Negotiating Truth: Project Description

Emotions are at the very core of a myriad of scientific and political disputes. Just take this famous, provocative accusation by Viennese gynaecologist Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis about his fellow physicians:

“I declare before God that you are a murderer and the history about ‘childbed fever’ would not be too unfair if it remembers you as a medical Nero.”

In 1846, Semmelweis claimed that “childbed fever,” a disease that afflicted many women giving birth in hospitals, may actually result from doctors not desinfecting their hands before assisting in birthing. Since this occurred in the pre-germ theory era, his thesis grew into a vicious dispute over the duty of hand disinfection as a measure against childbed fever, over which he failed to prevail in his lifetime.

What does this have to do with politics?

Today, the story of Semmelweis is a quintessential example of a scientist who was vilified in life because of his controversial and contentious stand (not to mention his prodigious failure to persuade) but celebrated in later times. We see Semmelweis as a case for public policy. Although hand washing is today understood as an effective, simple, and rapid measure to reduce the transmission of germs, in his day Semmelweis failed to formulate its necessity: he could not explain the link between doctors’ hands and childbed fever, and, moreover, his thesis did not correspond with the epidemic and hygienic theories of the period. The reason of his failure offers us a mirror to how issues become defined as a matter of public concern, how actors gather, or not, around particular discourses, and most importantly how all this is shaped by emotions.

Public policy research has already shown that truth is a device of power and is used as the evidence and necessity to initiate a change in practices. Although interpretive approaches to public policy or those inspired by the poststructuralist political theory have suggested that truth emerges within discourse and is related to values and beliefs, these works have downplayed the role of emotions in the process of truth production and therefore cannot sufficiently explain current disputes over novel practices.

The project advances a new concept of understanding politics through emotions. Emotions are key to politics because they frame the establishment of “truth” through their relationship with discourse. Emotions are neither causal factors nor urges that motivate actions: the Negotiating Truth project defines emotions as communicated experiences of values and beliefs that are inherent in discourses but that also affect them.

 

Preliminary results presented at:

5th June 2014: “Semmelweis-Lecture”, Keynote Address at the Annual conference of the Surgical Infection Society:”Negotiating Truth: Semmelweis, Discourse on Hand hygiene and the Politics of Emotions”: available here

3rd November 2010: Université Franche-Comté Besancon,Invited Talk: “S’en laver les mains: A propos du mariage de raison entre Science et Politique.”
[Washing hands: Marriage of Reason between Science and Politics]