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Narrative, Nanotechnology and the Accomplishment of Public Responses: a Response to Thorstensen


In this paper, we respond to a critique by Erik Thorstensen of the ‘Deepening Ethical Engagement and Participation in Emerging Nanotechnologies’ (DEEPEN) project concerning its ‘realist’ treatment of narrative, its restricted analytical framework and resources, its apparent confusion in focus and its unjustified contextualisation and overextension of its findings. We show that these criticisms are based on fairly serious misunderstandings of the DEEPEN project, its interdisciplinary approachand its conceptual context. Having responded to Thorstensen’s criticisms, we take the opportunity to clarify and develop our approach to narrative. We articulate the need for novel, theoretically robust approaches to the formation of public attitudes which transcend the limitations of both survey-based approaches—which remain wedded to methodological individualism and which presume that individuals hold distinct and relatively stable attitudes and preferences—and interactionist approaches to public talk, which focus too strongly on individuals-in-interaction as reasoning agents and which ignore the constitutive role of culture and discourse in the formation of public opinion. We suggest that our use of narrative can help to better understand the process through which public attitudes to emerging technology develop out of interactive an engagement with wider cultural arguments and accounts of  science and technology. We finish by pointing to parallel developments in social thought—from Charles Taylor’s treatment of social imaginaries to recent developments in post-Bourdieuian cultural sociology—as related projects in understanding the cultural resources and grammars that provide the conceptual infrastructure for modern social life.

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  1. 1.

    It is also important to note that Thorstensen does not review DEEPEN outputs which deal directly with the critiques he mounts (see [6]).

  2. 2.

    See [7] for a discussion of the inevitability and value of acknowledging ‘mess’ in social research. See also [811] for recent work on the practice of interdisciplinary collaboration and specifically the role of ambivalence in interdisciplinary scholarship.

  3. 3.

    At this point, it is useful to correct a few misrepresentations in Thorstensen’s argument concerning the relationship between the philosophical and the social science elements in the DEEPEN project. Thorstensen claims that DEEPEN partner and philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, in his discussion of the DEEPEN work on publics, “never approaches the five narratives as intellectual research heuristics, but as self-existing entities”. Yet, this is a spurious distinction. Dupuy’s project was to situate the five DEEPEN narratives (as five ways of understanding why emerging nanotechnology might lead to unforeseen harm) as related to older stories, some of which have been prominent in society and culture for a very long time. These are not ‘self-existing entities’; rather, they are stories that have been codified in literature, poetry, folk tales, philosophy and other cultural forms to inform human conduct and ethical practice (some building on ‘ancient wisdom’ literature). Thorstensen then criticises Dupuy as “belonging to a philosophy version of the deficit model of the public understanding of science [sic] that is outlined by Brian Wynne”: the deficit being that lay people are “out of touch with the technological contemporary” and that this is a product of their “faulty understanding”. However, again, this misrepresents Dupuy’s project. He is not claiming that lay people possess a ‘faulty understanding’ nor that this ‘disqualifies them from having an opinion’; rather, he is stressing the severe disconnect between lay concerns with nanotechnology, which rely to some extent on ancient modes of thought, and modern imaginaries of nanoscience that rely on a set of metaphysical presuppositions that represent the technology a new paradigm of scientific endeavour based on its ability to control and manipulate matter at atomic and molecular scales. There is nothing deficit-like in Dupuy’s account. Like the DEEPEN lay participants, he is similarly concerned with “a science that drains all meaning from one of the most essential distinctions known to humanity: the distinction between that which lives and that which does not or, to speak more bluntly, between life and death” ([12]: 160]).

  4. 4.

    A further critique of Thorstensen’s is that we have ignored existing literature on public perceptions of nanotechnology. One text he has not engaged with is [13], in which we review existing literature in this area and assess its limitations with regard to individualist notions of ‘attitude’, ‘belief’ and ‘perceptions’.

  5. 5.

    Indeed, a more interesting and provocative discussion around the themes that Thorstensen raises concerns the inventiveness—or social life—of method (see [1416]). It seems to us more pertinent to explore the ways in which methods are engaged in ‘enacting the social’, whilst avoiding a form of methodological essentialism that claims that the refinement of method will enable a more objective representation of an a priori and external social realm. It seems to us that a notion of narrative—and the concepts of plot, storyline, cadence and tragedy that it implies—is indicative of the performativity of method and the necessity of interpretation in rendering social life (at least partially) meaningful.

  6. 6.

    For publications where we develop a concept of narrative in the interpretation of public responses to novel technologies, see [13, 25, 29, 30]. This work builds on and extends a range of themes evident in our collective and individual work [3137].

  7. 7.

    For example, Horlick-Jones [52, 57] explores the forms of practical reasoning deployed by publics to interpret novel technologies.

  8. 8.

    We note here that our DEEPEN research demonstrated the importance of both Enlightenment and Pre-Enlightenment narratives in shaping public discussion of science and technology [29].

  9. 9.

    These are of course the opening lines of Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Marx goes on to argue that “At the very time when men appear engaged, in revolutionizing things and themselves, … at such very epochs of revolutionary crises do they [men] anxiously conjure up into their service the spirits of the past, assume their names, their battle cries, their costumes to enact a new historic scene in such time-honored disguise and with such borrowed language”. One implication of this Marxian understanding of history is the rather crude, and increasingly commonplace, characterisation of public responses to ‘epochs of revolution’ as innately conservative—as a ‘borrowed language’ and a conjuring of the spirits of the past. By highlighting the importance of narrative resources—and indeed the cultural heritage of narratives—it is important to note here that we are not arguing that public responses to novel technologies are not simply backward looking. Rather, we have argued that these narratives are deployed in public talk precisely because they articulate dilemmas and problematics that remain culturally salient and resonant. We have also argued that the deployment of these resources is an inventive—and at times playful—one, where public struggle towards a collective understanding of the meaning and sense of new technologies. Of course, whether governing institutions have the capacity to recognise and engage with these narratives in a substantive manner is another issue entirely [81, 82].


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This work was supported by the European-funded ‘Deepening Ethical Engagement and Participation in Emerging Nanotechnologies’ (DEEPEN) project (SAS6-CT-2006-036719-DEEPEN). We would like to thank the editor for giving us the opportunity to write this response, our DEEPEN colleagues for their support and inspiration and, of course, Erik Thorstensen for reacquainting us with the DEEPEN project and making us think more deeply about our use of narrative. The usual disclaimer applies.

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Correspondence to Matthew Kearnes.

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Kearnes, M., Macnaghten, P. & Davies, S.R. Narrative, Nanotechnology and the Accomplishment of Public Responses: a Response to Thorstensen. Nanoethics 8, 241–250 (2014).

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  • Nanotechnology
  • Narrative
  • Public opinion formation
  • The DEEPEN project
  • Social imaginaries
  • Enlightenment
  • Cultural sociology