• Yamaguchi tomiko (Specializes in sociology; science, technology and society)
    Professor, College of Liberal Arts, International Christian University

The concept of social acceptance has been used in social science studies for a variety of purposes. Taking into account the awareness of the question of clarifying whether new technologies will be accepted by society, the concept of social acceptance has been used in studies with diverse objectives, ranging from those examining social factors related to new technologies to those looking the relationship between science and technology and society, focusing on the risks posed by new technologies. Given the fact that the concept of social acceptance was first used in the latter context in the late 1980s, it is not a new idea.

Looking at today's society, the term "social acceptance" is very frequently used as a theme in seminars on the social implementation of new technologies. People who participate in lots of these types of seminars have an awareness of the problem that new technologies cannot be implemented without social acceptance. These seminars are concerned with emerging technologies, which bring tremendous benefits to society but can also raise concerns about their impact. One example is the program launched in the early 2000s by Japan, the U.S., and Europe in competition to study the social impact of nanotechnology, in which social acceptance was one of the major points of discussion. In this way, social acceptance is a concept that has been used extensively in a variety of contexts, but the fact is that its definition is not clear. While the term "social acceptance" is sometimes used in the sense that social implementation of a new technology cannot be realized unless residents and consumers accept the new technology, the term is also used in the sense that without proper understanding by the public, misuse of a new technology is expected to occur, which should be prevented. Or sometimes "social acceptance" is used to mean that society did not accept a new technology because of a lack of ethical and other considerations in technological decision-making (Wynne, 1992). Based on these diverse interpretations, the term "social acceptance" can be used to mean the acceptance of a new technology itself, marketing activities to communicate to consumers the value and convenience of using the new technology, and risk communication activities to promote an accurate understanding of the technology. Alternatively, social acceptance may be viewed as a technology assessment or guidelines for action to address ELSI (ethical, legal, and social implications/issues), or as a need for regulatory science.

The discussion here is not meant to berate the frequent use of the term "social acceptance" in everyday life. On the contrary, such situation is rather favorable, as it shows that many people, regardless of their position or interest, understand that society as a whole supports the idea that it is important to build a good relationship between science and technology and society. The problem is that what this term refers to remains ambiguous and because of this ambiguity various discourses have been generated that use the term "social acceptance" symbolically, which has produced misunderstandings, making it difficult to see the true nature of the problem.

So how should those working on issues related to ELSI or RRI (responsible research and innovation) face this old and new problem? Herein lies the difficult question of how to get involved in the process of social implementation of new technologies. Although it is not an easy question to answer, I would like to mention by way of a hint that the need for collaboration between researchers engaged in natural science research and those working in the humanities and social sciences is being discussed in the STS (science and technology studies) field, both in Japan and abroad. This is a research approach based on the idea that researchers in the humanities and social sciences are not bystanders and should, on the contrary, get involved in problems and build up knowledge together. Based on this discussion, it is suggested that ELSI/RRI research needs to be deeply involved in the area of social implementation of new technologies, using the common language of social acceptance while being aware of its ambiguity.

[Wynne, B. Risk and social learning: Reification to engagement. pp. 275–297 in Krimsky S., Golding D. (eds). Social Theories of Risk. Westport: Praeger, 1992.]

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