DR ALEXANDER STINGL

WHAT AND WHOSE JUSTICE IN THE BIOECONOMY?
INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR FELLOW: MAY 2018 – APRIL 2019

Alexander I. Stingl gained a PhD in sociology in 2008, after studying social sciences, philosophy, (US-)American studies, and economics between 1997 and 2008 in Erlangen and Nürnberg, Germany. He is an empirical philosopher and sociologist of cognitive cultures and organizations, studying extended, embodied and enacted cognitive cultures and the modes of belonging, participation, and provisioning that they produce. This interest is applied to the following five empirical arenas: (1) bioeconomy and justice, (2) biodigitalization (interaction between non-conscious elements of life and digital objects), (3) biomedicalization and digitalization of childhood, (4) digital health care capital and social inequality, and (5) neurosociology and neurohumanities of gastronomic and sexual appetites. As of May 2018, he is holds a 2018/19 Independent Scholar Fellowship (ISF4) by the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF), through which he will be hosted by the Fondation Maison de sciences de l’homme (FMSH), Paris. Since 2017, he is chercheur associé with the Chaire du èconomie du bien-être at the Collège d’études mondiales, Paris. He has been an associate lecturer at the College of Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany, from 2011 to 2018. In 2017, supported by a fellowship from a joint Franco-German exchange fund by FMSH, German Ministry of Research and Education (BMBF) and the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), he collaborated on the International Panel on Social Progess. Since 2014, he is a research consultant with the Institute for General and Family Medicine of the University Clinic Erlangen, Germany.

The aims of his project can be posed as two interrelated research questions: How is an “extractive logic” affecting justice in the bioeconomy discourse? How can the principle of generative justice become articulated in the biotechnological science, political and economic arenas that constitute the bioeconomy instead? In this project, the goal is to (a) evaluate the contemporary discourse on justice regarding its explicit and implicit logic of production, and its fundamental definitions of value and utility in biotechnology, economics, and political science; (b) to conduct an inquiry into the concepts of justice, value, and utility held by actual principals and agents of the bioeconomy, such as scientists, politicians, regulators, and business representatives; (c) formulate possible alternatives that account for political ecology and can possibly reconcile the Global Northern state of affairs with other genres of provisioning without leading to a precarization of life.

Abstract

In the past decade, bioeconomy has become a “hot topic” for scientists, businesses, policy-makers, and activists. Bioeconomy combines technological progress (the use of biotechnologies) and market thinking (economic profitability) with human flourishing and social progress. It features a minimal consensus among different actors and organizations regarding the concepts of justice, value and utility.
My inquiry “What and whose justice in the bioeconomy?” investigates how actors in the bioeconomy discourse understand and use justice, value, and utility through a “logic of extraction”, and consider value largely measurable as monetary value and utility as human utility. I challenge this interpretation and investigate the necessity and the possibility of different concepts, such as generative justice attuned to the complex biological and ecological interdependencies between human beings and other living organisms in the real bioeconomy. Bioeconomy as a new political and economic agenda overlooks, for example, the existence of already existing bioeconomies that have grown over long periods of ecological history as well as diversity of bioeconomic rationalities that separates the Global North and the Global South.

In my project, I will (a) evaluate theories of justice, prevalent in political philosophy and economic theory, regarding their explicit and implicit logic of production, and definition of value and utility; (b) conduct an inquiry into the concepts of justice, value, and utility held by actual principals and agents of the bioeconomy, such as scientists, politicians, regulators, and business representatives; (c) formulate a possible alternative for justice, value, and utility, such as generative justice, that can possibly reconcile the global Northern state of affairs with other genres of provisioning without leading to a precarization of life. This interdisiciplinary project will use a form of discourse analysis integrating literature reviews, observations, and interviews to construct “ideal-type”-like discursive lenses that allow comparison of different concepts for “value” and “utility”.

The Research Idea

Bioeconomy has become a “hot topic” for scientists, businesses, policy-makers, and activists. Laid down in a flurry of policy papers, bioeconomy combines biotechnological progress and market economic profitability with social progress. A minimal consensus exists among different actors and organizations on the concepts of justice, value, and utility on which bioeconomy rests. My inquiry “What and whose justice in bioeconomy?” investigates two issues, without forgetting that the larger public has little knowledge what is meant by bioeconomy, whereas the concept has taken hold of an increasingly larger number of societal resources and substantial expectations on resolving future challenges for social progress and human flourishing pinned to it: (a) How “institutional” actors invested in the science, politics, and economics of bioeconomy as a biotechnology problem understand the concepts justice, value, and utility? (b) What different forms bioeconomy does take outside of the discourse among these actors, and what are the notions justice, value, and utility that can be identified that cohere or deviate from the “institutions”?

