Cultural Studies of Science Education

, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 1–23 | Cite as

Learning to argue as a biotechnologist: disprivileging opposition to genetically modified food

  • Anne Solli
  • Frank Bach
  • Björn Åkerman


In the public discussion of genetically modified (GM) food the representations of science as a social good, conducted in the public interest to solve major problems are being subjected to intense scrutiny and questioning. Scientists working in these areas have been seen to struggle for the position of science in society. However few in situ studies of how the debate about science appears in learning situations at the university level have been undertaken. In the present study an introductory course in biotechnology was observed during one semester, lectures and small group supervision concerning GM food were videotaped and student’s reports on the issue were collected. The ethnographic approach to Discourse analysis was conducted by means of a set of carefully selected and representative observations of how a group of students learn to argue and appropriate views held in the Discourse they are enculturated into. While socio-scientific issues (SSIs) are often associated with achieving scientific literacy in terms of “informed decisions” involving “rational thought and Discourse” this study shows that SSI in practice, in the context studied here, is primarily concerned with using scientific language to privilege professional understandings of GMOs and discredit public worries and concerns. Scientific claims were privileged over ethical, economical and political claims which were either made irrelevant or rebutted. The students were seen to appropriate a Discourse model held in the biotechnological community that public opposition towards GMO is due to “insufficient knowledge”. The present study offers insights into biotechnology students’ decision making regarding socio-scientific issues, while also demonstrating the utility of Discourse analysis for understanding learning in this university context. Implications for reflection on the institutional Discourse of science and teaching of controversial issues in science are drawn and the study contributes to the investigation of claims of scientific literacy coupled to SSIs and argumentation


Discourse analysis Socio-scientific issues Higher education Genetically modified organisms (GMO) 



We are very deeply indebted to the professor and the students at the biotechnology course for allowing us to investigate the activities in which they were engaged. We would also like to thank The Hasselblad Foundation for financing this research. The authors gratefully acknowledge the helpful suggestions made on earlier drafts of this paper by Mark Elam, Maria Andrée, Erik Knain and Per-Olof Wickman.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Chemical and Biological EngineeringChalmers University of TechnologyGothenburgSweden
  2. 2.Department of Pedagogical, Curricular and Professional StudiesUniversity of GothenburgGothenburgSweden

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