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Madeleine Akrich
Yannick Barthe
Fabian Muniesa
et al.

The politics of hybrid forums

Dominique Pestre

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1Our intellectual debt to Michel Callon is immense and protean – and this book is here to remind us of that. One of the aspects of his work that could constitute a subject of engagement, and that I would like to consider here, is the question of hybrid forums and of what participation could mean when science and techno-industrial objects and systems are implied. More precisely, I would like to look at the complexity of relations between science, technologies and ‘popular’ knowledge, between decision-making, government, property, markets and the multiple forms of regulation, with the question of the possible role and place of collective processes of deliberation in these regulations. By way of introduction, I wish to mention three points that are now commonly agreed on, before making four more open comments.

Points of common agreement

2The first point that, in my opinion, is now taken for granted is that science is only part of what we can legitimately call knowledge, that both notions should not be confused one with the other. Knowledge is characterized by the wide diversity of its nature, framings and purposes; it is ‘distributed’ in society and produced in many social spaces – for instance, a large portion of environmental knowledge has been held by NGOs for quite a long time. Like all human knowledge, scientific knowledge cannot but be limited and partial – in both senses of the word. It is necessarily simplified and consequently has blind spots. We could say that the particular framing of the sciences is oriented above all towards technical solutions. But the solutions to the questions that humans and societies have to face do not always require a perpetual re-invention of technological artefacts – they can be social or political, or lie in a rearrangement of existing practices.

3The second point that I think everyone agrees on is the importance, for any democratic life, of engagement and the sharing of experiences. Normatively, this implies that anyone – including activists – who challenges academic certainties and techno-industrial practices, or who proposes alternative solutions, has to be defended and protected. It is thus vital to devise institutions that guarantee the protection of these people – whistleblowers, for example, the protection of whom Michel contributed to – or that encourage processes of mutual and cumulative learning – processes which are never a given. The reason is that, in our societies, the ‘duty to participate’ can also function as a way of managing conducts, a mechanism of government. This ‘instrumentation’ of the concern for participation has been explicit since the late 1980s and early 1990s in the management literature. For instance, at the time, those who advised oil companies and the Republican Party repeatedly told their clients what they had to convince themselves of: that they were environmentally friendly and willing to involve the variety of ‘stakeholders’ in all their decisions (Pestre, 2008; 2009). Twenty years later this has become second nature.

  • 1 On the forms of engagement around climate change, see Dahan et al. (2009). About Copenhagen, see P (...)

4My third consensual introductory point is that the question of ‘participation’ consists of two major aspects. First, there are groups – NGOs, activists, and other ad hoc ‘assemblages’ – that intervene in the public sphere with regard to the way in which knowledge and related products are put on markets and regulated. Second, there are instituted forms of ‘conflict-resolution’: either forms generally instituted nationally (this is the case with most consensus conferences), forms often promoted by the powers-that-be and aimed as much at converting as at debating with ‘populations’ perceived as refusing progress; or else forms associated with the government of global issues such as climate change, and which tend to proliferate. In the latter forms of ‘governance’ – to take the standard expression – speech is often less constrained but the effective hierarchy of powers, which might be partially hidden, often remains in control – think of the Conference of Parties in Copenhagen in December 2009.1

About the duty of schizophrenia – about markets and the dialogical order

5To go beyond these three ‘obvious’ points, I would like first to consider the way of ‘using’ participative procedures so that they might be as productive as possible. These procedures are a major resource for societies that have to solve highly complex problems (we live in integrated technical systems that are vulnerable and can produce irreversible effects) and it is crucial (and fair) to mobilize a variety of experiences, of expertise and values, and to have them discussed. But these procedures are not always implemented in this positive way and do not necessarily correspond to the ideal of mutual respect and learning that make them so important.

  • 2 See Fressoz (2009), Boudia (2007), Jas (2007) and Pestre (2007) for multiple historical examples.

