In This Article Science and Social Movements

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Politicized Scientists and Ideas of Social Responsibility
  • Dissident Scientists and Scientific Change
  • Public Participation in Science, Technology and Policy

Political Science Science and Social Movements
Naveen Thayyil
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0244


There is a long tradition of contestations about social meanings of science and its relationship to social movements. In a dominant paradigm, science is seen as the institution that has the sole authority to certify and validate knowledge in modern societies. In this classical picture, science leads the production of knowledge, and society is a passive recipient. Also, science is seen here as devoid of social and political values. Social movements are generally seen as representing the “other,” a space that drives social and political changes that some sections of the society find desirable, changes that the State may generally avoid. The focus in this intersection broadly pertains to the manner and implications of the interaction of actors between these two spaces in challenging this dominant picture of science—be it in the production of knowledge or change in political relationship or social situations, where actors from either space are initiators/collaborators. Scholarship in this intersection falls broadly within the thematic of science and democracy; see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in the political science article Science and Democracy. This is generally seen as a significant area within the interdiscipline of science and technology studies (STS), even as there are significant contributions from sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, and political scientists whose work is usually not considered as falling within the ambit of STS. “Social movement” is recognized as an important category in both sociology and political studies, as it is seen as one of the main pathways toward increased democratic participation and representation; see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in political science article Social Movements. Further, there is a large field of scholarship attending to the institutions of science and technology as a major theater of democracy and politics; see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in political science article Politics of Science and Technology. Scholarship could be broadly viewed as intersecting in three prominent (and overlapping) trajectories. First pertains to attention on a long tradition of ideologically motivated scientists’ advocacy, including through formation of public interest scientific institutions for a host of general goals like peace, sustainability, and opposition to general policies of the State like militarism, corporatization, and privatization of public resources, often in alliance with the political goals of various social movements. A second trajectory pertains to the research by dissident (networks of) scientists who voice their opposition to dominant research agendas and politics of contemporary scientific establishments and align their everyday scientific research with the goals of broader social movements, for instance, the promotion of organic agriculture or green chemistry as their fields of scientific research. The third trajectory relates to the multiple ways of engagement/ collaboration by social movements and civil society organizations with the techno-scientific enterprise—be it through opposition of specific technologies like genetically modified organism and large hydro-electric dams, critique of specific technological pathways, attempts to influence research agendas including questions of risk assessment and regulation—often seen as democratizing science movements.

General Overviews

The academic focus in this intersection is unsurprisingly interdisciplinary. Science and technology studies (STS) is an arena where attention on the social institutions of science and technology coalesce from a number of disciplines, be it the sociology of science, philosophy of technology, history of science, regulation of technology, and their respective intellectual and other histories. Social movements as an analytical category also have been examined, quite prominently, from the disciplinary vantage points of sociology and political studies. Hence, the selection in this general overview is intended to give a flavor of the different vantage points of looking at the two analytical categories. Dedicated synopses of the intersection are scarce given the intensity of interdisciplinarity. Fortun 2017 provides a carefully considered overview of the theoretical work that shape social study of science. Hess, et al. 2008 offers an excellent analytical window into the literature from an explicit STS vantage point. Harding 2000 brings together the philosophical issues at stake in the challenge to science as a monopolistic institution of knowledge production. Though social movements are usually conceptualized as not including advocacy groups, campaigns networks or nongovernmental organizations in specific disciplinary frames, these groups are not excluded in this intersection since it is germane to the attention on the impact of science and technology on democratization. Callon 1999 provides an excellent overview into the sociological literature pertaining to the different conceptualizations of laypeople’s role in the production of scientific knowledge. Martin 2006 provides an accessible introduction to how different strategies for alternate science can involve different models of collaboration between the scientist and non-scientist. Wynne 1996 is a seminal essay that reflexively engages with the expert–lay divide in knowledge production. Bucchi and Neresini 2008 focuses on the hybridity of spaces of knowledge production, offering a useful overview of STS literature that emphasize the inexorability of public participation in the production of scientific knowledge. McCormick 2009 offers a conceptual category, namely, democratic science movements, even as the author offers a detailed comparative study of collaborations in scientific production by popular movements. Woodhouse, et al. 2002, employs rich case studies to advocate a reconstructivist position in STS, while exploring a second-order problem about studying the political commitments of scientist and STS scholars that studies it. Frickel and Gross 2005 is a prominent contribution that gives an overview about studying the similarities of scientific and social movements, even as the authors propose a general theory where scientific/intellectual movements are likely to emerge strongly. Their synthesis of the literatures on sociology of ideas, social studies of science, and literature on social movements is only indicative of the interdisciplinarity of the literature in this intersection.

  • Breyman, Steve, Nancy Campbell, Virginia Eubanks, and Abby Kinchy. “STS and Social Movements: Pasts and Futures.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. 4th ed. Edited by Ulrike Felt, Rayvon Fouché, Clark A. Miller, and Laurel Smith-Doerr, 289–318. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.

    E-mail Citation »

    A recent introduction to the engagement of STS scholarship with social movements in contemporary societies. Maintain that the intersection is a core formative idea in the field of STS. Trace interconnections among social movements and intellectual currents in STS, reform efforts in scientific and technical field, the study of scientific controversies, and the shaping of technology via lay and expert knowledge.

