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Book review

  • February 2017
  • Education & learning
  • Book or article
Science Communication Culture, Identity and Citizenship by Sarah R. Davies and Maja Horst

Science Communication
Culture, Identity and Citizenship

by Sarah R. Davies and Maja Horst
Published by Palgrave Macmillan UK
ISBN 978-1-137-50366-4

Book review by Andrea Bandelli, Executive Director, Science Gallery International, Dublin, Ireland

I always had the impression that there are two approaches to science communication. One is driven by practitioners, and focuses on the “doing” of science communication. The other is driven by academics, and focuses on the theory that allows us to study and comprehend science communication.

The former is grounded in the context where the activity takes place: for example, an exhibition, an online campaign, a television series or a science column in a magazine. Designing the activity, implementing it and evaluating its outcomes provide moments of reflection to study and understand what we call “science communication”. It is narrated and discussed in platforms such as the one you are reading now, Spokes, or at conferences such as Ecsite's, and many other professional platforms where peers can exchange experiences and discuss their practices.

The latter is the domain of academic journals, with frequent contributions from fields such as sociology, political sciences, media studies, anthropology etc. Specialised articles and books advance knowledge step by step, building on complex theories and using sometimes case studies to make a point. The reflection is not on that specific case study, but on the elaborated theory behind it.

Like many of our readers, I always felt more at ease in the “practice-driven” form of science communication than in the theoretical one. Sure enough, I used theory to design a program or to validate its results. But I always felt that the academic field of science communication was a separate world, that occasionally intersects with the practice, but remains mostly concerned with abstract concepts. I often had the impression that academic science communication is done to advance the understanding of science communication, rather than to advance science communication itself.

The book “Science Communication - Culture, Identity and Citizenship” by Sarah R. Davies and Maja Horst completely changed this perception in me. It demonstrates how the theory of science communication can be perfectly grounded in the practice, and discussed in a way that is not only relevant, but also very useful to practitioners. At the same time, this is a book that shows how the practice is not only an excuse to develop more theory, but a real instrument to deepen our understanding of science, society, culture and politics.

Throughout the book, science communication is treated and described as a cultural phenomenon that concerns the production and the exchange of meanings. Far away from models of transmission of knowledge or information, the underlying concept of the whole book is that science communication is a meaning-making activity that empowers individuals and organisations. These concepts are explained and illustrated with practical examples, several of which are taken from the 2014 ESOF meeting in Copenhagen. The authors provide also effective summaries of several key articles from the extensive bibliography. In a clear and concise way, the authors present the main findings of the articles and explain why the knowledge gained in those studies is fundamental to understand the complexity of the subject.

The book looks at science communication as a professional activity, as a social enterprise, as an organisational construct, and touches on the many ways of performing it. Some readers may be disappointed to see that museum exhibitions play only a minor part in the book. I take it as a sign that the politics and relevance of science communication go way beyond the field of science centres and museums…

This book is a thoughtful, accessible and comprehensive gateway to the theoretical understanding of science communication today. It is not a handbook on how to do science communication: instead, it is the best tool you can find at the moment to reflect on what is science communication, and what are the responsibilities for us who perform it. Because, as the authors conclude, “science communication is never innocent. It always brings with it something more than the science that is apparently at stake”.

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