Version classiqueVersion mobile

La situation délibérative dans le débat public

Bernard Castagna
Sylvain Gallais
Pascal Ricaud
et al.

Réflexions théoriques

Citizen Deliberation and the Problem of Expertise: resituating Knowledge in Practical Reason

Franck Fischer

Texte intégral

  • 1 Ulrich Beck (1992), Risk Society : Towards New Modernity. Newbury Park : Sage Publications.
  • 2 Frank Fischer (1990), Technocracy and the Politics of Expertise. Newbury Park : Sage Publications.
  • 3 Frank Fischer (2000), Citizens, Experts, and the Environment : The Politics of Local Knowledge. Dur (...)

1It has been argued that the division between those with and those without knowledge will be one of the primary social tensions in this century1. The issue is of particular importance in questions of environmental and technology policy, generally laden with heavy technical questions2. Elsewhere I have argued that this is perhaps the critical question upon which the possibility of democracy ultimately hinges in a world of complexities3. Can citizens actually participate? We know less about this than the discussions of citizen participation in such issues would suggest, as they are captured by outmoded understandings of both science and politics. From the conventional view, the issue looks doubtful. But from a postempiricist understanding of science and politics, the question becomes more complex and, depending on how one understands participation, not nearly so worrisome.

2Much of the debate over environmental and technology policy has focused on risk. Risk, and the techniques of risk assessment and risk-benefit analysis emerged in such debates to deal with the contentions that citizens are unable to intelligently make such decisions, reflected in their « irrational » decisions about technologies such as the siting nuclear power plants and hazardous waste incinerators. Scientists introduced elaborate methodological techniques to compare risks and provide a basis for rational policy decision-making. Toward this end, the concept of « acceptable risk » was advanced to help people see the irrationality of worrying about flying on an plane after driving their car to airport, statistically seen to much more dangerous than flying. Or the man smoking a cigarette while putting chemicals on his lawn should not be worried the chemicals, etc.

3Risk assessment has, however, failed to do the job. Indeed, people seem to have only gotten more worried. While this has convinced many in the scientific community that they are right in their conviction that ordinary citizens are irrational in matters pertaining to science and technology, it has also lead to a wealth of research to determine why citizens respond the way they do. Such research, generally called « risk communication research », was supposed to find ways to convince citizens of the risk analysts’ decisions, but in fact it has uncovered a substantial body of information to show that people only respond to the situation in different terms. Instead of focusing on the technical information at hand, they have tended to process it with socio-cultural information. While this has lead many scientists to argue that it only shows that citizens are unable to follow a particular line of thinking, namely a technical line of reason, others have argued that it is only another form of rationality.


  • 4 A. Plough and S. Krimsky (1987), « The Emergence of Risk Communications Studies : Social and Politi (...)

4While risk assessment has been employed – albeit unsuccessfully – to circumvent the « irrationalities » of citizen decision-making, additional research into the question of why communities have so adamantly rejected the advice of the experts now offers quite a different perspective. Whereas risk experts have portrayed the environmental movement and the public more generally as incapable of digesting technical findings, and thus susceptible to irrational fears, Plough and Krimsky show that such conclusions rests on a limited understanding of the nature of risk and the community decision-making process4.

5In their work on environmental risk assessment, Krimksy and Plough contrast the concept of technical rationality with the idea of « cultural rationality » « Technical rationality », they explain, is a mind-set that puts its faith in empirical evidence and the scientific method; it relies on expert judgments in making policy decisions. Emphasizing logical consistency and universality of findings, it focuses attention in public decision-making on quantifiable impacts. « Cultural rationality », in contrast, is geared to – or at least gives equal weight to – personal and familiar experiences rather than depersonalized technical calculations. Focusing on the opinions of traditional social and peer groups, cultural rationality takes unanticipated consequences to be fully relevant to near-term decision-making and trusts process over outcomes. Beyond statistical probabilities and risk-benefit ratios, public risk perception is understood through a distinctive form of rationality, one that is shaped by the circumstances under which the risk is identified and publicized, the standing or place of the individual in his or her community, and the social values of the community as a whole. Cultural rationality can, in this respect, can be understood as the rationality of the social-life world. It is concerned with the impacts, intrusions, or implications of a particular event or phenomenon on the social relations that constitute that world. Such concerns are the stuff upon which the environmental movement was built.

6The turn to cultural rationality and its emphasis on social process is most apparent in the case of uncertain data. Uncertainty opens the door for competing interests to emphasize different interpretations of the findings. « Wicked » problems like Nimby, moreover, raise normative as well as empirical uncertainty. The question of how to define the situation is as problematic as the question of what to do about it. Competing definitions emerge from multiple, often conflicting perspectives. Normatively, in such cases politicians and activists advance counter-arguments about the nature or definition of the problem itself. Empirically, each side engages in what we have previously described as the politics of expertise, employing the same or similar data to suit their own purposes.

7And where does this leave the public? Consider the empirical dimension of the problem. If two experts stand before an audience of citizens and argue over the empirical reliability of a given set of statistics, what basis does the citizen have for judging the competing empirical claims? In this situation, citizens are forced to rely more on a socio-cultural assessment of the factors surrounding a decision. And not without good reason. Although scientific experts continue to maintain that their research is « value-neutral », the limits of this view become especially apparent once they introduce their technical findings into the sociopolitical world of competing interests. In the absence of empirical agreement, there is every reason to believe that interested parties will strongly assert themselves, advocating the findings that best suit their interests. In such cases, at least in the immediate situation, there is nothing science can do to mediate between such claims. One can call for more research but, as experience shows, there is little guarantee that further research will bring either certainty or timely results in a particular conflict.

8The presence of cultural rationality is especially strong when there is reason to believe in the possibility of deception or manipulation, which has often proven to be the case in environmental politics. In a world of large industrial giants with vastly disproportionate power and influence compared to that of local communities, it comes as no surprise to learn that citizens tend to be wary of the kinds of distorted communications to which such asymmetrical relations can give rise. Where citizens have compelling reasons to suspect that a risk assessment is superficial or false, they can only turn to their own cultural logic and examine the results in terms of previous social experiences. Turning away from the empirical studies themselves, they ask questions like: What are our previous experiences with these people? Is there reason to believe we can trust them? Why are they telling us this? (Perhaps even, why don’t they look us in the eye when they tell it?). Such questions are especially pertinent when crucial decisions are made by distant, anonymous, and hierarchical organizations. Citizens want to know how conclusions were reached, whose interests are at stake, if the process reflects a hidden agenda, who is responsible, what protection they have if something goes wrong, and so on. If they believe the project engineers and managers either don’t know what they are talking about, or are willing to lie to serve the purposes of their company, workers or citizens will obviously reject the risk assessment statistics put forth by the company. For example, if they have experiences that suggest they should be highly distrustful of particular plant company representatives or plant managers, such information will tend to override the data itself. From the perspective of cultural rationality, to act otherwise would itself be irrational.

  • 5 Frank Fischer, « Risk Assessment and Environmental Crisis : Toward an Integration of Science and Pa (...)
  • 6 B. Wynne (1996), « May the Sheep Safely Gaze ? A Reflexive View of the Expert-Lay Knowledge Divide (...)

9Most fundamentally, cultural rationality, as an informal logic deduced from past social experiences, tells citizens who they can trust and who they can’t. Citizens’ and workers’ understandings of large-scale technologies are rooted in the socio-historical context in which they are embedded and experienced5. Technology itself is encountered as more than an assemblage of physical properties; it is experienced as an interplay between physical properties and institutional characteristics6. As such, the ordinary social perceptions and assessments of technological risks by workers and citizens are rooted in their empirical social experiences with the technology’s managerial decision structures as well as historically conditioned relationships, interpreted and passed along by members of their own groups and communities. When the social relations of the workers and managers are pervaded by mistrust and hostility, the uncertainties of physical risks are amplified.

  • 7 S. G. Hadden, 1991. « Public Perceptions of Hazardous Waste » Risk Analysis, Vol. 11, n° 1 : p. 47- (...)

10While laypersons tend to rely heavily on socio-cultural rationality, it is crucially important to note that few people act or think exclusively in one mode of rationality or the other. Such modes typically change with circumstances. For example, Sandman has demonstrated this with a simple test. He asked experts to imagine themselves in situations in which they were not in control of the surrounding circumstances and to think of themselves as fathers rather than as engineers and businessmen. In such cases, the experts were themselves found to abandon the technical rationally model of decision-making for the socio-cultural rational mode of the citizen7.That is, they themselves responded in their own roles as citizens. For the experts as well, the evidence they were given was insufficient. When it came to protecting their own families, the matter of trust required knowing more about the social processes behind the reported evidence. Such an exercise makes it clear that cultural rationality is a different kind of knowledge that has to be taken into account in any decision-making process.

11The challenge ahead is not just more science, but rather how to better understand the interactions between science and ideology – facts and values – and most importantly how to systematically integrate them in a more comprehensive analysis.


12The case for cultural reason and the reliance on ideology is generally made in terms of uncertainty: in the face of uncertainly people have to turn to their social experiences to fill in the gaps. Without the knowledge needed to make an empirical assessment, they make predictions based on extrapolations from their ordinary knowledge. Which in some cases can be quite prescient. Some people are even good at it.

13But the case for the turn to ideology can be even stronger. Indeed, it can be grounded in epistemology. But here we have to turn away from the formal conceptions of scientific logic and take the view of informal practical reason. Indeed, this is what the citizen is already doing and in the social world there is nothing irrational about it. Practical discourse is, in fact, the mode of reason geared to the everyday world of social action.

  • 8 Michael Scriven. 1987, « Probative Logic » In Argumentation : Across the Lines of Discipline, ed. F (...)

14By practical reason I refer here to the work of the ordinary language philosophers who have set out to understand how we think and reason in the everyday world, especially in absence of ultimate values and incomplete knowledge. Much of the work has, moreover, been advanced to deal with the very problem that confronts the question of risk assessment. Confronting the question of how the business of society proceeds without the assistance of the kind of rationality called for by science, they have sought to reconstruct the informal logic of everyday discourse. That is, how do ordinary people deliberate and argue about the question of action? In the process, they have shown that the philosophers of positivist science throw the baby out with the bath water. It may be the case the kind the kinds of decisions dealt with in the everyday world cannot be proven with the kind of rationality of science, but to judge it then as irrational is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As writers such as Toulmin and Scriven have made clear, such a judgment rests on a logical error. The positivist have only falsely imported into the everyday world the epistemology of another domain. As Scriven has puts it, « the classical models of reasoning provide inadequate and in fact seriously misleading accounts of most practical... reasoning – the reasoning of the kitchen, surgery and the workshop, the law courts... office and battle field ».8 To be sure, common or ordinary reasoning frequently has components that can usefully be represented by the formal logics of induction and deduction. The problem is, as he explains, « they are only components, and a completely distorted picture of the nature of reasons is results from supposing that these neat pieces are what all about »

  • 9 Steven Toulmin, 1958. The Uses of Argument. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press ; Frank Fischer, (...)

15But can we be more precise? What exactly is an informal logic of practical reason? Many people have a good intuitive sense that such a logic exists without being able to say more precisely what it looks like. Toward this end, we can turn to Toulmin’s approach to practical reason, or the « logic of good reasons », especially as elaborated by Taylor and adapted to policy analysis by Fischer9. Without going into great detail, with space here does not permit, we can understand a complete judgment in the practical world to involve four interrelated levels of evaluation, extending from the very concrete to the abstract (or the other way around). If we pursue the scheme from the concrete to the abstract, it begins with a very familiar question: does a particular program, project, or policy fulfill a particular norm or standard? Which in ordinary language might simply be approached as the question « Does it work? » Here we can easily interpret the goal of a risk assessment as an effort to answer this question: does a particular action meet certain acceptable standards of risk? It is a question to which all of the techniques and methods of empirical analysis can be brought. Called here technical verification, it is a questions which for the mainstream risk analyst is the essence of rationality.

