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Ignorance and Surprise: Science, Society, and Ecological Design. By Matthias Gross. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010. Pp. xii+240. $30.00.

American Journal of Sociology 116(6) (2011) 2022-2024


“In the strategy outlined here, surprises come when people at a certain time in a certain place communicate an event as surprising and then adapt their behavior in the future, regardless of a later communication that reveals an error or nescience.” Thus, Matthias Gross provides us with a definition at the end of the first theoretical part of his study (p. 76) of how ignorance and surprise have shaped the trajectories of two ecological restoration projects. The first of these two case studies—discussed in part 2—is the ecological restoration of the shoreline of Lake Michigan, north of Chicago, and the second the revitalization of brown fields (that is, pits left over from harvesting brown coal) that were transformed into a lake district around the city of Leipzig after German unification. Although the project in Chicago has older roots, the focus of the study is on comparing the development of the two projects during the 1990s and the early 2000s.


The author argues that such restoration trajectories in ecology offer opportunities for citizen participation because the boundaries of science and nonscience have to be negotiated continuously and unexpected ecological developments (such as the return of species) also bring complications. For example, the restoration of “nature” in the industrial areas of Eastern Germany led to the return of wolves, and in Chicago certain birds flocked into the newly shaped ecology. The processes of restoration and citizen participation are positioned by Gross in debates about the changing role of scientific knowledge in a knowledge-based society. Several concepts are therefore relevant, such as the thesis of the transition to a new and so-called transdisciplinary “mode two” in the production of scientific knowledge advocated by Michael Gibbons et al. (The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies [Sage, 1994]), Thomas Gieryn’s concept of “boundary-work” (“Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science,” American Sociological Review 48 [1983]: 781–95), and the notion of “society as experiment” borrowed from the Chicago school in sociology.


Gross concludes that ecological restoration projects “need a public that is ready to acknowledge ignorance in all ecological practices, since the unexpected is part of living in nature” (p. 169). However, the sociological conditions for this open-mindedness and the ability to process uncertainty are, in my opinion, not sufficiently specified in this study. Instead, the author jumps to the philosophical domain and provides us with an extensive introduction to themes in the sociology of knowledge and nonknowledge (with references to Georg Simmel). He draws interesting distinctions between anticipated and unanticipated uncertainties, but these schemes in the first part of the study are not strictly operationalized when discussing the unexpected events in the empirical part.


The author states clearly (at p. 90) that he wishes to understand “mode two” as a moral program for new types of science, and not as an analysis of actual changes in the production of scientific knowledge. In this context, he claims that “academic and disciplinary research cannot make progress without including the boundary negotiations with wider society and thus adding a crucial element of uncertainty to both the epistemic acceptability of scientific results and the social context that is being exposed to scientific surprises.” In his opinion, “social robustness” would then have to be added as a criterion for the validity of scientific knowledge because “any decision about the ‘right’ science is conditioned by the context of application and evolves with it.”


Although I am willing to accept this claim for some sociological specialties such as community-based learning, I would be much more hesitant to accept this inference, from “rightness” in decision making to rightness in terms of science, in relation to ecology. One can easily envisage social or economic interests challenged by ecological insights. Scientific results can be enlightening without being readily acceptable to a noneducated audience or being politically advantageous.


The possible class differences between the surrounding populations in the two projects studied may offer a case in point: one would expect to find middle-class suburban housing along the shores of Lake Michigan, while the industrial districts in East Germany would be populated by less-educated citizens. In community-based learning and democratization experiments (such as science shops), I found in a number of evaluations  that middle-class groups were able to profit from collaborations with academic scientists significantly more than lower-class groups (Leydesdorff and Janelle Ward, “Science Shops: A Kaleidoscope of Science-Society Collaborations in Europe,” Public Understanding of Science, 14 [2005]: 353–72). Perhaps the failure to keep momentum in the East German case, once the initial enthusiasm had faded, can be explained to some extent in terms of such sociological parameters.


In summary, the author addresses an interesting subject in terms of the position of academic knowledge in processes of knowledge-based restructuration. Relevant literature is brought into a systematic framework and thus perspectives are recombined. For example, the author combines insights about the dynamics of expectations from systems theory (Niklas Luhmann) with concepts such as interaction and experimentation (Chicago school) and current debates in science policy. However, a price is paid in terms of analytical focus and, in my opinion, the damage is compounded by the lack of a convincing methodology. The book is missing a methodological chapter: Who was interviewed, and why? How can these two “quasi experiments” be evaluated other than descriptively?


In the final part, Ignorance and Surprise accords with discussions about “risk societies,” “reflexive modernization,” and so on. Because the issue of the relations between sociology and ecology is sociologically and philosophically sensitive, the confusion that easily follows from the blurring of distinctions between content and contexts—as it is sometimes advocated in the new sociology of scientific knowledge—requires analysis to reach beyond the level of “social robustness,” in my opinion. The noted tension between experimental uncertainty and the need to make decisions under conditions of ignorance can be expected to lead to surprises that require both further development of research agendas and new decision-making. The author points to opportunities for citizens to participate that are thus inherently and continuously generated.


Loet Leydesdorff

University of Amsterdam