6When structures of official consultation are promoted we must therefore be prepared to live independently of them, even against them. It is important to promote them when they are conducive to reciprocal education, but nothing compels us to feel bound by them or to be limited to them if their instrumentation for other purposes proves to be excessive. There is a general historical ‘fact’ that can usefully be recalled here. In terms of sanitary or environmental regulation of technologies – whether in the 1800s or today – most progress has taken place subsequent to mobilizations outside the official regulatory systems. Contrary to what managers, engineers, politicians or risk experts would like to have us believe, it has, to an overwhelming degree, been the protests of populations, dissident experts and ‘victims’ that, historically, have caused industries, security commissions, political leaders and law courts to change their attitudes. For progress to emerge, for precaution to become a rule, it is thus essential for the self-mobilization of social actors to continue – for this is the basis on which regulation that includes participative practices can become virtuous.2

  • 3 On these ‘strategic coalition(s)’ of activists ‘striving for the autonomization of a protest proce (...)
  • 4 That is why the question of ‘technological trajectories’ induced by the ‘systems’ are raised by ph (...)

7This ‘duty of schizophrenia’, so to speak (to be simultaneously in and out), results not only from the ill-will that certain actors might manifest – the capitalist baddies who allegedly refuse the costs of precaution, or the activist baddies who are said to play the worst-case scenario card.3 Practices of this type do indeed exist and examples easily come to mind. The problem is more complex, however, more deep-seated since, at its core, are the logics of techno-liberal practices (which can be qualified as market-, science- and progress-oriented) and what the novelties that are put into circulation do to the social. The key point here is that the encounter with a new product is primarily a matter of appropriation and usage (after purchase on a market and the promise of a good or an improvement), and that this encounter happens prior to and outside of the dialogical order. Products are first put on sale, and the encounter with them and their effects is experienced before being debated. Technological novelty has the property of penetrating and permeating the social, of shifting actors, of altering balances with ‘nature’ – before speech emerges and people start talking about it. Hence, dialogical and political processes do not come first; they often take place a posteriori, as a reaction to situations or occurrences that happened earlier on without debate.4

  • 5 This explains why the debates instituted everywhere in recent years around nanotechnologies – part (...)

8We can therefore say that products, knowledge and techno-scientific novelties are first accepted or refused as offers on markets. The possibility of political, administrative and expert regulation that includes some form of dialogue usually arises afterwards – although I am well aware that for some products like drugs, authorization to commercialize is effectively required. Anticipation, safety and ‘security’ are of course an integral part of the design of technical systems, but users who experience the effects – and emerge as collectives only afterwards – always introduce more concerns and knowledge. In short, dialogue often emerges in a second phase, once the product and markets have destabilized the social, and once their consequences, often unpredictable, have become apparent in the public sphere.5

About the need for a more complex political philosophy – about the necessary multiplicity of regulations in democratic societies

9My second comment starts from what democratic societies are or should be, from what grounds them, from the way in which they have learned – contradictorily – to manage themselves as political entities. Historically, in democratic (and market-based) societies there has been a multiplicity of means for managing disagreements and conflicts and for framing issues: the writing of positive law, executive action, administrative rules, court rulings, call to experts, lobbying, public demonstrations, action in the media sphere, etc. This constitutes a good, as this variety relates to the balance of powers as a norm – think of Montesquieu – and to the refusal of a single authority – expert science for example – governing without counter-power. In this framework, participation, notwithstanding its appealing dimension of the ‘all together deciding cooperatively’, cannot be a substitute for the multiplicity of modes of (conflict) regulation, nor for the balance of interests. The risk for democracy is too great when a single procedure or institution reigns – especially, perhaps, when it is based on a call to virtue, as with ‘participation’. Hence, we cannot, we must probably not reconstruct the political – as the management of living together – on this exclusive basis. That of course also means carefully considering how to articulate it with all the other forms of regulation.

  • 6 For contemporary examples that show how much states today remain key players in the techno-industr (...)

10This variety is particularly important since each form of regulation has its specific logics – and so leads to different results. A law court hearing a case does not consider the problem from the same angle as an expert committee, for example. The former bases its ruling on past facts and a complaint – a specific pollution, for example – while the latter tends to consider the future of the collective (usually, the nation), the ‘general interest’ and equally general truths. Consequently, they often reach different decisions: whereas the former is more attentive to the consequences of what happened and to the damage done to particular interests, the latter focuses on the duty to move ahead for the good of all – to develop the national economy, for example.6

11As an ideal, in my opinion, democracy is defined more by this multiplicity of regulations that act a posteriori as checks and balances on one another, than by the idea of a perfectly engineered decision-making process taking place a priori with the intention of creating a smooth-running social that would not need to limit its own power. Actually, we constantly need to review our decisions, in different ways and according to many temporalities – because a decision can only rely on limited information and be partial, because the consequences of our acts can never be fully anticipated, because choices have to be made between competing interests, because problems arose after acting, because those who are most affected by our decisions have to be in a position to express their complaints, etc. In short, my emphasis is on the primacy of the ex post, on the fact that it is the care that we take to maintain this diversity and control a posteriori that is the most useful (see also Rosanvallon, 2006).

