Narrative Exchange as Knowledge Transfer: The Rhetorical Construction of Opposition to GM Crops in SW England
By David Downing (University College London)
The release of genetically modified organisms into the environment and food chain in the UK has produced one of the most visible and enduring controversies of recent times. Amid ongoing claimand counter-claim by actors on either side of the Genetic modification (GM) ‘debate’ over the salient ‘facts’ or balance of risks and benefits associated with the technology, this controversy can be fruitfully seen as a struggle between contested networks of knowledge. Drawing on ethnographic data collected during recent PhD fieldwork, I focus on those, loosely defined as members of ‘local foodnetworks’ in SW England, who perceive their values and cultural projects to be at risk from the deployment of this technology. In scrutinizing how distinctly ‘oppositional’ knowledge is created, exchanged and transformed particularly in relation to the construction and maintenance of cultural and historical boundaries, I suggest that in this arena a key vehicle of knowledge transfer is the narrativeor story. A successfully deployed narrative can resolve uncertainties, or equally, dissolve undesirable certainties. Knowledge transfer thus becomes a matter of rhetoric, of persuasion, whereby skilfully deployed narratives can be viewed as analogical networks of associations— enrolling culturally appropriate characters, values and concepts—to move the targeted audience in the desired manner. Iargue that such transfers must be seen not only as exchanges of networks of knowledge but also of networks of ignorance, for as the ethnographic data reveals, when the stakes are perceived to be so high, ideological coherence often outweighs empirical evidence and logical consistency. This raises a critical dilemma for the ethnographer. What should he/she do when confronted in the field byexaggerated claims or misinformation?
The release of genetically modified organisms into the environment and food chain in the UK has produced one of the most visible and enduring controversies of recent times. Genetic modification (GM) is of intrinsic interest as a new technology with the potential to affect people’s lives profoundly, through the food they eat and the environment theylive in. The controversy around GM touches upon a wide range of key cultural arenas and sites of tension and contestation in contemporary society. It provides a window onto the transfer of knowledge between ‘experts’ and ‘nonexperts’, the construction of perceptions of science and risk, the practice of public debate and protest in participatory democracy and the myriad transformations of an ever morepenetrative globalization. It also highlights extant fractures of trust, respect and ways of doing and being between various institutions: the state, corporations, ‘science’, non-governmental organizations, the media, and various publics and cultural/social movements. The GM controversy is thus as much a cultural controversy as a technical one. Indeed, this controversy, I argue can fruitfully beseen as a struggle between contested networks of knowledge. Yet, what is commonly referred to as the ‘GM Debate’ is a debate in little more than name only; typically 1
Anthropology Matters Journal
2011, Vol 13 (1)
there is little exchange of carefully weighed argument, not even the discussion, deliberation or consideration of opposing points. Ratherthan reasoned discourse, opponents trade in emotive narratives, with both sides presenting rigid, oversimplified versions of the technology and those whom either support or reject it. An anthropological approach to the study of emerging science and technology has already revealed the increasingly complex transfer of knowledge from science into politics and practice. Important studies (Downey and...