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Galison’s Q’s #8: Globality June 4, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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In his 8th question, Peter Galison flips question #7 on its head: by concentrating on the local, what is invisible that only becomes visible at the global scale? Peter discusses issues of community knowledge (the coordination required to build a robust science of meteorology, for example), or issues of disciplinary identity, which can only be built over time. I totally agree, and would go even further to say that everything viewed locally looks different when viewed from a broader scale. The reason is that local perspectives make implicit presumptions about broader context (see #1): what we choose to study locally, and how we design our localized studies are issues that must be defined by our broader interests.

When we study the local, it is because we expect it to tell us something about, or be reflective of some broader story: the philosophical conundrums of observation or theory generation, the politics and economy of empire, the intellectual tensions between science and religion. This is why the case study method has become so unsatisfying, to me anyway (see #7), because the same general points from a frighteningly narrow array of general interests are repeated again and again in local example. The local is the global in different guise.

Which is not to say that the local can’t be useful. It has only been by looking at the local that we have come to appreciate the rich diversity of scientific practice, and have linked it to global externalities. The trick to moving forward is to have the courage to expand our global interests–to multiply the number of general issues in which we are interested, which we can then turn around and see operating at the local level.

The problem is that everyone has to be on board with this expansionary program. Time and again in workshops I’ve seen fairly parochial questions be sympathetically criticized for failing to satisfy a more general interest within the history of science community (these general interests are our limited menu of issues which we all understand). This means that key semi-global problems, especially those that are specific to a certain discipline, don’t tend to get aired outside of sub-groups of a few scholars. Yet, if there’s no broader disciplinary reward for addressing these important semi-global problems, they will never be treated as seriously as they deserve, even as the issues of the generalized journals continue to be filled with case studies addressing the same old set of global issues.

The onus is on the audience to become interested in the semi-global, even in areas outside their specialty, and not insist on everything being framed in terms of issues that everyone who’s spent any time in the profession could rehearse in their sleep. Coming up tomorrow: what I mean by the semi-global vs. the global.

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