Matériaux & Techniques
Volume 102, Number 5, 2014
Matériaux et société / Social value of materials (SAM8)
|Number of page(s)||11|
|Published online||24 October 2014|
Hidden societal implications of materials. Updating the awareness on what is at stake
Laboratorio di scienze della cittadinanza (LSC),
Accepted: 12 August 2014
In a sociological perspective, materials are to be viewed as the focus of social relations. Actually, materials are activated by and even created within social relation systems and in turn they create and activate new social relation systems connected to i.e. their extraction, production, use, management, reuse, recycling and disposal. On the basis of various European research projects carried out by the authors, the paper will be aimed at analyzing such social relations in the framework of the innovation cycle which necessarily involves a large number of societal actors, including research institutions, technological developers, industries, financial institutions, political players, civil society organizations, professional groups and local communities. Since from beginning of the innovation cycle, two sets of societal relations can be identified. The first set can be referred to as the societal technological process. Any product and material, to be discovered or imagined and then developed, produced, marketed and managed, necessarily required the creation and development of social practices and interactions closely intertwined with the scientific and technological activities. In this sense, any product and material are the result of a socio-technical system, in which the boundaries between the social dimension and the technological dimension are blurred. The second set can be called the societal political process. This includes all dynamics of a political nature (local, national, transnational) connected with a product and material, such decision-making, adoption of standards, fund raising and management, or power relations between political and administrative levels. Both this components are necessary. In fact, they are the upstream factors allowing a material to actually exist in social, economic and technological terms (otherwise they should remain an inactive and unexploitable physical matter) and often in physical terms (in that case materials simply should not even exist at all). Taking into consideration such upstream dynamics allows to perceive under a different perspective the same nature and features of the life cycle of a material and product as well as to go beyond the presently adopted social life cycle assessment practices. As for the downstream aspects, they usually are referred to as social impacts. Certainly, any product and material has direct impacts on different aspects of social life (e.g. working environment, wages, quality of life, consumption patterns). However, materials are also part (and often the core) of social regimes aimed at turning uncontrolled and partially unknown dangers into at least partially managed and measurable risks. Dangers can be of physical nature (e.g. energy shortage, illness, water shortage, etc.) as well as of social nature (social conflicts, poverty, threatens to personal rights, etc.). As any regimes, materials and products in turn inevitably generate new dangers requiring further regimes to be managed. Viewing materials as part of this dynamics turning around the triadic relation between dangers, social regimes and risks could be helpful for going beyond the social life cycle assessment. In the final part of the paper, the issue of the co-evolution between science and society (and therefore between materials and human agency) will be deepened and some considerations will be made on what is at stake with a more aware understanding of the intertwined interactions between materials and social relations. In the last years a growing attention has been paid – also by European institutions – to the social dimension of materials and technologies. Yet with the 6th and 7th European Framework Research Programme and, with more emphasis, with the coming programme Horizon 2020, European institutions have developed policies that are more and more focused on the tight interaction between research and those society sectors (private sector, civil society, professional network, Local Authorities, etc.) that are more involved in innovation processes. The objective of these policies is to make Member States more competitive and able to valorize scientific and technological research, both at the economic and social levels. For a long time there has been a widespread impression that an effective control is lacking on the effects of newtechnologies and materials over, for example, climate, environment, health and also – especially, after the exponential diffusion of the Internet – on the relations between individuals and on the governance of collective life. This impression contributed to strengthen the belief that technology is something that is exogenous to social life and that is able to affect – more or less strongly – the normal course of the events. We cannot avoid to notice, however, that this idea of “exogeneity” of technology tends, paradoxically, to reinforce in a moment in which, as never before, the presence of science and technology in society is strong and pervasive to the extent that some technologies – in sectors such as health, transport or information – have become an essential part of the framework in which modern life develops. As we will see below, materials are an integral part of this dynamics since they are both technological products (and particularly, those with more social pervasiveness) and the basis of further technologies. How indissoluble is this relation between materials and technology clearly emerges, for example, with the development of research sectors such as nanotechnology in which materials tend to incorporate the technologies with which they are produced. It is from the big difficulties emerging from the interaction between the technological (/materials) and the social dimensions that this reflection moves. In Sections 1–4 we critically analyze the way in which social sciences and, particularly, sociology have interpreted, so far, the relations between science, technology and materials, on the one hand, and society on the other hand. This analysis makes it possible to demonstrate the centrality of this relation for contemporary society and its development. In Sections 5–7 we focus the attention on new scenarios that have been emerging in the last years and that are characterized by a growing importance of the overlapping between artificial and natural dimensions and by the advent of what can be defined as a post-natural World. In this context, we propose some thoughts concerning a view of innovation able to account for this complex situation and the possibility to anticipate the changes produced by the interaction of technology and society. The conclusions (Sect. 8) summarize the main elements of the paper.
Key words: Materials / society / sociology / STS / innovation
© EDP Sciences, 2014
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