chapter  4
20 Pages

The Public Inquiry Tradition: A Comparative Perspective

The public inquiry is central to the present British regulation of technological developments. It is a rare point of contact between local people, national pressure groups, scientists, policy-makers and industrial developers. Almost by historical accident, it has become the sole formal setting for public conflict about such developments. Its inadequacy is already widely noted, requiring only a summary here.1 This chapter is not concerned specifically with procedure but lays the groundwork for some questions about ‘rational’ processes in the politics of big technology – how public knowledge is created by decisionmaking institutions and how the public inquiry structures issues which reach the political agenda. Institutional processes and language – indeed all social interactions – can play simultaneously a specific instrumental role and a general expressive role. I outline pressures on the public inquiry to show in what senses inquiries may reflect reality or, through their tacit expressive role, generate myth. This approach also questions whether proposals for procedural improvement are not themselves already caught up in myth-making. Conflicts may be intrinsic to the social character of technology rather than containable by formal procedure.2