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The Role of Lay People in the Production and Dissemination of

Scientific Knowledge
Michel Callon
Science Technology Society 1999 4: 81
DOI: 10.1177/097172189900400106

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The Role of Lay People in the Production
and Dissemination of Scientific Knowledge


ONE OF THE most routine observations about modern life concerns

the rapid pace of technological change and the consequences of this
for every aspect of society. Technoscience is pervasive; it invades daily
life and consequently becomes the subject of heated debates and con-
troversies over diverse issues such as, biotechnology and concerns
about new reproductive technologies; advice on HIV/AIDS and ’safe
sex’; information technology and its impact on jobs, skills and the
quality of life; pollution and hazards; global environmental change;
medical problems, childbirth and contraception; food safety and
occupational health, etc.
The existence of these debates and the involvement in them of
numerous non-specialists are seen by some to be a glaring manifesta-
tion of a crisis of confidence vis-~-vis science and technology. Authors
such as U. Beck (1992) consider, for example, that the public-in
other words the uninitiated-mistrust science and experts because
the latter have proved to be incapable of foreseeing and controlling
negative consequences of science and technology. Whether they corn-
cern the environment, public health or food safety, examples abound
of unexpected effects which endanger society as a whole. Contrary to
official discourse, it may be that science is not a public good, but
rather, a public bad. From that point of view, the crisis of confidence
could be explained very simply. It could be said that non-specialists
take a rational decision not to trust the researchers and engineers
who are unable to deal with the risks endangering society as a whole.

Michel Callon is Professor, Ecole des Mines, and Director, Centre for Sociology and
Innovation, 62 Boulevard Raspail, Paus 70005, France.

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Modern societies thus enter into the age of suspicion because the
political and economic institutions guaranteeing the validity and
legitimacy of science have been found to be in the wrong.
I am not sure that this interpretation is an accurate one. There is no
doubt that relations between specialists and lay people have been
called into question, but what seems more problematic to me is that
the issue is one of trust and of restoring that trust. In this paper, I
would like to show that if indeed there is a crisis, it is that of the sepa-
ration between science and society or, in other words, of the great
divide between specialists and non-specialists. This boundary, patiently
erected over the centuries, exists not only in institutions but also as
models for the actors. And it is this boundary that is wavering. The
great divide is challenged from all sides because it makes the con-
struction of a collective in which technoscience can find its place, dif-
ficult if not impossible.
In an attempt to understand this evolution and the crisis it spawns,
I wish to focus on the diversity of possible modes of participation by
non-specialists in scientific and technological debates. For the sake of
clarity I shall distinguish three models. Each of them should be con-
sidered both as a convenient way of making a confused and complex
reality intelligible, and as a reference that actors use when they reflect
on practical forms of technological democracy. From one model to
the next, what varies is the degree of involvement of lay people in the
formulation and application of the knowledge and know-how on
which decisions are based.

The Public Education Model (Ml)

It is to this, the simplest and most widespread model, although proba-
bly the least suited to current challenges, that authors refer when they
speak of the crisis of confidence in science and scientific institutions.
It has the following characteristics:

1. Owing to its universality and objectivity, scientific knowledge is

the opposite of lay knowledge, which is shaped by beliefs and
superstitions. The former can triumph only through the total
eradication of the latter. Not only must scientists teach the pub-
lic everything, they also have nothing to learn from it.
2. Science is a separate institution governed by its own norms. To
succeed in its knowledge enterprise and guard against all forms

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of contamination, it has to protect itself from lay knowledge and

take up position against common sense. The ties between scien-
tists and the public are therefore indirect: they are the responsi-
bility of the state, which represents citizens and their will, and of
the firms which comply with consumers’ demands. Thus, sci-
ence is autonomous but not independent; it is subjected to con-
trol by the public authorities and adapts to suit the innovation
projects of firms. The public does not participate directly in
knowledge production; it consists of individuals who, either as
citizens or as consumers, delegate the satisfaction of their
expectations and demands to intermediaries who are in direct
contact with scientists.
3. Technoscience, provided the public authorities and firms fulfil
their role adequately and play by the rules of the game (compe-
tition for legitimate political representation for the former, and
competition on the economic markets for the latter), is a source
of progress.
4. The crucial point in the model is the existence of trusting rela-
tionships between lay people and scientists. As soon as mistrust
sets in, all relationships, as well as the balance between them,
are threatened. This mistrust may have multiple origins, for

