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Society for Social Studies of Science

Rachel Carson Prize

Carson Prize 2015

The Rachel Carson book prize committee, Vivian Lagesen, Chair, Wen-Hua Kuo, Jessica Mesman, and Kelly Moore, received 63 nominated books in 2014 and has selected Refining Expertise.  How responsible engineers subvert environmental justice challenges, by Gwen Ottinger, for this year’s prize.

Powerful and beautifully written, Refining Expertise tells a new and compelling story about expertise, activism, industry, and government. Through a rich ethnography of Louisiana (USA) communities struggling to contest industrial chemical pollution, Ottinger illuminates how the intersection of new a chemical industry strategy, new roles for government, and community pride combine to reduce community opposition to pollution.   While there have been many other studies of opposition to chemical toxicity, Ottinger’s careful observation identifies a critical “refinement” in how industry expertise is deployed:  first, industry representatives deliver technical knowledge in forms and organizational settings that make it appear as if the industry’s data were merely a technical, non-oppositional, and helpful contribution to a civil debate about how to ensure a healthy and prosperous community.   Second, Ottinger shows how industry experts simultaneously play another role: that of community resident, just like their opponents, and therefore are personally and morally invested in ensuring community safety.  These strategies obfuscate the vastly unequal power relations between industry and citizens in chemical debates, while taking advantage of the new political rhetoric of corporations-as-citizen and the state’s role as the mediator of environmental debates, not the enforcer of environmental law.  Moreover, the strategy of depicting industry as just one more “equal” player in a civil debate forces groups who use heated rhetoric and disruptive tactics to the side, condemned by industry as well as some opponents as uncivil and needlessly inflammatory.

In many traditional STS ethnographies, the researcher’s voice and positionality are brought into the scene in limited ways, usually to describe how her or his co-presence shaped the actions at the observation site and vice-versa.  But Ottinger makes a bold new move in this book.  She gracefully shows how her observations and interpretations were shaped not only by her presence at the research sites, but also by the questions she was asked by STS and other scholars as she presented her work while it was in progress.  She thus uses the STS and other academic communities as both sites of ethnographic observation, and as sources of new ideas.  Ottinger skillfully uses her own reactions to outsiders’ condemnation of the aesthetic and political qualities of the towns she studies to enable her to better understand why and how citizens were swayed by industry.  For example, she describes how she feels defensive for the community when others criticize it, and uses this experience to better understand how and why community members could be swayed by industry’s claims to want to ensure the beauty and spirit of the towns they are at the same time polluting.   Her deep reflexivity—intellectual, emotional, social—has produced a work that is stellar in its intellectual and methodological contributions.

The Rachel Carson Prize is given to a work that is in the tradition of Rachel Carson’s work – exposing environmental damage from the unrestricted use of industrial chemicals.  Ottinger’s work continues this tradition in the most obvious sense of studying industrial chemical pollution, as Carson did in Silent Spring.  In its eloquence and sensitivity to the meanings of environments, broadly speaking, to human communities, her work extends Carson’s other award-winning book, The Sea Around Us, which won the 1951 National Book Award.  Ottinger’s capacity to show that the stakes in battles over chemicals in the environment are about health, and also about how environments invoke the sounds, scents, sights, and feelings of emplacement that simultaneously provoke dissent, and allow it to be co-opted. 


        Refining Expertise was largely written over an extended period of postdoctoral limbo, during which it was not always clear that I would be able to continue in the profession long enough to complete the book.  It is thus no exaggeration to say that it never would have come into being without the support of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which at a pivotal moment offered me a two-year research fellowship that enabled me to take the book from concept to contract.  For this I am more grateful than I know how to say.  Other kinds of support were also crucial.  Over my years of writing, I was buoyed by the countless ways that colleagues, especially in 4S, communicated to me that my work had something important to add to the conversation.  The senior scholars who remembered my name when they had no reason to, the search committee chairs who scrawled notes of encouragement at the bottom of rejection letters,  the people I looked up to who agreed to meet someone they’d never heard of for coffee, and of course the peers who read drafts and helped me interpret reviews—each of their generous acts contributed to this book actually getting written.  I am thankful to them as individuals, as well as to the Society as a whole for being a community in which such acts are unexceptional.

