Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Science Communication in 20th Century Europe

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Projekte | Science Communication in 20th Century Europe | Science Popularization as Cultural Hegemony: From Dictatorship to Democracy

Science Popularization as Cultural Hegemony: From Dictatorship to Democracy

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Agustí Nieto-Galan (Autonomous University, Barcelona, Spain)


Cultural hegemony Dinos

... visible at this workshop in

  • Science popularization and the shaping of ideology (Gavroglu)
  • “Popular science”: as a cultural dispositif (Schirrmacher), and its uses (Bowler)
  • Scientific expertise and authority: professional scientists vs. journalists and media experts (Lehmkuhl, Häusermann, Boon, Bergeron, Raichvarg, Tabernero, Azzouni)
  • ‘Scientific intellectuals’ on the 1930s (Desmarais)
  • Popularization and the strenght of a scientific community (Simoes)
  • Radio, films: from education, hygiene to political propaganda (Silva, Wurm)
  • Science popularization, the media, and the making of the modern nation (Hochadel, Herran, Papanelopoulou, Zasztowt, Pallo, Goban-Klas, Katz-Kimchi)


The Gramscian legacy
  • Beyond the specialist area of history of science, there has been an enormous amount of scholarly interest in the life and works of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) in the second half of the twentieth century
  • Gramsci’s extraordinary intellectual output while detained in Mussolini’s prisons from 1926 until his death in 1937. In that period, Gramsci wrote 32 notebooks containing more than 3,000 handwritten pages: the famous Quaderni dei carcere (Prison notebooks
  • Throughout the pages of the Quaderni, Gramsci worked out concepts such as hegemony and consent, political and civil society, popular literature, folklore, subaltern social groups, etc., together with a considerable effort devoted to the definition and analysis of intellectuals and their role in society
  • concept of hegemony

Political stability had to be explained by other factors, further physical coercion and repression. Therefore, hegemony brought to the fore how the so called civil society, with its institutions ranging from education, religion, and family to the microstructures of everyday practices, including mass media, contributed to the production of meaning and values, which direct and maintain the spontaneous consent of the various strata of society
Hegemony was a ruling tool for any class or group, an instrument for cultural, moral, ideological leadership over subordinated groups, a prestige language that reinforced cultural influence and control over weaker communities. It was conceived as a dynamic force, a continuous process of formation.

  • role of intellectuals

Intellectuals, in Gramsci’s view, conceptualized the direct reproduction of an effective hegemony. In the capitalist industrial world, new professionals, judges, experts, teachers, civil servants, and scientists. Thus, organic intellectuals emerge from these groups. In Gramsci’s words:

Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals, which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its function, not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields.

Revisiting 'Popular Science'
  • From early modern times to early 20th century industrial societies:
  • Roger Chartier, Robert Darton: from isolated “popular” culture to appropriation
  • James Secord: “knowledge in transit”
  • Jon Topham: “popular science” as the historical actors’ category
  • The political load of “knowledge in transit” (Roger Cooter, under Gramsci’s influence):

Popular scientific knowledge holds its own perception of nature, which might oppose at least partially that of the élite. In addition, and in spite of all the communication efforts, lay scientific knowledge does not necessarily coincide with the élite corpus. Its aims and motives might differ as well.

  • Gramsci’s work on folklore and popular culture -in the context of the early 20th century working class- can be extrapolated to the mass media society of the second half of the 20th century
  • Orality (Radio), visual turn (TV and films) as new mediators between elite and popular science
  • Lay audiences as potential intellectuals shaping expository practices in the media
  • How to define “popular science” in the science in the air era?
  • Ludwik Fleck’s dynamic circulation of knowledge between esoteric and exoteric circles

Science popularization as cultural hegemony


  • Science popularisation became a fundamental part of the culture of the twentieth century, but also one which cannot be separated from important issues regarding scientific authority and their influence on social and political control.
  • In their expository practices in different media, professional scientists, but also science popularisers, played and continue to play a role in the public arena, in different political and cultural contexts, for the sake of their scientific authority, academic hegemony and social recognition.
  • Their aims and motives, in co-evolution with the aims and motives of a specific political regime and its elites, help us to analyse the ethical status of experts and professionals as potential intellectuals at large in our contemporary societies



Further Reading:
  • Agustí Nieto-Galan: Antonio Gramsci Revisited: Historians of Science, Intellectuals, and the Struggle for Hegemony, History of Science xlix (2011), p. 453-478.