Dec 2 Nathalie Jas & Didier Torny Studying ignorance before, after and beyond agnotology. A literature review

Dec 2: Studying ignorance before, after and beyond agnotology. A literature review

Nathalie Jas ( RiTME , INRA) & Didier Torny ( RiTME , INRA)

We identified three traditions in philosophy and social sciences that directly deal with ignorance. The first, largely Germanic and sociological, focused on the concept of Nichtwissen, considers that ignorance is a byproduct of knowledge, whether individual (cognitive approach) or collective ( institutitonnal approach). The second, dominated by the classical and structuralist anthropology, is mainly based on the theory of taboos and more generally of prohibitions. It emphasizes the collective and voluntary dimension of ignorance or, symmetrically, the existence of specific groups with access to reserved knowledge. This tradition fueled feminist studies pointing at the invisibility of women and their knowledge in our societies. The third, coming mainly from political science , economics and management, deals with the ignorance in the form of uncertainty in situations of choice or decision, whether shared or being the object of a strategic game between actors (information asymmetry).
These three traditions have been reinvested in the last two decades by some researchers,  following various angles to study the production of scientific knowledge, expertise and its social, legal and political uses. As a result, they recombinate these theories of ignorance, focusing on different phenomena: the relationship between academic knowledge, expertise and lay knowledge , the production and maintenance of secrets, the selection of (un)interesting research issues, the methods of scientific evidence in legal, legislative or administrative arenas, the systems of knowledge production, and notably risk assessment systems… Far from being a unified approach, the study of the ignorance is therefore as diverse as the study of knowledge.

UPDATE. Works on related topics :

  • Emmanuelle Fillion, Didier Torny, Mechanisms of Invisibility: Forgotten Sentinels of Diethylsbestrol Progeny, Limn, n°3, 2013

Diethylstilbestrol was one of the first identified endocrine disruptors. However, efforts to warn french physicians about the drug’s potentially dangerous effects on pregnant women failed. Emmanuelle Fillion and Didier Torny show how sentinels sometimes don’t work.

  • Didier Torny, Managing an everlastingly polluted world, in Soraya Boudia, Nathalie Jas (ed.), Toxic World. Toxicants, Health and Regulation in the XXth Century, Londres, Pickering and Chatto, 2013

This chapter analyses how France managed the pollution of French West Indies by a pesticide– accepted as lasting for centuries – and how local and global knowledge, from both the field and laboratories, are intertwined in order to limit the threat to human health while people continue to live in a contaminated environment. To this end, after describing the gradual rediscovery of the presence of chlordecone in different milieus and the associated health issues (water pollution, soil contamination, food contamination), it focuses on the question of standards relating to foodstuffs and how to make small farmers aware of them.

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