shah (Bangalore roundtable) presented the case of techno-socialisation in an information society and spoke about the ability of technology to create techno-social conditions of fear and how it destabilises our notions of body. For Shah, the newer forms of techno-socialisation raise important questions such as what is human and what is post-human. In my presentation in Delhi roundtable, I proposed to replace the analytical category of risk with vulnerability. Referring to the case of farmers’ suicides in India, I argued that the category of risk converts human beings into passive groups of population classified according to their quality of susceptibility to danger, whereas the notion of vulnerability allows expressions of historically and culturally specific experiences of uncertainty and violence.


Diversity: I would like to begin this section with Clifton’s (Bangalore roundtable) powerful story of a senior adivasi, Bhagdediya, from village Anjanvada which was submerged under the waters of the Narmada following the construction of a large dam. Prior to the construction of the dam, when Bhagdediya was approached by an engineer with an offer of monetary compensation to leave his land and seek rehabilitation elsewhere, he asked why he should leave. The engineer replied that with more money, Bhagdediya could lead a relaxed life. Lying on his charpoy and gazing at the sky, Bhagdediya wanted to know what the engineer thought he was doing at that moment. In Bhagdediya’s quizzing of the engineer’s logic was a powerful clash of paradigms.

Related to Bhagdediya’s quizzing, at a different time and place during the debates, Rohan D’Souza (Delhi roundtable) wondered if the large modern dam could ever be democratized. D’Souza suggested that introducing a new artefact like a large dam is akin to introducing a new economic logic, a new value regime. And, those who are invited to participate in this new regime often find themselves in a skewed language game. D’Souza’s query resonates with questions raised by others. For example, P.R.K. Rao (Hyderabad roundtable) wondered about how a debate across different cognitive and material worlds can ideally be carried out. Sitharamam Kakarala (Bangalore roundtable), referring to the way epistemic violence gets articulated in language games as a matter of power, wondered if we even have languages to represent radically different epistemic worlds. For Kakarala the language incommensurability is a matter of power and epistemic violence. Upendra Baxi (Delhi public discussion) touched the soul of this discussion by asking: Whose knowledges make more of ignorance for others?

Practising reciprocal sociology, Jasanoff brought in a radically different tangent into this discussion by alluding to the epistemic other. Speaking comparatively about the US and India, Jasanoff both found a potential for violence but also a dynamic capacity and opportunity to reconstruct what she called patchwork India, which she referred to mean ‘the diverse ecology of existence in India’. She held that American culture does not entertain a diversity of imagination, the other being reduced to red states and blue states. For Jasanoff, the question of political action depends upon a certain diverse ecology of existence and how and ‘where’ the other is conceptualized.


Addressing the issue of epistemic diversity, a stimulating discussion followed in the Delhi roundtable after Stirling unassumingly brought in outliers, as referred in statistics, on the table. Stirling pointed out how the rationality of specific interest groups in society makes other forms of rationality outliers and how by inducting outliers, the system of universe changes. Discussing a number of contributions on political and historical processes of inclusion and exclusion, Dunu Roy (Delhi roundtable) surmised that even when one pathway or paradigm of knowledge eventually dominates politically, the dialogue with other pathways, given that they ever existed and continue to exist, does not cease. Roy thought that these outliers do not just stay on the margins but continue to destabilise the dominant. Staying with Roy in substance, Pushpa Mitra Bhargava (Delhi roundtable) compared outliers with the notion of anomaly in science, in the sense of Kuhn’s paradigm shift, and proposed that the genuine outliers can in fact change the direction of science. But, Stirling thought differently.

After perhaps bringing outliers on the table to make a different point, Stirling returned to his original path and wondered about the possibility of cohabitation of different ways of doing and knowing, arguing that thinking about diversity in an open fashion would get us beyond monolithic dichotomies of inliers and outliers. The question that emerged from this highly animated discussion was: Do different knowledge forms inadvertently remain in conflict and incommensurable or can diverse knowledge traditions fruitfully cohabit and cohere? Stirling asked if we could think of diverse and plural forms of knowledges with aggregate constitutive qualities instead of imagining knowledge as divided in hegemonic monolithic blocks. What Visvanathan asked at one point during these debates could possibly represent this dilemma differently and politically. Visvanathan thought that the challenge for democracy was to ensure that different forms of knowledges had a right to coexist and cohere without being ‘museumised’.


Without making an attempt to answer any of these questions, I want to make a couple of observations borrowing from the arguments of Suman Sahai in Delhi public discussion and Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Sudhir Krishnaswamy in the Bangalore roundtable. To cut through the thick air of abstraction that implies imagining the other as either outlying or cohabiting, let’s take an example that invariably forms a significant part of any discussion on knowledge politics in India. Suman Sahai passionately talked about how indigenous knowledges, still vibrant and innovative, although accumulated over several generations were, on the one hand, being relegated to the non-rational realm and, on the other, how some of these knowledges, i.e., the plant based indigenous knowledge, were being misappropriated by the pharmaceutical industry for commercial purposes. Sahai’s account clearly pointed to the conflict between the indigenous and the modern production of knowledge.


In what way does the indigenous or community knowledge differ from the formal or modern knowledge? The meaning and attributes of informal, indigenous or community knowledge came under scrutiny in Sudhir Krishnaswamy’s discussion on three cases of regulation of informal knowledge – antiquity manuscripts, seeds, and traditional medical knowledge. Krishnaswamy argued that in all three cases the claimants of the informal knowledge in front of the regulatory authorities were not communities but state or quasi-legal state agencies or civil society organizations, implying an ambiguous relationship between the claimant of the knowledge and the community. Second, Krishnaswamy thought that what characterized these knowledges as informal was also ambiguous, because if the age of the knowledge was one criterion upon which the difference was claimed, then in the cases of both seeds and traditional medical knowledges, the sources of the knowledges were less than a century old. What came out of Krishnaswamy’s discussion is that the epistemic basis for claiming property right over informal knowledge needs further refinement.

Although Sahai preferred to use the term indigenous knowledges and not the term traditional, I want to nevertheless quickly take a detour to what Rajadhyaksha had to say about the place of tradition in modernity, and then visit Visvanathan’s ‘false diversity’ en route back to the pluralism debate. Rajadhyaksha, generally commenting on the conflict between tradition and modernity and also referring to what he called non-modern forms of knowledges, said that modernity ought not to be seen as a player in the conflict between tradition and modernity. Modernity is in fact the stage upon which this conflict is playing out. The stage being modernity requires that the narrative is played out as a conflict, a formulation which classifies non-modern structures of knowledge as traditional. For Rajadhyaksha, what he called the non-modern structures of knowledge aren’t traditional; they are as contemporary as any other structures of knowledge.


Rajadhyaksha and Krishnaswamy’s accounts destabilised a straightjacket narrative of conflict or incommensurability between different forms of knowledges. What is the standpoint from which the narrative of conflict or incommensurability becomes intelligible? What is the conflict all about and for whom does it become intelligible? If epistemology is the basis for incommensurability, then what should be the ground upon which the differences are accounted for? These are some questions that may take us in an altogether different direction than one that implies a true or false answer to whether or not different hegemonic forms of knowledges are incommensurable or whether they can cohabit or cohere together.

Here, I want to briefly allude to two points that Visvanathan made during these debates as further destabilizations of the dichotomized pluralism debate. Visvanathan referred to Sahai’s example and said that the way pharmaceutical companies appropriate plant resources for their commercial production but discredit the whole way of life is an example of ‘false diversity’. For Visvanathan, epistemology is ‘a way of life, a kind of power; it encodes a certain notion of gossip and rumour.’ At a different time, Visvanathan told another story. In a series of interviews with Orissa cyclone affected people, when he asked them what caused the cyclone, a number of them seemed to have said paap (sin). When he further asked them about what, in their view, should be done about it, they seemed to have said that scientists should use radars to detect cyclones. Visvanathan proposed that this conflation of different worldviews to account for cause and effect creates a different way of understanding the relationship between power and epistemology. Different knowledge forms are not only embedded in different worldviews but their inter-relationship is much more complex than what the narratives of conflict or coherence could possibly capture.


Lastly, I want to signpost three other debates in STS or elsewhere on the questions of diversity and pluralism. (i) Some feminist epistemologists have warned against unlimited incommensurability that dangerously slips into cultural relativism. Others have asked, as Longino does: What is the epistemologically privileged standpoint and how to identify it? Longino suggests that the analytical task is not to determine which ‘location in the multidimensional grid marked by numerous interacting structures of power asymmetry’ is epistemically most adequate. Rather, the task is to understand ‘how complexly conditioned subjectivities are expressed in action and belief.’3 (ii) A similar intervention by Paul Richards4 refers to the question of interaction between diverse knowledge traditions. Although Richards does not explicitly engage with the debate on emergent properties or aggregate qualities, he adopts the hypothesis of Creolisation to denote the process of diverse knowledge traditions coming together. Creolisation for Richards is something akin to a ‘cultural melting-pot’; it hints at the potential of something altogether new and still recognizable coming out of the diverse knowledge forms in interaction.5 (iii) And lastly, for Chantal Mouffe, pluralism is constitutive of the very nature of modern democracy but is not an end in itself. She also resonates with feminist epistemologists in saying that a pluralist democracy is one of constant struggle and renegotiation. She proposes a lack of closure in the ongoing confrontation as a matter of vibrancy of pluralism in democracy.6


