Dec 2 Matthias Gross Fostering the Utility of Ignorance: Nonknowledge and the Experimental Society

Matthias Gross is professor of environmental sociology at the University of Jena and, by joint appointment, the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany.

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Selection of recent publications on the topic:

Gross, Matthias 2014. “Self-Knowledge, Gender Roles, and the Making of the Secret Gospels: A Chapter in the Sociology of Nonknowledge,” Journal of Historical Sociology 27, forthcoming.

Gross, Matthias 2013. “Old Science Fiction, New Inspiration: Communicating Unknowns in the Utilization of Geothermal Energy,” Science Communication 35 (6).

Although it is implicitly acknowledged that many aspects of contemporary geothermal energy utilization are shrouded in ignorance, this is rarely appreciated or in any way well communicated. Using Jules Verne’s science fiction novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth as a means to highlight the inevitable normality of knowledge gaps and uncertainty, certain aspects are discussed that can be applied to communication strategies regarding the unknown in current geothermal energy utilization. This may be important given that risk assessments can often not be communicated meaningfully to citizens and decision makers.

Gross, Matthias and Alena Bleicher 2013. “’It’s Always Dark in Front of the Pickaxe’: Organizing Ignorance in the Long Term Remediation of Contaminated Land,” Time & Society 22 (3).

This article departs from the view in which ignorance is seen as necessarily detrimental and analyses how specified ignorance (here called ‘nonknowledge’) can even serve as a productive resource. By using the example of cleaning up contaminated land in a timely and effective manner, it is argued that nonknowledge is a useful resource; in some instances, on a par with knowledge in its importance. The article discusses some of the strategies used to cope with ongoing situations involving ignorance in the remediation of areas containing multiple contaminant sources and plumes. Analysis of these processes indicates that planning and policymaking may benefit when limits to knowledge are openly acknowledged.

Gross, Matthias. 2012. “‘Objective Culture’ and the Development of Nonknowledge: Georg Simmel and the Reverse Side of Knowing,” Cultural Sociology 6 (4): 422-437. 

Recent debates about the knowledge society have furthered awareness of the limits of knowing and, in turn, have fuelled sociological debates about the persistence and intensification of ignorance. In view of the ubiquity of the notion of ignorance, this paper focuses on Georg Simmel’s insightful observations about Nichtwissen(nonknowledge) as the reverse side of knowledge. The paper seeks to relate the notion of nonknowledge to Simmel’s conceptualization of objective and subjective culture. In Simmel’s view, modern society produces cultural objects in order to satisfy individuals’ inherent drive to become social beings. Ever more nonknowledge can be understood as an outcome of the growing difficulties in absorbing the achievement of objective culture into subjective culture. To illustrate the crucial importance of such a view of the unknown for today’s debates on the knowledge society, the paper uses illustrative examples ranging from the strategic acknowledgement of nonknowledge in personal relationships to public encounters and the right not to know one’s own genetic identity.

Gross, Matthias. 2010. Ignorance and Surprise: Science, Society, and Ecological Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press .