  • 10 See for example, Stuart Hill (1992), Democratic Values and Technological Choices. Stanford : CA ; S (...)

16The problem with risk assessment is that it stops here. For a practical judgment, however, the evaluation most move on to the justification of the norms and standards against which the program is judged. That is, the legitimacy or validity of the standards has to be tested, a task which is carried out through three additional discourses. The first of these discourses can be called situational validation. Concerned with the context to which the norm and standard is applied, evaluation at this level asks if there is anything about the decision which requires that an exception be made to the rule or judgment rendered at the level of technical verification. Here we find a classic example in the case of risk assessment, namely « Nimby » (not in my back yard). Beyond the question of an empirical assessment, that might or not show a nuclear power plant to be relatively safe, see oppositional groups will argue that while it might be good in some places, it should not be cited in their area. This could be for purely self-serving reasons (perhaps to ensure their community from any question of doubt) or it could be because of some physical characteristic of the area, for example, a geographic fault line running through it10.

17Beyond an assessment of the situational context, the evaluation logically moves to societal vindication, concerned with the contribution of the particular project or policy to the existing social order. This involves stepping outside a particular values or belief system and asking if it has instrumental or contributive values for the political economy the social order. That is the frame or reference changes. Where in first-order discourse, the issues particular a particular program and the affected group(s), the evaluation shifts to the impact on the society as a whole. Here we find prominent arguments – those of corporate leaders and governmental officials – about the contributions of technology to economic growth and thus a major source of social well-being. Nuclear power is need to fuel an expanding economy in the face of coming oil shortages or perhaps even to deal with the challenge of global warming. Environmentalists, on the other hand, point to both the risks of a major disaster and questions the need for the envisioned levels of growth that would need to be supplies with greater sources of energy. Which leads to the fourth level of discourse, social or ideological choice.

18Whereas the industrial anchors his argument to functional considerations of the existing, the environmentalist typically points to a different way of life. Here we confront the role of ideology in the positive sense of the term. The essence of the green critique is to assess the existing system from the point of view of ideal principles and values, the stuff of fourth-level discourse – and to offer an alternative vision of how might live together sustainable. This could include lower levels of consumption resulting from less emphasis on materialism to a more spiritual relationship with nature.

19The essential point here is that all four discourses are part of a complete or comprehensive judgment; all have a valid role to play in the assessment of the type rendered by a risk assessment. Where the technical risk analysts offers data that fits into the first level of the evaluation, he or she fails to see that such data is only one component of a full evaluation. In judging the citizen « irrational » by listening to the results of a risk assessment and then speaking about the kind of society we live in, the technical analysts fails to see that they also address an essential component of the complete assessment. Insofar as the risk analyst rejects such information as irrelevant, arguing that the citizen cannot follow the argument, he or she can in fact be judged as « irrational » from the perspective of practical reason. Indeed, from the perspective of practical reason we can understand – even diagram – the statement that the acceptability of a statement or judgment is in the last instance on its relationship to the good way of lite. Involving the justification of the standard or norm against which the measurement were made, the line moves directly from technical verification to ideological choice.


20Fundamental to these conflicts discussed here has been the refusal of citizens to accept at face value the technical safety findings of the risk experts. Frustrated by this unwillingness of citizens, risk experts, industry officials, and politicians have often been quick to declare the public to be « irrational », unable to understand or comprehend technical data purportedly showing the low probability of an accident. In the throes of « ignorance » the public, as we saw, is said to fall back on unfounded fears.

21But the perspective offer here challenges this view. In the context of practical reason, how irrational is the public? The informal logic of practical reason presented here helps us to see that the these fears are not as ill-founded as the critics of the environmental movement would have us believe. From the vantage point of cultural rationality and practical reason, we recognize that it is less a matter of ignorance than a different way of thinking about risks, one related more to a socio-cultural logic than to technical calculations. Such an interpretation, moreover, suggests that sociocultural reason is not simply an inferior mode of thought when compared to technical reason, as risk experts have tried to convince us. Rather, it only relates to a different part of the problem which the experts have neglected. In this view, such reason emerges as a necessary and complementary mode that technical experts have failed to understand. The argument that the environmental movement and the public more generally are « irrational » rests on a false or limited understanding of both the nature of risk and the community decision-making process. The scientist, in this respect, has to learn that judgments in the world of action are always situated inside practical discourse, rather than the other way around.

