Cultures of Ignorance

For more than 20 years the growing theoretical and empirical importance of ignorance has been receiving attention in the sociologie of science and technologie, as well as in environmental and risk politics. A precaution-oriented policy can’t afford to concentrate only on well-known problems, but also has to deal with the difficulty of the unknown. It has to act and decide under the terms of ignorance. A multiplicity of hindsight-revealed, serious cases of “unrecogniced ignorance” (e.g. ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), thalidomide, asbestos or the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (bse)) are giving these topics ever more empirical evidence and political weight. There exists great helplessness in dealing with phenomena of ignorance – that makes differential studies necessary.

However, a change of perspective is indicated. The project aims to answer the question, which different forms of reaction and innovative perspectives in contact with ignorance can be revealed and how the political regulation of risk could raise the reflection of science and shape the relation of science and society.

Differentiating analyses and case studies are needed to find new ways to deal with ignorance in the scientific and political realms. The forms, possibilities and limits of the exposure to ignorance are analysed on the basis of two selected risk-related controversies, which occur within the context of conflicts between different “epistemic cultures” and problem-centered publics. With the controversy of agricultural genetic engineering and mobile telephone systems we have chosen two research fields, around which highly polarised debate is taking place. These debates deal with the unknown negative side effects of the previously mentioned phenomena and the already-established nets of institutionalised arrangements. Both of these case studies are expected to yield a special profit for the sociology of science and technology as well as for the analysis of risk politics. The results of the projects will be discussed in a workshop with relevant science and risk-political participants, in order to explore and promote the transfer to problem-centered publics and decision-making processes.

The research project is supported by the Federal Department of Education and Research (BMBF) within the program “knowledge for decisions – research in the context of science, politics and society”.

Projectterm 01.12.2003 – 30.04.2007

Project Team:
Project Management: Dr. Stefan Böschen, Dr. Jens Soentgen, Dr. Peter Wehling
Research Staff: Dr. Karen Kastenhofer, Dr. Ina Rust


  • Kastenhofer, Karen; Rust, Ina (2005): Orientierung im Nebel. Kulturen des Nichtwissens. In: politische ökologie 95: Wissenslücken. Zwischen Informationsflut und kollektivem Gedächtnisschwund. oekom verlag, München, S. 50 ff.
  • Soentgen, Jens (2006): Forscher im Nebel (duz MAGAZIN 02 / 2006)
  • S. Böschen, K. Kastenhofer, L. Marschall, I. Rust, J. Soentgen, P. Wehling 2006: Scientific Cultures of Non-Knowledge in the Controversy over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). The Cases of Molekular Biology and Ecology, in: GAIA, 15/ 4 (2006): 294-301.
  • P. Wehling 2006: Im Schatten des Wissens? Perspektiven der Soziologie des Nichtwissens, Konstanz (UVK-Verlag).
  • S. Böschen, 2007: Reflexive Wissenspolitik: die Bewältigung von (Nicht-) Wissenskonflikten als institutionen-politische Herausforderung, in: Feindt, P./ Saretzki, Th. (Hg.): Umwelt- und Technikkonflikte, Wiesbaden.
  • P. Wehling 2006: Umgang mit Nichtwissen, in: Fülgroff, G./ Schlipkötter, H.W./ Wichmann, H.E. (Hg): Handbuch der Umweltmedizin, Landberg: ecomed, 34. Ergänzungslieferung, August 2006.