Knowledge, control and capitalism: what epistemic capitalism makes us see

Guest blog post by Thomas Franssen

On February 5th Max Fochler (University of Vienna) gave a talk during an extended EPIC research group seminar at the CWTS in Leiden. Fochler posed a crucial and critical question regarding knowledge production in the 21th century; can we understand contemporary practices of knowledge production in and outside academia as practices of epistemic capitalism? With this term, defined as ‘the accumulation of capital through the act of doing research’, Max wanted to address the regimes of worth that play a crucial role in life science research in Austria.

Max was interested in exploring the concept of capitalism as it denotes both forms of ascribing worth or value to something (in this case to knowledge and doing research), and the sets of practices in which these forms of worth are embedded. In this way it allows one to talk about which registers or regimes of value are visible as well as the institutional context in which these forms of worth ‘count’ for something.

Using research on the life sciences (partly done with Ulrike Felt and Ruth Müller) Max compared the regimes of value found in biographical interviews with postdocs working in Austrian academia to those of founders, managers and employees of research-active small biotech companies in Austria.

Results showed that the postdocs in their study are preoccupied with their own future employability, and that they assess their own worth in terms of the capital that they can accumulate. This capital consists of publications, impact factors, citations and grant-money. What is especially critical in this respect is that potential sites of work, social relations with others, and choices for particular research topics or model organisms are scrutinized in relation to the effect they might have on the accumulation of capital. Importantly, also for research policy and higher education studies, this is the only strategy that this sample of postdocs sees as viable. They do not see other regimes of valuation available for them. As such they either comply to the rules of the game or opt out of the academic system entirely.

In biotech companies the situation is very different. The accumulation of epistemic capital plays a smaller role in the biographies of those working for biotech companies. The main difference, Max observed, is that failure and success are attributed to companies rather than individuals. The intense competition and focus on the individual as experienced by postdocs in the life sciences is less intense in biotech. As such, the essence of working in biotech is not the accumulation of capital, but the development of the company. Capital is not an end in itself but used strategically when possible.

Thinking through epistemic capitalism with biodiversity

Esther Turnhout (Wageningen University) was invited by Sarah to comment on Max Fochler’s talk. Turnhout’s research focuses on information and accountability infrastructures in forest certification and auditing in global value chains. She started her response by asking whether the concept of epistemic capitalism made her look at her own case stuy materials differently and if so how? Not to interrogate the concept and test it empirically but rather to make clear what it highlights and what it affords.

Her criticism of the term came down to two aspects, which she explained using the case of biodiversity. Most importantly, the concept of epistemic capitalism ties the development of knowledge to the accumulation of capital directly and it has the tendency to reduce everything it captures to one single mechanism or logic.

To make her case, Esther traced the knowledge making practices in biodiversity research historically. She did so by focusing on the rise of so-called ecosystem services. Within ecosystem services biodiversity knowledge has become mainly utilitarian, and biodiversity itself an object that presents economic value because it has not yet been destroyed. Think for example of forest carbon, which represents a value on the carbon market as long as it is locked in the forest itself.

So here, in the commodification of biodiversity, knowledge and capital are again closely related. This, however, is not the main argument that Esther took from this example. Rather, she argued that in many ways ecosystem services are very similar to the history of biodiversity knowledge. In all cases, the knowledge produced must be rendered technical, it is assumed to be linear and it privileges scientific expertise. More importantly, there is a preoccupation with ‘complete knowledge’, which is seen as needed for effective conservation. Also, this type of knowledge is increasingly used for managerial concerns to measure success or effectiveness of policy.

As such, disconnected from capitalist or economic concerns, in biodiversity knowledge three logics come together: a technocratic logic, a managerial logic, and a logic of control. For her case, a focus on epistemic capitalism and the accumulation of capital does not work so well. The issue of a technocratic ideal of total control would disappear from view if ecosystems services are only regarded as a commodification of nature. It is the issue of control, which can be understood from a range of logics (technocratic, managerial even aesthetic), that currently prevents urgently needed action. This is because there is an experienced lack of ‘total information’, a total which – seen from technocratic and managerial logics – is needed to act. According to Turnhout it is this utopian ideal of ‘technocratic control through complete information’ that should be criticised much more strongly.

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