  • 7 “A democracy is not a political system without conflicts, but a system in which conflicts are open (...)

12My feeling is therefore that we have to revert to a more complex political philosophy than the one that first conceives of the decision as the main issue, that wants it to be perfect – notably perfectly anticipative and participative; or that puts consensus up as the central, if not the only, political value.7 More generally, it might well be that the (now quite general) promotion of hybridity as our main category is problematic. Of course the notion is theoretically and politically essential but it cannot constitute the norm of what is good. At best, hybridity is a necessary condition for doing well. Of import, is also the variety of possible concrete solutions and their quality, the concrete results on which these hybrid forms conclude when in equilibrium with all the other ways of making worlds. In short, democratic politics is perhaps less about a priori procedures (even if procedures and their articulation do essentially matter) than about the post hoc and the ‘substantial’, about the effective changes that follow in social terms, about the new distribution of benefits and duties, about the (sometime undesirable) consequences of our actions – and about the definition of fairness and justice that finally prevails. For the researchers that we are, this might imply revisiting the compatibilities between some of our frames of analysis, between pragmatic and normative postures for example, or between the methodological duty of symmetry and the analysis of dominations and enduring asymmetries – as proposed, along time ago already, by Dona Haraway on gender and social relations, or Ella Shohat on the colonial and post-colonial question (Haraway, 1991; Shohat, 1992; see also Merle, 2004).

About the importance of rethinking the commons – about the variety of forms of appropriation

13The third comment that I would like to make concerns the issue of control, of control over knowledge, of exclusivity and property. Apart from the fact that knowledge is socially distributed and that the places in which it is elaborated define its nature and scope; apart from the variety of forms of knowledge contributing to regulating techno-scientific products; apart from the necessary confrontations between different knowledge and experience; and apart from the asymmetrical relations structuring those encounters, the question I now want to consider is: who owns key knowledge, who has the discretionary power to use it or to prohibit others from having access to it?

14I won’t revert to the history of the practices of appropriation, but I do wish first to recall the obvious: that the world has experienced quite a dramatic change in intellectual property rights and patenting since the 1980s. The European Commission has been instrumental in this process, by encouraging a European alignment on US ‘liberal’ practices at the origin of the movement. And that move has meant a reduction of the commons (Pestre, 2003).

  • 8 This formulation could not have been so precise without the seminar organized by Maurice Cassier a (...)

15Let there be no false debate: I am not trying to say ‘get rid of property, for that will solve all the problems’. I do however believe that the question of the specific forms that property rights can take, along with the existence of non-market or less-market areas of production and exchange, remains crucial for democratic life. As in the case of regulations, I think that it is necessary to protect the multiplicity of life forms in the midst of the most rationally property- and competition oriented practices. It is therefore necessary to devise mechanisms to ensure that the former are not annihilated by the latter, that ‘systems’ do not unduly ‘colonize’ lifeworlds, to use Habermasian notions – a situation not uncommon around ICT and university life today. More generally, I think that we need to recognize, to see, that in our societies there is a continuous and diversified range of forms of property. We need to see the highly hybridized nature of property and the commons, and to realize that it is due to a lack of attention on our part, and to the dogmatism of liberal doctrinarians, that we often carry on conceiving of property as a simple and obviously binary thing.8

16Examples abound, showing the complexity of property relations necessary for social life, along with the importance of the commons, without which we could not live. Fashionable examples today are air, water, the climate and biological diversity – all common goods that many national and international programmes manage as such. Academic knowledge also warrants more attention, torn as it now seems to be between the injunction of open and rapid circulation of information, and the duty to be entrepreneurial and protective. Moreover, there is no fatality in this move, things are not set, and we also have agency in this respect. I have in mind the battles around freeware, the management of water and rivers (e.g. Fernandez, 2009), ‘indigenous knowledge’ and the property rights recognized for the ‘people’ who hold it which emerged, as legal categories, in the 1980s through the mobilizations of local populations, naturalist scientists, development NGOs, and jurists (Boisvert, 2005). Clearly, there are countless possible degrees of property, there are alternatives that have to be imagined, choices which are our responsibility – in terms of research programmes and of political choices – and which lie at the heart of the substantive debates that I advocated earlier.

