This post is part of Bill of Health’s ongoing blog symposium on Critical Studies of Citizen Science in Biomedical Research. Below, Bruno Strasser and Dana Mahr trace the rise of experiential knowledge in the 1970s, probing the historical origins of participatory research through the examples of urban planning, women’s health, civil rights, and toxic sites in the United States. Background on the symposium is here. You can call up all of the symposium contributions already published by clicking here.
By Bruno J. Strasser & Dana Mahr
In his Social History of Truth, Steven Shapin argued that, in the 17th century, the credibility of the natural philosopher’s testimony — but not that of the drunken sailor — derived from his social status as a gentleman (Shapin 1994). By the 19th century, with the professionalisation of science, the credibility of knowledge claims came to be tied to the professional expertise of the “scientist” and to the institutions where he, or more rarely she, worked. How then, in the 21st century, did a discourse emerge granting “lay people”, “amateurs”, or “citizen scientists” — which are neither gentlemen, nor scientists, and often work from home — credibility in the co-production of scientific knowledge? There is no simple answer to this question, yet we would like to offer one in this contribution.
Three narratives have tried to explain the historical origins of current participatory research. The first looks back at the contributions of amateur naturalists in the 19th century, the second at radical scientists’ movements in the 1960s, and the third at the personal computer revolution in the 1990s (Strasser et al. 2017 – forthcoming). Here, we suggest a different narrative, focussed on the rise of “experiential knowledge” in the 1970s. In current participatory research, the challenges to the monopoly of expert knowledge — experimental and clinical — rest in part on the claim that lay people’s experience of their own bodies and environments can be reliable sources of scientific knowledge. The ability of lay people to identify changes in their bodies (PatientsLikeMe), to notice disturbances in their environment (Community Based Environmental Monitoring Network), and even to recognise subtle patterns in images of galaxies (GalaxyZoo) or to fold proteins in three dimensions (Foldit), all rest on intimate bodily experiences. It is not reason at work, but bodily perception; not objective facts, but subjective sensations; not experiment, but experience. Then how can it be considered legitimate science, knowing that the very exclusion of experiential knowledge was part of the making of modern science? By the 1970s, we suggest, in the turmoil of the counterculture, activists challenging the authority of science attempted to reclaim experiential knowledge as a legitimate source of scientific knowledge, reopening the epistemological toolbox of science. The examples of urban planning, women’s health, civil rights, and toxic sites illustrate how such a transformation might have taken place. Continue reading