Participation Beyond Consensus? Technology Assessments, Consensus Conferences and Democratic Modulation

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In this article, we inquire into two contemporary participatory formats that seek to democratically intervene in scientific practice: the consensus conference and participatory technology assessment (pTA). We explain how these formats delegitimize conflict and disagreement by making a strong appeal to consensus. Based on our direct involvement in these formats and informed both by political philosophy and science and technology studies, we outline conceptions that contrast with the consensus ideal, including dissensus, disclosure, conflictual consensus and agonistic democracy. Drawing on the notion of meta-consensus and a distinction between four models of democracy (aggregative, deliberative, participatory and agonistic), we elaborate how a more positive valuation of conflict provides opportunities for mutual learning, the articulation of disagreement, and democratic modulation—three aspirations that are at the heart of most pTAs and consensus conferences. Disclosing the strengths and weaknesses of these different models is politically and epistemically useful, and should therefore be an integral part of the development of participation theory and process in science and technology.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)497-513
Number of pages17
JournalSocial Epistemology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2017


  • Agonism, consensus, deliberation, models of democracy, participation, Science and Technology

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