A Brief History of “Choice”, and Some Questions

by Lucy Bartlett

Two weeks ago, the STS discussion group convened to listen to Stefan Schwarzkopf present his new paper ‘The invention of Choice: the making of a Cognitive-Semantic Field’, and to think about Choice. Not choice with a small c but Choice with a capital C. Stefan’s ‘history of a concept’ came from his odd observation that we seem to be a world where our own and emerging economies are being structured around the people’s right to choose, even though we are inundated with new research form neuroscience and social-psychological which suggest we, human individuals, are inherently bad at choosing.

Stefan Schwarzkopf on ChoiceOn top of this paradoxical situation Stefan illuminated the present gap in the literature. Although, we research choice in its contemporary enactments, there is little on the history and contingent factors which brought about the reification of choice as a essential human right.

This was rectified as Stefan took the STS discussion group on a history of Choice starting a millennium BC with the first politicised example of choice, the original ‘chosen ones’, the Israelites. Then we moved through history to the time of the Ancient Greek Philosophers and Aristotle’s ideas on ‘deliberate desire’. Before embarking on a descriptive discussion of 12th-century Europe’s choice and their inability to cope with new found ‘Freedom to choose’. This all lead Stefan to the 17th century, characterised by both religious and political upheaval which built the ground work for the overt politicisation of the term.

From this pivotal point the term of choice no longer meant to ‘be chosen’ but rather referred to something that should be preferred. This preference became mundane in use and with the proliferation of the conscious decision was also meet with more random processes of choice, linked to all areas of social life. It became a term of empowerment and an individual right. A right that was then expanded to become the luxury of ‘consumers’ – a marketing opportunity.

The talk ended where it started in the paradoxical ‘contemporary’ situation. As Stefan acknowledged the history of the concept presented is just the tip of the Choice-iceberg. We have much more to explore. For example, how did Choice materialise? The history presented so far was based on documents. Did anyone not have choice? And for those who didn’t have choice at times, do they know? And what processes meant they do get it?

The final provocative question of the session left us all thinking reflexively about our own contemporary Choice. Do we really actively think about choice, specifically mundane choice? Or is it more of a habit now than a deliberate ‘preference’? And, if so what does this mean for the future of Choice?

This session was a Special Event in the ongoing reading group Encountering Science and Technology Studies: Situated Seminars. For upcoming sessions, please check the programme. A copy of the draft paper is available here.

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