example: scientists are unable to cope with the unintended re-

sults which affect the public in unexpected ways, or scientists
are divided and reflect an image of an uncertain and controver-
sial science. In its most extreme forms this mistrust may pro-
duce violent acts of resistance. Whatever the case may be, the
true cause is the illiteracy and ignorance of the public which
transform it into an easy prey for beliefs and passions. The only
antidote to the poison of mistrust is to intensify educational and
informative actions, which is why this can appropriately be
called the public education model. This struggle for enlighten-
ment against all forms of obscurantism is endless.
5. In this model the risks associated with technoscience (environ-
mental or health hazards) exist in two forms: an objective and a
subjective form. Objective risks are described and analysed by
scientists who assign probabilities to certain events and identify
risk factors. Subjective risks are those which individuals, and in
particular, lay persons, imagine without any reference to
attested and objective knowledge. The risk of a serious accident
in a French or Japanese nuclear power plant is calculated, the

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specialists tell us, and its probability can be considered to be

minute. The risk perceived by the inhabitants of the neighbour-
ing areas is, however, variable and may in certain circumstances
be so high that it seems out of touch with reality. Just ~as they
help to re-establish a climate of trust, so too educative and
information actions move the perceived and objective risks

closer together. Once the emotions and beliefs clouding their

minds have been dispelled, the citizens or consumers are in a
position to take rational decisions. Such decisions do not, how-
ever, exclude the existence of risks, for a society without risks is
a stagnant society; on the contrary, they accept tnem knowingly.
6. In this model, the legitimacy of political decisions has two
sources. The first concerns the goals that are set and depends

only on the representativeness of those who speak in the name

of the citizens. The second relates to the resources mobilised to
meet these goals and is conferred by the scientific, objective and
universal knowledge, which makes it possible to foresee the
effects produced by certain actions. In order to be legitimate, a
decision must have objectives approved by all citizens, but it
must also be realistic, that is to say, it must not sell illusions and
must therefore recognise the force of facts and come to terms
with it. Political action is made of consultation (what do we want
to do?) and explanation (what can we do?).

The Public Debate Model (M2)

The public education model (Ml) is based on the irreducible opposi-

tion between scientific and popular knowledge. No discussion is pos-
sible before superstitions, those assumed poisons of democracy, have
been eradicated.
This model, carefully maintained and reproduced, sometimes
encounters setbacks when the underlying assumptions are invali-
dated, with the impossibility of restoring their relevance. This relative
failure leads to the introduction of a second model, that of public
debate, obtained by deforming and extending the preceding one. This
second model proposes richer relations between lay people and sci-
entists. An undifferentiated public consisting of individuals who act,
depending on the circumstances, as citizens or consumers and can be
distinguished from one another only by their level of knowledge, is

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replaced by-differentiated publics (depending on their conditions in

life, their professional activities, their locality, age or sex, etc.). The
latter possess specific, particular and concrete knowledge and com-
petencies, the fruit of their experiences and observations which, when
mobilised and debated in public arenas, enhance the abstract and
inhuman knowledge of the scientists.

1. As in the preceding model, scientific knowledge has a universal

value. By construction it is, however, incomplete and deficient,
for its exactitude and generality are undermined by its abstrac-
tion and deficiency. Thus, the conditions of validity of knowl-
edge produced by researchers are restricted to the rare and
costly places in which the experimental conditions that allowed
its controlled formulation prevail, i.e., the laboratory. If this
knowledge were to apply and be reproduced in any place and at
any time, it would be necessary first to transform society into a
vast laboratory. What some have called the ’laboratorisation’ of
society can, moreover, be witnessed in numerous other places.
That is how the differences gradually disappear between a fac-.
tory producing vectors for genetic therapy or a CD-ROM pro-
duction plant, on the one hand, and a research laboratory work-
ing on similar techniques, on the other. But this movement
cannot be total because reality always ends up overflowing, so
that laboratory-produced knowledge cannot absorb the full
complexity and richness of the world. A large number of anthro-
pological studies have shown this shortcoming. B. Wynne
(1987), for example, analysed in detail the interactions between
shepherds living close to a nuclear reprocessing plant in .the
north-west of England, and the numerous specialists responsi-
ble for monitoring its functioning and evaluating its impacts. He
shows that the world in which the shepherds and their sheep live
is so rich, so differentiated, complex and changing, that special-
ised knowledge never manages to work through it all. First the
experts’ models were undermined by unexpected geological
peculiarities, then-and on this point the shepherds knew far
more than the researchers-the hypothesis that the forms of
food and metabolism of sheep grazing in an enclosure are iden-
tical to those of sheep grazing freely, was suddenly refuted.
Tired of resisting, the experts ended up admitting that their
expertise was partial and that, to be realistic, it had to be

