CfP for a special issue of Science as Culture [concluded for 2022 publication]

Institutionalized Ignorance in Policy & Regulation

Guest Editors:

  • Katharina T. Paul, Senior Research Fellow, University of Vienna
  • Samantha Vanderslott, Social Science Researcher, University of Oxford
  • Matthias Gross, Professor of Environmental Sociology, University of Jena

In recent years public debate has increasingly focused on competing knowledge and non-knowledge claims, their legitimacy and accountability, and the intentional ignorance of fact and evidence. In concerns over “misinformation”, “disinformation” or “fake news”, a cultural narrative pervades that suggests trust in institutions and expertise is at threat, and that illegitimate sources have been elevated. Socio-political instabilities and the rise of populism compound fears of a loss in institutional trust, aided by technological developments and new ways to interact with technology. These fears focus on types of knowledge claims that are intentionally or demonstrably false. Conversely, the mere absence of knowledge or information (rather than falsehood) in policymaking and regulation, has received little attention in political discourse.

In parallel, ignorance and non-knowledge have become the subject of a growing body of research in several disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. The starting point of this scholarship is typically that ignorance is not merely a consequence of our limited capacities as knowers or an innate state of not-yet-knowing (Proctor 2009), nor is ignorance merely an absence of knowledge or a by-product of knowledge practices. Instead, scholars informed by what has become known as “agnotology” (Proctor and Schiebinger 2008) argue that ignorance is structurally and even purposefully produced. This special issue proceeds from this starting point and collects papers that focus on institutionalized forms of ignorance in policy and regulation. Papers are required to articulate conceptions and forms of ignorance along three axes: (i) the strategies of institutionalized ignorance as a part of how institutions operate, depending on the intended goals and agencies of institutions, (ii) what scale of enquiry is taken to view institutional ignorance, and (iii) the stakes that these activities have for public accountability.

In the current scholarship, the production of ignorance and non-knowledge is situated along a considerable spectrum of intention and agency. Science and Technology Studies (STS) has traditionally been interested in knowledge-claims, how these are used to justify action and inaction, and how these claims compete and contradict each other. Longstanding sociological research on uncertainty and its framing has generated a host of case studies, ranging from the production of uncertainty through artefacts of “not-knowing” for Papua New Guinean biomedicine (Street 2011) to the framing of uncertainty for nanotechnology (Arnaldi et al. 2009). As a concept, ignorance is different form uncertainty but closely related. Drawing on agnotology, Beck (2017) concisely describes how ignorance manifests itself in three main forms with varying assumptions and levels of uncertainty in intention: the conscious inability to know, unconscious non-knowing, and unknown unknowns or willful ignorance.

Willful ignorance is the type of intentionality that has attracted the most attention for scholarship in recent years. The most prominent conceptualization, popularized by Proctor and Schiebinger (2008, see also McGoey 2012; Gross 2007), is of ignorance as a knowledge practice in its own right and a political strategy that is actively produced, maintained and exploited as a resource. This tactical component means that ignorance is politicized and directs focus towards who is creating ignorance and why. Studies on the role of ignorance in bureaucracy (Best 2012) and regulation (McGoey 2012) address the cultivation of “strategic unknowns” as a resource both for maintaining and coping with power relations. These “strategic unknowns” can function to deflect certain forms of knowledge, obscuring and concealing some, while magnifying others, and thus increasing the scope of what remains unintelligible (McGoey 2012). Deliberate creation of uncertainty and ambiguity about (side-) effects from tobacco use, and certain pharmaceutical products are often-cited examples. However, the strategic use of ignorance also includes practices of information or data, such as refusing the systematic use of data, where disclosure would increase individual vulnerability (e.g. concerning sexual orientation or medical history).

Second, and as a result of these varying assumptions of intention behind ignorance, we find different levels or scales of enquiry towards or by institutions. McGoey (2019) distinguishes between ignorance as individual acts of ignoring and their responses, such as with resistance against institutions, and ideological positions or policy perspectives. In philosophy, ignorance as a matter of individual reasoning is an established research tradition in logic, a subfield of philosophy (Rescher 2009). Organization studies and critical management studies, on the other hand, have highlighted how organizations are seen to produce ignorance through compartmentalization and structural secrecy (Croissant 2014). Other research areas concentrate on broad scales, at economic, political, cultural, and ideological levels, finding contributions from postcolonial studies and critical race theory. Ignorance is seen here to produce epistemic injustice (Fricker 2017) wherever knowledge of members of oppressed groups is ignored or denied and to the specific kinds of systemic ignorance perpetuating racial (Mills 2007 in Sullivan, S. & Tuana, N. 2007), gender and inequality (Flear 2020).

