David J. Hess

Overview of Research

The world today is often described as a “knowledge society” or “technological society,” and I see attention to issues of knowledge, technology, and the politics of industrial development not merely as specialty areas but as crucial sites for understanding the contemporary world. I work on the sociology and anthropology of science, technology, health, and the environment, and within those fields I focus on two overlapping areas: science, industry, and publics; and the politics and policies associated with the industrial transition to a greener economy.

Science, Industry, and Publics

My current work on knowledge and publics focuses on "mobilized publics," a broad term that includes social movements as well as advocacy organizations and even business enterprises that have a social reform agenda. See the pages “Science, Industry, and Publics: General" and "Science, Industry, and Publics: Health.” A great deal of scholarly attention has been focused on the increasing influence of industry on scientists, universities and political regulation, but I am interested in the countervailing trend of epistemic modernization, that is, the political scrutiny and responsiveness of scientists and regulators to claims about risk and knowledge from those in subordinate positions in the social structure—users, patients, non-governmental organizations, historically excluded social groups, and social movements in general. I also study how scientists and movements work together to form scientific counterpublics that identify undone science—the systematic underfunding of some research areas that, if funded, would potentially have significant public benefit—and try to figure out ways to get that research done, including by direct civil society research. In the regulatory field, the counterpublicsgenerally support precautionary approaches to regulation, often in conflict with scientistic and technocratic decision-making processes. In some recent papers on smart meters and public opposition, I have explored the conditions under which precautionism tends to flourish. My early work on knowledge and publics focused on religion and the public understanding of science, and I adopted a method of cultural analysis based on cultural anthropology. In this work I was also studying inter-field relations of science, the state, medicine, and religion, and I was interested in the legitimating (and delegitimating) role that even heterodox sciences could play in the positioning of religious reform movements.

Politics of the Green Economy

The second main area of current research is on the politics of industrial transitions, especially the factors that lead to the transition to a more sustainable economy and society and the factors that lead to the stasis in transition policies. See the pages “The Green Economy: Localism” and “The Green Economy: Policies and Politics.” In this area of work I am interested in the dynamics of how sunset industries mobilize to stop transitions, such as some companies and individuals associated with the fossil-fuel industry in the U.S. I have been developing an analysis of the epistemic rift between scientific research and the policy process. I have also studied various types of movements and their role in green transition politics: industrial opposition movements and alternative industrial movements (Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry); localist movements comprised mainly of small business and locally oriented nonprofit organizations (Localist Movements in a Global Economy); coalitions of unions, environmentalists, and green businesses (Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy); and the role of countervailing industrial power such as the finance industry with respect to fossil fuels (started in Alternative Pathways and continued in several articles forthcoming, including Global Environmental Change). One dimension of this work is to study how the political ideologies of localism and developmentalism have provided a ground upon which the struggles to build a green economy can neutralize neoliberal framings that tend to be aligned with anti-green politics. I also study how the established industrial regime will attempt to incorporate (by acquisitions, mergers, and new product lines) the challenger technologies and how in the process the designs are transformed to make them more symbiotic with the existing regime.