Citizen Science as Political Consciousness

What is the relationship between citizen science and change? Engaging communities in the practice of science, especially through crowdsourcing at scale, is seen as a step towards tackling problems like global warming. The narrative is that collective measurement leads to collective awareness, which leads to collective action. However, the scientistic culture encouraged in most citizen science undermines the political determination needed to make changes in the world. It would be more productive to see citizen science as also a practice of political consciousness.

The act of measurement doesn't change anything by itself. We can ask whether it increases the agency of the actors making the measurements, in a way that carries over to change-making. One problem is that many citizen science projects treat participants as simple data collectors, with the broader project being defined by professional scientists. This clearly doesn't empower the participants. However, even citizen science projects which are genuinely bottom up and community oriented are prone to being assimilated by the status quo. The bigger problem here is the character of science itself.

In our societies, science has become part of what Foucault would call 'a regime of truth'. Truths are not things that sit outside the world but are produced within the historical process. They are shaped by the distribution of power in the society that produces them, and in turn help to channel how power can be exercised.

"Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true". Michel Foucault, Truth and Power

Of course, what makes science particular is that it is not wholly determined by social discourse or political prejudice. It is a set of empirical practices deployed against a material world which has regular and reproducible patterns. Many scientists would see this as sufficient to make science a neutral truth machine. However, it is well understood by those viewing science from a feminist or post-colonial perspective that this hasn't saved science from being enrolled in the dominant world view.

Yes, the scientific method provides a mechanism for guarding against individual whim. But in the choice of questions it asks, and the metaphors it deploys to understand the world, it is not immune to political and cultural influence. Scientific culture encourages a questioning, empirical approach to the world but is at the same time part of what Gramsci called the 'cultural hegemony'. That is, the set of beliefs, perceptions, and values that lead us to experience the fundamental tenets of the status quo as natural and inevitable. If citizen science is to make an authentic break with this, it needs to incorporate a political consciousness.

The concept of political consciousness starts from the idea that our understanding of power, wealth and self are shaped by ideological forces which hinder a full understanding of the forces at work in society. To open up the possibility of change means no longer perceiving these beliefs as natural or inevitable but as social constructs that must be investigated to reveal their role in perpetuating forms of domination. As a means of cracking open the cultural hegemony, it has been vital to feminism and the black liberation movements.

I think that citizen science can be seen to act in a similar way. By investigating the state of the world around us, it can be part of revealing that seemingly natural and inevitable parts of our lives are in fact constructed by wider processes and can therefore be reconstructed. Take, for example, community-driven investigations of air quality. The process of measuring and understanding the presence of particulate matter connects us with the material-social politics of the air. We develop an understanding of why the different forms of PM2.5 are present, what effects they are having on us, how they are connected to the wider political economy, and what it would take to change that.

The problem is that this consciousness can be hindered by science as much as it is enabled by it. The dominant tendency is for citizen science to define itself and justify itself in relation to mainstream science. Yes, citizen science is happy to claim the mantle of community participation, but it sees orthodox science as the final arbiter of the 'mechanisms which enable one to distinguish true and false statements'. This hobbles the ability of citizen science to be also a political consciousness because it carries the assumption that existing science is both neutral and objective. The fear in citizen science, I believe, is that challenging this would betray the scientific aspect of the enterprise and turn citizen science in to just another form of political advocacy.

Luckily, there are already positions to adopt that promote empirical investigation without forcing an allegiance to the cultural hegemony masked by science's claim to absolute neutrality. These have been articulated by people like Sandra Harding under the heading of 'standpoint epistemology'. We can also draw on the writings of Donna Haraway, who contests the idea that authentic objectivity comes from a process of disembodiment, of removing the perspective of those doing the measuring. They would argue that objectivity comes from acknowledging the position from which things are measured.

This is not social constructivism, it is not claiming that a specific empirical measurement would be different for two people. It is not denying the existence of an intransigent material reality. Rather it is clarifying that all attempts to bring forth wider meanings cannot be separated from the embodied perspective of the actors constructing those meanings. Standpoint epistemology suggests positions of political disadvantage can be turned in to sites of analytical advantage because they can critique the hegemonic assumptions missed by prevailing forms of objectivity.

If citizen science is going to lead to changes in the world it needs to step out of the shadow of mainstream science and affirm it's potential as both science and political consciousness. Science long ago dropped any claim to have a say in how society should be ordered. It outsourced this to politics in exchange for an elevated status in society, as a producer of pure truth in an otherwise impure world. Unfortunately, like most cases of 'not taking sides' this had the net effect of siding with the powerful. Citizen science can rightfully celebrate a practice of science that takes sides. It's not about overthrowing science as such, but practising science with a standpoint.

"Its not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power), but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural within which it operates at the present time." Michel Foucault, Truth and Power

"A standpoint is not the same as a viewpoint or a perspective, for it requires both science and a political struggle." Sandra Harding, Is Science Multicultural?: Postcolonialisms, Feminisms, and Epistemologies

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