Beyond differences in intent and scale, forms of institutional ignorance and their outcomes vary in what the stakes are for public accountability. To be sure, ignorance need not produce negative results only but can also be a neutral or positive force. Best’s finding that “bureaucracies seek not only to contain ambiguity through various forms of quantification and standardization, but also to foster it” (Best 2012: 84) resonates with much of the emphasis that interpretive policy analysis (Dodge & Metze 2017) has put on uncertainty as a distinct feature of governance. Also, ignorance is not always a societal “bad” serving the interests of the powerful than for the common, social, or public benefit. Effects can even be positive for society, such when used as a coping mechanism for information and knowledge overload (Proctor and Schiebinger 2008) or by offering room for creativity and problem-solving (Smithson 2008).

There are clear implications of ignorance for accountability in policy and regulation, few links have been made between agnotological perspectives (Paul & Haddad 2019) and the study of institutionalized ignorance as a central feature of policy and regulation – apart from in environmental history with a focus on pollution and risk (notedly Boudia & Jas, 2014). As a result, ignorance has largely been conceptualized as a resource for industry and non-governmental actors, rather than a study of “ignorance-based policy” in governments and public administration. New collective forms of holding institutions accountable (Jasanoff 2005) are needed.

This special issue seeks to fill this gap and to address the non-accountability of ignorance-based policy and its strategic use, at the local and national government level and through global governance. If institutionalized ignorance underlies or justifies a policy framework, how do such strategies help to avoid public accountability?  How do publics attempt to gain accountability? Bovens (2007) suggests that accountability should be classified according to a normative framework based on the questions of: to whom account should be rendered, who should render account and what account is to be rendered. Therefore, accounting for institutional ignorance becomes a matter of determining legitimate action and assessing how this activity is recorded and why. It is this accountability for institutionalized ignorance to the public (Sinclair, 1995) that we focus upon. A consequentialist view of what happens in practice, especially in how institutions evade accountability, can give focus to how actors are held to account for actions taken in the past but also the democratic accountabilities that drive actions in the present (Genus & Stirling, 2018).

With this proposed special issue, we seek to draw attention to the specific non-knowledge practices on an institutional level, bearing in mind that ignorance is produced and mobilized by a multitude of actors across a multitude of sites – be it scientific research (Böschen et al 2006), regulatory science (Michaels 2008), or policymaking practices more generally. Our agenda is three-fold: First, we seek contributions that are able to reveal the politico-administrative results of institutionalized ignorance in how publics attempt to gain accountability; instutionalized ignorance and the responses that are elicited forms an ignorance of outcome in action and inaction that is enabled by strategic ignorance in governmental agencies and bureaucracies. While knowledge is presented as a compelling reason for action, inaction too can be pursued through ignorance, and ignorance a strategy for inaction and the avoidance of accountability.

Second, we are keen to inform the current discourse on the opportunities and pitfalls (with related promissory discourses) of data practices and evidence claims, in accounting, recording, quantifying, and standardizing, with an agnotological perspective. At times naive optimism invested in (big) data and hopes for improved “evidence-based policy” to counter what appears to be an era of misinformation and disinformation, risks overemphasizing knowledge and overlooking ignorance as a regulatory knowledge practice. We thus seek papers that address this relation between data, evidence, and knowledge critically – we imagine this may be particularly relevant for data-intensive policy questions such as in the area of health research, financial markets, environmental regulation and monitoring, and science and technology governance. Here, we are keen to see how intentions shape data use and data infrastructures, how these intentions for “evidence-based policy” inform institutionalized data collection practices, and what role they play in producing inclusions and exclusions in contemporary knowledge societies. The portrayal of ignorance as evidence in the ways outlined will be of particular interest.

Third, we want to bring together scholars interested in rethinking established patterns of knowledge practices for the sake of jointly improving the study of policymaking at various scales. This objective requires a systematic study of (non-)knowledge and its integration into political discourse.

  • What role does ignorance play in governance, policy, and regulation, and what implications does institutional ignorance have for public accountability?
  • What patterns of knowledge practices and evidence claims emerge in particular case studies and policy areas, and what do these patterns mean for our understanding of policymaking and regulation?
  • How are unknowns and uncertainties currently addressed in different policy arenas and research practices, and with what consequences? What cultures of non-knowledge can be discerned in institutions and how do these affect or limit public accountability?
  • How can the relation between ignorance and accountability be conceptualized? What practices of shifting accountability for and through non-knowledge be identified in specific cases, and how could they be countered?
  • How and where can we observe an over-emphasis on (non-)knowledge at the expense of other qualities of political processes and policymaking, and how can these qualities be brought back into perspective?
  • How do institutions portray ignorance as ‘evidence’ or as its absence?  How is this publicly contested?

We are seeking papers that substantively address institutionalized ignorance, rather than ignorance more generally, as it relates to political processes, policymaking, and regulation. We welcome contributions based on empirical case studies, as well as conceptual papers, but seek to prioritize the former category. When submitting your abstract please make sure to clearly state how your argument relates to the concepts of institutionalized ignorance and policy, not just simply saying what the paper will do.


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