Directionality: In this section I want to intervene in some of the old and new theories on directionality of technological change in STS from the point of view of the distinctly Indian contributions made during these debates, although this would mean merely a gesture of intervention in the space limit of this article. There exists a long tradition and exhaustive literature on, for instance, regime transitions, trajectories and paradigms, alignment, entrapment and lock-in, momentum, and path-dependency in the European tradition of STS that, in a range of different ways, points to the nature of directionality of technological change. Many of these concepts are founded on the notion of the techno-social system becoming autonomous, in control of its own destiny. The most current and emerging version is the regime transition theory that seeks to understand how socio-technical systems emerge, become stable, transform or decay.


In the system analysis of regime transition literature, the closure is assigned to an alignment between a range of factors. The multi-level, multi-actor approaches in regime theories are often structural and descriptive. In a broader sense, this wide range of concepts seek to explain the directionality of change as a matter of defining certain boundaries of technological progress in order to indicate the direction in which progress is possible, is happening, or worth pursuing.

During the debates, Stirling pointed out a political side of these path-dependency arguments which has serious policy implications. Stirling thought that in the knowledge society dialogue in the EU, innovation is treated as a homogenous entity and, given the near absence of acknowledgement of counter-politics, the rhetoric of no alternative and no choice becomes widespread. Yet again, any critical engagement with this wide range of ideas is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, I intend to take one of the criticisms – that regime transition theory tends to treat transformation as a monolithic process, dominated by rational action, neglecting the differential impact of politics7 – as a starting point to connect with the knowledge society debates.


In my opinion, the long-term historical engagement with directionality of technological change takes a very different stance in India. Dinesh Abrol (Delhi roundtable) showed how the Green Revolution emerged in the 1960s as a closure of a fierce debate on multiple pathways of rural development. Abrol has closely looked at the politics of this debate to argue that the closure of the multitude of post-independence debates, which also implied the experiments in nation-building, was around the triumph of the public value of ‘self-reliance’. The closure was an inclusion of one form of imagination of public value at the exclusion of others such as equity and justice.

Two other contributors referred to the same historical period. V. Balaji, referring to Visvanathan’s book,8 pointed out that what Nehru brought to India, something so formative for the Indian sciences, was in appreciation of P.M.S. Blackett, the then president of the Royal Society and also a well-known physicist. For Balaji some of the key scientific and technological decisions thus taken, which subsequently became the major paradigms, were a matter of faith. Referring to Peter Drucker’s work on the founding of many agricultural and mechanical engineering institutes in the United States, of which MIT was one, Balaji pointed out that they were all founded on an act of faith.


Talking about faith and science, Irfan Habib (Delhi roundtable) revisited the history of science in order to disagree with the recent incarnations of religious faith-based sciences, especially the versions of Hindu and Islamic sciences that play out in a certain kind of identity politics in India. Habib said that what is now claimed as Islamic science, referring to the golden age between the 7th and 10th centuries A.D., was actually the science pursued by the then heretics. In my opinion, Habib made yet another important point: How the history of science is necessarily a fluid enterprise and how it finds diverse streams of interpretations depending upon contemporary politics. The closure is thus fluid, interpretative and constantly changing depending upon changing politics.

Finally, I want to refer to Shambu Prasad’s contribution in the Hyderabad roundtable. Referring to India’s former President, Abdul Kalam’s book Aryabhatta’s Children: Why Science Will Transform India in the 21st Century? Prasad polemically asked if we indeed were Aryabhatta’s children. Because for Prasad, in invoking traditions like Aryabhatta’s, the Indian scientific elite selectively reconstructs our scientific traditions in a way that ignores other genealogies of scientific trajectories and imaginations. He called this a ‘selective amnesia’ of the political and scientific elites. Andy Hall (Hyderabad roundtable) referred to Prasad’s historical work on how a strong tradition of doing things differently in different institutional settings in India has produced innovations of social relevance, and asked a question that fundamentally informs historical scholarship of science in India: From where does the dominant paradigm find its legitimacy and why does it not change?


