A history of citizen science?

Does it make sense to speak of citizen science before the processes of professionalization of research that initiated in the late XIX century and unfolded throughout the XX century, showing some symptoms of decay only in the last decades? Intuitively, citizen science makes only sense in the light of professional science, in both its academic and commercial versions. In the eyes of some radical supporters, citizen science is an insurgent concept that challenges technocratic and delegative forms of decision making. In other versions – versions that are especially frequent in open science movements – citizen science is instead a reaction to a more recent phenomenon, the entanglement of academic and commercial interests and the privatization of knowledge. But even in the more ‘domesticated’ versions of citizen science, where the participation of citizens is mobilized by entrepreneurs and/or academics, a polemical reference to the ‘ivory tower’ is never too far from the sight. Whatever else citizen science might be, it is not a a-historical model of research organization. Rather, citizen science is a specific trend in early XXI century social structuring of science.

From this point of view, conflating citizen science and forms of ‘amateur’ or even ‘gentlemen’ science is theoretically risky. A poignant cautionary tale is told by Hauke Reisch, who comments on academics’ fear of de-qualification and replacement by citizen scientists pointing out that, after all, professionalization has permitted to at least some talented have-nots to become prominent researchers (1). In other terms, professionalization has also been a social and democratic development of science organization. Hence amateur science and its inborn elitism have little to do with recent participatory ideals. In search of historical predecessors, we may well lose sight of citizen science most typical aspirations.

Do these cautionary remarks suggest that the history of ‘lay’ participation won’t tell us anything about contemporary cases? Quite the contrary: perhaps some peculiarities of contemporary citizen science could better stand out if compared to previous forms of citizens’ engagement. More importantly, questions about professionalism and expertise are also important for those who look at how knowledge is produced and validated, and how trust in the results of research is achieved in scenarios of differential expertise. The collection of essays edited by Jerome Vetter (2) on the history of ‘lay’ people’s observations is a good example of this epistemological angle. He warns against both an excessive nominalism, that programmatically refuses to see continuity between forms of lay participation in science divided by decades or centuries, and naive essentialism, that overlooks the specificity of each historical context. Some essays in the volume usefully distinguish between ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘residential’ knowledge (esp. Robert Kohler), i.e. abstract knowledge that can be produced and shared by professional scientists and knowledge that lay people possess in virtue of their being in a particular place, or in a particular condition. It is a topic of great relevance in biomedicine as well: patients’ activism is often predicated upon the idea that individuals bearing a particular medical condition are ‘better placed’ than many professionals with regard to knowledge about their conditions and effective treatments. Experiential knowledge matters. The idea that ‘local’ knowledge has an irreducible specificity is both very powerful and controversial: it seemingly defies commonly held intuitions about knowledge generalizability and the ‘universal’ nature of abstract knowledge.

By looking at how distinctions between ‘experts’ and ‘non-experts’ structured research and knowledge in different social and scientific context, these enduring issues underpinning discussions of citizen science (along important discontinuities) are more easily diagnosed. We will host in this blog posts about the history of citizen science which hopefully could shed light on the social and epistemological quandaries posed by contemporary projects.



(1) Hauke Riesch (2014) Citizen Science as Seen by scientists: methodological, epistemological and ethical dimensions

(2) Jeremy Vetter (2011) Lay participation in the history of scientific observation


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