17For a better balance between cités de justice and for better conditions for our common life – but also because in recent decades the scales have tipped too far in favour of an extensive and private appropriation of knowledge –, I advocate the development of research on the multiplicity of intermediate forms of property around knowledge and common goods, as well as the right to actively question, in theoretical terms, the currently prevailing, basic liberal doxa.

About the duty of thinking forms of government – about (neo)liberalism and hybrid forums

18My last comment concerns forms of government, especially the one that is most relevant today and that, in homage to another Michel, I will call neo-liberal governmentality (Foucault, 2004a; 2004b) – and the contradictory place that hybrid forums occupy therein. Two points seem essential in this respect.

19The first has to do with the question of the active government of people and things, of the faire vivre so dear to Michel Foucault. The point includes the probably too narrow place that the question occupies in our field, and the place that it should take in the new political philosophy that I would like to see emerging. Without serious thought to these forms of government, and without work on the ways – explicitly designed and informed by knowledge – of managing conducts, our analyses risk being characterized by a crippling gap, a guilty blindness. Not that nothing is written on these issues, fortunately – think, for France and liberal forms of government, of Isabelle Bruno, Alain Desrosières, Frédéric Pierru (see Pierru, 2007; Bruno, 2009; Desrosières, 2009; Pestre, 2009), or of Michel himself as far as the management of markets is concerned –, but these analyses should be situated more squarely and globally at the heart of our preoccupations.

  • 9 On these issues see the work of Mitchell (2008, 2009).
  • 10 On the dialogical nature of the forms of the social state and planning in France, see Desrosières (...)

20My second point concerns the neo-liberal philosophy and its technologies, and their distance from the ideal of hybrid and dialogical forums. Intellectually and politically, if the aim is to understand the effective role of hybridity and participatory procedures in our neo-liberal world, more attention should be paid to that question. The basic idea might be that, as a political philosophy, neo-liberalism is caught in two major tensions (or contradictions, as we used to say). First, it is wary of the hubris of reason, especially dialogical reason which, it claims, is too fragile and unsure to meaningfully contribute to mastering the complexity of the world: Keynesianism and Communism were disasters, and regulations should be left to the only universal and efficient calculators: markets (Hayek, 1994). Yet at the same time the same people make extensive use of reason, intellectual exchange and knowledge (managerial and psychological knowledge, in particular, but also indicators based on metrics transversal to those of Keynesians)9 to guide their action and better conduct the conduct of others. Second, neo-liberal theoreticians are caught between the public side of their discourse (the famous ‘there is always too much government’) and what they actually have to do if they want people to behave in a fully liberal manner and to give up the infinite variety of their values and lifestyles. This means two things: a militant activism to dismantle diverse forms of dialogically10 founded commons (the welfare state for example), and making sure that contracts and judicial regulations become the exclusive rules. It also means the active creation of incentives for individuals to become homo oeconomicus in all areas of their life, to ensure that individual success and competition become the only legitimate norm of justification.

  • 11 On the ways in which these mechanisms are established, see Pestre (2009).
  • 12 This image was proposed by Frédéric Pierru, in a personal message to me.

21These social technologies of individual and group management (benchmarks and league tables for example), along with the ‘managerial rationalization’ accompanying them (Pierru, 2007), are not conducive to the shared and deliberative construction of solutions by political subjects. Their function is rather to ensure that humans end up constantly behaving like strategic and opportunistic actors seeking to optimize their gains and to force others to go via them.11 They are meant to ‘reinitialize’ people and institutions, to ‘boot them up’ (thanks to the appropriate ‘software’), to have them conceive of collaborative spaces only in a defiant mode, treating these spaces as the prisoner does in the dilemma with the same name,12 that is, in a purely calculative manner. This contrasts with the social demand for participation – and the advantages that it affords for collective life – but enables us to understand the cynicism with which that demand is often treated by those who run business.

