Knowledge and Innovation conducts activities within a research tradition characterised by a strong focus on the cooperation among disciplines, the connections between research and the governance of social processes through the development of appropriate policies, the role of participatory dynamics in science, and the links between production of new knowledge and innovation, maintaining constant its commitment to theoretical and epistemological research.
Basic Research/School of Sociology and Intersciplinary Research
Basic research is mainly conducted through the School of Sociology and interdisciplinary research, an entity that, in different forms and through different lines of research, has been active since the 1980s, as a place for scientific dialogue, epistemological and theoretical study and further processing of the results from applied research. In recent years, basic research has focused on two main strands.
The first strand is the study of the processes involved in the gradual “socialization” of new areas of reality opened up by scientific and technological progress, which are increasingly subject to human intervention. Examples include the expansion of the digital world, genomics, the creation of new nanoscale artefacts or an increased capacity to act on cognitive and affective processes, also at the biochemical level.
The interest is mainly turned to understand how this progressive expansion of the possibilities of human action is managed socially and how it affects social life (and how it is, in turn, affected). This entails a critical review of the consolidated representations of the relations between nature and culture (challenged, for example, by the increasing use of artefacts implanted in the human body), between psychophysical phenomena and social processes (for example, the increased importance attached to emotions and collective representations in political or economic dimensions).
The second strand focuses on themes of epistemological and methodological nature, such as the conditions that can aid the advancement of interdisciplinary research (from the perspective of a single field of science), so as to produce a confluence of different epistemological approaches; new study methods made possible by the use of big data; the development of improved qualitative data processing methodologies; the interactions between quality and quantity; the predictive capacities of the social sciences.
To pursue its objectives, Knowledge and Innovation is committed to the creation of a Research program focused on the study and understanding of the great and profound transformation processes that are affecting contemporary societies. Often, these processes take on the character of complex transitions – such as the energy, digital, urban, epidemiological or demographic transitions – in which social, political, technological and cultural dynamics are closely intertwined (up to become almost indistinguishable). These processes are primarily associated with the increased weight of social subjectivity, and therefore with the greater autonomy and capacity for action of individuals and social actors (thanks also to new technologies), operating in a context that sees the parallel weakening of the constraints and structures that give substance and form to society as a whole. Particular attention is devoted to the critical steps that accompany this overall phenomenon, marked by situations of great “evolutionary stress”.
Very intense and often rapid social dynamics evolve in a non-linear fashion, and are sometimes ambiguous in meaning and conflicting in terms of characteristics, outcomes and potential impacts. Examples include interactions between science, technology and society, gender relations, the impact of the virtual dimension in daily life, new ways of constructing personal and collective identities (such as those linked to religion), ongoing urbanization, and the evolution of political and administrative structures in national states. The Research program also includes a broad area of reflection on the capacity of human and social sciences, and especially sociology, to effectively address complexity. This is done through interdisciplinary research that inevitably entails a revision of the different epistemological, theoretical and methodological instruments available to these sciences.
The research program is implemented through basic research activities and applied research activities.
Applied research, together with basic research, makes a vital contribution to the implementation of the Research program. Indeed, it allows for direct analysis of the transformation phenomena producing the most pronounced social stress situations, due to their widespread nature, the dimensions they acquire, or their medium and long-term implications.
Some of the most studied phenomena include:
- The complex and now pervasive interactions between science, technology and society, both in general and, more specifically, in fields wrongly assumed to be relatively unaffected by social dynamics, such as the biosciences and material sciences;
- The transition processes on a global scale towards forms of sustainable energy, which are bringing into question consolidated lifestyles, patterns of production and social and decision-making mechanisms;
- The production of new tensions, driven by technological progress, between equally widespread and powerful but conflicting social demands, such as those between privacy and surveillance, between privacy and self-exposure (opinions, feelings, intimacies or one’s own body, for example through social networks) or between surveillance and human rights;
- Progressive changes in gender relations in the wake of a growing appetite for social equality, which, however, come up against strong and unexpected resistance, even in social sectors that are apparently most open to change as well as the growing importance of an intersectional approach that structurally links gender dynamics with other forms of social discrimination;
- The processes of change that are affecting science and technology organizations, due to increasing and complex interactions with ever broader sectors of society;
- The increasingly complex mechanisms underlying poverty and social exclusion that lead to phenomena that are even very different from each other and in which social factors play an ever-greater role;
- The emergence of new forms of governance in contemporary societies in areas such as law enforcement, welfare facilities and civil defence, in a more general (and often painful) context of the transformation of traditional institutions of political representation and public administration.
Applied research activities are conducted through projects that closely tie the production of new knowledge to real actions, such as training, evaluation, technical assistance for projects involving social development or institutional change, science communication, consultancy, as well as the production of guidelines and other tools that can help set new policies or change existing ones.