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Mobile knowledges: Monitoring Change During Public Engagement Exercises

Dr Adrian Evans, School of Planning and Geography
Tuesday 21st January 2014 - 4:00pm
Glamorgan Building Council Chamber

Environment Research Group Seminar 

Public engagement exercises, in which members of the public contribute to debates that were previously dominated by experts, have been seen as an important means of legitimising democracy in our techno-scientific era (see Callon et al 2009). This paper draws on the results of a public engagement exercise that was designed to familiarise members of the public with scientific approaches to farm animal welfare and to garner opinions on a new animal welfare assessment system that was being developed by a network of European animal welfare scientists (Evans and Miele 2008, Miele et al. 2010). The engagement exercise took the form of a series of ‘citizen juries’ that were carried out over a five-week period in the UK, Norway and the Netherlands. Over the course of the engagement exercise the jurors were enrolled in a large variety of different tasks, including: listening to a range of different expert presentations, questioning experts, debating key issues, providing feedback, undertaking practical exercises etc. The primary goal of this exercise was to provide feedback to farm animal welfare scientists, so that they could understand the public reaction to their approach and potentially make changes to the way in which they assessed farm animal welfare.

In this particular paper, I focus attention on a feature of science-society dialogues that is sometimes neglected, namely how we might go about tracking and monitoring changes in public opinion throughout the course of a dialogue, as members of the public are increasingly exposed to new information and potentially different opinions, emerging from very different settings and discursive frames. In short, knowledges are often mobile rather than static and this presents us with a series of challenges when we seek to represent public understandings. In the paper I outline three different, but complementary, approaches to acknowledging and grappling with changing public opinions and understandings. Firstly, I attempt to shed light on changes by comparing two ‘snapshots’ of the jurors’ opinions, derived from an exercise that was undertaken at the very beginning of the juries and repeated near the end. Secondly, I seek to understand changes through the personal, retrospective narratives of jurors. Thirdly, I ask whether it is possible to gain any insights into changes as they occur, in situ, as the jury sessions unfold. To conclude, I reflect upon the broader implications that attending to the ‘mobility of knowledge’ might have for science-society dialogues; for our concepts of what constitutes knowledge; and for our attempts to represent public understandings.