22Recently, this system has undergone changes. Faced with a globalization that has intensified economic competition (via the rise of China, India and Brazil), a movement is emerging that uses participative devices differently. For instance, in the way in which the services of the European Commission now address some issues linked to the public management of new biotechnologies, we see that their objective seems to accelerate as much as possible the launching of production processes. They set out with the belief that exercises in public deliberation slow down decision-making and tend to reinforce the ‘opposition to progress’ rather than appeasing it. The duty of participation – a hindrance for the economic success of Europe – is thus reduced to the cases where the public battle is already being waged. In most other cases, since one cannot act without symbolic legitimization in these morally sensitive matters, an appeal is made to ethics, instituted in committees, which ‘represents civil society’ and its ‘participation in decision-making’. We thus go from regulation dominated by law and politics, by the balance of powers and deliberative forms, to a government by ‘soft law’ and ethics that circumvents public engagement – but allows for the rapid marketing of socially sensitive technologies (Tallacchini, 2009).

To conclude

  • 13 I won’t revert here to the role of the social sciences (including Science Studies) in the politica (...)

23My aim here has been, in very few words, to argue for a broadening of our fields of analysis, vision and categories; that is, a critical revisiting of the road that we have travelled with Michel – and notably of what we have marginalized and rendered invisible by our own constructions.13 Hence, my emphasis on the essentially reactive role of dialogical processes regarding market logics, and the importance, in our normative elaborations, of defending the post hoc in the regulation of knowledge and techno-scientific-industrial products. Hence, my emphasis on the subordinate role of dialogical processes regarding the principle of a balance of powers, both generally and in the regulation of techno-products. Hence, my accent on the imperative necessity to extend our questions, to encompass the issue of property, especially the nature and role that the commons have and can have. And hence, finally, in this exercise aimed at ‘boosting’ the political philosophy of science studies and improving the comprehension of one of its key ideas – that techno-knowledge and techno-products are political agents that constantly reshape the world – my insistence that we open our research questions far more to the multiple forms of government that – by constraint, incentives or words – have always made our societies in the past, and still do today.



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1 On the forms of engagement around climate change, see Dahan et al. (2009). About Copenhagen, see Pestre (forthcoming).

2 See Fressoz (2009), Boudia (2007), Jas (2007) and Pestre (2007) for multiple historical examples.

3 On these ‘strategic coalition(s)’ of activists ‘striving for the autonomization of a protest process’ regarding ‘scientific data’, see Adant, Godard & Hommel (2007).

4 That is why the question of ‘technological trajectories’ induced by the ‘systems’ are raised by philosophers and social scientists.

5 This explains why the debates instituted everywhere in recent years around nanotechnologies – partly out of a concern for precaution and partly to avoid ‘technophobia in the population’ – often produce few interesting conclusions and continuously oppose the same groups and arguments. As the effects are not yet there, discussions make no real headway.

6 For contemporary examples that show how much states today remain key players in the techno-industrial field, see Benner & Löfgren (2007).

7 “A democracy is not a political system without conflicts, but a system in which conflicts are open and negotiable. […] In this system, conflict is neither an accident nor a misfortune; it is the expression of the nature of a public good that cannot be decided scientifically or dogmatically. […] Political discussion is without conclusions, even though it is not without decisions” (Ricoeur, 1991: 166-167, my translation).

8 This formulation could not have been so precise without the seminar organized by Maurice Cassier and Benjamin Coriat on this issue of the commons during the academic year 2008-2009 at the MSH Paris-Nord and the CERMES.

9 On these issues see the work of Mitchell (2008, 2009).

10 On the dialogical nature of the forms of the social state and planning in France, see Desrosières (2007).

11 On the ways in which these mechanisms are established, see Pestre (2009).

12 This image was proposed by Frédéric Pierru, in a personal message to me.

13 I won’t revert here to the role of the social sciences (including Science Studies) in the political legitimization and ‘naturalization’ of this new world that is both liberal, individualizing, networked and open. Looking at the world essentially from the capacity that strategic actors have to always reconfigure it, and denying any relevance to social differentiations (classes, professions, institutions, etc.), we have opened a way, unwittingly, to the victory of what Thomas Franck (2008) called ‘the populism of the market and opinion’. On these aspects, see Pestre (2004, 2006) and the excellent little book by Champy (2009).

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