  • Bucchi, Massimiano, and Federico Neresini. “Science and Public Participation.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. 3d ed. Edited by Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amsterdamska, Michael E. Lynch, and Judy Wajcman, 449–472. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.

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    This chapter provides a useful overview of the theme of public participation in science, with a particular attention to hybrid forum of coproduction of scientific knowledge. Also surveys literature on the formal initiatives promoting public participation in science, through terms likes citizen involvement, public awareness of science, science communication, dialogue between science and society or science in society, public consultation, and technology assessment.

  • Callon, Michel. “The Role of Lay People in the Production and Dissemination of Scientific Knowledge.” Science, Technology and Society 4.1 (1999): 81–94.

    DOI: 10.1177/097172189900400106E-mail Citation »

    A description of the boundary between specialists and non-specialist, or science and society, and the diversity of possible modes of participation by non-specialists in scientific and technological debates. By distinguishing three models—public education model, public debate model and co-production of knowledge model—the author seeks to offer a broad review of the debates regarding the role of laypeople in the production of knowledge. Useful introduction for undergraduates.

  • Fortun, Michael. “Science Studies.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology. Edited by Sandy Maisel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

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    See for an accessible and thoughtful introduction to science studies. It provides a broad overview of the field and offers a window to keenly analyze further contributions on the science–society relationship, including the necessary social aspect to the production of technical knowledge. Available online by subscription.

  • Frickel, Scott, and Neil Gross. “A General Theory of Scientific/Intellectual Movements.” American Sociological Review 70.2 (2005): 204–232.

    DOI: 10.1177/000312240507000202E-mail Citation »

    An important intervention that theorizes the contexts and conditions where scientific and intellectual movements thrive, from the disciplinary vantage point of sociology of science. Using a number of diverse empirical cases from across natural, social, and administrative sciences, and the humanities, authors seek to elucidate on the convergences and divergences between scientific/intellectual movements and social movements and includes a helpful and broad review of literature on the parallels between the two.

  • Harding, Sandra. “Democratizing Philosophy of Science for Local Knowledge Movements: Issues and Challenges.” Gender, Technology and Development 4.1 (2000): 1–23.

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    Surveys three sites of local knowledge movements—that is, indigenous knowledge projects, post-positivist science studies and standpoint epistemologies—to historically situate the character of contemporary production of scientific knowledge. A relatively accessible text of an eminent philosopher of science known for her contribution to standpoint epistemology theory, it also identifies prominent positions of opponents and offers a defense for standpoint theory regarding these respective positions.

  • Hess, David, Steve Breyman, Nancy Campbell, and Brian Martin. “Science, Technology and Social Movement.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. 3d ed. Edited by Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amsterdamska, Michael E. Lynch, and Judy Wajcman, 473–488. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    A nuanced and thoughtful introduction to the intersection as a field in STS. Gives a background on social movement theory and maps the intersection of science, technology, and social movements. It focuses on three major contemporary social movements—namely, health, environmental, and information movements—to bring out the various important attendant dynamics in an analytical intersection.

  • Martin, Brian. “Strategies for Alternate Science.” In The New Political Sociology of Science: Institutions, Networks, and Power. Edited by Scott Frickel and Kelly Moore, 272–298. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.

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    A short overview of the various visions of alternate science, which is built around the ideas of “science for the people” and “science by the people,” and discusses four possible strategies to move these visions forward. Also focuses on areas where social movements, activists, and scholars can collaborate. An accessible text with little jargon, useful for both undergraduate students and more advanced researchers.

  • McCormick, Sabrina. Mobilizing Science: Movements, Participation, and the Remaking of Knowledge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.

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    The author discusses the increasing scientization of key policy decision-making and public debate and how popular movements have sought to democratize science in this interplay between science and politics. Through various case studies McCormick focuses on scientific controversies to examine a range of deliberative and participatory activities that seeks to unlock the “iron triangle” of bureaucracy, corporations, and techno-scientific establishments for “citizens to participate in political decision making.” Employs the term “democratizing science movements.”

  • Woodhouse, Edward, David Hess, Steve Breyman, and Brian Martin. “Science Studies and Activism: Possibilities and Problems for Reconstructivist Agendas.” Social Studies of Science 32.2 (2002): 297–319.

    DOI: 10.1177/0306312702032002004E-mail Citation »

    Takes a reflexive approach to the issue of social nature of science and technology, asking how STS scholars can take their own ideological commitments more seriously in their research. A useful introduction to a second-order problem of how political commitments of scientists and STS scholars can affect agendas for science and technology. Useful overview of the attendant conceptual challenges, while employing three case studies regarding green chemistry, organic agriculture, and peace movements.

  • Wynne, Brian. “May the Sheep Safely Graze? A Reflexive View of the Expert-Lay Knowledge Divide.” In Risk, Environment and Modernity: Towards a New Ecology. Edited by Scott M. Lash, Bronislaw Szerszynski, and Brian Wynne, 44–83. London: SAGE, 1996.

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    An influential essay that lays out the democratic and epistemic challenges in the production of regulatory knowledge arising from the interaction between techno-bureaucratic institutions of science, and “lay knowledges.” Remarkable weaving of various case studies, including the famous study of Cumbrian sheep farmers, to theorize the centrality of trust and engagement in the construction of scientific knowledge and the important role of laypeople in it.

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