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Searching for Fit

The topic of this GoNERI meeting on January 6–8, 2008, was “Nuclear Technology and Society—Needs for Next Generation.” A historian who has spent time among engineers has expectations about how these meetings unfold. There are ceremonies and speeches expressing aspirations to serve society with advances in technology.[1] There are lots of technical talks from professors and other highstatus people, supported by powerpoint slides. In this case the meeting's technical agenda was overlaid with an emphasis on international collaboration and a gettingto-know-you-better function between engineers from Berkeley and Tokyo. Because of the formalities of sponsorship by the Japanese authorities, there was a significant effort at documentation; the proceedings of the workshop were prepared and ran to nearly 400 pages [13].

In meetings such as these, historians often get slotted to provide a historical perspective, or to generally speak about nuclear power and society. The nuclear community has long-established ways of thinking about society, which can be pretty well captured in a schema like Fig. 21.2.

This was in fact the first slide from my GoNERI talk. It was a move of abstraction, using the license afforded by distance to speak in a direct voice. The second slide (Fig. 21.3) got a bit more theoretical.

I was hoping to bring something foundational into view. Even when engineers are savvy operators, they often work from folk theories of society: familiar framings of societal processes and social order that live within a structure of their professionally reinforced ways of understanding their experience [14, 15]. Without pointing this out this openly, was there any hope of making the case for something else? In my first try at speaking in this setting, what came next was too abstract

“Technology and society” –

when nuclear engineers talk about this, what has it historically evoked?

Our efforts are in the service of society. What we provide is a social good.

But society has trouble accepting it.

A relationship problem – what can we do about it?

(Or could we please find someone else to deal with it and get back to what we do well?)

Fig. 21.2 Slide 1, early 2008. Source Cathryn Carson, UC Berkeley, 7 January 2008. Workshop on “nuclear technology and society—needs for next generation.” © Cathryn Carson 2008

What strikes a historian about this? (1) Framing the “technology and society” problem

What's this thing called society? Where do engineers fit within it?

Who determines social needs or social goods? Where and when did we get this schema anyways?

Does it still work better than, say,

Fig. 21.3 Slide 2, early 2008. Source Cathryn Carson, UC Berkeley, 7 January 2008. Workshop on “nuclear technology and society—needs for next generation.” © Cathryn Carson 2008

and theorized. Engineers can be polite when they are being presented with things that don't really speak to them. I am still left with the puzzle: Why is it the case that concepts that to me feel so powerful for grasping the world (e.g., sociotechnical system) fail to capture the experience of the people actually living that life?

On the other hand, it was interesting to see where the direct language of opening gambit resonated. And the move to situate the speaker (myself) within a particular disciplinary tradition seems to have been both interesting and curious. The notions of perspective and subject position are fundamental to the way I do my research, but these seemed so disablingly relativistic to non-social scientists that they did not quite believe I wanted to play them up.

Over the next years, as the GoNERI team pulled me in, we all grappled with different ways to connect social science with questions that nuclear engineers and their students found worth engaging. One entry point was a focus within PAGES on societal issues around nuclear waste management, a specificity that was more manageable than the whole narrative of nuclear power, even as it could be backed up against that larger history for context. In general, if social scientists hope to provide more in engineering education than the cultural patina of “breadth,” specificity feels like the way to go. In seminars and discussions I tried presenting substantive historical episodes that I found instructive for my own thinking—stories from my radwaste research about the negotiated processes that created the present set of (sometimes arbitrary-feeling) regulatory specifications, the partly contingent paths by which current technically favored approaches came to the fore, past disposal concepts that in their day had wide acceptance but now looked startlingly simple-minded, or the history of the US radwaste program's attempt to engage social scientists in what was framed at least from the 1970s forward as a social as much as a technical problem. Thinking through cases is my bread and butter as a historian. However, I never sensed that anything I said about specific historical examples stuck with my listeners. At most, the concreteness of the cases was an occasion to build credibility by displaying a decent mastery of radwaste language and facts.[2] A related strategy had even less uptake: working through comparison cases in order to suggest generalizations. We were supposed to be talking about nuclear engineering, so lessons from, say, nanotechnology did not feel relevant to my partners—though the comparison cases profoundly shaped my own ways of analyzing societal dynamics around nuclear power [14, 17].

