Social Knowledge in the Making
Of all the noteworthy features of modernity, one of the most remarkable, yet least remarked, is our reliance on policy makers to know what is good for us. “We,” after all, are not children or persons who through age, infirmity, or accident of heredity have lost the ability to think for ourselves. It is “we the people” of mature democracies who have delegated the task of public knowledge making to policy makers who serve us, in this regard, almost in loco parentis. These anonymous guardians know, as we do not, when our air is safe to breathe, what speeds are tolerable on our roadways, where to install our fire alarms and light switches, which drugs to take without intolerable side effects, and what counts as malpractice in medicine or stock trading. Not only do we, as adult citizens of democratic societies, not know the answers to such questions, but for the most part, we do not even know how answers are produced or why we should rely on them. Citizens delegate such issues to unelected policy makers and trust the policy system on the whole to make the right choices. But why do modern societies rely on policy makers’ epistemic expertise and good sense? What makes policy knowledge credible? That question deserves a great deal more attention than it has received in the social sciences. Even the field of science and technology studies (STS), which takes as its problematic all aspects of knowledge production and use, has devoted less energy to studying knowledge making in policy environments than in laboratories or other scientific workplaces. It is well established that knowledge created to serve policy needs—especially regulatory science—is sociologically distinct from other forms of knowledge. Knowledge for policy is produced in institutional settings and under criteria of validity that differ from those of “basic” or “research” science (Jasanoff 1990).
Jasanoff, Sheila. "The Practices of Objectivity in Regulatory Science." Social Knowledge in the Making. Ed. Charles Camic, Neil Gross, and Michèle Lamont. University of Chicago Press, 2021, 307-338.