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Boundaries, Interests, and Traditions in the Management Thereof September 12, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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When I posted on boundary studies in the history of science earlier this summer, I had in mind narratives focusing on epochal conflicts between groups, and the likelihood that we will learn little from the conflict that will help us understand the groups themselves.  In reaction to that, Amy Fisher (a PhD student from the University of Minnesota who has been doing some work for us at the AIP History Center) told me that for her the most interesting boundary problems were “on a smaller scale, as it connects to issues of identity.”  This was a good point, and I have had to go through a number of other posts before I felt I had my thoughts in order enough to address it adequately.

What boundary? This bridge has been here for years!

These smaller-scale boundary problems usually deal with individuals attempting to build lives, careers, or ideas, and having to situate their actions and beliefs within the strains of competing interests.  Natural philosophers might have had to reconcile their arguments about nature with their beliefs about religion.  Museum exhibitors might have to reconcile their desire to educate the public about certain kinds of scientific knowledge with the interests and expectations of that same public. In the twentieth century, physicists might have had to reconcile their desire to pursue their research interests with their ability to acquire funding by appealing to military, government, or industrial patrons.  Etc.

My response here is that in these cases the most relevant boundaries are not necessarily well-portrayed by the historiography.  Historians will typically portray actors as having to “negotiate” a compromise position on their own through a sort of an ad hoc process.  I would argue that it is here where historians’ aversion to reconstructing various long-term traditions is damaging, because it does not take into account established patterns of identity development and institution-building, which become models for a successful and legitimate resolution to the many many situations in which conflicts of interest arise.

For example, in my review of Zuoyue Wang’s book on PSAC, one reason why I do not view his identified boundary negotiations between “science” and “technology” as particularly illuminating was because the boundary had already been so well-addressed by various institutional bridges between scientific research and technology development, that PSAC’s history could not possibly have hinged on trying to build some sort of firm distinction between the two domains.  More pointed issues had to have been at play in the more superficial rhetoric of science and technology, such as rather more mundane discussions about whether various committees have the proper members and access to the proper data — it is the ideas that underlie the concept of what is “proper” in such discussions that would make for a really useful history of mid-20th-century, high-level scientific advising.

Identities and institutions can, of course, help to entrench certain domains of thought and action as sacrosanct.  The mixing of domains then may constitute a danger because the domains may have conflicts of interest.  So, to sort of continue on with the previous example, scientific research is supposed to be disinterested and open, but technology development can be secretive and pursued for personal profit.  We might consider the two domains a sort of Weberian “ideal type”.

If there is one major point that should be  taken away from Steven Shapin’s Scientific Life (2008), I think it is that historians do better to take historical realities on an empirical basis rather than to rely exclusively on ideal types to identify interesting historical conflicts.  (Personally, though, I think Shapin is too hard on Mertonian functional analysis along these lines, since the objective was to develop sociological theory of how ideal-type domains function rather than to develop a portrait of their practical reconciliation.  But never mind that for now…)  If we look at history in this way, we discover that we have longstanding identities and institutions that, if not necessarily ideal, certainly effect a reasonably stable reconciliation of science, technology, and business.

These traditions of identity-formation and institution-building need to be taken seriously as an intellectual product of the past.  Ostensibly, anti-demarcationist historians should be very glad to study the historical evolution of these ideas, and the identities and institutions that spring from them, because they can exhibit a solid continuity between scientific and non-scientific actors.  Society should hold that what is legitimate for a scientist is legitimate for a non-scientist, right?

Bizarrely, there is virtually no discussion of such traditions in the historiography of science.  Instead, the historiography seems to portray individual incidents of “negotiation” of identities and institutions as an ad hoc, deeply contingent, accidental sort of affair.  The fact that a knowledge claim, or a practice, or an institution is “contested”, whether by one person or many, is taken to be something that was probably very surprising to historical scientific figures, and that should certainly be surprising to modern readers.  (In fact, it is one of the most frustrating clichés in current historiography.)

Within this frame of reference, one does not study how scientific figures embedded their work within legitimate institutions, because it is thought that they thought their presence was what granted institutions legitimacy.  The very possibility of having to work out conflicts of interest is supposed to have been precluded by the presence of scientific knowledge.  (Side note: I’d bet donuts to dollars that this sort of argument descends genetically from criticisms of the Marxist insistence that a scientific and socialist society was supposed to lead to a “withering away” of the state.)

The fact that contest should be precluded by scientific knowledge means that, to maintain legitimacy, successful scientific figures had a stake in expunging such conflicts from the historical record.  Thus various “boundary negotiations” are taken to be a lost, or even suppressed, part of the historiography once scientific work was successfully established.  It is then up to the professional historian to palliate this prejudicial portraiture of the historical archive by recovering these “invisible” parts of scientific “work” (see my “Schaffer on the Hustings” series: Pt. 1, Pt. 2, and especially Pt. 3).

Importantly, though, this historiographical vision presupposes the sources of scientific legitimacy to be in the elimination of illegitimate forms of dissent and cultural and persuasive work from consideration and, likewise, from the historical record.  We do not know about these things, not simply because no one has bothered to add them to current portraiture, but because they have been actively rendered invisible by people who have a stake in them being invisible.  See John Wilkins’ recent re-post at Whewell’s Ghost for a recitation of the scientist-as-self-interested-historian trope.  

My position here is that we should not blame scientists too much for prejudicing their portraiture in favor of the debates they are the most interested in discussing.  If we view various “negotiations” and “contests” along “boundaries” as undocumented rather than concealed, it frees us of the aforementioned presupposition, and accordingly frees us up to look for scientists’ understanding of alternative sources of authority, legitimacy, and identity — the aforementioned traditions.