Another strategy was foregrounding methodology, highlighting the different ways to get one's head around a question. One big goal here was just to make visible that there are different ways to analyze the world: questions it makes sense to ask, strategies to delimit a researchable problem, research approaches and tools to use, ways of talking and arguing that govern how we analyze and discuss. Then part of the value of social science is just that it tackles things differently from engineering, and that has a refl xive payoff—the insistence that there is not some single univocal understanding of a situation, one that (in our students' case) engineering analysis delivers. In that sense, the point was to underline that there are sightlines that engineering does not provide on its own. A more refi goal was to name and experiment with particular social scientifi methodologies, since social science is not a univocal thing either. In PAGES we did a fair amount of naming, but only a little bit of experimenting, which was a source of disappointment if one sees value in learning by doing.

I would have liked to create more space to try out scenarios, simulations, and encounters with real participants, creating practical experience that analytical approaches could be set to work on. Some of that work was done by PAGES collaborators, as mentioned elsewhere in this volume. For the students I staged one example as an exercise in one of the summer schools [18], and, judging by the short-term discussion, it made some impression. The exercise took students through a puzzle: What would be the right way to clean up the Asse II Research Mine in Germany? Asse II was a former salt mine where the “testing” of methods for of lowand mid-level radioactive waste in the 1960s and 1970s had set the scene for a massive conflict thirty years later, once it was revealed that the mine (assumed perfectly dry) was actually subject to water entry, with radioactivity now accumulating in brine pools, and structurally unstable to boot [19]. Specifically, the students were asked: what questions would an engineer need to get answers to in order to decide what should be done? A non-linear powerpoint deck let us explore student questions in the order they brought them up, starting with the geology and technical parameters, then taking up the local setting, the national context, and the path-dependencies of the history and the institutional and regulatory environment. In the end, the conclusion may have been there was no single right answer for what to do next, a notion that was very comfortable for social scientists, but felt troublesome for nuclear engineers.

Some of these messages and approaches felt incredibly simple, so much so that I was afraid I was being patronizing. But still they resonated with some subset of engineering students and colleagues: staking out a subject position as an analyst, listening for an interlocutor's concerns without going immediately to judge whether they were rational (i.e., technically correct), applying social science analysis to oneself and not just to “the other” (e.g., the public). In practice, this way of working meant presenting social science (itself already a broad and diverse thing) as a set of tools and techniques for tackling a problem, which was an engineering framing itself. Probably for obvious reasons, the tools of social science that seemed most comfortable for engineers to make recourse to have come from economics, along with simplified versions of political science for national policymaking and international relations. Approaches from anthropology, sociology, and history were harder to make stick.

The format, too, was constrained. Any educational changes we tried were likely to sit outside the regular graduate curriculum for now, at least on the Berkeley side. For interpretive social science we could experiment with voluntary seminars and optional summer schools. What was understood to have a place in regular graduate training was, again, those parts of economics and political science/IR that were already appropriated and built in. There are institutional and professional structures that enforce this division of competencies. In addition, across the engineering curriculum here, both graduate and undergraduate, there is a reluctance to have engineering students officially taught by anyone other than engineers.[3]

  • [1] There is no irony or sarcasm in my voice here or elsewhere in this chapter.
  • [2] I relate this to interactional expertise as in Collins and Evans [16].
  • [3] Sunderland et al. [20] on Berkeley, more generally Besterfeld-Sacre et al. [21], Christensen and Ernø-Kjølhede [22].
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