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Technocracy in the UK November 6, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.

Having managed to get settled pretty well at Imperial College London and in my new place in Shepherds Bush, I am now starting my new project in earnest.  After a few days of preliminary research, I have found myself knee-deep in the historiography of British agricultural science, which already is pretty fascinating.  In the earlier part of the century, the agricultural experimental stations (and this is something historians of this stuff know well) turn out to be caught between problems of improving agricultural yield, studying the nutritional requirements of plants and livestock, suggesting how agriculture can best meet the nutritional requirements of the nation, but also doing academic research in the nascent field of genetics.

The key figures immediately turn out to be politically interesting, as agricultural science is hyped heavily for its social relevance.  At the same time the science becomes a central battleground over the question of the “planning” of fundamental science when the genetics of Lysenko become a scandal.  John Boyd Orr — director of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen from 1914 to 1945, and first director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization — turns out to be an advocate for world government who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949.  (World government, by the way, is a topic explored in respect to airpower and atomic weapons in the thesis of recent Imperial PhD Waqar Zaidi)

But all this is getting ahead of myself, and there will be more details to come.  What I’d like to do now is introduce the broader research program of which all this is a part.  The title of my project is “British State Expertise in Food, Construction, and Defence, 1945-1975”.The project is intended as a broad survey.  Truth be told, all of the above, fascinating as it is, is a little off-topic, as my research is not about scientific research but state expertise, and the above researchers only intermittently worked for, or advised, the state.  In fact, the historiography of British agricultural science immediately emphasizes that the mainly private research sponsored by the Agricultural Research Council was largely disconnected from the work of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (or similar bodies — the bureaucracy changes every decade or so).

One thing that the very preliminary research shows is that the agriculture historiography seems equally taken with problems of pure vs. applied research, scientific vs. local knowledge, and scientific advice vs. state action as the areas in which I have traditionally worked.

My project, if you will, is trying to remove, or at least rework, these broad sorts of “vs.” statements, and trying to put actual policies, and actual people with individualized agendas that do not necessarily break down along these lines in their place.  The premise is that, important as these debates can be, a lot of ordinary activities take place around instances of scientists trying to justify their work, or states trying to govern people, or scientific outsiders trying to affect state action, and that we know very little about these activities, or changes in their nature over time.

The reason we have these “vs.” sorts of statements with respect to knowledge and governance is that the relationship between knowledge and governance is inevitably a messy thing: the vs. statements help us to define the tensions pervading what we can call the problem of technocracy.  The problem with the problem of technocracy is the frequent implication that there exists a general alternative: that technocracy is trying to do something that it can never hope to accomplish, that it therefore is beset by these perpetual tensions, and that some alternative mode of thinking is necessary.

Of course, the alternative way of thinking can itself never hope to resolve the inevitable tensions.  It can only hope to take a more reasonable approach to them, to perhaps be more mature where others are naive or arrogant or narrowly ideological.  Ultimately, though, it will simply pursue some other bureaucratic arrangement, or some other set of policies, all based on some other rearrangement of expertise.

This means that to get at the ideas actually underlying governance as it is practiced, we have to turn up the magnification at least a step further, defocusing the problem of technocracy, and focusing in on those bureaucratic arrangements and policies that are taken to be preferable by different actors.  This means concentrating on the different kinds of expertise that are available, and how those kinds of expertise are imagined to relate to each other, and how they can be marshaled into the construction of various activities that satisfy various interests.

My claim is that this is something that cannot be done by simply studying single cases.  To understand what the underlying ideas have been, we need to survey across different kinds of expertise and across difference sectors, in order to take stock of what technocratic resources were available to historical actors, and how the availability, or lack of availability, of those resources informed their thinking.  This approach will not produce as satisfyingly rich of a picture of individual incidents as might be preferable, but I am banking that it will produce new and important pictures nonetheless.



1. Thony C. - November 6, 2010

Given the nature of your research a Jethro Tull sleeve would seem more appropriate ;)

2. Charles Day - November 6, 2010

Glad to hear you’ve settled in, Will. Your recent post reminded me of Robert McCance, who was the oldest fellow at Sidney Sussex Colllege when I was there in the 1980s. McCance was a pioneer in the field of nutrition science. Thanks to his experiments — on himself! — he helped to determine Britain’s agricultural and rationing policies during World War II. For a biography, check out http://rsbm.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/41/262.full.pdf+html

3. Will Thomas - November 8, 2010

@Thony: All I can think of when I think of Jethro Tull, aside from the flute, is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s line as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous: “Did you know that ‘The Letter’ by The Box Tops is a minute and fifty-eight seconds long? It means nothing. But they accomplish in less than two minutes what it takes Jethro Tull hours to not accomplish.”

@Charles: Excellent, I’ll be on the lookout for him in my research. Hope all’s well at PT.

4. Thony C. - November 8, 2010

Lester Bangs spouted crap but at least at times it was funny crap!

5. Charles Day - November 9, 2010

Here’s more fodder for your ag project: the Guardian obit for John Nelder, an innovative statistician who worked at Britain’s National Vegetable Research Station, among other places (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/sep/23/john-nelder-obituary).

I stumbled across the obit while looking for ideas for my Last Word column in Computing in Science & Engineering.

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