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Title: Technology and controversy : the case of biofuels
Author: Boucher, Philip
ISNI:       0000 0004 2709 2371
Awarding Body: University of Manchester
Current Institution: University of Manchester
Date of Award: 2011
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In the past decade, biofuel development in the UK has been supported by regulations that were justified by government on the basis of their potential benefits for the environment, rural economies and fuel security. As concerns were raised about the negative impacts that biofuel development may have upon food prices and land use, particularly outside Europe, a controversy emerged. A number of technical and infrastructural responses to these concerns have led to the promise of as yet unrealised second, third and even fourth generation developments of the technology. Regulatory responses to concerns can already be identified and further responses, such as mandatory certification schemes, appear likely in the coming years. This relationship between the development of the technology and the controversy is subject to theoretical and empirical examination in the thesis. A critical realist account of the technology-society has been forwarded recently but remains embryonic, unapplied to specific problems, and untested empirically. Here, this conceptualisation is developed to consider the dialectic, mutual conditioning relationship between technical artefacts and the controversies that surround them. This development includes an articulation of how semiotic processes can operate under realist conditions, emphasising the triad of objects, their names and the meanings that are associated with them. These semiotic processes are understood as the unfolding of technical reality. The resulting theoretical framework is developed into an analytical lens for the study of specific controversies about specific technical artefacts. Material representing various positions from the biofuel controversy is analysed and discussed with reference to the theoretical framework, considering how the technology conditions the development of the controversy and vice versa. Biofuel technology is a collection of highly variable combinations of different feedstocks that are processed in different ways. These combinations have divergent relationships with various other environmental and economic realities and, as such, support the maintenance of a similarly variable collection of discourses about them. By supporting the relative endurance of discursive conflicts, the technology provides appropriate conditions for the emergence of a controversy. Some actors' discourse is engaged in the negotiation of the organisation of biofuels' internal variety by defining more specific subcategories and broadening the associated vocabulary. This activity may lead to the resolution of some conflicts within the controversy, as it emerges that some conflicts result from the insufficiency of the vocabulary to represent the internal variety of the technology. Furthermore, the controversy also provides the conditions under which the technology develops as engineers, regulators and others rise to new challenges. For example, certification schemes may follow the redistribution of language in selectively incentivising some feedstock-process combinations whilst restricting the development of others. Other conflicts in the controversy have emerged around biofuels produced by the same feedstock-process combination. These differ from conflicts resulting from a single name referring to many different objects, as a single object is understood and represented in different ways. Whilst other social and technical negotiations may still respond to such conflicts, they are unlikely to be resolved through expanding vocabularies.
Supervisor: Upham, Paul ; Randles, Sally Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available