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#Researchforimpact: Perceptions of Science in South African Communities
Author: Division for Research Development
Published: 05/11/2019

​​Science communication programmes all over the world are strikingly similar in wording and do not necessarily relate well to the socio-cultural demographics of their audiences.

Before designing and implementing such programmes, it is crucial that the potential audiences be analysed in terms of their particular perceptions and expectations of science. Only once the audiences have been clearly described can effective science communication strategies be conceived.

In light of this, the South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Science Communication is undertaking a comprehensive study of South African rural and semi-urban communities to examine how the general public in these areas relate to science in the context of other forms of knowing.

The Chair is specifically interested in how a given town's lack of any scientific exposure versus the presence of a science centre or regular scientific installations impacts on its inhabitants' perceptions of science.

The first phase of the project, involving 52 participants, was undertaken in four communities across two provinces: in the Northern Cape, Carnarvon (which hosts the Square Kilometre Array project), and Sutherland (home to the South African Large Telescope); in the Western Cape, the agricultural town of Clanwilliam and the fishing town of Paternoster. The findings of this first study show that there are different types of rural publics and that they are not automatically all culturally distant from science; rather, they exhibit various degrees of distance.

Participants who had a comparatively high level of education and who had spent some time in urban environments displayed the smallest distance from science and were therefore labelled “culturally close to science". Somewhat surprisingly, however, these participants held the strongest reservations about a tax increase aimed at benefiting science.

Those participants grouped together as moderately educated (or “moderately close to science") had an average interest in and exposure to science. Their experiences of science were largely indirect and they predominantly used their own associated words for scientific terms relating to phenomena in their everyday lives. These participants furthermore displayed a moderate awareness of examples of science, and expressed some expectations of science.

Lastly, interviewees with a low level of education and no urban experience were grouped together as “culturally distant from science" – they had less interest in science than the other participants, little or no exposure to it, no concrete experiences of scientific phenomena, and did not formulate any concrete expectations. Interestingly, this is the public that expressed the strongest support for a tax increase in favour of scientific research.

Some of the data were interpreted in light of the complex relationship between science and religion that exists in many of the rural publics. Contrary to what may be expected, this relationship does not always constitute a zero-sum game.

Scientific knowledge indeed causes psychological discomfort in some people and the resolution may be in favour of science, but it can also cause a hierarchical relationship within the individual in which either science or religion is regarded as the superior 'truth'. Furthermore, some respondents reportedly experienced no conflict between the two forms of knowing.

Even when they accepted the contradiction narrative, they did not report experiencing any psychological discomfort and were comfortable living with both forms of knowing, be it in a parallel relationship in which each addresses different aspects of life, or in a complementary relationship in which one form enhances the experience of the other.

*The article appears in the latest edition of the Stellenbosch University Research Publication. Click here to read more. 

Photograph: Stock image