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Dear and Jasanoff on Daston on the Current Situation February 27, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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The December Isis has been published, which includes a response from Sheila Jasanoff and Peter Dear to Lorraine Daston’s 2009 Critical Inquiry article, “Science Studies and the History of Science” (paywall), entitled “Dismantling Boundaries in Science and Technology Studies” (paywall).  I posted my own two-part reaction to Daston’s piece in September 2009: “Daston on the Current Situation” and “Foucault, Ginzburg, Latour, and the Gallery” (a title that is great search-engine fodder, by the way; it is now the most visited post on this blog written by me).

I don’t really have any major new reflections here, but I will offer a couple of observations, as well as some recapitulations of points I’ve already made.  D&J seem mainly interested in challenging Daston’s claims that history of science and STS have grown apart, and that that’s not to be lamented.  Per my earlier posts, I agree with D&J that Daston’s disciplinary history, which has history of science switching allegiances from STS to plain history, is strange.  However, D&J are less interested in worrying about Daston’s explanations of the proliferation of fragmented studies, and more interested in defending the HoS-STS (whether it be S&TS, or ST&S) relationship.  They’re not really clear on whether they think the current situation in either field is healthy or not.

I agree that there’s nothing in principle that should separate HoS and STS.  My claim is that while HoS and STS have not had anything substantive to say to each other for about twenty years, both have continued to exploit a writing strategy established at the time of initial collusion.  A typical HoS study and a typical STS study (leaving theoretical reflections aside) are often more-or-less indistinguishable except insofar as one takes place in the past (to the 1970s, generally) and the other in the present or near past.

My concern has been that the virtues each field sees in its relationship with the other has stagnated progress in both.  I think it is significant that the professional history D&J offer stops around 1991 with only some references to later works.  I would argue that this stagnation derives from what I have posited is a conflict of interest between the fields.  In this conflict, historians view their studies as cogent, because they present a vision of science and its past that STS work tells us will overturn naive views inherited from the past.  STS theory takes its cogency from a comparison with past views about science, politics, and society, which history of science studies illustrate as prevailing until recently.

This symbiosis of cogency establishes an aimlessness of purpose in each field as to what it needs to accomplish for its work to be considered virtuous or progressive.  I believe just such an aimlessness is evident in D&J’s piece, which satisfies itself with hand-waving about what has been, and is being accomplished.  For example:

STS embraces as its field of investigation knowledge and knowledge making, including the wider ramifications of producing various kinds of authoritative knowledge (science writ large) [WT – I actually think thinking of science, let alone science-and-polity, as revolving around ‘authority’ is deeply misleading], embodying them in objections and material systems (artifacts, instruments, and industries), and seeing how the resulting ‘things,’ epistemic and otherwise, play their parts in such activities as law, policy, politics, social organization, religion, aesthetic culture, the economy, and ethics.  Within this expansive domain, key problems include emergence (and nonemergence), stability, contestation, and disappearance — all dynamic processes, with the passage of time built in.

This sort of thing is mainly fine, but to me basically all it implies is that other fields are limited to certain disciplined perspectives, but that in our richer, more flexible analyses, problems are never confined to specified domains, and the meanings of ideas and objects that would be clearly defined within a field can be seen as up for grabs between constituencies from our more detached, anthropological perspective.

There are two potential troubles here: 1) it can blind us to the other fields’ historical and present ability to contend intelligently with problems requiring such flexibility, and 2) it can take any study to have value insofar as it manages to encapsulate this richness in its portraiture.  I worry a lot about point (1), but it is point (2) here that tends to limit both STS and HoS to a continual repetition of the points that are thought to have made these fields cogent in the first place, only with new empirical material in each instance, without paying much mind toward problems relating to the construction of a coherent, accumulating body of knowledge.

It is this repetitiousness to which Daston was reacting in her piece, and it is the search for a new coherence that I believe inspires her call in the final sentence of her article for a return to a synthesizing “philosophy” (which I believe we should read as the “historical epistemology” she espouses).  D&J, mindful of the supposed benefits of what I’ve called the “great escape” from philosophy of science, find this last gesture most unpalatable.  It is a “sad retreat”:

It denies some fifty years of precisely the sort of synthetic [here meaning socio-epistemological rather than historiographical] vision of what science is and how it works that Daston advocates earier in her final paragraph and that STS scholars of all methodological inclinations have been energetically pursuing for some years.  Invoking tendentious disciplinary distinctions to exclude any of those concerns from a purified ‘discipline’ does no one any good — neither the cause of scholarship nor the wider public goods of information and criticism that universities aim to serve.

For my part, I am more convinced than ever that the answer to establishing a quality historiography has little to do with arriving at a proper amalgamation of epistemology and social theory, which is imagined to be found in an elusive proper alignment of disciplines.


1. Hank C. - February 27, 2011

Will: Good stuff. I hadn’t seen your own take on the Daston piece back in the day, so I was glad to go back and check that out, too.

