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The emergence of dialogue

A long historical perspective on science communication shows a story of ebb and flow (Bauer, 2012). Power appears to roll back and forth in variable, often low-frequency waves between experts (however labelled) and laypeople (however labelled), as conditions and events become significant and then recede. For example, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the UK, when reading became a non-elite capability, and a public emerged for literature about nature, the educated elite generated non-elite literatures not only as a marketing opportunity but also in order to guide lay readers into particular ways of knowing and areas of knowledge (Bowler, 2009; Fyffe and Lightman, 2007). The elite thus maintained the exclusivity of their literatures and knowledges by swamping the market at the cheaper end with material more suited, in their eyes, to the public, and which were intended to guide the new readers into particular political and career paths. The newspapers, for most of their history, were deemed to express public opinion; but with the establishment of the popular press in the early twentieth century, the lens of public opinion became the opinion poll, conducted by agencies in the pay of elites. Similarly, when the public started to engage in further education, the elites did not open the universities to them; instead, new colleges and classes were provided that, while they offered advancement, also attempted to guide workers in certain intellectual and practical directions and divert them from others (Billinge, 1982; Porter, 1990). In each of these cases, what looks like an ‘opening up’ is mitigated by the extension of, and responsive innovation in, forms of elite control and management. To use Bourdieu’s terms, what might look like an activation of the public serves instead to discipline them (Bourdieu, 1984). And chafing under this discipline, the public finds new forms of activity for resisting it.

As the twentieth century passed, the distance between elites and laypeople was replaced by a fluidity in many dimensions – wealth, education, mobility, political agency – and the opportunities increased for the less powerful to sidestep control from higher up (Giddens, 1998; Castells, 2000). Together, now, they tussle for liberation and control, activation and discipline: the experts share some knowledge with the laypeople, the laypeople select from it, reconstruct it, and exploit it in unexpected ways; thus altered, the knowledge is deemed by elites to have been devalued, and they say so; the laypeople lose respect for elites, who suffer this devaluation in return and attempt to regain status by sharing something new they consider of value, and the cycle continues. In the contemporary world of multiple expertises, multiple audiences, multiple channels and timeless time, the tussle becomes a frenzy, and then blurs.   

One clear event, though, is the emergence of public engagement as a mode of science communication in the UK, and its fall-out elsewhere (Lock, 2009). By public engagement, I mean managed dialogues between experts, of some kind, and non-experts, or activities with a dialogical element (for a useful discussion of definitions, see Escobar, 2011). In the new professional community of science communication in the UK, public engagement quickly became the ‘gold standard’, and more traditional forms of communication such as lectures and museums of objects were disparaged as oppressive and undemocratic (Gregory and Lock, 2008). The past, and the alternatives, were swept away and squeezed out by policy-orientated funding decisions. Public engagement looks like an opening up, but can instead be understood as a managerial phase in the history of science communication: in the science communication boom of the 1980s onwards, the opening-up of the scientific culture generated resistance as well as support; the disquiet of the elites was expressed as concern about a lack of trust for expertise; and the time had come to clamp down. The public now were to become scientific citizens: they should participate, learn, discuss and debate (for further discussion, see Stirling, 2008; Durodie, 2009).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160607/002