Adding yet another dimension to the debate on directionality of socio-technical change, the observations of both Balaji Parthasarathy and Ashis Rajadhyaksha (Bangalore roundtable) have implications for the debate on the co-production of the technical and social relations central to STS historiography. The idiom of co-production highlights the role of knowledge, technical practices and material objects in shaping, sustaining or transforming relations of authority. The co-production idiom thus stresses the intertwining of the cognitive, the material and the social.

Wondering about the newness in the global economy that works at planetary scale and real time, Parathasarathy pointed out that in the last 200-300 years, most new technologies have emerged within the dominant and unchanging capitalist mode of production. Parthasarathy referred to Manuel Castells’ argument about how informationalism has become a new mode of development in the information society, replacing distinct forms of industrialism. He further pointed out that this change too has occurred in the broader capitalist mode of production. Parathasarathy therefore held that we witness a change in technical relations of production and technical and social division of labour without necessarily transforming social relations of production.

Rajadhyaksha also alluded to a similar point. Referring to the civil liberty activist K. Balagopal’s work, Rajadhyaksha argued that technologies get selected in a way that the social system remains intact while innovation takes place. Equally, though social oppression remains intact, it does not prevent society from moving to higher levels of technological innovation. In other words, it is possible for society to grow technologically while retaining certain fundamental social forms. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Or, possibly the more they appear to have changed, they remain the same, as Rajadhyaksha would have put it. Parthasarathy and Rajadhyaksha’s interventions hinted at a relatively less traversed dimension in the co-production debate, namely, which social forms remain constant and why while the technical and the material undergo a radical change.

This brief introduction merely hints at the rich historiography of knowledge traditions in India. By opening up the discussions on socio-technical regime transitions in STS to categories like faith, politics, amnesia, selective memory, nation-building and choice of public value as markers of closure, and by including alternative imaginations of knowledge and development centrally in the historical inquiry, the Indian debates indicated that they have significant potential to offer to theorisations of directionality of technological change.


Democracy: Democracy remained a ubiquitous theme and permeated (thankfully) into everything that was discussed without observing session boundaries. In addition to what has already been discussed in the previous sections, I now want to specifically engage with a couple of illuminating interventions on the relationship between knowledge, power and society.

Jasanoff asked a fundamental question right at the beginning of the debate in the Hyderabad roundtable: What should social sciences be doing with regard to understanding the relationship between knowledge and society? Jasanoff was concerned that the terminology of knowledge society would reproduce the emphasis on knowledge, whereas she thought that it was important to draw attention to society in ‘knowledge society’. Jasanoff pointed out a number of challenges with regard to refocusing on society, for instance, categories in which the understanding of human beings should be grounded in social sciences, and what the new imaginations of social contract and citizenship could be. I would like to engage with a couple of these concerns drawing upon the ways in which other contributors engaged with both these interventions. Furthermore, setting the stage for discussing democracy in the Delhi roundtable, Jasanoff declared it was not science, technology or democracy that were universal; rather it was the ‘talk’ about them that was universal. She called this a ‘false universal’.


Yet another of Jasanoff’s pertinent interventions was about the ways in which we understand how power operates. Jasanoff argued that we haven’t yet solved the problem of evil. Referring to the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt called it ‘the banality of evil’, whereas Jasanoff named the narrative of progress by the people in power as ‘baby talk’. For Jasanoff the canonical examples of how technological progress has increased life spans and how it has improved the living conditions of half the humanity are part of this impoverished discourse on progress. What she was concerned about was that in understanding power, the accusatory stance is limiting because the problems have been much more subtle and structured. It is not as simple as some people behaving badly, Jasanoff said. It is important to understand why things continue to persist the way they do. ‘Why do sinners’ ways prosper?’ She referred to the term that she and her colleagues used in ‘Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously’ – imaginaries – and asked, ‘What is it that makes the imaginary of the powerful so powerful? Why is that certain narratives continue to prove dominant, thereby ruling out and excluding other narratives and imaginaries?

Jasanoff also thought that the practices of governance are highly constrained by certain forms of structural imagination. This was amply demonstrated in Chadan Gowda’s discussion in the Bangalore roundtable on three recent reports: the World Bank report on the knowledge society, the 2006 report building on ex-President Abdul Kalam’s views on knowledge society, and the National Knowledge Commission report, ‘Towards Knowledge Society’. Gowda thought that in all three reports not only was knowledge portrayed as a commodity, but at the same time a diminishing concept of human beings lay at the heart of the imagination. The people of India figured in these reports as human capital, merely a state resource. For Gowda it was not surprising that working with such imaginations of knowledge and society, these reports failed to engage with justice, equity and welfare – thus with democracy.


