“We make the road by walking”: looking at ‘the bigger picture’ as a road map for citizen science

Recent discussions in several citizen science-related fora have led me to reflect on two themes: how, through our rhetoric and practices, we are giving shape to the increasingly used concept of citizen science, and how by examining the bigger social and historical context of science and production of knowledge we can inform our practices and writings about citizen science.

Quote for Larger Picture blog

The spectrum of citizen science definitions and practices grows with every project, article, conference and association we create around it. Conceptions such as Alan Irwin and Jack Stilgoe‘s policy/society-oriented citizen science, Rick Bonney et al.’sPublic Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR), Muki Haklay et al.’s Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS), the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science‘s civic technoscience, are but a few of the frameworks guiding work and theory in and around citizen science. However, underpinning these frameworks of science and citizen science there are the larger and mostly unacknowledged socio-political and cultural contexts that give shape to the worldviews that guide our work. This shaping goes both ways: not only does the larger context shape our conceptions and practices, but so do our everyday concerns, habits, and motivations give shape to our conceptions of science, technological change, and the social context at large, as Lisa Jardine eloquently illustrates in her 7 ages of science.

But why should we bother about the larger socio-political and cultural context and how could examining it guide citizen science? There are several reasons and here I suggest a few, namely, understanding issues of power and privilege help guide new directions for citizen science; examining the dominant practices of knowledge production in science open the door to new collaborations and solutions; by looking at other fields and practices, we gain reflective capacity in our new and current institutions; by making the link to the larger context we make visible the vision(s) we strive for; and by being aware of what underpins our work, we can adjust the path our practices in citizen science are taking. Let’s look at it in more detail; here is my non-exhaustive list:

First, as Michael T. Allen and Gabrielle Hetch illustrate in their book “Technologies of Power“, technologies become forms of power, people embed their authority in technological systems, and the machines and knowledge that make up technical systems strengthen or reshape social, political, and cultural power. We can replace ‘technologies’ for ‘scientific advancement’ and the same would apply (the authors argue that technological thinkers use science as sort of epistemological equipment among several). These issues of power in the production and use of knowledge are prominent within our societies’ histories. If we are to suggest new and conscious directions for the development of citizen science then the greater social and historical context of power, privilege, authority, and dominance of particular ways of thinking, doing and perpetuating must be acknowledged.

Second, if we consider science as a form of knowledge production with its own culture (its own rules and codes), then, through a larger socio-cultural and political lens, ‘citizen science’, invites us to challenge how this knowledge production takes place – now and historically, institutionally and professionally – by opening spaces for engaging with and acknowledging different ways of knowing and different ways of doing. Science cafés and events such as those hosted by the Global Community Monitor are examples of these spaces.

Global Community Monitor

Third, and related to the previous, by ignoring the greater social and historical context of power and authority embodied in expertise and professional/institutional practices, we miss the point and the opportunities for creating truly new institutions and associations (such as the Citizen Science Association). That is, we miss the chance of engaging in the opening of spaces (virtual and physical, ideological and practical) where to shed light on, question, discuss, and acknowledge issues such as who engages in knowledge creation and how, what are the values on which the purposes and motivations of our work are rooted, and what processes we have/use (if any) to reflect on the implications of our work as well as make reparations when harm is done. There are many frameworks and best practices to draw from such as within Action Research or Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC). In addition, we must not forget nor undermine the power of bringing people together, especially from diverse backgrounds and walks of life in a community-based context – tools and techniques are shared and new ideas spark and cross-pollinate.

 crossing paths

Fourth, contrary to some practices in science of reductionism and simplification of variables, acknowledging the larger context does not distract from a focus on or narrowing in on important issues; quite the opposite – it grounds its value(s) and guides its purpose(s) – making visible a vision that drives ‘scientific endeavour’.

Fifth, and most important of all, acknowledging these larger social issues of power will help us move towards making course corrections in our practices and theories as “we make the road by walking​” on this new journey.

And finally, it is important to remember that whatever we discuss and do, especially collectively, will set a precedent for the next events and papers that come out of these conversations, practices and exchanges on citizen science.

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