Science, Professions and Politics

21 – 25 April 2014        Send to printer

Conference organizers

Thomas Brante, Lund University, Sweden
Anders Molander, Oslo University College, Norway
Nico Stehr, Zeppelin University, Germany

Conference description:

The general aim of this conference is to compare, assess and further develop different approaches and explanatory models to the multiple roles of science, expertise and the professions in contemporary knowledge societies. ’Knowledge society’ (Stehr 1984, 1996) is defined by the increasing amount of new ideas and rapid transformations in science, technology, organization, economy and culture. It is advanced by a specific social ‘complex’ (Parsons), primarily involving scientists, experts and professional occupations, the tasks of which are to develop, take responsibility for, apply and distribute new knowledge and knowledge-based practical skills. Various scholars have given other names to this ‘complex’ like ‘system of professions’, ‘professional landscape,’ ‘layer’, and even ‘class.’ Combinations of scientific knowledge and expert knowledge on the one hand and knowledge-based practice on the other constitute the basis of knowledge society. Currently, this layer represents 15 – 20 % of the total labor force in most industrialized nations. It possesses key positions in regards to discovery, innovation and development, and for distribution and implementation of knowledge; its practitioners are the agents and carriers of knowledge. It is not possible to understand contemporary social development without substantial insights into the functions and dynamics of this layer, of its ‘essence’. Simultaneously, this layer is clearly unexplored by the social sciences. This conference addresses the contemporary knowledge layer from three dissimilar but related themes.

(1) The first sub-theme concerns the relations between science, expertise and professions in knowledge society. In a linear model modern professions have been defined as occupations basing their practice on scientific knowledge; they have been understood as implementers of such knowledge. The purpose of this sub-theme is to problematize the linear model in various professional fields, especially by identifying changing bases of legitimacy for modern professions.

(2) Combinations of science, experts and professions have been called ‘knowledge groups’, ’epistemic communities’, ’knowledge regimes’, or even ’truth regimes’. The second theme focuses on the relations between such groups; what are their common denominators and conditions, how do the relations between them develop, especially relations of cooperation and competition. Previous research has demonstrated that groups in various fields can mobilize for competing about the ’ownership’ of certain problems; in other words there are struggles for jurisdiction within and between fields.

(3) The third theme addresses the role of experts in political decision making. Contemporary democracies are dependent on scientific knowledge and of contributions from knowers or experts in different fields. At the same time expertise represents a non-democratic source of political influence. How strong is this influence of experts in different areas of public policy, and what is the legitimate role of expertise in democratic governance? How to conceive the relationship between the epistemic and participatory aspect of democratic rule, between the interest in well-informed decisions for which expertise is indispensable, on the one hand, and the inclusion of citizens as equal participants in the political process, on the other. How to institutionalize a well-functioning interplay between expertise and democratic opinion- and will-formation?

(4) The fourth sub-theme addresses the growth of new professional types.We explore to what extent the standard concept of profession is applicable to “wanna-be professions”, i.e. occupations having professional ambitions, both in classic fields like health, education and the academy and in new areas like e.g. IT, tourism, integrative design, personal coaching etc. Another new and growing professional type is what is what is often called organizational professions or leadership professions, in contrast to occupational professions. In recent decades, these have emerged in most professional fields as leaders and managers at middle- and higher organizational levels. In particular, relations between these and new methods of governance, control and evaluation will be addressed. These four themes are here presented as separate but are linked in a number of different ways, making it crucial to consider all of them for explaining the basic functions of knowledge groups, and thus also the development of modern societies. The conference is open to social scientists, STS-scholars, and philosophers interested in the topic. There will be specially invited speakers, to be presented later on. The conference is also a graduate course, that is, a limited number of Ph. D.-students are welcome to participate and can present their own papers that will be examined and given points transferrable to their own universities.

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