, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp 141–151 | Cite as

Narratives of Mastery and Resistance: Lay Ethics of Nanotechnology

  • Sarah R. DaviesEmail author
  • Phil Macnaghten
Original Paper


This paper contributes towards a lay ethics of nanotechnology through an analysis of talk from focus groups designed to examine how laypeople grapple with the meaning of a technology ‘in-the-making’. We describe the content of lay ethical concerns before suggesting that this content can be understood as being structured by five archetypal narratives which underpin talk. These we term: ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’; ‘kept in the dark’; ‘opening Pandora’s box’; ‘messing with nature’; and ‘be careful what you wish for’. We further suggest that these narratives can be understood as sharing an emphasis on the ‘giftedness’ of life, and that together they are used to resist dominant technoscientific and Enlightenment narratives of control and mastery which are encapsulated by nanotechnology.


Control Lay ethics Narrative Nanotechnology Public perceptions 


  1. 1.
    Babbage F (2004) Augusto Boal. Routledge, LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Bainbridge WS (2002) Public attitudes toward nanotechnology. J Nanopart Res 4(6):561–570CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Banks S, Scully JL, Shakespeare T (2006) Ordinary ethics: lay people’s deliberations on social sex selection. New Genet Soc 25(3):289–303CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Bensaude-Vincent B (2004) Two cultures of nanotechnology? Hyle 10(2):65–82Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    BMRB Social Research (2004) Nanotechnology: views of the general public. Quantitative and qualitative research carried out as part of the Nanotechnology study. The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering Nanotechnology Working Group, LondonGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Castellini OM, Walejko GK, Holladay CE, Theim TJ, Zenner GM, Crone WC (2007) Nanotechnology and the public: effectively communicating nanoscale science and engineering concepts. J Nanopart Res 9(2):183–189CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Cobb MD, Macoubrie J (2004) Public perceptions about nanotechnology: risks, benefits and trust. J Nanopart Res 6(4):395–405CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Currall SC, King EB, Lane N, Madera J, Turner S (2006) What drives public acceptance of nanotechnology? Nat Nanotechnol 1(3):153–155CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Dupuy J-P (2000) The mechanization of the mind: on the origins of cognitive science. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    European Commission (2004) Towards a European Strategy for Nanotechnology. Luxembourg: Commission of the European CommunitiesGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Felt U, Wynne B (Eds) (2007) Science and governance: taking european knowledge society seriously. Report of the Expert Group on Science and Governance to the Science, Economy and Society Directorate, Directorate-General for Research, European Commission, BrusselsGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Ferrari A (2010) Developments in the debate on nanoethics: traditional approaches and the need for new kinds of analysis. NanoEthics 4, no. 1 (April 1): 27–52. doi: 10.1007/s11569-009-0081-z
  13. 13.
    Feynman R (1960) There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom. Engineering and ScienceGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Gaskell G, Ten Eyck T, Jackson J, Veltri G (2004) From our readers: public attitudes to nanotech in Europe and the United States. Nat Mater 3(8):496CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Gaskell G, Ten Eyck T, Jackson J, Veltri G (2005) Imagining nanotechnology: cultural support for technological innovation in Europe and the United States. Public Underst Sci 14(1):81–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Gavelin K, Wilson R, Doubleday R (2007) Democratic technologies? The final report of the Nanotechnology Engagement Group (NEG). Involve, LondonGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Heller A (2006) European master-narratives about freedom. In: Delanty G (ed) Handbook of European social theory. Routledge, London, pp 257–265Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Irwin A (2006) The politics of talk: coming to terms with the ‘New’ scientific governance. Soc Stud Sci 36(2):299–320CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Irwin A, Wynne B (1996) Misunderstanding science? The public reconstruction of science and technology. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Kearnes MB (2008) Informationalising matter: systems understandings of the nanoscale. Spontaneous Generations: A Journal for the History and Philosophy of Science 2(1):99–111Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Kearnes MB, Macnaghten P, Wilsdon J (2006) Governing at the nanoscale: people, policies and emerging technologies. Demos, LondonGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Kjolberg K, Wickson F (2007) Social and ethical interactions with nano: mapping the early literature. NanoEthics 1(2):89–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Law J (2004) After method: mess in social science research. Routledge, AbingdonGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Lee CJ, Scheufele DA, Lewenstein BV (2005) Public attitudes toward emerging technologies—Examining the interactive effects of cognitions and affect on public attitudes toward nanotechnology. Sci Commun 27(2):240–267CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Lyotard J-F (1979) The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. Manchester University Press, ManchesterGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Macnaghten P (2009) Researching technoscientific concerns in the making: narrative structures, public responses and emerging nanotechnologies. Environ Plann A. 41, Advance online publication. doi: 10.1068/a41349
  27. 27.
    Macoubrie J (2005) Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government. Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  28. 28.
    Macoubrie J (2006) Nanotechnology: public concerns, reasoning and trust in government. Public Underst Sci 15(2):221–241CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Nerlich B, Clarke DD, Ulph F (2007) Risks and benefits of nanotechnology: how young adults perceive possible advances in nanomedicine compared with conventional treatments. Health Risk & Society 9(2):159–171CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 30.
    Nordmann A (2005) Noumenal technology: reflections on the incredible tininess of nano. Techne 8(3):3–23Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Peter D. Hart Research Associates (2007) Awareness of and attitudes toward nanotechnology and federal regulatory agencies. Project On Emerging Nanotechnologies, The Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Peter D. Hart Research Associates (2008) Awareness of and attitudes toward nanotechnology and synthetic biology. Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Responsible Nano Code (2008) Information on the responsible nano code initiative. Responsible Futures, LondonGoogle Scholar
  34. 34.
    Sandel MJ (2004) The case against perfection: what’s wrong with designer children, bionic athletes, and genetic engineering. The Atlantic Online, 2004Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Sandel MJ (2007) The case against perfection: ethics in the age of genetic engineering. Harvard University Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  36. 36.
    Sandler R (2009) Nanotechnology: the social and ethical issues. Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Schutz H, Wiedemann PM (2008) Framing effects on risk perception of nanotechnology. Public Underst Sci 17(3):369–379CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. 38.
    Scully JL, Banks S, Shakespeare TW (2006) Chance, choice and control: lay debate on prenatal social sex selection. Soc Sci Med 63(1):21–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Scully JL, Shakespeare T, Banks S (2006) Gift not commodity? Lay people deliberating social sex selection. Sociol Health Illn 28(6):749–767CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Song R (2002) Human genetics: fabricating the future. Darton, Longman and Todd, LondonGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Strassnig M (2008) Ethics is like a book that one reads when one has time: exploring lay ‘ethical’ knowledge in a public engagement setting. Dissertation: University of ViennaGoogle Scholar
  42. 42.
    Toumey C (2005) Apostolic succession. Sci Eng 68(1&2):16–23Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Wynne B (2006) Public engagement as a means of restoring public trust in science—hitting the notes, but missing the music? Community Genet 9(3):211–220CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Arizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  2. 2.Durham UniversityDurhamUK

Personalised recommendations