On social knowledge, ideology and the nuclear power debate

Sanderson, Ian R. (1984). On social knowledge, ideology and the nuclear power debate. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000d3ac

Abstract

Many of the issues and problems concerning the role of our frameworks and structures of reasoning in the guidance of the process of social and technological development are encapsulated in the debate about nuclear energy. This thesis takes that debate as a context for analysing the rationality of scientific knowledge of society and the role and influence of such knowledge in debate and decision-making about appropriate forms of social and technological development.

After an introductory review of the historical, political and economic context of the issues and of the development of UK energy policy over the last 25 years, the body of the thesis is structured into two parts. In the first part, a critical examination of orthodox conceptions of scientific objectivity is followed by an attempt to elaborate an alternative conception of the nature of the rationality of social scientific knowledge founded upon the notions of 'value-contingency' and 'ideology'. This conception is developed through discussions of the role of social problem-solving in providing a basis for the process of knowledge development and of the role of the state in structuring the problem-solving process and the development of social knowledge to provide a complex 'technical' legitimatory framework. The concept of a dominant 'technocratic ideology' is then elaborated and an attempt made to identify and outline the major cognitive and normative components of this ideology. In particular it is conceived of as presenting interrelated ideological accounts of the appropriate form of knowledge development, of the content of the social world and of the appropriate form of knowledge utilisation, which are underpinned by 'materialistic', 'liberalist' and 'rationalist' normative traditions.

The second part of the thesis analyses certain aspects of the debate about nuclear energy in order to attempt to identify the role and influence of the 'technocratic ideology' and its normative commitments as elaborated in the first part, with a view to assessing the validity and implications of such a conception. After a review of the major issues of controversy in the debate, covering the economic, safety, environmental, social and political implications of nuclear energy, an attempt is made to clarify and categorise the main dimensions of the dispute in terms of the perception and valuation of economic benefits and 'social costs'. Arguments in support of nuclear power are then examined, themes of 'technocratic rationality' identified and the implications for the conduct of the debate discussed.

Two particular aspects of the debate are then examined in detail to identify the influence of normative, ideological themes. Firstly, pro-nuclear perceptions and interpretations of the energy problem are analysed and liberalist and materialist themes identified; in particular tendencies towards the establishment of 'materialist ethical imperatives' are highlighted. Secondly, aspects of the process of consideration of alternative means to the 'solution' of the energy problem are examined including illustrations of the value-contingent nature of the relevant social knowledge, an analysis of the treatment of the issue of demand-side solutions in pro-nuclear arguments, and a brief discussion of the implications of technocratic rationality for the evaluation of the costs and benefits of nuclear power. Finally, conclusions are drawn on the evidence for the influence of technocratic rationality and the normative themes identified, on the political implications of such dominant ideological themes and on limitations of the analysis and further research directions.

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