There are no heroes in knowledge mobilisation

As a child I never really had a hero. I’m reminded I should have had one, or at least that other people did, when I have to fill in “secret questions” for password recovery: alongside “mother’s maiden name” and “place of birth” you sometimes see “childhood hero”. I never had one.

Now I’m interested in implementation science and K* and I wonder: should I have a hero now? Or more broadly: who are the heroes of knowledge mobilisation?

So many heroes, so little time

There are lots of heroes in the world: footballers, actors, musicians. Some heroes are super: Superman, Silk Spectre, Jean Grey. And some heroes are real, and professional: in public health, Edward Jenner is known for pioneering the development of the smallpox vaccine, John Snow is famed for “removing the pump handle” as part of his investigations into the causes of cholera, and Louis Pasteur recognised for his work on vaccination and pasteurization.

Except… that if you read Bruno Latour’s book The Pasteurization of France (originally published as Les Microbes: guerre et paix) you find presented a different perspective on Pasteur’s work and legacy. Once you’ve read that it’s a lot harder to regard other heroes in quite the same way as you once did.

Alongside the apparently heroic scientific work of Pasteur, work which has led to his lasting fame and celebrity within France and elsewhere, Latour sets all the other work that was necessary for Pasteur’s activities to change the way people thought and acted. Some of this work was conducted by Pasteur himself and will be familiar to anyone working in knowledge mobilisation: the work of reasoning and convincing and persuading and enrolling and so on. He played an important part in enrolling the various “actors” (that is, the individuals and groups and organisations) necessary to the success of his work (and there is an interesting sociological understanding by which we may think not only of the people involved in this but in the non-human actors too: Michel Callon’s (1986) account of the role played by scallops in debates over the scientific and economic debates about conservation and fishing in St Brieuc Bay in Brittany is exemplary).

There is no issue, then, that what Pasteur did was anything less than very important and scientifically remarkable. But much of it was conducted by others who worked for or around or simply at the same time as Pasteur, who supported Pasteur for reasons that range from the altruistic to the self-interested, the pragmatic to the political, and who were medical practitioners or farmers or local politicians or industrialists or rival scientists or something else entirely.

In short: we talk of Pasteur’s work and of pasteurization but in doing so we focus only on the activities of the person apparently at the centre and neglect all the work that went on around them, work that not only supported and publicized Pasteur’s activities but in many ways enabled and constructed it.

Latour describes the complexity of what occurred and the importance of the network of alliances that led to the production of scientific results and the construction of what is science. In Art Worlds (1982) Howie Becker proposed that the answer to the question “what is art?” is to be found among the individuals and groups that collectively define, through their discourse and their actions, what is and what is not art. Latour here addresses how the question “what is science?”, or perhaps “what comes to be regarded as scientific?” can be answered; the answer lies among all the individuals and groups that have an interest (or can be made to be interested) in the scientificity of a given claim or set of claims or proposed action.

And in emphasizing the absence of a boundary between science and society Latour addresses the claims of (some) scientists that those engaged in social studies of science don’t really understand science. His response seems to be that those who argue this don’t really understand society and that insisting on science as an undertaking of pure reason neglects the important of force (or power) in the making of any claim to truth or the realisation of any change. Latour’s concern is thus not simply with Pasteur’s scientific achievement but, perhaps, with how the science came to be regarded as an achievement (a process which took many years) and how the achievement, constructed in this way, ultimately led to practical changes in human health in France and worldwide. If we regard Pasteur as a hero then we might also consider how he came to be regarded in that way and what was necessary for the establishment of that regard.


So are there heroes in K* and implementation science? Sure, if you want there to be: go ahead and pick some. But for my money the always-already collaborative and systems-based nature of implementation means that there thinking of individual heroes means ignoring the complex ways in which change really occurs and knowledge mobilisation actually takes place.