, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 131-142

On Nanotechnology and Ambivalence: The Politics of Enthusiasm

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Abstract

The promise of scientific and technological innovation – particularly in fields such as nanotechnology – is increasingly set against what has been articulated as a deficit in public trust in both the new technologies and regulatory mechanisms. Whilst the development of new technology is cast as providing contributions to both quality of life and national competitiveness, what has been termed a ‘legitimacy crisis’ is seen as threatening the vitality of this process. However in contrast to the risk debates that dominated the technological controversies of the late 1990s the vitality of technological innovation is now cast as vulnerable to lack of public confidence and trust in the regulatory and governance structures upon which such innovation depends. In order to address this deficit in public trust, science policy has increasingly turned to the social sciences, suggesting that public values might be incorporated into the development of nanotechnology at an early stage. Public ambivalence therefore constitutes the problem addressed by the increasingly central role that public engagement and participation play in contemporary science policy. Although the recent proliferation of public engagement activities is premised on the need to address this ambivalence through direct engagement, we re-interpret ambivalence as an engaged – rather than passive – mode of relating to technological determinism. Whilst the move toward forms of direct public engagement might be regarded as symptomatic of the emergence of affective mode of governance we interpret public ambivalence as a nested set of enthusiasms and anxieties. Accordingly we suggest that public engagement might be re-thought, utilising ambivalence as a creative resource, rather than as the problem.

This paper draws on the ESRC funded project: Nanotechnology, Risk and Sustainability: Moving Public Engagement Upstream (ESRC: RES-338-25-0006).