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Research, Design, Innovation, Knowledge December 30, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, EWP Book Club, Methods.

A little while ago, the University of Chicago Press kindly sent us a review copy of Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life.  It seemed to me like a good idea, given the possibilities of the blog format, to integrate  a discussion of it into the overall trend of posts we’ve got going here, and to extend the discussion over several posts in our “book club” series.

The book looks primarily at how academic commentators and insiders regard industrial scientific research.  Shapin frames his analysis as a “moral history of a late modern vocation,” which extends the themes from his prior work.  Leviathan and the Air-Pump and The Social History of Truth looked at the social structure of “knowledge” production in the “early modern” Royal Society.  Shapin begins this book by acknowledging that his previous speculations—that examining that milieu could tell us about the “way we live now”—are very speculative indeed.  To make any really firm statements about the “Way We Live Now” (a phrase Shapin repeats throughout the book), we will require a much more substantial analysis, “so here I start with a sketch of some issues involved in describing aspects of how we live now, specifically how we think about the most powerful forms of knowledge and about those who make and manipulate that knowledge.”

In our next post on this book I’ll get into the details of the book, but crucial to Shapin’s approach is his extension of his prior interest in the social mores of early modern natural philosophy to its descendant “industrial research”.  The book’s aim is to say something specifically about knowledge and “who the truth-speakers are in late modernity”.  For those not in the know, the “history of science” profession is probably more aptly called the “history of knowledge” these days, and (just to bash in the point) this book’s choice of content, organization, and language reflect Shapin’s long immersion in that culture.  My own (generally favorable) analysis of this book will, in turn, hinge upon a different understanding of industrial research, which I will outline here in a fashion without rigor but hopefully robust enough to produce important consequences.

In his introduction, Shapin briefly pays obeisance to the term “technoscience”, which he associates most with the work of Bruno Latour, but for the most of the book “science” does just fine.  Technology-related research is thus presumed closely related to research for knowledge-production.  My own view is that research, knowledge, technology, design, invention, and policy-making have a complicated relationship to each other, which must be appreciated on at least some level before we can make much sense of the ideas and rhetoric surrounding industrial research.

OK, consider two actions: research and innovative design.  Both have to do with the exploration of uncertain possibilities; the first with the exploration of what already exists; the second with the exploration of what it is possible to do.  I would grant philosophical primacy to innovative design, seeing as it can occur naturally (think natural selection).

A design necessarily implies the fulfillment of expectations, the supposing of a goal and the recognized fulfillment of that goal, i.e. success.  Most commonly, innovative designs have no connection to new research, except for the most specific kind possible: a trial of feasibility of action.  Feasibility of action, however, pertains to circumstance.  A repeated design—if action, a policy; or, if mechanized, a technology—may be considered more “robust” if it remains feasible under differing circumstances.

Now, to suppose whether one has conducted an act of successful research (whether one “knows” anything) it is necessary to design an innovative performance, the success of which is predicated upon that knowledge—to produce a novelty, a technology, a plan, or to make a prediction, for example.  Research can result in specific knowledge (to know whether there is an uncrossable river along one’s route), or general (to know the law of gravitation).  The “robustness” of knowledge can be defined in terms of whether one can produce successful performances under a prescribed set of circumstances.

Knowledge of phenomena informs design to the extent that design possibilities may be predicted and the circumstances of their feasibility be robustly defined.  Knowledge permits designers to produce more sophisticated, more robust (i.e. “better”) designs, more frequently.

Let’s consolidate some consequences.  Successful design can be used either to demonstrate the success of the design, or to confirm that knowledge exists.  Knowledge can be used either to produce designs which confirm its existence, or to produce more and better designs.  The resolution of uncertainty is at the heart of both design and knowledge: “can I do it?” and “what can I expect to be able to do?”

Now consider ends: “What do I want to do?”  1) I want to prove that I know something; 2) I want to show that I can do something; 3) I want to produce something of value.  The first two possibilities hinge on the resolution of uncertainty, whereas the last may or may not do so.  For example, a factory can produce the same valuable product the same way with very great certainty.  However, one can also assemble, say, a business model designed to deliver a valuable product without being assured of the feasibility of the business model, in which case the second and third possibility of a desired action merge.

Thus, we find three intimately related possibilities wherein uncertainty is resolved by successful accomplishment of an act: 1) knowledge is demonstrated, 2) feasibility of action is demonstrated, 3) the value of action is demonstrated.  Depending on what kind of act one wants to perform, the satisfaction derived from one’s activities can vary.  The academic researcher (or game show contestant, or whatever) will be satisfied by the first, the inventor (or explorer, or whatever) by the second, the businessman (or flirt, or whatever) by the third.

Now, it may be the case that the skills and tastes of the academic scientific researcher, for example, are also appropriate to the second or third act.  After all, finding out what nature does and whether it is possible to build something have many of the same investigatory qualities.  In the case of inventing a laser, for instance, the construction of the laser and optical research are nearly the same thing.  However, it may also be the case that producing a feasible design involves systematic research into the specific properties of certain materials, which, while “research”, and while requiring many of the same environmental circumstances as academic research, is not the kind of research the academic researcher has in mind, because the “knowledge” acquired is not so robust nor broadly applicable as the researcher might desire.

When the academic researcher discusses these topics, it is crucial to understand the researcher’s background and tastes, because the researcher may have some very specific ideas and problems in mind cloaked beneath a more generalized rhetoric that is not robust to all circumstances.

What this post is designed to do is give some articulation to possible ideas that could be expressed.  Coming up next in Book Club—what all this has to do with Steven Shapin’s latest.



1. beatrice - January 8, 2009

I wonder whether such or such “pure” motive (knowledge/feasibility/value) do exist in the mind of a researcher. Maybe it depends on the discipline it belongs to. As regards economics, such question would be translated as “can research be non policy oriented?” Is research always problem solving (whether theoretical, eg solving a mathematical issue such as the existence of an equilibrium in a model, or practical). How can the fact that economic research seems increasingly problem oriented (start with a puzzle from the real life, make a wit use of data, demonstrate something counterintuitive on the motive driving economic agents) be interpreted in your framework? Are researchers oriented toward one of these issues depending on the period they research, the institution they belong to, their discipline?

Not very constructive, I’m afraid. Just trying to make sense of your distinction

2. Will Thomas - January 8, 2009

Yeah, I think this serves more as a taxonomy of possible motivations than as a taxonomy of what people think. Some may have diverse motivations, not even really distinguishing between knowledge and feasibility, whereas others might have more singular interests breaking down along these lines. I recently interviewed a researcher at 3M who described commercial problems as “harder” because there are more constraints on success, but everything was one sort of problem or another.

In the context of Shapin’s work, I think he portrays the scholarly community as unable to cope with enthusiasm for feasibility or value due to the community’s fixation on monastic or Weberian ideas about “science” specifically, where in fact recognition of these enthusiasms should be able to be found everywhere, both in the scholarly community and in the broader literature, if we look for them.

Also, I like your point about economics a lot, because this relates directly to the chapter of my book that I’m revising now, which is on how and why operations research develops an inward-directed interest in economics-type theory after having been almost totally oriented toward practical improvements in policy during WW2 and immediately after. Except for one or two veterans, it basically involves new theory-centered people coming into the new profession. The relationship between these people and the practice people remains amiable but occasionally contentious to this day.

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