Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Framing the engagement of science?

By Gill Haddow, Ann Bruce, Jane Calvert and Robin Williams

Consulting and engaging with sectors of the UK population on the development of new scientific and medical technologies, such as GM crops, stem cell technology and DNA databases is considered to be of fundamental importance by some politicians, funding bodies, scientific organisations and social scientists. Social scientists have become involved with these ‘public engagement’ activities – studying their operation and impacts and, often supporting their activities. However the position of social scientists involved in these “engagements” remains rather unclear.

As social scientists, in recent years, we have become involved in public engagement activities with a number of groups (public, regulatory, academic etc) on various new scientific and medical technologies. Again and again, we have come across the problem of how to present complex technical, legal, ethical and social issues about these technologies to our participants. There is after all, a fundamental difference between asking people for their views on a particular topic based on their experience of it and asking people for their views based on little experience or knowledge. More often than not the public/s we engaged with had little experience, awareness and knowledge of these new scientific developments; and to be frank, were often little interested in them.

To reiterate, the problem is one of engaging with lay publics or with specialist communities (politicians, managers, specialists etc) on areas outside their specialism. This is why the issue of “framing” comes to the fore. There has been much criticism from STS colleagues about the disposition of scientists to persuade public/s that the science they are conducting is good and fair by framing the issues in a particular way. A much overlooked issue in these interactions is the problem of “framing” by the social scientists themselves. The role of “framing” in social interactions can be traced back to the classic work of Goffman who suggested that, “definitions of a situation are built up in accordance with principals of organization which govern events, at least social ones, and our subjective involvement in them; frame is the word I use to refer to such of these basic elements” (Goffman, 1974). Gitlin provides a convenient accessible definition: “Frames are principles of selection, emphasis and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens and what matters” (1980: 6). It is this question of “what matters” that has emerged in some of our latest research.

As social scientists, seeking to elicit the views of diverse constituencies in the course of fieldwork or public engagement activities, we may need to convey something about complex technical fields and associated social issues and policy debate. Time constraints, let alone the limits to our technical understanding, mean we can only provide a condensed and simplified account of these complex issues. Such simplification brings a risk of misinterpretation by giving some aspects greater emphasis than others. So no longer is it only about making sure that we do not ask leading questions, but it is the ability to present debates, issues etc that are provocative but reasonable; that stimulate debate but do not antagonise; that do not capture our respondents by our own analytical commitments and vested (critical) interests. Social scientists involved in PE activities around particular scientific or technological developments as “critical friends” of scientists are faced with additional questions such as, “how do we present information that does not alienate and antagonise scientific colleagues through inaccuracies, ignorance or unintended bias, yet allows the social scientist to present contested debates”?

We are also faced with a problem that, at one and the same time, the “picture we present” of such advances are to be inclusive, do not lead to power-differentials, do not “capture” the audience by our (conscious or unconscious) vested interests, do not lead to premature consensus and presents the information in a fair and unbiased way.

Some commentators have tended to discuss the issue of framing as a conscious strategy to lead (or mislead) those being engaged with towards a particular view (McCombs, et al 1997). In our experience this is less frequently an issue for social scientists as the unconscious representation of knowledge that reflects the social scientist’s interests. For example – there is an issue about justifying the involvement of social scientists as paid members of PE exercises; the general concern by social scientists to emphasise their value as intermediaries in techno-scientific change and there is also a question of the social and political personal commitments of social scientists. The solution is perhaps to spend more time reflecting on the presentation of information, more time discussing it with colleagues and more time thinking about the reactions it is likely to produce and to take more care in the results to demonstrate what and where the social science was in the frame.

Goffman, E. (1974). Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience New York: Harper and Row
Gitlin, Todd. 1980. The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley, CA, Los Angeles, CA & London, U.K.: University of California Press.
McCombs, M., Shaw, D. L., and Weaver, D., (1997) Communication and Democracy: Exploring the intellectual frontiers in agenda-setting theory. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.