Faculty and Staff

Gwen Ottinger

Assistant Professor

B.S. Science, Technology, and Culture, Georgia Institute of Technology
B.S. Aerospace Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology
Ph.D. Energy and Resources, University of California, Berkeley

Office: UW1-241
Email: ottinger@u.washington.edu
Mailing: Box 358530, 18115 Campus Way NE, Bothell, WA 98011-8246


How do we know what we know? And how do we use our knowledge as a basis for action in the world? These are key research questions in science and technology studies (STS), but they are also at the heart of my approach to teaching. Whether we are talking about the impacts of climate change, the development of measurement technologies, or the social organization of energy production, I ask students to go beyond simply learning what is known about a topic. I encourage them to think about the evidence that current understandings are based on, to acknowledge and assess alternative explanations, and to recognize the partiality and uncertainty inherent in all claims to knowledge. To me, these skills constitute critical thinking and make interdisciplinary inquiry both possible and necessary.
Through research and critical thinking, we seek to expand our abilities to act thoughtfully, ethically, and effectively in the world. In my classes, then, we do not content ourselves with understanding the processes through which knowledge is made; rather, we seek to apply that understanding to actual policy controversies and real-life social problems. A term project, for example, might ask students to analyze how an environmental policy solidified despite conflicting scientific claims about natural phenomena. Or students might become involved directly in a social justice issue, using what they know about the potential and limitations of different kinds of research to help a community devise a strategy for collecting information and solving local problems. Through grounded projects like these, I aim to help students use their critical thinking skills to develop their capacity for conscientious action.

Courses Taught

BIS 300 Introduction to Interdisciplinary Inquiry
BIS 307 Environmental Justice
BISSTS 307 Science, Technology, and Society


The natural sciences offer but one way of understanding environmental issues. Yet scientists, engineers, and other professionals associated with scientific disciplines enjoy a special authority on questions of environmental quality, environmental health, and even environmental policy. My research asks how the particular authority associated with scientific expertise is established and maintained, especially in light of environmental justice (EJ) activists’ criticisms of prevailing scientific practices. My ethnography of a Louisiana “fenceline community” (Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges, in preparation) documents how community members clashed with engineers and scientists from the neighboring oil refinery over the health and safety risks (allegedly) posed by the facility—and how the conflict was ultimately resolved in such a way as to make questions of environmental health and safety the sole domain of technical professionals once more. My research on environmental monitoring devices used in that and comparable conflicts, similarly, asks how well different technologies do at enabling community groups to advance alternatives to credentialed experts’ ways of knowing.

In addition to asking the empirical question of how unequal relations of expertise are constructed, I am interested in the normative questions, or the “shoulds,” that surround expert authority. My co-edited volume, Technoscience and Environmental Justice: Expert Cultures in a Grassroots Movement (with Benjamin Cohen) looks at the ways that scientists and engineers have broadened and transformed their activities and identities in response to EJ activists’ arguments that they should be incorporating ordinary people’s knowledge and ways of knowing into their environmental assessments, and it points out opportunities for even more profound transformation. Ethical questions are an even more explicit focus of my next project, which asks: how can—and should—technical experts be accountable for the environmental consequences of energy technologies when knowledge of the technologies’ impacts is in a constant state of flux?

Selected Publications

Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges. New York, NY: NYU Press, 2013.

Technoscience and Environmental Justice: Expert Cultures in a Grassroots Movement. Edited with Benjamin R. Cohen. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

"Environmentally Just Technology." Environmental Justice 4(1): 81-85 (2011).

"Drowning in Data."  Issues in Science and Technology 27(3): 71-73, 76-77, 80-82 (Spring 2011). With Rachel Zurer.

"Constructing Empowerment through Interpretations of Environmental Surveillance Data."  Surveillance and Society 8(2): 221-234 (2010).

"Undone Science: Charting Social Movement and Civil Society Challenges to Research Agenda Setting." Science, Technology, and Human Values 35(4): 444 - 473 (July 2010).  With Scott Frickel, Sahra Gibbon, Jeff Howard, Joanna Kempner, and David Hess.
"Buckets of Resistance: Standards and the Effectiveness of Citizen Science."  Science, Technology, and Human Values 35(2): 244 - 270 (March 2010).

"Epistemic Fencelines: Air Monitoring Instruments and Expert-Resident Boundaries." Spontaneous Generations 3(1): 55 - 67 (2009).