The first question deploys traditional institutional ethnographic approaches, the second seeks to add the critical purchase of new relational approaches at the interface of political ecology with anthropologies and sociologies that account for the more-than-human.

My findings will aim at a new understanding of the concepts of justice, value, and utility in methodological terms that allow for transdisciplinary dialog between social sciences (including, with particular emphasis economics) and the bio(techno)-sciences including the establishment of generative justice for or recognition of non-human partners in circular economies.

Background

Two standard lines of research: Research within the bioeconomy synthesizes biotechnology, economy, and policy; and critical scholarship from sociology, human geography, and science studies (STS). The prior determines focal points via national (Germany, France, etc.) or trans-/supranational institutional agendas (European Commission, OECD, etc.) on either agriculture, biomedicine, biofuels, or specific combinations of these. Critical studies tend to produce concrete but field-site limited studies generally on questions of biopolitics and the construction of subjectivities, biocapitalism as commodification and financialization of life, or “neoliberal” governance.

Both lines of inquiry share an understanding that bioeconomy is about “sustainable use of biotechnology to increase the production and/or efficiency of the use of biomass for exploitation” – paraphrasing archetypical quotes, e.g. from the agenda-setting European Bioeconomy Workshop 2017 at AgroParisTech .

Both lines of inquiry are centred in Global Northern scientific, political, and economic expert discourses and leave out large sections of the public (including affected groups, e.g. farmers who never heard of “bioeconomy”), ignore bioeconomies that existed long before recent biotechnology, and turn a blind eye to already sustainable bioeconomic relations in the Global South.

Calls for an integration of biological, ecological, anthropological, sociological, and economic knowledge – which require integrative interdisciplinary work on methodologies and concepts – are the rare exception, and such studies do currently not exist nor are normally possible to obtain funding for in the unsuitably fragmented structure of research funding (for example in the strict separation of panels in the European Horizon 2020 and the documented conservatism of reviewers).

The Focus

A cultural geographer recently asked “quite simply, where (in the world) is biotechnology?” Meanwhile, the European Commission, its member-states, and the OECD table techno-policy agendas transforming modern economies into bio-based (knowledge) economies. Each (trans-)national strategy is paradoxically framed in rhetorics of sustainability and the logic of extraction and exploitation: Addressing production and efficient use of biomass to feed an increasing population, to run machines on biofuels, to harness and transform ecosystem services, to create novel materials, to create biomedical innovations, to cope with climate-change, while maintaining and increasing productivity, competitiveness, and profitability.

What these agendas not address are, among others, that many of the affected populations are unaware of the “bioeconomy” or experience its effects as forms of injustice, that many of the problems addressed not only have a biotechnological aspect but a social component (e.g. food production versus food waste, or willingness to eat new food products), that in the Global South bioeconomies already exist (that function on different ideas of “value” and “utility” in generative and circular economic relations integrating non-human agents), that technologies and living organisms co-develop in unexpected ways (e.g. dairy cows and automated milking).

The inherent problems are conceptual, methodological, ethical, but also, in empirical terms, very practical. For the various affected populations it is important that the bioeconomic agenda is made both known and understood, that inherent contradictions and conflicts can be communicated and made resolvable, and that bioeconomy serves not only profitability but also justice and equality.

Theoretical Novelty

The bioeconomy unites discourses on social progress, economy, and biotechnology, which tend to share a “logic of extraction”: Their notion of value is understood largely as measurable in monetary value and in utility as human utility. I challenge this interpretation and investigate the necessity and the possibility of different concepts, such as generative justice attuned to the complex biological and ecological interdependencies between human beings and other living organisms in the real bioeconomy. Bioeconomy as a new political and economic agenda overlooks, for example, the existence of already existing bioeconomies that have grown over long periods of ecological history as well as diversity of bioeconomic rationalities that separates the Global North and the Global South. We must ask novel questions: How is “extractive logic” of today’s economy affecting the way justice is conceptualized in the bioeconomy discourse? How can a principle of generative justice become articulated in the biotechnological science, political, and economic arenas that constitute the bioeconomy replacing any extractive logic?

In my project, I will (a) evaluate theories of justice, prevalent in political philosophy and economic theory, regarding their explicit and implicit logic of production, and definition of value and utility; (b) conduct an inquiry into these concepts held by actual principals and agents of the bioeconomy, such as scientists, politicians, regulators, and business representatives; (c) formulate a possible alternatives, that account for political ecology and can possibly reconcile the global Northern state of affairs with other genres of provisioning without leading to a precarization of life.

Methodology

This interdisciplinary project seeks inspiration in institutional ethnography and critical discourse analysis integrating literature reviews, observations, and interviews with bioeconomic experts in science, governance, and business as well affected but “bioeconomy-naive” groups to construct “ideal-type”-like discursive lenses that allow comparison of traditional concepts of ”justice”, “value” and “utility” with alternatives (these concepts can be separately defined, but not epistemologically thought apart from each other). Alternative concepts draw from the conversation between relational political ecology and methodological developments in anthropology and sociology that include political and moral economies of the more-than-human. This requires engaging diverse and “risky” methods incorporating methodological innovations from dynamic systems biology, multi-sited and multispecies ethnography, plural and feminist economics and the object-interview method.

In the empirical arenas entered, “bioeconomy” appears to actors involved both as relational object and as methodology or politics. Even those not (fully) aware of being entangled with bioeconomy, nonetheless may be connected to it; and when confronted with it, it is revealed how their ideas of value and utility may either reify themselves or result in conflicts.

The outcome for methodological innovations lies mainly in two areas: First, in creating possibilities to revise the current Political (Bio-)Economy, that institutional actors are practicing, in light of the dangerous non-awareness of the wider public towards its existence as well as the in regard of unresolved conflicts it produces; secondly, in revealing paths to conceptual and methodological reforms in economic sciences, by introducing alternative concepts for “utility” and “value” based in real alternative economies.

Work Plan

I begin with institutional ethnographic work during the first half of the fellowship in Paris, where biotechnological networks connect with (inter)national agencies and key actors from policy, regulatory, economic, and science (from OECD to INRA), conferences and bio-tech fairs happen, and nearby are rural field-sites where bioeconomy “happens”. Also I will continually communicate with actors across the globe who work in alternative bioeconomic spaces.
I aim to make the idea of “bioeconomy” and its generative alternatives “generally graspable” and “public”: In collaboration with the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris, I propose to curate with anthropologist and bioartist Eben Kirksey and artist/philosopher Petra Maitz for 2019 a bio-art exhibition on “Bioeconomies Otherwise”, which thematizes “biotechnology between flourishing and profiting”, and community and connections between justice, human technics and non-human ecological production. As part of the travelling exhibit, I plan to co-create with photographers and film-makers a performance lecture on urban bioeconomic living.

During the closing half of the fellowship I will start with the comparative write-up of contrasting empirically verified discourse lenses with generative justice principles to ask about transformative potentials for expressing diverging generative justice concerns (e.g. from the Global South) within the regime of bioeconomic governance as cognitive culture and cognitive organization. During this part of the fellowship, I aim to produce at least three non-traditional papers for peer-reviewed journals in political philosophy, in science&technology studies (STS), and in economic sociology aimed at providing a means to create a dialog on bioeconomy beyond disiciplines.

Outcome

With this fellowship, I aim to lay the ground for an even broader approach:

  • To develop both an alternative approach to doing economics through new concepts of value and utility, and, as a consequence, to set course towards a new theory of justice, which includes more-than-human actors as partners in bioeconomies.
  • To include research on Bioeconomy in the next phase of the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP).
  • To develop an ethics guide that allows to take all stakeholders into account as genuine partners in bioeconomic projects, and thus makes it possible to genuinely realize the demands made in the bioeconomy discourse by the proponents of “circular economy”.
  • To build on the above mentioned exhibition to create a project which manages to educate but also enrol an increasing number of people in understanding bioeconomy, its stakes as well as its potentials, and to enable people to forge artistic and scientific collaborations that address these real world with new ideas in a way that transforms “citizen science” from an elite project to an “open venue”, or, alternatively speaking and paraphrasinf Saskia Sassen to take it from the limits of the agora to the global street.
  • To generate a plausible proposal to recruit researchers to study concrete effects of the Global Northern “bioeoconomy” as an agenda as well as non-Western alternatives in a variety of different countries – which would, on a personal level, perhaps allow me to transition, at least for a few years, into a full-time research position.