In this post, I share two short comments I wrote previously about the concept of “coproduction” in Jasanofian STS. These notes roughly reflect how I understand the concept and its connection to some other ideas. Both comments were originally written for graduate courses (in STS and the philosophy of technology).
Note 1: On the meaning of co-production
In saying that nature and society are “co-produced”, STS scholars mean to emphasize that the human processes of ordering nature (through science and technology) and society (through political systems, laws, regulations etc.) are mutually influenced by one another. Neither process is independent, agential, or “prior” to the other. Instead, the two are entwined in a complex web — Latour invokes a “Gordian knot” metaphor — of interdependence and influence, and so must be analyzed together to uncover the most complete picture.
Early developments in STS did away with naive technoscientific determinist accounts of the world — i.e. understandings of technoscientific innovations as arising exogenously, and subsequently re-shaping society1. For example, in Bloor’s strong programme, we see a dismissal of “autonomous” accounts of a knowledge, and a move towards “symmetric” sociological explanations of the process of scientific knowledge production (i.e. the “social construction” of science). However, co-productionist work recognizes that it is also incomplete to emphasize only that “science is socially constructed”. As Jasanoff discusses, this summary suggests an unwarranted “causal primacy” or unexplained “agency” for social factors (like “the market” or “the state”); further, Bloor’s perspective discourages tracing of the strands of mutual influence between natural and social (according to Jasanoff).
What does it look like to study processes of co-production? In Jasanoff’s taxonomy, co-productionist work has broadly followed in two traditions: constitutive and interactional. The constitutive approach is identified first with Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, which takes as foundational modernity’s division of the world into “natural” and “social”. This dividing is what originally “severs” the Gordian knot of co-production; the analyst must attempt to retie by “crisscrossing” the divisions, tracing out networks of human (i.e. “social”) and nonhuman (i.e. “natural”) actors and the negotiations and translations that hold them in place (as we see with Callon’s (1984) scallops)2.
Interactional approaches take existing divisions of social and natural as given, and focus study on interactions between and mediation of the boundaries of these worlds. Ezrahi (1990) is an example of this tradition. Ezrahi discusses the interactive role of science in continually securing assent and legitimation for state action in democratic society. We see that for Ezrahi, science is both pursued by the democratic state (i.e. a social actor), and plays a central role in maintenance of that social order; hence, co-production.
Note 2: Coproduction as Constructivist Idiom; Coproduction and Technology
Against the background of thinkers like Marx & Marcuse, Jasanoff’s constructivist perspective is a clear divergence. Marx and Marcuse think of themselves as doing “objective” social science. This attitude justifies the sometimes condescending & prescriptive tone we see e.g. in Marcuse’s discussion of the manipulated masses, out of touch with their “true” needs.
Jasanoff and other STS thinkers, by contrast, are very much in the business of unwinding and looking directly at this kind of supposed “objectivity” — examining how it is constructed, deployed, and stabilized, especially in making decisions about how to live in the world (e.g. p.119 in “Contributions”). This yields a different kind of perspective both on the object of study (the relationship of science, technology & society), as well as the activities of the researcher. For example, on the latter point, Jasanoff quite explicitly frames co-production as an idiom – “a way of interpreting and accounting for complex phenomena” rather than a “full fledged theory, claiming lawlike consistency” (as Marxists might think of their work). Co-production is a way of explaining, understanding, looking at what is happening at the intersection of science, technology, and governance rather than a claim about the factual relationship between these forces.
Where does the lens of co-production point us? Per Jasanoff, the basic thesis is that we “gain explanatory power by thinking of natural and social orders as being produced together” (emphasis mine), rather than by thinking of one as determining the other (2, in “The idiom of co-production”). In other words, framed in oppositional terms, co-production is importantly about trying to look past the pervasive but reductive social- and technological-determinisms that are advanced by other thinkers, to instead see how “the ways in which we know and represent the world … are inseparable from the ways in which we choose to live in it” (3).
Co-production is perhaps in sharpest relief when thinking about the role & production of objective knowledge/science in society; where does it point us in thinking about “technology”? In the first place, we can think about technological development decisions directly through a coproductionist lens. For example, when Facebook tweaks its News Feed algorithm to demote “borderline content”, we can see how this at once embeds social understandings about the nature of acceptable public discourse (vis-a-vis misinformation, politics etc.), as well as technologically enforces such understandings on the world (in this case, often well beyond the cultural context they originate from). In Jasanoff’s writing, co-production also offers an instructive perspective in moments of controversy, when some novel technoscientific object presents itself and must be integrated into the fold of governance. For example, in “Making the Facts of Life”, Jasanoff describes how this process plays out in the case of human embryonic stem cells across different sociocultural contexts, showing how settling the ontological categorization of this new thing (“What is this?”) is interwoven with the normative-ethical analysis of it (“What is okay to do with this?”), and how these two questions are ultimately settled together.
Bloor, D. (2005). The strong programme in the sociology of knowledge. Knowledge. Critical Concepts, 5.
Callon, M. (1984). Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay. The sociological review, 32(1_suppl), 196-233.
Ezrahi, Y. (1990). The descent of Icarus: Science and the transformation of contemporary democracy. (No Title).
Jasanoff, S. (2004). Ordering knowledge, ordering society. States of knowledge: The co-production of science and social order, 2044.
Latour, B. (2012). We have never been modern. Harvard university press.