       Writing this book was at times a refuge from the upheaval of my professional and personal life, and at times just plain fun.  When I finished writing, I honestly missed it.  What I didn’t realize was that it would be even more fun to have it out in the world, where other people could read it—and then talk to me about it.  Over the past two years, it has been a delight to hear which parts resonated with others’ projects, and how it has been useful for students.  Through these interactions, I’ve gained a new understanding of my own research and that of others, and I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with new colleagues.  The book has also helped foster a deepening collaboration with residents of fenceline communities and those advocating on their behalf—including some of those who contributed so much to the book in the first place—as we begin to think together about how the tools of scholarship can make a meaningful contribution to real social change.  In accepting this award, I want to thank everyone who has paid me the compliment of engaging with the book, looking for meaning in it, and offering their reflections on it.  To the Carson Prize Committee, I am especially grateful for their thoughtful and generous portrayal of the book.  I am humbled by the praise in their presentation and hope that my work may continue to live up to the legacy of Rachel Carson. 


Gwen Ottinger is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Drexel University.  Her research aims to foster more environmentally just forms of science, technology, and expertise.  Currently, she is working on a history of community-based air toxics monitoring, and on bringing together activists, health researchers, and information designers to create better tools for interpreting real-time air quality data.

For a book length work of social or political relevance in the area of science and technology studies

Nominations that provide a new perspective, or a feminist or minority voice, are especially encouraged. The author(s) receive(s) an engraved plaque and cash prize.

"Science and technology studies" is an interdisciplinary field, so the range of eligible books is very broad.  It includes, but is not limited to, the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, political science, economics, education, geography, and psychology as well as works combining or outside of the traditional academic disciplines.  It includes studies of knowledge, policy, government, R&D, the uses of expertise, feminist and gender studies, technological controversies, technology transfer, rhetorical and literary analyses, and studies of specific technologies.  Further, it includes works addressing science and technology for the public and for educational audiences.  The main criterion is that the substantive content of the work be framed by a social science or humanities perspective of science and/or technology and, in the case of the Carson Prize, that the book also has social or political relevance.

The Rachel Carson Prize is named after writer, scientist, and ecologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964), author of numerous books including The Edge of the Sea (1955) and Help Your Child to Wonder (1956).  In Silent Spring (1962) she challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government by advocating for a shift in how humankind perceived and interacted with the natural world. Carson testified before Congress in 1963 on the misuse of pesticides and her work continues to shape environmental studies and polices that champion a healthy ecosystem.


Committee: Membership on the book prize committees consists of Council members and appointees by the President.

Nominations: Publishers, authors, and members of the Society may submit nominations (author, title, publisher) to the prize coordinator, at To facilitate the process nominations are requested by 1 February 2016. Publishers are then contacted in early February and invited to submit the books nominated by the Society.

Eligibility--Books Due May 1: Each year the committee will review books with publication dates from the 3 prior years. For example, during the 2016 meeting, the committee will consider books with copyright dates of 2013 - 2015. Books may be re-nominated until their eligibility expires. Publishers or authors are responsible for sending review copies to each member of the committee by May 1 to be considered for that year's prize. Reprints, second editions, edited volumes, reference works and similar volumes are ineligible for consideration for the Fleck Prize. Multiple-authored books are eligible where they represent original work.

Short List: Through the procedure above, committees will designate a preliminary short list and meet during the 4S annual meeting to determine the winners. Awards are to be granted solely on the basis of merit as determined by the members of the committee, without reference to book reviews or recommendations by outside members. If a consensus winner does not emerge, a secret ballot will determine the winner, with honorable mentions as appropriate.

Award: The Carson Prize Chair will inform the winner(s) after the decision of the committee to insure that the winner will be present at the award ceremony and available to participate in an Author-Meets-Critics session at the following annual meeting. The Chair of the prize committee organizes the Author-Meets-Critics session for the winning book. The prize includes a cash award to help defray the costs of attending the annual meeting to receive it.

Journal Review: In addition the prize committee is encouraged to identify book clusters (theoretical or thematic) to forward to ST&HV for the solicitation of review essay as part of their narrowing and selecting process.

Past Winners

2014. Robert Proctor. Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition. 

2013. Tim Choy, Ecologies of Comparison

2012. Stefan Helmreich, Alien Oceans

2011. Lynn M. Morgan, Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos. (University of California, 2009)

2010. Susan Greenhalgh. Just One Child

2009. Jeremy Greene. Prescribing by Numbers

2008. Joseph Masco. The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico

2007. Charis Thompson. Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies

2006. Joseph Dumit. Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity

2005. Nelly Oudshoorn. The Male Pill

2004. Jean Langford. Fluent Bodies

2003. Simon Cole. Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification

2002. Stephen Hilgartner. Science On Stage: Expert Advice as Public Drama.

2001. Andrew Hoffman. From Heresy to Dogma: An Institutional History of Corporate Environmentalism.

2000. Wendy Espeland. The Struggle for Water: Politics, Rationality, and Identity in the American Southwest.

1999. Steven Epstein. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge

1998. Diane Vaughan. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA