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From authority to authenticity: the changing governance of biotechnology

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Publication details

JournalHealth, Risk and Society
DatePublished - Nov 2002
Issue number3
Number of pages14
Pages (from-to)259-272
Original languageEnglish


In this paper, we suggest that the basis on which risk is publicly managed is presently in a process of transition from the demonstration of expert authority to that of public authenticity. That is, in today's contexts of contested trust, the achievement of an authentic persona has become an increasingly important representational objective for both institutions and individuals involved in risk management. The paper draws empirically on a recent controversy in biotechnology, xenotransplantation, the transplantation of tissues from animals to humans. Drawing on this case, we consider not only how risk is assessed (in the loose sense of weighing up, formally or informally, the risks and benefits associated with a particular development), but also how the riskiness of risk assessment is itself contained. That is to say, we explore how various actors engage not only, in one way or another, with the 'calculation of risks' associated with xenotransplantation, but also with the risks entailed in calculating risks, or what we might call 'meta-risk'. This meta-risk can be seen as an index of the erosion of scientific authority in the context of 'world risk society'. We suggest that one means of waylaying such meta-risk is the demonstration of 'transparency' in the process of rendering risk assessments. However, 'transparency' is itself highly problematic, not least because the criteria that make a decision-making process (such as risk assessment) 'transparent' are always open to query. Indeed, far from being a solution to the crisis in trust, it is very likely that we will see an additional crisis in transparency. We therefore examine our data in terms of the means by which the assessment of risk is 'anchored' and the need for further interrogation obviated. We suggest that the problems of 'meta-risk' and transparency are rhetorically waylaid by representations of authenticity, crucially signed by what we shall call the 'performance of suffering'. Drawing on recent work in the sociology of institutions and emotions, we suggest that there are emerging conventions by which 'suffering' evokes 'authenticity' in the effort to reach a decision (or assess a risk) and that this 'authenticity' is replacing 'authority' as the means by which a decision (or risk assessment) is rhetorically warranted.

    Research areas

  • risk, transparency, governance, biotechnology, EMOTIONS

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