Knowledge and Innovation operates within a research tradition characterised by a strong focus on collaboration between disciplines, the links between research and the governance of social processes through the development of relevant policies, the role of participatory dynamics in science, and the links between the production of new knowledge and innovation, while maintaining a commitment to theoretical and epistemological research.
Basic Research/School of Sociology and Intersciplinary Research
Basic research is mainly carried out by the School of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Research, which has been active since the 1980s in various forms and through various research lines as a place for scientific dialogue, epistemological and theoretical study and further processing of the results of applied research. In recent years, basic research has focused on two main strands.
The first is the study of the processes involved in the gradual “socialisation” 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, including at the biochemical level.
The main concern is to understand how this progressive expansion of human agency is socially managed and how it affects (and is affected by) social life. This entails a critical review of consolidated representations of the relationship 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 increasing importance of emotions and collective representations in political or economic dimensions).
The second strand focuses on epistemological and methodological issues, such as the conditions that can foster interdisciplinary research (from the perspective of a single scientific discipline) to bring together different epistemological approaches; new study methods made possible by the use of large amounts of data; the development of improved qualitative data processing methods; the interactions between quality and quantity; the predictive capacities of the social sciences.
In pursuit of its objectives, Knowledge and Innovation is committed to a research programme focused on the study and understanding of the major and profound transformations affecting contemporary societies. These processes often take the form of complex transitions – such as the energy, digital, urban, epidemiological or demographic transitions – in which social, political, technological and cultural dynamics are closely intertwined (to the point of being almost indistinguishable). These processes are primarily associated with the increasing weight of social subjectivity, and thus with the greater autonomy and agency of individuals and social actors (also thanks 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 paid to the critical steps that accompany this overall phenomenon, which is characterised by situations of great “evolutionary stress”.
Very intense and often rapid social dynamics evolve in a non-linear way, and are sometimes ambiguous and contradictory in their characteristics, outcomes and potential impacts. Examples include the interactions between science, technology and society, gender relations, the impact of the virtual dimension on everyday life, new ways of constructing personal and collective identities (such as those linked to religion), ongoing urbanisation and the evolution of political and administrative structures in nation states. The research programme also includes a broad area of reflection on the capacity of the human and social sciences, and sociology in particular, to deal effectively with complexity. This is done through interdisciplinary research, which inevitably entails a review of the different epistemological, theoretical and methodological tools available to these sciences.
The research programme is implemented through basic and applied research activities.
Applied research, together with basic research, makes an essential contribution to the implementation of the research programme. In fact, it makes it possible to analyse directly the transformative phenomena that give rise to the most serious situations of social stress, either because of their widespread nature, the dimensions they take on or their medium- and long-term implications.
Some of the most studied phenomena are:
- The complex and now ubiquitous interactions between science, technology and society, both in general and, more specifically, in fields wrongly considered to be relatively unaffected by social dynamics, such as the life sciences and materials sciences;
- The processes of global transition towards sustainable forms of energy, which challenge established lifestyles, production patterns and social and decision-making mechanisms;
- The emergence 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 as a result of a growing desire for social equality, but which are encountering strong and unexpected resistance, even in social sectors that are seemingly 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 affecting science and technology organisations due to their increasing and complex interactions with ever broader sectors of society;
- The increasingly complex mechanisms underlying poverty and social exclusion, resulting in phenomena that are themselves very different and in which social factors play an increasingly important role;
- The emergence of new forms of governance in contemporary societies, in areas such as law enforcement, social services and civil protection, in a more general (and often painful) context of transformation of traditional institutions of political representation and public administration.
Applied research is carried out through projects that closely link the production of new knowledge to real action, such as training, evaluation, technical assistance for social development or institutional change projects, science communication, consultancy, and the production of guidelines and other tools that can help to define new policies or modify existing ones.