Sociological Reactions to Uncertainty: Comparing the Political Projects of Risk Society and Actor-Network Theory

Monday, 11 July 2016: 09:15
Location: Hörsaal 46 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Rony BLANK-GOMEL, McGill University, Canada
Nadav EVEN CHOREV, Ben Gurion University, Israel
The breakdown of the modernistic narrative and the rise of the discourse of political and scientific uncertainty challenge sociology to re-consider its position towards society and its aspirations. In order to understand sociology's reaction to this crisis, we examine two related yet conflicting approaches: the Risk Society Thesis, and Actor-Network Theory (ANT). We discuss how these approaches are rooted in the rise of uncertainty and how they offer to deal with it.

Our comparison shows that both Risk Society and ANT reject modernistic dualisms such as nature/society or objective/subjective, and stress the role of technology in shaping social life and identities. Politically, they both call for “democratizing democracy”, particularly the creation of new layperson-expert relationships. However, they differ on how to reach this goal. Risk Society is focused on increasing democratic participation on the level of global civil society and improving the accountability of experts for the knowledge they produce. ANT scholars, alternatively, suggest a problem-focused approach that allows for new voices to be brought in.

We show that by focusing on the global, Beck tends to disregard the fact that cosmopolitan identities emerge from concrete linkages. This position assumes, instead, an ideal polity of equal citizens, all interested in and capable of making informed decisions. In contrast, ANT’s problem-oriented approach ignores the issue of uninformed individuals still desiring to have an opinion that counts.

In this light, we suggest a middle road, consisting of three potential tasks for sociology: first, promoting ‘communities of interest’, equivalent both to Michel Callon’s inclusive “research collective” and Ulrich Beck’s “global publics”. Second, such ‘communities of interest’ should be encouraged to produce accessible accounts that embrace –rather than reject- uncertainties. Finally, sociologists can take part in experimenting with designs to generate the interface between such communities and existing or emerging democratic institutions.