Bioenergy experts and their imagined “obligatory publics” in the United States: Implications for public engagement and participation

Weston M. Eaton, Morey Burnham, C. Clare Hinrichs, Theresa Selfa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Science, Technology and Society (STS) research on the social dimensions of technology development emphasizes how imagined publics who play passive roles in technology systems influence technology design and public engagement. It further documents expert adherence to deficit models for conceptualizing publics’ responses to technology development. Building on this literature, this paper examines two related questions that have received little attention. First, how do experts conceptualize publics whose direct participation with technology development, rather than quiescence toward technology development, is framed by experts as mandatory for the technology project's success? Second, given both the prevalence and problematic outcomes of expert and institutional adherence to deficit models, what might an alternative model for conceptualizing publics look like? To address these questions, we draw from a case study of 30 “bioenergy experts” in the Northeastern U.S. and their imagined landowning publics. Our analysis provides two contributions. First, we develop the concept “obligatory publics” to examine expert imaginaries of publics whose direct participation is seen as mandatory for successful renewable energy technology (RET) development. And second, we suggest a “hermeneutic-dialectic” approach, which emphasizes the role of dialogue between experts and publics for achieving new and mutually agreed upon understandings, as one possible alternative to public deficit models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)65-75
Number of pages11
JournalEnergy Research and Social Science
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Nuclear Energy and Engineering
  • Fuel Technology
  • Energy Engineering and Power Technology
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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