The co-production of knowledge

In his last lecture on the history and sociology of science for sophomores at Harvard, Alex Wellerstein brought the class up to date with the latest thinking in Science and Technology Studies (STS) with an overview of the idea of co-production.

The idiom of co-production aims to get away from both the deterministic view of science as divorced from social context, and from social determinism. Instead, scientific knowledge is seen to be produced in an integral process that involves both the scientific method and the social context. Hence, the idea of co-production engages with questions that are both metaphysical and epistemological – how the world is, and how we find out about it – but blurs the boundaries between the two. This is slightly different to previous theories such as the sociology of scientific knowlege (SSK) of the Edinburgh group; a key difference is that co-production does not claim that social context ‘trumps’ the scientific method, but sees both as integral to scientific knowledge.

The figure most associated with the idiom of the co-production of knowledge is Sheila Jasanoff, the brilliant Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Harvard (my current boss!). Sheila has long been a leading light in the field of STS, and her articulation of the idea of co-production is considered one of her main contributions to the field.

In her seminal book, “States of knowledge: the co-production of science and social order”, a collection of essays by diverse authors on the subject, Sheila gives an overview of the idiom of co-production in the first chapter and a summary in the last. She describes the objectives of co-production in terms of four components

description: a view of science in society and society in science
explanation: how co-production mitigates against linear and mono-causual stores about scientific progress
normativity : the analysis of emerging orders
prediction : prediction, prescription and action

There is a great deal to the concept of co-production, including concepts such as causality loops, positive feedback and co-evolution. I won’t attempt to summarize them here but you can find a very good review of the main themes in the last chapter of the book above.


The articulation of co-production in its current form is relatively recent, and I am not aware of major reactions against it from philosophers or scientifists. One obvious benefit is clarity; a common criticism (and misunderstanding) of the social constructivists is the idea that scientific knowledge is entirely socially constructed. This is not really what most constructivists argue, and I think the idiom of co-production clarifies this a lot.
Also, it is rather hard to argue against co-production- how can one argue that scientific knowledge (or any other sort) is not co-produced to some extent? I think this is the cleverest part of the concept, and I suspect it will help convince scientists of the importance of social context, and go some way towards mending fences between the scientists and the sociologists of science.

That said, it seems to me that while co-production helps to  clarify how knowledge is created, it doesn’t say much about another part of the scientific process, i.e. how good scientific theories survive the passage of time (this the context of discovery vs the context of justification we’ve met before). You might argue that the subsequent testing is also co-produced, and so it is; but where a given scientific theory is produced in one place and one context, it is subsequently tested over time all over the world in different contexts by people specialize in proving each other wrong! Hence, many scientists argue that social context arguments ultimately fade away.

A good example of this is the famous argument by historian Paul Forman concerning the indeterminacy of quantum physics. Scientists in Germany were heavily criticized after WWI for predicting that science would win the war; according to Forman, the indeterminacy of quantum physics may be attributed – at least to some degree – to an attempt to appease the population (we are happy to admit the limits of science etc). However, most physicists strongly disagree with Forman’s hypothesis for three reasons

  • the postulate of wave properties for the electron was first made by de Broglie (a Frenchman), and the first observation of electron diffraction was by Davisson and Germer (Americans). The latter forces you to quantum duality and thus to indeterminacy – whether you like it or not
  • many other non-German scientists (Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac etc) played a major role in the development of the theory
  • the theory survived over time worldwide because, although crazy, it matched experiment


Filed under History and philosophy of science

2 responses to “The co-production of knowledge

  1. Abi

    Really want to get this book!

  2. cormac

    Yes, it’s a great read Abi