Go back to article: Networks of knowledge and power: working collaboratively on the HoNESt project

Working across disciplines: what we learned

In many ways Work Package 3 have had the hardest job. Their official role is to ‘integrate a historians’ committee and a social scientists’ committee that will coordinate and monitor the interactions between Phase 1 (historical data collection) and Phase 2 (social scientific analysis) …’ (HoNESt, 2018). Historians often strive to explain complexity, reject generalisations and (particularly when engaging in national histories) emphasise the exceptional. Whilst this is suitable for the kind of historical work necessary to understand each country’s unique experience of nuclear power, successes and failures, and provide the basis for comparative histories, such methods or ‘habits’ of mind have not always delivered the kind of work which social scientists on the project expected. Unlike the historians on the project the work of the social scientists is to understand the interactions between society and nuclear energy across Europe and beyond, to find commonalities in failures and successes, and to suggest the mechanisms of engagement and interaction which have led to them. Rather understandably, these different ‘habits of mind’ have involved a lot of mediation in Work Package 3, and this has led to extensive drafting (and re-drafting) of the Short Country Reports over the last eighteen months.

Understanding these different ‘habits of mind’ has been one of the key challenges which we have had to face. In historical research, it is common to focus study and modes of enquiry first onto areas for which a base of sources exists. Rather than pointing out where a lack of sources prevented enquiry, historians often seek to understand what is there rather than listing what isn’t. Coming from a discipline in which it is common to outline criteria for inclusion or exclusion, social scientists on the project frequently asked historians to address openly whether ‘silences’ in their analysis were because certain events were relatively unimportant, or whether there were insufficient sources to understand how important an event was.

Another example of these clashing approaches was triggered by a request from social scientists to include more examples of ‘grassroots activism/activity’. In most early drafts, historians felt that they had covered any or all large activist groups which had formed, or, had explained limits on the formation of groups imposed by dictatorial systems of government. To us it seemed that we had done all we could to include what we felt could be classed as ‘grassroots activism/activity’. As historians, we assumed that the social scientists would come with certain assumptions around what ‘grassroots activism/activity’ was, and that there would be certain criteria which citizen activity would have to meet in order to be called by the term. In fact, the social scientists were using what they thought were clear words without any underlying assumptions. They were asking us for absolutely every interaction between citizen and state which could be found.

Most interestingly, this clash was not actually between our two different habits of mind, but was in fact brought about by our assumptions about each other’s ways of working and ways of meaning. Realisation that, for the social scientists, any well-sourced interaction between state and society was one worth explanation opened the door to a variety of new approaches for historians. Colleagues in Spain had initially stressed that there was no space for ‘grassroots activism’ under Franco’s dictatorial regime, yet in the course of their research had unearthed highly local responses to nuclear power. Whilst no major campaign groups were formed, and complaints rarely reached the central government, the siting of nuclear stations in Spain often prompted many individual citizens to write to their local council expressing concerns and hopes about the new technology. For historians these letters are very interesting – giving examples of how much citizens understood about the technology, and whether local people were in general for or against a nuclear station in their area – but, we assumed, would be of little interest to social scientists (Rubio-Varas et al, 2017). A key element of learning on this project has been to always ask for examples when terms are used, to prevent our assumptions about each others’ habits of mind from getting in the way.

Communication between the disciplines has at times been at cross purposes, and the work done in Work Package 3 in explaining the reality of historical and social scientific work to each discipline has been vital in ensuring that clarity rather than confusion has reigned. The final product, twenty national reports tracking the (sometimes only planned) development of nuclear power across Europe and in the USA, has sought to provide a suitable and, most importantly, readily comparable set of historical work from which the social scientists could conduct the broader analysis required in their groups – Work Packages 4 and 5.[1]

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180907/003