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From scientific risk to paysan savoir -faire: Divergent rationalities of science and society in the French debate over GM crops

Chaia L Heller, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The French debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is more than a controversy about genetic science. It is also a conflict between two ways of seeing the world. In the French debate, there is a collision between two competing rationalities, one instrumental, the other, ‘socioethical’. When defined according to an instrumental rationality, actors tend to assess GMOs in terms of environmental and health risk. When defined according to a socioethical rationality, actors evaluate GMOs in relation to issues such as food quality or globalization. While scientists are the primary spokespeople for the instrumental rationality of risk, small paysan farmers are the main spokespeople for the socioethical rationality, invoking forms of cultural expertise to speak critically about GMOs. Drawing from ethnographic data collected in France during 1997–2000, historical sources, and contemporary theory including Foucault and Latour, this dissertation explores the success of paysan farmers such as José Bové from the Confédération Paysanne in shifting the site of discursive authority from scientists to farmers, turning an instrumental debate about ‘science’ into a broader debate about ‘the commodification of life’ and cultural identity in an age of globalization. This transformation of the French GMO debate, however, is implicit. Actors promoting particular rationalities of science and society may be unaware that they are doing so—and thus may be unaware of the broader implications for debates about technoscience. Nevertheless, the Confédération Paysanne's discursive maneuvers have broadened understandings of what may count as expertise for technoscience practice and policy making in the future.

Subject Area

Cultural anthropology

Recommended Citation

Heller, Chaia L, "From scientific risk to paysan savoir -faire: Divergent rationalities of science and society in the French debate over GM crops" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3163672.