Two Roles Played by Social Science

Firstly, social scientists can systematically monitor and evaluate engagement activities, including participatory or deliberative mechanisms; seeking to identify whether objectives were met and goals realized, and making recommendations for future practice (see, for example, the chapters in this volume by Ashworth, Upham, Pasqualetti and Improta). Robust, independent evaluative research is beneficial for three reasons: (1) it can lead to a more coherent and cumulative evidence base, (2) it can provide evidence to challenge those who are sceptical about the value of citizen involvement, and (3) it can enable policy-makers and industrial organizations to better understand the dynamics of their own engage­ment activities in different political, social and economic contexts, and how these are perceived by diverse groups, in order to learn from past experience and to design more effective procedures for future practice. Such research should build upon a rapidly expanding literature on participatory research and practice (e. g. Renn, 2008) and can suggest contexts where participation is especially challeng­ing, notably upstream engagement with highly innovative energy technologies (see Flynn and colleagues, this volume).

Secondly, social scientists can act as critics, maintaining distance from organizations undertaking engagement to lay bare those assumptions often left implicit about the value and timing of public engagement, and challenging

existing representations and practices. Several chapters in this book, particularly the conceptual contributions in Section I, critique an array of inappropriate and misleading ways of thinking about technology siting and public engagement with renewable energy technologies, notably the ‘NIMBY’ concept with its deficit model of public knowledge or expertise and impoverished view of the backyard, and moves to streamline spatial planning procedures. As the chapters by Haggett, Barry and Ellis, and Cotton and Devine-Wright argue, streamlining planning procedures may prove counterproductive, only serving to fuel social conflict in contexts where citizens react negatively to attempts to restrict their input into decision-making processes. Indeed Ellis goes further, challenging the very notion that conflict should be avoided or minimized; instead arguing that conflict offers the possibility of engaging different parties about diverse energy futures in a transformative manner, and that seeking consensus overlooks a vital opportunity that can be taken to engender not just technical but socio-cultural change. This body of critical inquiry can offer a highly valuable body of impartial advice to policy-makers and industry, provoking reflection about the ways in which engage­ment is conceived, and suggesting innovative and creative responses to current dilemmas.

Updated: September 24, 2015 — 8:37 am