The countercultural potential of citizen science

Abstract from a draft paper submitted for review to  M/C Journal - email me dan [AT] for a copy. 

In this paper I explore the countercultural potential of citizen science. I identify counterculture by drawing on the ideas of Theodore Roszak, who saw the carnivalesque youth movements of the 1960s as mobilising a vital critique of technocratic society. I characterise the emergence of citizen science as diverse activities that, by contrast, are mainly seeking validation from orthodox science. However I give examples of citizen science projects that open up all parts of the scientific method to participation and have a commitment to social justice.

This is set alongside the historical example of countercultural science, in the form of Science for the People. This loose organisation sprang from opposition to the Vietnam War and infused their science with the ideas from the civil rights and feminist movements. They constructed early critiques of nuclear power and genetic determinism and embodied (in the words of one of the founders) a 'shit kicking' approach. I follow with the claim that citizen science can become more countercultural if it is prepared to question the hegemony of science.

I draw on various sources to look at the weaknesses of that hegemony in terms of scientific practices, culture and epistemology. I also look at examples which have tried to carry some kind of critique of science in to forms of practice. Isabelle Stengers characterised scientific truth as that which has the ability to disqualify and exclude other truth claims. Taking a lead from Deleuze & Guattari, I propose that citizen science become more of a nomadic science. By acknowledging provisional knowledges, citizen science has the opportunity to build a strong complement to orthodox science rather than experiencing its own experiential and reflective aspects as a source of anxiety.

I sum up by setting the proposed shift in citizen science alongside other social movement trends. As in the 1960s there are other social movements who are questioning the hegemony of hegemony and, like Science for the People, these other movements can be a source of support for a nomadic citizen science that shares their affinity for bottom-up and community-led processes. By adding empirical methods to grassroots social movements, a nomadic science could also contribute to a wider cultural change.