Accepted Paper:

Shiny, stinky, interesting!? Professional practices of dis/engaging citizens  


Nona Schulte-Römer (Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research GmbH – UFZ)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the aesthetics of public engagement and ignorance in the context of urban techno-scientific tests and demonstrations. The empirical focus is on street lighting and water management – two ‘techno-scientific assemblages’ with important but very different aesthetic and environmental effects.

Paper long abstract:

Drawing on ethnographic research in the lighting field, I will first show that professionals engage or disengage citizens in their public techno-scientific projects and evidence production by visibilising or invisibilising their public work. I will argue that lighting designers' nocturnal 'light walks', engineers' measurements and artistic displays constitute powerful 'investments in form' (Thévenot 2007), which all have a distinct and audience-specific aesthetic appeal. In a second step, I will contrast these findings with urban waste water projects, where techno-scientific assemblages tend to be less visible than in the lighting field and evoke rather negative than positive associations.

The comparison between urban sewage and city lights reveals that public ignorance or interest in these matters is not socio-culturally determined. Shiny illuminations are not necessarily attractive, stinky sewage systems not necessarily perceived as disgusting. Instead, public perceptions, knowledge production and evaluations are shaped by professional actors through their particular aesthetic epistemic practices. Based on these insights and in line with recent 'co-productionist' approaches to citizen engagement (Chilvers and Kearnes 2015), I conclude that professional ways of testing and presenting techno-scientific assemblages help produce both urban publics and urban infrastructures.


Chilvers, Jason, and Matthew Kearnes, eds. Remaking Participation: Science, Environment and Emergent Publics. London: Routledge, 2015.

Thévenot, L. (2007). The Plurality of Cognitive Formats and Engagements. Moving between the Familiar and the Public. European Journal of Social Theory 10(3): 409-423.

Panel T012
The Event of the Public: Convolutions of Aesthetic and Epistemic Practice