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completed by the observations and knowledge of the ’natives’.

This complementarity of universal and local knowledge, with
the latter enriching the former, is also to be found in the testing
of new drugs, where patients are capable of very subtle analyses,
as in the case of phenomena of addiction to psychotropic sub-
stances. The competencies of lay people go much further than
that: they include abilities to carry out sociological analyses
which lead them, for example, to relativise the content of cer-
tain scientists’ standpoints by relating them to their professional
or economic interests (is such-and-such, a researcher in favour
of transgenic plants, not influenced by his position as scientific
adviser to a major industrial group?). Scientists are, moreover,
always limited by the narrowness of their specialty and are
therefore as powerless as the lay persons when addressing ethi-
cal or economic issues.
2. Since science produced in laboratories is at best incomplete, at
worst unrealistic and, in any event, incapable of accounting for
the complexity of the specific problems to which it is applied, it
is advisable to open the forum for discussion and deliberation
so as to create the conditions of its enrichment. This require-
ment is even greater in problematical and controversial situa-
tions. In this model the absence of agreement between special-
ists is a call for debate and for external enrichment, and not the
sign, as in Model 1, of a lack of maturity and a need for internal
’deepening’. As Wynne emphasises: when experts cannot reach
a consensus, it is frequently because the laboratory is not

enough to do justice to the diversity of conceptions and hypoth-

eases, and to anticipate all the possible effects. To decide on the
site for an underground laboratory for storing nuclear waste, it
is necessary to explore not only the hardness and stability of
profound geological strata, but also the full economic and social
implications for the entire region.
The solutions that were, and still are, imagined for opening
up discussion and consultation are numerous and vary depend-
ing on the country. In all cases they are, however, materialised
in procedures aimed at broadening the circle of actors address-
ing the issue of technoscience and its applications. These proce-
dures, even if they were not necessarily intended to do so,
enrich the intervention of the public authorities and business.
They replace an undifferentiated public, consisting of citizens

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oranonymous consumers, by differentiated publics with partic-

ular and contrasting competencies and points of view. It would
be tedious to compile an exhaustive list of these procedures; we
shall mention only the most significant.
Inquiries and public hearings are used to gather the opinions,
suggestions and comments of the different actors or groups of
actors who wish to express themselves. With the focus group
method, used by public authorities and firms alike, a collective
dynamics is created at the same time as a contrasting represen-
tation of viewpoints and interests. In this case, instead of indi-
viduals being questioned, several homogeneous groups are
organised in relation to variable criteria, for the purpose of for-
mulating their own arguments and recommendations. Local
information committees, which have proliferated during recent
years in France (in the fields of waste, industrial hazard or water
management), constitute mini-parliaments where decisions
and measures concerning particular territories or situations are
discussed: knowledge, hypotheses, forecasts and arguments are
compared and sometimes experiments are conducted. The con-
sensus conferences which flourished in the Scandinavian and

English-speaking countries, and which Japan and France are

adopting, organise a strictly bound dialogue between lay people
and scientists on themes of general interest. What is mobilised
in these cases, more than local indigenous knowledge, is the
irreplaceable capacity that non-specialists have to assess the
political, cultural and ethical implications of certain research
(e.g., genetic cloning) in order to frame it and limit researchers’
3. These procedures, which establish public arenas for debate,
tend to muddle the usual boundaries between specialists and

non-specialists. These boundaries give way to the proliferation
of divisions criss-crossing the scientific community and the pub-
lic alike. Agreement is obtained through compromise, which
most often is the outcome of complicated strategic games. In
this model the light is not shed by a brilliant and self-confident
science; it is generated by the comparison of opinions, knowl-
edge and judgements which, being separate and distinct, are
mutually enriching. The actors, rather than being forced to
adopt behaviours and an identity in which they may not even
recognise themselves, are in a position to negotiate.

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88 ▪

4. The crises which, in Model 1, are ascribed to a loss of confidence

by lay people vis-A-vis scientists and science, can be explained in
this model by the sudden expression of opinions which hitherto
had no opportunity to be spoken. Silence is simply the conse-
quence of the absence of procedures for allowing people to
speak and to organise disagreement. The crisis of confidence,
which may be reflected in violent claims, is merely the sudden,
radical and dramatic expression of existing criticism. Formu-
lated in private, such criticism was never able to be spoken in a
public arena and was therefore inaudible. It stems from indige-
nous knowledge and assessments. To avoid a crisis, one merely
has to allow its expression.
5. As in Model 1, reticence vis-A-vis technoscience is related to the
risks it involves. But, unlike Model 1, the risks in Model 2 are
not related to the occurrence of unexpected events from the
outside; they concern the very identity of the actors. What
Wynne shows so well is that the shepherds are no more pusillan-
imous than the researchers and are no more prisoners of their
beliefs than the experts. What they fear above all is that some-
one else may decide for them what is good for them, and that
such decisions would be taken without the slightest knowledge
of their needs or wishes. Similarly, patients on whom new drugs
are tested would like to express their opinions rather than being
forced to behave in ways that are repugnant to them. Wine
growers in the Marcoule region would like decision-makers to
take account of the fact that the Japanese market may well
refuse their wines produced close to a radioactive waste storage
site. The risk of losing one’s identity, through the refusal to take
into consideration one’s knowledge and the competence based
on it, is the fear of lay people in Model 2. Here the antidote is
not education but the opportunity to speak.
6. The construction of a public forum for discussion, irrespective
of its form, structure and extension, profoundly transforms the
process of public or private decision-making. Decisions taken in
the secret corridors of power and applied to all without any dis-
cussion, are replaced by decisions which take into account the
existence and diversity of controversial local situations. They
provide the opportunity for the different stakeholders to ex-
press themselves, and establish a minimum right of access to
information. In these conditions, the legitimacy of decisions

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relies essentially on the existence of consultation and open
debate. This is as true for the firm that wants apprehensive
farmers to agree on the validity of its project to spread sewage
sludge, as it is for the public authorities who explore the diverse
options for managing nuclear waste.
This form of legitimacy has its own specific limits: it comes up
against the thorny question of representativeness. Who should
be included in the debate? Who represents whom? Model 2 is
useful for avoiding scientists’ monopoly over speech but, once
open, the question of representativeness is difficult to close. In
Model 2 it is a permanent issue.

The Co-production of Knowledge Model (M3)

In Model 1 the priority is on the education of a scientifically illiterate
public. In Model 2 the right to discussion comes first because lay peo-
ple have knowledge and competencies which enhance and complete
those of scientists and specialists. Yet, beyond their differences, these
two models share a common obsession: that of demarcation. Model
1, in a forceful way, and Model 2, in a gentler, more pragmatic way,
deny lay people any competence for participating in the production
of the only knowledge of any value: that which warrants the term ’sci-
entific’. In Model 1 the exclusion is total; in Model 2 it is negotiated,
but in both cases the fear is that laboratories will be taken by storm by
hordes of non-specialists. The co-production of knowledge model,
Model 3, tends to overcome these limits by actively involving lay peo-
ple in the creation of knowledge concerning them.
1. In this model the role of non-specialists in the production of
knowledge and know-how is essential. In Model 1 the constant
concern is to do away with local knowledge and beliefs; in
Model 2, it is to take account of it only for the purpose of enrich-
ing official expertise. In the third model the dynamics of knowl-
edge is the result of a constantly renewed tension between the
. production of standardised and universal knowledge on one
hand, and the production of knowledge that takes into account
the complexity of singular local situations, on the other hand.
These two forms of knowledge are not totally incompatible, as
in Model 1, nor are they produced independently from each