Once we stop viewing scientists as historiographical enemies, it starts becoming possible to view their observations and reminiscences as offering potential clues to their ideas about these traditions.  Scientists are scientists, not historians, so what we seek will never be as obvious as we might like, but their writings nevertheless constitute a vast historiography with which we can actively engage: what David Edgerton calls “historiography from below”.  (Yes, scientists are horrible at the longue durée, but their reminiscences and work on areas that were of more immediate interest to them often fail to live up to caricature as disembodied chronicles of the progress of ideas.)

When historians look to the past and fail to see their ideas about a sort of fully unified socio-epistemology in the terms in which they would like it expressed, they fail to acknowledge the ways historical actors approximated these insights through the traditions of identity and institution-building that they followed and helped establish.  It should not matter that these traditions more resemble rope bridges than the full erasure of all these false boundaries (which we apparently insist on): our work will not be fully respectful of the historical record until we view these traditions as real ideas rather than just ad hoc maneuvers executed and subsequently covered-up in some failed attempt to make science replace the state — or whatever we apparently imagine they were trying to do.  Edgerton likewise was out ahead on this point in his critique of the Social Construction of Technology historiography, “Tilting at Paper Tigers” (1993).

If we fail to acknowledge ideas in history, because we want to appropriate the ideas for ourselves; if we view historical boundary negotiations, tensions, and conflicts as symptoms of a failure to appreciate our insights, rather than as entries in a long, difficult, and intelligent struggle to establish legitimate traditions in identity and institution-building; then we may have our own conflicts of interest to worry about.


1. John S. Wilkins - September 12, 2010

I don’t blame scientists. That would be like blaming a predator for killing its prey. But that they construct these myths in the service of their political interests in science is itself interesting, and if we want our philosophy of science to not be “rational reconstruction”, we shouldn’t listen to them uncritically.

If you think all history is constructed, well, there’s a harmless way that is true (all conceptions are constructed) and a malign one (history is subjective and a matter of choice for our interests and institution building only). You can guess which way I roll. I’m not exactly a wie es eigentlich gewesen guy, but I do think there are facts in history that constrain our historiographies.

2. Will Thomas - September 12, 2010

Blame isn’t really the point, though, John. My point is that this elaborate “myth-constructing scientists’ historiography” might itself be a myth that we have created about scientists’ historiography to explain why their writings fails to satisfy our interests.

If we leave behind this myth that we have created about scientists’ history-writing, we can see that they have not actually viewed it as being in their self-interest to rationally reconstruct the past, that their “historiography”, while certainly idiosyncratic, is much more diverse and illuminating as to the actual sources of legitimacy in scientific work than we give it credit for.

Economist and NYT columnist Paul Krugman actually just linked (pdf) to a good example of the sorts of things that we write out of history (a 1970 essay by economist Robert Solow), which, if our ideas about science’s historical relationship with social and political order were correct, should not exist. In fact this sort of discussion and commentary is everywhere.

3. Thony C. - September 12, 2010

A very good example of a historian not shying away from how scientific figures embedded their work within legitimate institutions is Mario Biagioli’s “Galileo Courtier: The practice of science in the culture of absolutism” in fact in this study Biagioli tackles the problem head on. His central argument is that Galileo’s scientific strategies were determined by the nature of the cultural institutions he was trying to access at successive stages of his career. This is a book that I would recommend to all historians of science.

Will Thomas - September 12, 2010

I agree. Analyzing what makes GC a powerful book is a potentially useful exercise, given where it falls in the history of the historiography.

One the one hand, the book appears in 1993, and the early modern period, and (as you well know) Galileo in particular is a hot topic for scientific mythologizing, so GC can be seen as a way of popping that mythology. I know some critics of it at the time suggested that Biagioli was reducing Galileo’s work to politics. Further, Biagioli himself probably looks at the book as a sort of mythology popping (his editorship of the Science Studies Reader amply demonstrates the importance he ascribed to the “new” historiography).

The mistakes of the more ham-fisted critics, I think, lent the new historiographers confidence that their view was more-or-less correct, and GC became a case example of this correctness. At the same time, I personally don’t think GC’s power necessarily stems from its inclusion with this literature, whatever Biagioli’s own inspirations and affinities. In particular, the book never views Galileo as himself trying to hide or get around the cultural-or-political content of his work.

There’s no doubt that Galileo became mythologized, and continues to be mythologized now, if for no other reason then just out of habit and for a lack of knowing better. At the same time, I don’t think it’s healthy to view all non-professional history of science as blanketed in this kind of mythologizing. The non-professional historiography is much more complex than that.

(I should note that I know Mario decently well from my time at Harvard.)

Thony C. - September 12, 2010

I also know Mario and find him to be not just a good historian but a genuinely nice guy.

Thony C. - September 12, 2010

Have you also read the sequel “Galileo’s Instruments of Credit”?

Will Thomas - September 13, 2010

The more I think about this, the more I like the example of GC as a book that’s useful for thinking about the historiography. It’s very much a part of what I’ve come to think of as the complex ’80s literature (despite the fact it’s ’93), but it’s also a book that has qualities that distill easily into the simplified ’90s literature: politics and science, disruptive of mythologies about the foundations of “science”, and drawing the ire of historical purists who viewed it as socio-political reductionism. In ’93, this distillation process was still not an entrenched trend.

Anyway, I haven’t read Galileo’s Instruments of Credit, but I’ve seen your recommendation. And I, too, always found Mario to be a good guy to talk to.

Thony C. - September 14, 2010

I think Instruments of Credit could interest you as Mario goes into discussions on historiography and in particular SSK, perhaps in reaction to criticisms of GC.

4. Aaron Sidney Wright - September 14, 2010

Just a quick note to say you may be interested in a “focused discussion” section on “epistemic boundaries” that is available freely here: Spontaneous Generations 3.

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