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 areas: knowledge, publics, and social movements; and the politics and policies associated with the industrial transition to a greener economy.


My current work on knowledge and publics focuses on social movements as mobiilized publics and on the changes in the relations between science and other social fields during the period of global neoliberalization. See the pages “Science, Industry, and Publics: General" and "Science, Industry, and Publics: Health.” As the world has become increasingly complex technologically, scientific knowledge has become both more important and more subjected to political scrutiny, and a great deal of scholarly attention has been focused on the increasing influence of industry on scientists, universities and political regulation. I am interested in the countervailing trend of epistemic modernization, that is, the political scrutiny and responsiveness of scientists to challenges from those in subordinate positions in the social structure—users, patients, non-governmental organizations, historically excluded social groups, and social movements in general. The epistemic modernization of science occurs through various pathways, including the diversification of the social composition of research communities, community-oriented and participatory research, public inclusion in the governance of risk, and alternative research agendas that respond to this new scrutiny. When scientists step out of their role as researchers to defend the need for policy reform that is contrary to the official articulations of public interest by elites, they form a scientific counterpublic, often in alliance with social movements and other civil society organizations in a subordinate position in the political field. These scientists and civil society organizations sometimes 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 counterpublics attempt to mobilize precautionism, 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. See this page. 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.


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 how the "corral" science and bring about an epistemic rift between scientific research and the policy process., countervailing power and the emerging challenges to neoliberalism in the political field. I have also studied various types of countervailing power: 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.