Reassembling Rubbish

"E-waste": Mapping a controversy

What is a controversy? Etymologically the word 'controversy' derives from Latin controversia, a combination controversus or 'turned against, disputed' and from contro- or contra- ('against') and versus, the past participle of verterre 'to turn'. A thesaurus offers these alternatives for 'controversy':
disagreement, dispute, argument, debate, dissension, contention, disputation, altercation, wrangle, wrangling, quarrel, quarreling, war of words, storm; cause célèbre; informal hot potato, minefield.
I am using the term as a general one to refer to anything about which there is shared uncertainty. Another way to put it is that "controversies are situations where actors disagree (or better, agree on their disagreement)" (Venturini 2010a: 261). Observing and describing controversies is an excellent way to study the composition of social life. It is in controversies that, "actors are unremittingly engaged in tying and untying relations, arguing categories and identities, revealing the facbric of collective existence" (Venturini 2010b: 196). Obviously, this is a very expansive conceptualization of controversies. It is a definition of used in the Mapping Controversies for Science, Technology, and Politics project.

As documented by members of that project, the notion of controversy and what counts as a genuine one is itself controversial. The so-called debate between climate scientists and skeptics or deniers of climate change is a good example. Skeptics and deniers rely on the argumentative technique of insisting that because scientific certainty about climate change, its presence, causes, or effects does not exist then there is a scientific debate about climate change. But the skeptic/deniers technique relies on an unrealistic image of Science (capital 'S') that implies there are two groups of scientists (small 's'), more or less of the same size, authority, and trustworthiness warring with each other. But in fact, there is no such grouping. What the skeptics/deniers rely on is mixing up journalism with how climate scientists actually practice and resolve their disputes. Journalism tells us there are 'always two sides to every story'. Scientific practice does not tell us that. It tells us we are radically uncertain about how many sides to a story there are, but the more certain we get, the more 'sides' there turn out to be. Two is never enough. But by following a set of agreed procedures we can form chains of trustworthy knowledge about the sides even while we acknowledge we can never be certain about how many there might be.

To study a controversy (see Venturini, 2010a and Venturini et al, nd), it is helpful to:
  1. Move from statements to debates (the 'what' of a controversy). What is the controversy about?
  2. Move from debates to actors (the 'who' of a controversy). Who are the actors of the controversy?
  3. Move from actors to networks (the 'how' of a controversy). How are actors connected?
  4. Move from networks to cosmoses (the 'where' of a controversy). Where does controversy take place?
  5. Move from cosmoses to cosmopolitics (the 'when' of a controversy). When does the controversy develop?

In what follows, I make these moves as I map out 'e-waste' as a controversy.


This page has paths:

Contents of this path: