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Daston on the Current Situation September 24, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Cheers to Darin Hayton over at PACHSmörgåsbord for keeping his eye on Critical Inquiry, where, in a nicely timed coincidence, Lorraine Daston has a new article (paywall protected), “Science Studies and the History of Science,” dedicated to many of the same issues we regularly explore here.  Take a look if you can.

Daston notes—and I concur—that after a brief period of lively interaction, history of science and science studies drifted apart in the 1990s.  In the article, Daston portrays the science studies disciplines as listless and adrift, while the history of science has fled for the greener pastures of straight history, a move that has placed the history of science on safer, but tamer ground (the history of science now lacks “a certain yeastiness that at once intrigued and rattled the neighboring disciplines of history, philosophy, and sociology, as well as the sciences” p. 811, fn).

According to Daston (echoing a point made in Objectivity and in co-author Galison’s “Ten Problems”), “Gone are the case studies in support of one or another grand philosophical or sociological generalization about the nature of science; in their place a swarm of microhistories have descended, often archivally based and narrated in exquisite detail” (809).  I agree with the sentiment, but Daston believes the current passion for archive-mongering indicates our dedication to historiographical methodology—she notes the “improved craftsmanship of [our] footnotes”.  This serves mainly to historicize concepts “like proof, experience, and objectivity, which historians had previously assigned to the timeless contemplations of the philosophers…” (810)  in a trick borrowed from Foucault, not the sociologists.

For Daston, historicization, which culturizes science, stands at loggerheads with science studies, which challenges science.  It is true that to, say, scientists, history and science studies may still seem allied in a “relativist” project of debunking, but really, she insists, the missions of history and science studies have drifted far apart.

I disagree with this picture.

First, I don’t think sociology ever meant debunking, at least for a good number of sociologists.   Harry Collins never seems to have been really all that interested in challenging science, per se, so much as he sought a sociological understanding of its workings by refusing recourse to epistemology.  Similarly, Latour’s peculiar approach was always designed to uphold scientific work while challenging what he saw as its unquestioned place in society, well before his current malaise over the whole project.

Second, historians’ microhistorical approach of problematizing concepts traces a direct line of descent from social studies of science.  Harry Collins’ sociology of calibration fed Simon Schaffer’s “Glass Works” (1989).  It was the sociologist Donald MacKenzie who broke up the philosophical question of “accuracy” in his 1990 “historical sociology” Inventing Accuracy.  I don’t think historians ever drew any real conceptual boundaries between this work and, say, Foucault’s historicization of madness.

Third, for historians, social and cultural studies were always a united front in the science studies project of challenging naive views of scientific work and the place of science in society, as set out in the dual evils of philosophical and popular accounts.  Whether one is “debunking” or merely complicating some received view by showing its socio-cultural situatedness is a matter of author’s preference.  The actual ins-and-outs of sociology were never a serious concern of most historians.  The simple act of performing microhistory was—and I would argue, still is—seen as an act of science studies.  This is precisely what I mean by the “boiling down” of insights.

A nice example is Michael Robinson’s latest post over at Time to Eat the Dogs on maps of Africa.  Michael’s a good writer.  He takes us on a well-informed historical tour of Africa as a largely unknown place well into the 19th-century.  He notes that 16th-century maps were filled with fantastical peoples and gold mines, while the 19th-century maps “added precision and sophistication”.  Implied here is that 19th-century maps adhered to a more classically philosophical definition of scientific portrayal.

Winwood Read, Map of African Literature, 1910 (detail)

Winwood Read, Map of African Literature, 1910 (detail)

Michael, as a conscientious historian of the science studies tradition, challenges his audience’s expectations.  As I remarked in my last post in the Great Escape series, “It is often presumed [by historians] that the philosophical best necessarily makes some sociological concession (‘but this idea was not without its costs…’ or some such formulation)…”  Indeed, Michael points out that later maps leave out the fantastical elements, “Yet [they] leave out Africans too.  If Prester John and African cyclops are not representative of Africa’s peoples, at least they show it to be a place of human action and habitation” (my emphasis).  Instead (quite naturally, on a map of “African literature”) we have LIVINGSTONE tattooed across the Congo.  “Which map [the 16th or the 19th century one] shows the greater distortion?” Michael demands of us.

Michael’s challenging of the notion of distortion is not very different from Collins’ challenge of the “crucial experiment”, or MacKenzie’s challenge of sufficient accuracy, or, indeed, Daston and Galison’s challenge of objectivity.  This is the socio-epistemic imperative at work.

To address the socio-epistemic imperative is practically what it means to be a post-1980s historian of science, regardless of whether or not one is making any active contribution to some overarching socio-epistemic theory.  Indeed, Daston feels that this is what still needs to be done:

As of yet, a new vision of what science is and how it works has yet to be synthesized from the rich but scattered and fragmented materials gathered by some twenty years of historicized history of science.  The very practices that made that history possible militate against such a synthesis coming from the history of science itself.  Science studies seems a still less likely candidate for the task.  A new form of interdisciplinarity must be forged.  Philosophy, anyone?

In spite of the appeal to philosophy here, I view this as a quintessential expression of the Great Escape ethos.  It is taken for granted that we, in fact, need “a new vision” of science, and the “synthesis” that is sought is obviously socio-epistemic rather than historiographical.  Daston certainly has in mind her “historicized epistemology” based on “epistemic virtues”, and it should not escape notice that Daston and Galison paid no great mind to any present concerns in the philosophy of science when Isis did a focus section on the history-philosophy relationship last year.

The more I read of Daston, the more sensibilities I find we share, but not all.  The 1980s may have been “yeasty” and the conferences may have been enjoyably noisy, but what was taken away from that time seems to have been the sense that Everything would be Different.  But the prevailing mood right now seems to be either of the waning hours of the party, or the cold gray dawn of the following morning.  Daston’s definitely not ready to give up the ship—the new theory of science still awaits.  She seems disappointed that the historians have left to find succor in piecemeal microhistory, while science studies is passed out on the bathroom floor.

My opinion is that the insights achieved in the 1980s didn’t exactly change the historiographical world, let alone anything else.  When we’re at our best, we now write marginally better histories than we used to.  We now really can write like historians trying to find out what happened, when, and why—stronger for our time with science studies, but having exhausted its insights.  But that’s not what the microhistorical literature is about.  I believe that that literature is motivated by a myth that once upon a time case studies burned down the world (especially that one about the air pump), and that today that same project goes on.

The cold gray dawn is a good time to grab a cup of coffee, take stock of things, and figure out what’s on the to-do list.  I guarantee it’s a big list, and I agree with Daston that we’ll never get where we want to be using the piecemeal studies we seem to prefer.  But I disagree that amazing new interdisciplinary methodological innovations are the way to go.  Philosophy?  Sure, but let’s not believe that it replaces a responsibility for asking strong historiographical questions.  Learning to do that will take practice and plenty of good conversation.



1. Michael Robinson - September 25, 2009

Interesting post! Now I have to track down someone with database access to Critical Inquiry.

2. Lorrain Daston sur les STS et l’histoire des sciences « Les STS en action - September 27, 2009

[…] Notons que l’excellent blog “Ether Wave Propaganda” nuance quelque peu l’analyse et les conclusions de Lorrain Daston. […]

3. Michael Bycroft - March 11, 2011

I like this comment especially:

“My opinion is that the insights achieved in the 1980s didn’t exactly change the historiographical world, let alone anything else. When we’re at our best, we now write marginally better histories than we used to. We now really can write like historians trying to find out what happened, when, and why—stronger for our time with science studies, but having exhausted its insights.”

One awkward thing about the Daston paper (which I thought was a really useful piece nonetheless) is that she both a) says that HoSs flirtation with SSK/STS was not as revolutionary for HoS as it has sometimes been made out to be, and b) shows that she agrees with the now-standard view that HoS experienced a methodological revolution some time in the 60s, 70s and/or 80s. I don’t think those two views are easy to reconcile: if revolution a) did not really occur then revolution b) did not really occur either. In other words, there is after all not that much separating (say) Cohen’s “Franklin and Newton” and (say) Daston’s “Wonders and the Order of Nature” — or at least, whatever separating them is more a shift in topics of interests, or an incremental expansion of outlook, rather than a shift in the basic premises of the profession of HoS.

In other words, Daston wants to have it both ways in her effort to assert HoS’s new-found professional independence: HoS has come of age, and it did so without any definitive help from STS/SSK. I’m not sure she can have it both ways.

I’m not sure if you would agree with all of that, but it seems to me you are saying something similar in the quoted passage.

(Actually, I think Dear and Jasanoff say something like this about Daston when they say that her notion of HoS becoming “disciplined” some time in the last 30 years “appears…to dismiss the generation of scholars in the 1950s who founded a professional field of the history of science, together with university departments and programs to instantiate it.” I take it that Cohen is one of those 1950s scholars that D&J refer to here.)

4. Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda (2/2) | Zilsel - December 20, 2014

[…] made of the Peter Galison’s “ten issues” paper, or even Lorraine Daston’s discussion of the troubled relationships between the history of science and STS. Have they responded to your comments so […]

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