At least three contributions further attempted at envisioning the ‘imagined’ in regulatory practices in India and Europe. Navroz Dubash (Delhi roundtable) discussed the case of electricity regulation in India and showed how the discourse on expertise was conditioning the emerging regulatory state and how it was clouding out other ways of knowing and doing. Where could one locate this imagination of the legal system? Arun Thiruvengadam (Delhi roundtable) talked about law as a backward looking culture, which claimed legitimacy through finding analogy and precedence.

Reflecting on imaginations that structure and condition knowledge, Jasanoff compared law with science, in the sense that law builds on reflection and memory and science and technology accumulate on the past and imply a degree of path-dependency. Hence, both are constrained by past imaginations. What these newer and emerging forms of regulation and legalities, even when constrained by past imaginations, imply is the changing nature of the state, which Carol Upadhyay (Bangalore roundtable) was very concerned about. Upadhyay pointed out that at the heart of the wider political economy of change in state apparatuses, happening in India under the rubric of good governance that reflects in the regulatory regimes, is an imagination of knowledge that is top-down, universalized, increasingly formulated by the international agencies at centralized locations and then disseminated around the world through development networks.


In the analysis of Gowda and Upadhyay, it was a particular imagination of knowledge that was made universal through the state agencies and national and international networks of development. Lastly, Mariachiara Tallacchini related a rather depressing story about how ethics, which could be considered as a rational account of what is right or wrong, has become a mere tool for government choices in the EU. The most potent imagination of our society, which Tallacchini described as identification of purification, has thus been co-opted and made subservient to bureaucratic ends.

‘Where and how does one look for alternative forms of imaginations?’ was an implicit query in these diverse accounts of dominant imaginations. Balaji proposed a manifesto: the co-creation of values and communities of scientific practice, whereas Jasanoff celebrated Luddites, the social movement of British textile artisans who protested against the Industrial Revolution. Jasanoff thought that the Luddites weren’t protesting against a particular form of knowledge, but rather were standing up for a way of life. For Visvanathan the most important question has been: What role does the nomad, the oral and the informal play in today’s knowledge politics.


I would like to conclude by highlighting the spirit of hope in an old fashioned way. Not choosing an easy answer to the question, ‘Why do sinners’ ways prosper?’ is probably one location to find hope. Not having any definite closure to these debates is another. Continuing to explore knowledge society debates as a dialogue between STS and the knowledge debates in the South is yet another signpost of hope. In another incarnation, such a dialogue is likely to be named ‘Catching up with the South’ (this came up during my conversation with Rob Hagendijk with whom I share the hope and title). It would be perfectly apt to end this knowledge-odyssey by quoting Upendra Baxi’s invocation of Albert Camus: ‘We rebel therefore you are.’



1. L. Winner, ‘Do Artifacts Have Politics?’ in D. MacKenzie and J. Wajcman (eds.), The Social Shaping of Technology, Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1985, pp. 26-38. And also L. Winner, ‘Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding it Empty: Social Construction and the Philosophy of Technology’, Science, Technology and Human Values 18, 1993, 362-378.

2. S. Jasanoff, Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in the United States and Europe, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005.

3. H.E. Longino, ‘Subjects, Power, and Knowledge: Description and Prescription in Feminist Philosophies of Science,’ in L. Alcoff and E. Potter (eds.), Feminist Epistemologies, Routledge, London, 1993, pp. 101-120. And also H.E. Longino, ‘Can There Be a Feminist Science?’ in Mary Wyer et al. (ed.), Women, Science, and Technology, Routledge, New York, 2001.

4. Paul Richards, ‘Agrarian Creolisation: The Ethobiology, History, Culture and Politics of Western African Rice’, in R. Ellen and K. Fukui (eds.), Redefining Nature: Ecology, Culture and Domestication, Berg Press, Oxford, 1996.

5. Ibid.

6. C. Mouffe, ‘Deliberative Democracy of Agonistic Pluralism?’, Social Research 66, 1999.

7. A. Smith, A. Stirling and F. Berkhout, ‘The Governance of Sustainable Socio-Technical Transitions’, Research Policy 34, 2005, 1491-1510.

8. S. Visvanathan, Carnival for Science: Essays on Science, Technology and Development, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997.