Power and Knowledge in the post-truth society

APRIL 3, 2018 | 15.00-17.00 | WAGENINGEN FORUM BUILDING C0658

Your talkshow host is Martijn Duineveld | Starring: Noelle Aarts, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, Peter Tamas & Fons van Overbeek, Kristof Van Assche, Raoul Beunen, Daan Boezeman and Guus Dix

In this seminar, we rethink and discuss the relation between power and knowledge by providing a series of examples from planning, nature management to academia and climate change to illustrate how scientific knowledge is produced and disrupted, used and misused, and highlighted and forgotten.


1. The power of words. How conflicts over wildlife comeback in Europe are intensified through rational argumentation | By Noelle Aarts

The return of several wildlife species across Europe has led to heated debates over how to deal with them. I will focus on the rhetorical work of gaining the upper hand in these debates. I use the classical theory of stasis as a systematic method for locating the points of contention within a debate and understanding participants’ rhetorical efforts at these points. Drawing on diverse discussion forums – including mass and social media, expert symposia and parliamentary meetings – results show how opposing groups engage in a continuous alternation between the construction of a suitable logic in support to their own viewpoint and the dismantling (and rhetorical disempowering) of the logic of the counterparty. We will then explore if and how the points of contention could serve as points of connection, especially by making the discursive power play explicit at the moments ambiguity is created, and contradictions can be transcended.

Van Herzele, A., N. Aarts & J. Casaer (2015). Wildlife comeback in Flanders: tracing the fault lines and dynamics of public debate. European Journal  for Wildlife Research, 61(4), 539-555.

Van Herzele, A. & N. Aarts (forthcoming). Arguing along fault lines: a stasis analysis of public rhetoric over issues of wildlife comeback.

2. Power and knowledge: the case of manure and ammonia | By Jan Douwe van der Ploeg

Van Der Ploeg, J.D., Verschuren, P., Verhoeven, F., & Pepels, J. (2006). Dealing with novelties: a grassland experiment reconsidered. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 8(3), 199–218. http://doi.org/10.1080/15239080600915568

3. Suffering the contradictions of a domesticated Foucault: reflections on the production of programmatically useful knowledge on the shores of Lake Kivu | By Peter Tamas & Fons van Overbeek

The role of research and researchers in maintaining the viability of international development assistance has been well documented. Since the mid-1980s, such inquiry has often drawn on the work of Michel Foucault. Portions of the work of Foucault have also been taken up in and found useful for the production of knowledge in maintaining the viability of international development assistance. This paper reflects on ethnographic fieldwork whose purpose was to trace some of the working and consequences of the overlap of these two uses of Foucault. In its reflection on the production of knowledge on land tenure in peri-urban Bukavu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the present essay finds evidence consistent with the impossibility of development knowledge and identifies some consequences of this impossibility for development researchers.

4. Community as productive fiction and the possibilities and limits of reinvention: Canadian experiences | By Kristof Van Assche

In our presentation, we dwell on the necessarily fictitious yet productive character of ‘community’ and try to link up systematically with the discussions on community reinvention. Often, in tough circumstances, communities try to cling to an identity, or think of changing completely, yet neither of those is likely to work. Diversification is only a narrow subset of reinvention options, and nevertheless is often too simply understood. The same applies to innovation, to branding, to ‘development’ as such. We distinguish rerooting, reinvention and reconstructing as broad strategies of change, and introduce the notion of reinvention paths. Using Canadian examples, we notice that the forms of learning, adaptation and transformation necessary for reinvention are not always possible and wanted, and when they happen, not always democratic. We reflect on layered obstacles for reinvention [as in the case of Newfoundland], yet also on the positive openness of a situation where assets cannot be easily discerned, where conflicts can be positive, where shocks might be useful, where path dependencies can become valuable at some point

Van Assche, Kristof, Deacon, L., Gruzmacher, M., et al. (2017): Boom & Bust. Local strategy for big events. A community survival guide to turbulent times, Groningen/Edmonton: InPlanning& University of Alberta

5. Power/knowledge and institutional change | By Raoul Beunen

The evolution of environmental governance is driven by a huge diversity of knowledges. Increasingly, however, the different understandings of the world create intensive conflicts and deceptions that not only hamper sustainability transitions, but also profoundly disrupt and weaken existing environmental policies and practices. I’ll argue that a more profound understanding of the way in which power/knowledge dynamics influence institutional change and exposing the growing discrepancies between expectations about particular institutions and their actual working and impact, are key to bringing governance systems on a more sustainable track.

Beunen, R., Patterson, J., & Van Assche, K. (2017). Governing for resilience: the role of institutional work. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 28, 10-16.

Beunen, R., Van Assche, K., & Duineveld, M. (2013). Performing failure in conservation policy: The implementation of European Union directives in the Netherlands. Land use policy, 31, 280-288.

6 | The transformation of knowledge in governance | By Daan Boezeman

Scientific knowledge plays a pivotal yet problematic role in identifying, assessing and evaluating climate impacts, and hence climate adaptation governance. The conventional supply-and-demand model with its notion of ‘knowledge transfer’ has fundamental flaws. I will argue that wicked issues, such as climate change, are tamed and made tractable in climate adaptation. In these processes both the knowledge of climate change and adaptation goals transform. I outline a conceptual apparatus to study transformation using five concepts: Reduction, Extension, Rhetorical Packaging, Modification and Redefinition. Transformation has a Janus face. While transformation brings climate change in conversation with localized meaning to create concrete adaptation responses, it also closes down and becomes blind to particular climate risks. Transformations are affected by the goals, institutions and power constellations of policy fields. To overcome problems of blindness and cognitive path dependencies, more institutional change is necessary than the current piggyback approach of mainstreaming and knowledge co-creation entails.

Boezeman, D. (2016). Understanding the transformation of climate futures. A conceptual framework illustrated with urban adaptation policy. Futures, 76, 30-41.

Boezeman, D.F. (2017) De transformatie van kennis voor klimaatadaptatie. Bestuurskunde

7 | Poststructuralism meets Post Truth? | By Guus Dix

From the 1970s onward, poststructuralists and sociologists of science have defended new and sometimes radical statements about the relationship between power and knowledge. In a plethora of interesting and intricate studies, they revealed how knowledge claims should be understood in terms of local epistemic groups vying for power and how these claims simultaneously fostered and legitimized the wielding of (state) power in modern society. Over the past decade, a new and vocal group of politicians and publicists has come to embrace this epistemic emphasis on uncertainty, perspectivism and power. Critical journalists discuss this movement under the heading of the ‘post truth’ era or society.

These two groups are far apart politically and neither of them might want to be associated with the other. Yet when anonymously contrasted, it is hard to discriminate between poststructuralist and STS statements about truth on the one hand and those made by the spokespersons of ‘post truth’ on the other. Drawing on my own historical research on ‘incentivization’ as a particular modality of power/knowledge and the current role of economic expertise in policymaking, I will outline some of the tensions that this uneasy alliance gives rise to.