Ignorance and Surprise

From Inside Technology

Ignorance and Surprise

Science, Society, and Ecological Design

By Matthias Gross

The relationship between ignorance and surprise and a conceptual framework for dealing with the unexpected, as seen in ecological design projects.





The relationship between ignorance and surprise and a conceptual framework for dealing with the unexpected, as seen in ecological design projects.

Ignorance and surprise belong together: surprises can make people aware of their own ignorance. And yet, perhaps paradoxically, a surprising event in scientific research—one that defies prediction or risk assessment—is often a window to new and unexpected knowledge. In this book, Matthias Gross examines the relationship between ignorance and surprise, proposing a conceptual framework for handling the unexpected and offering case studies of ecological design that demonstrate the advantages of allowing for surprises and including ignorance in the design and negotiation processes.

Gross draws on classical and contemporary sociological accounts of ignorance and surprise in science and ecology and integrates these with the idea of experiment in society. He develops a notion of how unexpected occurrences can be incorporated into a model of scientific and technological development that includes the experimental handling of surprises. Gross discusses different projects in ecological design, including Chicago's restoration of the shoreline of Lake Michigan and Germany's revitalization of brownfields near Leipzig. These cases show how ignorance and surprise can successfully play out in ecological design projects, and how the acknowledgment of the unknown can become a part of decision making. The appropriation of surprises can lead to robust design strategies.

Ecological design, Gross argues, is neither a linear process of master planning nor a process of trial and error but a carefully coordinated process of dealing with unexpected turns by means of experimental practice.


$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262013482 256 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 11 b&w illus.


  • Gross' book is an excellent contribution to the analytical terrain of uncertainty in studies of science-society relations and will bode well for scholars interested in expanded societal membership in the production of knowledge.


  • [A]n excellent historiography of social science philosophies of learning.

    International Social Science Review

  • What kinds of science will help us navigate the Anthropocene? Matthias Gross's book takes an important step toward answering that question.

    Science as Culture

  • A nicely focused approach to joining theory and practice for shaping the environment for human use.

    Building Research & Information

  • Offers an important postnormal model of a science that counters the absolute pronouncements and rhetoric of a traditional science that fears ignorance and surprise, but that at the same time preserves the best parts of the scientific enterprise...Highly recommended.



  • Ignorance and Surprise provides the first comprehensive synthesis of the sociology of ignorance and the sociology of scientific knowledge. In addition to developing a framework for analyzing ignorance and knowledge together, Gross suggests a way of bringing the power of the scientific experiment, which can both encourage and control surprise, into the world of ecological restoration and environmental policy. Given the often disheartening environmental surprises that contemporary society faces, this book is a thoughtful and timely intervention into our thinking about the environment, resilience, and sustainability.

    David Hess

    author of Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry

  • Matthias Gross begins his book with the wonderful declaration that 'ignorance and surprise belong together.' He uses the seemingly unlikely but very pertinent domains of landscape design and ecological restoration to illustrate a shift toward what some call postnormal, mode 2, or transdisciplinary science. Drawing on classical as well as contemporary social theorists, he constructs a framework that provides important insights into current debates about irreducible ignorance and surprise, and yields an enticing vision of a new kind of inclusive public experimentation.

    Michael Smithson

    Department of Psychology, The Australian National University, author of Ignorance and Uncertainty: Emerging Paradigms

  • Matthias Gross is in the business of rewriting modernity. Far from being a prescription for paralysis, not knowing becomes, in his telling, a springboard for wider participation, experimentation, and creativity. Part science studies and part environmental sociology, this is a hugely optimistic and intelligent book for anyone who finds the contemporary world too complex to govern.

    Sheila Jasanoff

    Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University