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other as in Model 2; they are the common by-product of a single

process in which the different actors, both specialists and non-
specialists, work in close collaboration.
2. The notion of publics which are differentiated (M2) or undiffer-
entiated (Ml) is replaced by that of the ’concerned’ group, a
good example of which are associations of patients. These asso-
ciations are groups of volunteers (patients and their relatives)
involved in collective actions which are not reducible to the sum
of individual actions. Moreover, they publicly affirm the exis-
tence of a peculiarity, that of human beings struck by the same
disease, which endows them with a specific shared identity and
distinguishes them from other human beings. In the dynamics
of the production of knowledge and know-how concerning their
disease, the members of these associations often play an active
or even, in some circumstances, predominant role.
Take the case of a group of patients suffering from rare gene-
tic diseases, known as ’orphan diseases’. Ignored by institu-
tional medicine, these people organise themselves in order to
exist in the face of powerless specialists who sometimes go as far
as depriving them of the right to survive: ’leave them to die,
don’t get attached to them, there’s nothing we can do, they’re
condemned’. To assert themselves and have their existence re-
cognised, they naturally engage in what could be called a primi-
tive accumulation of scientific knowledge: researching and
identifying diseases; organising and actively participating in the
collection of DNA; producing films or compiling photo albums
designed to be effective observation tools for monitbring and
comparing the clinical developments of the disease and estab-
lishing the effects of certain treatment; recording testimonies
which transmit live experiences; and carrying out surveys
among patients, which sometimes go as far as the publication of
articles in academic journals. The patients’ active contribution
is ni t limited to this basic accumulation which puts both disease
and victims into the same field of objective knowledge; it goes
further than that with, for example, direct participation in ther-

apeutic trials and the evaluation of their results.

In this dynamic the interactions between lay people-here,
the patients-and specialists-here, doctors and biologists-
are constant. Knowledge, from the most universal and general

(e.g., on genes) to the most specific (e.g., the art and ways of

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dealing with a tracheotomy patient) is appropriated, discussed

and adapted by a hybrid collective composed of patients and
specialists. This does not mean that there is no division of tasks
within this ’learned’ collective. Laboratories continue to play a
capital role since all the equipment and skills required for diffi-
cult and costly investigations are concentrated in them. But
these laboratories are not separated from the patients; they
work in close collaboration with them, caught in a constant flow
of interaction and discussion. In the learned collective, each
person has his or her word to say; complementarities predomi-
nate in a context where information is exchanged and the
actions undertaken by different parties are closely coordinated.
The patient, or rather, the group of patients, is an obligatory
point of passage: it has had to become organised and to have its
existence recognised, in order to become a research object in its
own right. This process of objectification is, unfortunately,
never complete because every time new knowledge is gained it
favours survival and in so doing contributes towards the emer-
gence of new questions and problems which stimulate the col-
lective dynamics.
3. It is possible, in this model, to talk of collective learning, since
the different knowledge is mutually enriching throughout the
process of its co-production. What distinguishes this model
from the preceding ones is obviously the existence of what we
have called concerned groups. Being directly involved on a nec-
essarily collective basis (each singular case can be dealt with
only in comparison with other cases) these groups may, in cer-
tain circumstances, play a leading role in the production, orien-
tation and evaluation of knowledge. They may, depending on
their preoccupations, sponsor the state of the art on the subjects
they consider to be strategic or, for example, decide on thera-
peutic trials and participate in their evaluation. The knowledge
produced by laboratories is just as crucial as in Models 1 and 2,
but it is framed, fed by the actions of lay people and by the flow
of knowledge and questions they formulate. Whatever it pro-
duces is particularly rich and relevant since relationships are
close and stable. The patients ensure that they are in a position
to control the knowledge concerning their disease, and thereby
gain access to the construction of their own identity.

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4. By participating in the collective action of production and dis-

semination of the knowledge and know-how concerning it, the
group does not experience its relationship with specialists in a
mode of trust or mistrust since it is on an equal footing with
them. Nor does it, as in Model 2, merely reaffirm a threatened
identity; it participates in the construction of a new, reconfig-
ured identity which gives it access to social recognition. The
patient suffering from a serious genetic deficiency, by partici-
pating actively in the hybrid collective, creates a new identity for
which s/he strives to achieve recognition and in which s/he
recognises himself; for example, from being hardly human, with
no existence, condemned by a weakness which ne tries to hide,
s/he progressively transforms himself into a public being in his
own right, the victim of an error in genetic coding, but in all
other respects similar to his fellow beings. This constructed and
negotiated identity, together with the knowledge and tech-
niques comprising it, maintain a completely original relation-
ship with science. In this case, genes are no longer external real-
ities which impose their merciless logic on human beings
reduced to little more than the consequence of a biological
determinism; they are collectively integrated, domesticated,
shared and manipulated. Thanks to them and to the research
which helps them understand the modalities of the functioning
and dysfunctioning of the genes, patients have a hold over their
behaviour, their suffering and their fate, in short, their identity,
and they induce the researchers and practitioners to share that
control with them.
5. The legitimacy of this common enterprise, through which new
knowledge and new identities are jointly created, relies entirely
on the ability of the concerned groups to gain recognition for
their actions. How can one develop this research devoted to a
singular disease without financial resources, and how can re-
sources be accumulated without the involvement of the public,
that is to say, without the interessement and the enrolment of all
those who are not directly concerned with the disease in ques-
tion ? Either the concerned group is capable of this type of
mobilisation and thereby legitimises both the research it sup-
ports and the new identity which that research enables it to con-
struct bit by bit; or else it is incapable of doing so and conse-
quently sinks into oblivion and non-existence. An example of

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the firstpossibility is the association against myopathy and the

recognition achieved by the Telethon. Myopaths are no longer
’degenerates’ hidden by their families, but human beings like
everyone else who are allowed to perform on a television set.
An example of the second eventuality are the victims of satur-
nism who, found in the most underprivileged social milieux, are
excluded a second time because they have neither the means
nor the wish to have their difference recognised or to construct
a new identity.

The cornerstone of Model 1 is the trust that lay people have in sci-
entists ; that of Model 2 is the question of representativeness. The via-
bilityof Model 3 depends on the difficult conciliation between the
defense of minorities, whose identity depends to a large degree on
the knowledge produced, and the achievement of a common good
which is not carved up by particular interests. As the example of
genetic diseases suggests, technoscience contributes towards this
possibility of conciliation. The recognition of genes explains the
handicap and makes it possible to work on it, while simultaneously
serving as a basis for actions which might eventually be beneficial to
the majority.


Each of these models proposes an original form of production and

dissemination of scientific knowledge which, in a specific way, com-
bines the nature of the knowledge produced, the modalities of coop-
eration between specialists and lay people, as well as the conditions of
effectiveness and legitimacy of the decisions taken.
Each model may be considered both as an idealised description of
existing realities and as a reference mobilised by the actors when they
need to organise systematically the world in which they have decided
to live. One of the consequences is that there is no reason for a one
model definitively to replace another. It is difficult to imagine, for
example, how particle physics could submit to Model 3 when, in order
to succeed, it had to cut itself off from the public and work in the
secrecy of its laboratories, behind huge esoteric equipment. On the
other hand, the organisation and production of knowledge on prob-
lems concerning the environment, health or food safety could easily

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fit into Models 2 and 3 and the hybrid forums they organise. All of
these issues imply an active contribution by lay people, either to
enrich, complete and boost scientific knowledge produced in a labo-
ratory, or to participate directly, at least on certain occasions, in its
production. Each of these cases involves the intervention of the par-
ticular publics or concerned groups (for example, the populations
shown by epidemiological surveys to be at-risk) who take action and
who, by participating in knowledge production, struggle to define and
impose their own identity.
This type of approach helps to furnish a satisfactory explanation
for what some consider as the crisis of confidence currently experi-
enced by technoscience. Contrary to what authors such as Beck main-
tain, there is no crisis of confidence in science, but a crisis of the
regimes, in which the participation of lay people is based on trust or
mistrust. These authors see the passage from one regime to another
but make the mistake of analysing it with the categories correspond-
ing to the regimes that disappear. One of the challenges for STS
might be to understand more fully the functioning of Model 3 and to
highlight the conditions of its diffusion, or more precisely of its


BECK, ULRICH (1992), Risk Society: Towards New Modernity. London: Sage Publica-
WYNNE, BRIAN (1987), Risk Management and Hazardous Waste: Implementation and
the Dialectics of Credibility. Berlin: Springer.

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