April 18, 2006

Next theme project for Institute for Social Sciences: Contentious politics

How the safety of "Frankenfoods" and genetically modified organisms or World Bank economic advice become political hotbeds are examples of what the Cornell Institute for Social Sciences (ISS) will explore in its third theme project: "Contentious Politics: Science, Social Science and Social Protest."

The third theme, submitted by Ronald J. Herring and Kenneth M. Roberts, both professors of government, and announced last week, will put the rapidly growing ISS into its juggling act phase of development.

"This will be the first time we'll have three things going on at once," said Beta Mannix, ISS director.

Each spring the institute selects a new three-year collaborative project based on proposals from Cornell faculty. The two current ISS theme projects, "Evolving Family" and "Social Science in the Age of Networks," are in their first and second years, respectively. Working with more than 80 units and departments on campus, the ISS seeks to strengthen the social sciences at Cornell while promoting collaborative research and cross-department cooperation.

The "Contentious Politics" project is a good example of that mission.

"We're interested in how scientific or social scientific knowledge becomes a source of political contention," said Herring. "For example, evolution and intelligent design as science; the safety of Frankenfoods and genetically modified organisms that result from genetic engineering; and social protests against IMF [International Monetary Fund] conditionality or World Bank economic advice."

Roberts noted that such social movements as these "often defy the expectations of scholars -- most likely because they involve complex motives that are best understood through interdisciplinary perspectives."

Project members will explore how these forms of contentious politics emerge, how they spread and how they elicit policy or institutional innovation, Roberts said.

"Social protest can either resist or promote adherence to the best practices prescribed by scientific and social scientific knowledge," said Roberts. "Our project will explore a wide range of situations where such knowledge is politically contentious."

Three other Cornell faculty members have been recruited to join the core project team: Stephen Hilgartner, associate professor of science and technology studies; Sarah A. Soule, who will join the Cornell sociology faculty in fall 2006; and Janice Thies, associate professor of soil biology and ecology. More faculty members will be recruited in the coming months.

"We'd like this project to help build a culture of excellence in social science research through collaboration across the disciplines and the colleges that will have a lasting impact at Cornell," said Herring. "One important beginning is the Program on Contentious Politics in the Department of Government."

The Program on Contentious Politics was founded three years ago by Sidney Tarrow, the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Government at Cornell. It began as the administrative home for the study of transnational social movements with a Ford Foundation grant that has now expired.

"It covered the dissertation work of about a dozen graduate students from various departments working in areas as diverse as indigenous people's rights, environmental policy and international peacekeeping," said Tarrow. "We've had great graduate student interest in the program, and it is my hope an ISS project like this one will help to revive our program."

For more about the theme projects, see the ISS web site at http://www.socialsciences.cornell.edu/.