The Theory and Practice of Risk Society

In recent years, the cultural role of science in our society has profoundly changed. The neutrality of science, both epistemological and social, has increasingly been called into question. As it has become more integrated with corporate research and development, science is now sometimes thought to be nothing more than an accessory to global capitalism. Such a position calls for critical normative and conceptual analysis. The complexity of the relationship between science and society requires epistemological study aimed at improving our understanding of what science actually says and what scientists actually do. That conceptual and empirical work must, in turn, be supplemented by normative evaluation, examining the ways in which the products of science (especially contemporary technology) interact with the social world.

In the age of biotechnological development and global warming, technoscientific risks have become more serious than ever. New pharmaceuticals, energy technologies, and super-industrial food networks permeate through various aspects our daily lives. We too often perceive those innovations as unproblematic benefits and neglect the risks they are associated with. New inquiry methods need to be developed to cope with the complexities of technoscientific risks.

The aim of this specialization is to address the notion of the risk society in different areas of practice. The specialization combines various theoretical, philosophical, and empirical approaches. The main idea is to focus on

1) Broader perspectives within which a heightened understanding of technoscientific risks can be better developed (modernity, capitalism, gender issues).

2) Specific examples of technoscientific innovations which permeate through society and provoke social controversies. The main areas of concern are: medicine, ecology, food networks.

This specialization is composed of one obligatory course and three optional courses. The obligatory course introduces key concepts related to the risk society and some methodological aspects of Actor-Network Theory. The optional courses are more casuistic and related to modernity and capitalism, gender, and food. They addresses different topics related to the risk society, technoscience, social and scientific controversies, or technological development. All students must attend the obligatory course and then choose one of the optional courses. After they have completed the courses, students will be assigned a supervisor and focus on a topic from the introductory courses in their theses. All the classes will be conducted in the summer semester.

Obligatory Course: Technoscience in Risk Society (4 ECTS). 

Lecturer: professor Ewa Bińczyk


The main topics addressed are the dynamics of technoscientific controversies, the political role of experts and laboratories, unintended consequences of technological innovations and scientific discoveries, non-human agency shaping the future of the collective.

The course is planned as a practical introduction that emphasizes individual student’s research of public discourse elements and media content elements referring to science-technology-society relations. Actor-Network Theory is an important theoretical background of the course including such topics as non-human agency, the Politics of Nature and the future of the collective, technology as society made durable, and the current matters of concern in the 21st  century.

The theoretical background of the class is constituted by: Science and Technology Studies (STS), scientific controversies studies, Public Understanding of Science (PUS), Actor-Network Theory (ANT), sociology of technology, philosophy of technology, sociology of risk.

Optional Course I: Actor-Network Modernity and Capitalism (4 ECTS)


Lecturer: dr. hab. Krzysztof Abriszewski, NCU professor


There are three aims of the class: 1. To become acquainted with the fundamentals of Actor-Network Theory (ANT); 2. To introduce the basics of several models of Modernity (i.e. developed by A. Giddens, S. Žižek, I. Wallerstein, J.W. Moore); 3. To discuss these models in the context of ANT and the question why, according to ANT, “we have never been modern”.

1. To fulfill the aim no. 1, the basics of ANT and how it differs from the  “traditional sociology” will be discussed. This, in turn, will lead to the analysis of the philosophical presuppositions of ANT. We will try to use concepts such as agency, rhizome, circulation, actor, humans and non-humans, assemblages, and others. We will also learn why one always needs to follow the actors, and also why in order to do ANT one needs to be an ant.

2. To meet the second aim, discussions about selected models of Modernity will be required. Additionally, their political dimensions will be emphasized.

3. To fulfill the task no. 3, first, learning why ANT says that “we have never been modern” is necessary only to further attempt to juxtapose ANT with the selected models of Modernity as step two.

4. To discuss, as the fourth aim, how ANT’s approach can be combined with Modernity models in order to analyze socio-scientific controversies, and the dynamics of (semi)peripheral science in general. Students will be encouraged to explore controversies from their cultural backgrounds and analyze them with ANT and world-system theory tools.

Optional Course II: Gender Problem in Science. Theories and Practice (4 ECTS)

Lecturer: dr. hab. Aleksandra Derra, NCU professor


Emphasizing gender matters the course will address the following issues:

  • Early modern scientific views of the nature of science, the scientific method, as well as knowledge, rationality, and objectivity with respect to masculinity and femininity;
  • The gender structure of scientific institutions and the role of gender in shaping scientific theories;
  • The gender factor in constructing and sustaining values and priorities of contemporary knowledge production;
  • The scientifically influenced conceptualization of masculinity, femininity, life aims, and their representation in media;
  • The role of gender in scientific knowledge production and consumption;
  • The role of neuroscience in sustaining sex/gender differences in popular culture.

Optional Course III: Food Studies (4 ECTS)

Lecturer: dr. Wojciech Goszczyński


What connects a plastic box, new mobile applications, trade-related intellectual property rights, the World Trade Organization, labels and brands certifying products, the materiality of your kitchen, and everyday life practices? They all relate to the production and consumption of food deciding the economic potential of whole continents and environmental hazards impacting rich and poor alike. Food can be understood as a mirror in which we can observe the social and cultural context of modern societies and as a socio-technological black box which we may try to unpack in order to analyse modern societies. During this course, we will dissect food at a scientific workbench using STS perspectives. During the semester, we will discuss cultural differentiation and anthropology of food, the significance of food and the agricultural sector in the global economy structure, global capitalism and how it impacts and is influenced by different social actors, food fights, and the political meaning of food, WTO and EU policies in the contemporary world, local development schemes which can be built around food. We will analyse food issues using perspectives from cultural anthropology, political economy, network theory and local development theory. During the course, we will deal with some food practices and carry out research at the Polish open market or a food fest to translate theoretical terms into real life observations.

Specialization Coordinator:

Lists of Possible Supervisors

About Nicolaus Copernicus University: