University of Massachusetts Amherst

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IT Policy Seminar: Jesse Sowell

Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - 11:00 to 12:00

Information Technology Policy Seminar Series

Epistemic Constructivism in Science and Technology Policy

Jesse Sowell (MIT)
Host: Prof. Phillipa Gill


Establishing institutions capable of credible knowledge assessment and policy advice has been a longstanding
challenge, especially for areas of science and technology with potential for substantive impact on public,
private, and social goods. Building on Haas’ (1992) work on epistemic communities, Sowell (2015) describes,
explains, and evaluates the institutions created by operator communities to sustain numbering and routing
integrity in the Internet’s infrastructure. Operational epistemic communities are institutions that create and
sustain knowledge that can only be garnered from managing the uncertainties that arise in a live, complex
engineering system. Credibility comes, perhaps counter-intuitively, from constructive conflict among sets of
independent, and often competing, firms collaborating to sustain the integrity of a common infrastructure. It is
important to make clear where, and under what circumstances, these actors are collaborating. Collaboration
sustains a commonly managed infrastructure each depends on as a critical factor of input into their respective
value propositions. Within the markets built atop this common platform, these very same actors compete
fiercely. This work (1) draws on cases from Sowell (2015) and other science and technology domains to extend
the notion of operational epistemic communities beyond the case of Internet operators and (2) develop the
notion of epistemic constructivism as a theoretical construct for framing epistemic communities’ application of
their policy relevant knowledge.

Highlighting norms, knowledge assessment, and rule making as a form of constructivism places it squarely in a
known political framework and facilitates comparison to social constructivism, in particular its application to the
politics of globalization. Analytically, the contrast highlights the novelty of this formulation of constructivism.
Empirical cases will illustrate the challenges that lie along the spectrum from an “ideal form” of epistemic
constructivism, how existing institutions function, and the influences of institutions rooted more closely to
models of social constructivism. This work concludes by highlighting two political hazards distorting thus-far
established modes of credible knowledge assessment: the particularistic threat of transnational social activism
masquerading in the guise of benevolent technocracy and the threat of political capture on both ends of the


Haas, P. M. (1992). Introduction: Epistemic Communities and International Policy Coordination. International
Organization, 46(1), 1.
Sowell, J. H. (2015). Finding Order in a Contentious Internet (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA, USA.

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