22This line opens the way to seeing that scientific finding have of necessity to be judged within the society context to which they apply. More than just a matter of dealing with uncertainty, this involves a different kind of logic and deliberation. Scientist, in fact, fail to see this because of their attachment to one component of a larger assessment. They have a contribution to make, but so do the citizens. Practical reason is a different kind of knowledge which integrates the social and technical; they are always one. For particular analytical purposes they can be separated, but only artificially. In the public decision-making process they must be brought back together.

23From this perspective it becomes necessary to rethink and restructure the relationship between the risk expert and citizen. In place of the tradition hierarchical top-down relationship supported by technical rationality, the expert has to enter into an interactive relationship with the relevant citizens. Beyond the important issue of democracy, it is seen here as well to be a requirement of problem-solving. Citizens, in short, have a type of information not available to the expert – or at least he or she has no privileged position in this matter. The expert can at best function here as a citizen expert.

  • 11 Frank Fischer, 2003. Refraining Public Policy : Discursive Politics and Deliberative Practices. Oxf (...)

24The task has to be to set up a dialectical relationship between the theoretical knowledge of the expert and the socio-cultural information of the citizens. It has to become a conversation with an extended horizon. Numerous techniques of participatory inquiry are emerging to guide such a process, including consensus conferences, participatory research, popular technology assessment, and lay epidemiology, among others11. We also need more information of the epistemics that interconnect the citizens and the expert, including the relation of normative to empirical information, the way knowledge functions in political discourses, the ways in which knowledge is embedded in institutional practices, and more.

25These issues pose no simple agenda, to be sure. But given that, as Beck and Giddens argue, the relationship between those with and those without formal knowledge is one of the major challenges of the new century, then it is time to take up this epistemological challenge.


1 Ulrich Beck (1992), Risk Society : Towards New Modernity. Newbury Park : Sage Publications.

2 Frank Fischer (1990), Technocracy and the Politics of Expertise. Newbury Park : Sage Publications.

3 Frank Fischer (2000), Citizens, Experts, and the Environment : The Politics of Local Knowledge. Durham : Duke University Press.

4 A. Plough and S. Krimsky (1987), « The Emergence of Risk Communications Studies : Social and Political Context » Science, Technology, and Human Values, 12, nos. 3-4 : 4-10

5 Frank Fischer, « Risk Assessment and Environmental Crisis : Toward an Integration of Science and Participation » Industrial Crisis Quarterly 5 : 113-32

6 B. Wynne (1996), « May the Sheep Safely Gaze ? A Reflexive View of the Expert-Lay Knowledge Divide ». In Risk Environment and Modernity : Toward a New Ecology, ed. by S. Lash, B. Szerzynski, and B. Wynne. Newbury Park, CA : Sage Publications

7 S. G. Hadden, 1991. « Public Perceptions of Hazardous Waste » Risk Analysis, Vol. 11, n° 1 : p. 47-57.

8 Michael Scriven. 1987, « Probative Logic » In Argumentation : Across the Lines of Discipline, ed. F. van Eemeren, et al. Dordrecht, Netherlands : Foris Publications : p. 7-32.

9 Steven Toulmin, 1958. The Uses of Argument. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press ; Frank Fischer, Evaluating Public Policy. Chicago : Nelson-Hall.

10 See for example, Stuart Hill (1992), Democratic Values and Technological Choices. Stanford : CA ; Stanford University Press.

11 Frank Fischer, 2003. Refraining Public Policy : Discursive Politics and Deliberative Practices. Oxford : Oxford University Press.


Professor of Political Science – Rutgers University and Karlsruhe

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2004

Licence OpenEdition Books

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search