I posted on this earlier today over at our team blog, and I think in many ways we agree. I wonder though, what you think of my proposed separation of the epistemic and “bureaucratic” strands of the argument.

Specifically, can we separate Daston’s opening “relation of a relationship” from her concluding suggestion of a liaison with philosophy? What does she see as the relationship between the “new vision” she predicts and the disciplinary constellation of science studies?

Will “an elusive proper alignment of disciplines” (as you put it) enable or spur new thinking, or must individuals start thinking in new ways (with the tools of philosophy, in her mind), and then institute their “new vision” administratively? What drives change (for her, or D&J, or you): epistemology or bureaucracy?

2. Will Thomas - February 28, 2011

Hi Hank, thanks for the comment, and I’m glad to see the Forum’s blog has become much more active.

Yes, I think you’re right that the epistemic and bureaucratic (‘organizational’ might be more appropriate?) strands are separable.

Some sub-points (quiz me on any of these if I’m not being clear):

Yes, I think D&J are correct that Daston draws misleading lessons about HoS-STS differences from her reading of our ‘folk history’, and, no, I think there really aren’t any coherent dissimilarities between HoS and STS in ‘epistemology’ (although there may be epistemological disagreements within the fields that ought to be teased out!) And, yes, I agree with you, that for all practical intents and purposes Daston and D&J are telling the same history.

Where D&J disappoint me is that they don’t seem at all interested in Daston’s take on the ‘fragmentation’ problem. Daston dismisses STS precisely because she feels that it has nothing to offer toward solving the problem. And for their part, D&J do nothing to acknowledge that there even is a problem, much less make a case for STS as a possible contributor to the solution. So, really, D&J make Daston’s point for her by getting side-tracked by a refutation to a side-argument to Daston’s main concern.

I give Daston (and Peter Galison) credit for questioning the line that, however much empirical work gets churned out, that it adds up to anything you can package up, sell, or take home. That said, I don’t see that PoS has much to add to the solution to the fragmentation problem either.

This is why I think Daston really means ‘historical epistemology’ when she says ‘philosophy’. I’m pretty sure she views HE as a replacement for traditional PoS. So, if I were a philosopher of science, I wouldn’t exactly look at this as an olive branch. And, if I were D&J, I wouldn’t view it as some sort of paleo-turn for HoS.

The point of invoking philosophy here is that if our fragmented historical studies (our ‘gallery of practices’ as I like to say) are to be melded together into some substantive conclusions, it will not be because they form a complicated web of connections (as I would like to see), but because in some Voltron-like moment, they will be seen to be part of big, hidden histories of changing epistemological strategies. Think here of her Objectivity book with Galison, or John Pickstone’s “ways of knowing”.

I think the whole concern here with organizational alignment, is that there is supposed to be some missing ingredient, represented by some other field (regardless of what that field is actually doing) that is imagined to lead to a sort of historiographical salvation. When we say we need PoS, what we mean is that our histories will never make sense unless we pay more attention to the intellectual content of science. When we say we need STS, what we mean is that we need to keep the thirty-year faith that socio-epistemology is the way forward.

I don’t think any of this is right. Yes, we need more intellectual history, and, no, we can’t abandon the intertwining of social, political, and epistemological problems. But, as near as I can tell, nobody has argued otherwise since before I was born (1979). We don’t have a ‘methodology problem’. Our ‘epistemology’ is fine — leastaways, it requires no new innovation: we have the necessary epistemological resources available to us — and while our ‘bureaucracy’ could be better, improving it isn’t going to solve the identified problems.

Real progress would entail things geared toward resolving the intellectual content of our profession(s), like more argument between scholars about specific points of history, more ability to keep track of both historical facts and arguments, and letting go of present notions of what constitutes the virtue in any given work of history-writing.

Hank C. - February 28, 2011

I like this, Will, and thanks for the swift reply. I especially like your point that when Daston says PoS, she means HE – though I’d add that in addition to it being “a replacement for traditional PoS,” it’s also a replacement for alternative means within HoS, too. But you knew that.

I *think* I agree with your last paragraph, but I’d need you to clarify something: since your descriptors are all historical, where do you stand on the issue (raised in both pieces) on the boundary between past and present? Is it meaningful?

Even if it isn’t (epistemically), do we need strategies for overcoming it administratively? Is this part of why historians feel they aren’t in dialogue with people in STS?

3. Will Thomas - March 2, 2011

You’re right — HE is an alternative means of doing HoS. One sees a lot of ‘concept histories’ coming out of the MPI these days. I should also have included Peter Dear’s own Intelligibility of Nature in what appears to be an emphasis on trying to pull a sort of ‘new synthesis’ (or syntheses) out of the current situation. I respect the trend, but the way it is unfolding, it feels a bit pasted together.

But, on to your question, no, I don’t view there as being a meaningful past/present split. The issue with addressing the present is that there are a lot of other fields that address the present as well. Therefore, STS has to decide what it brings to the table that is new or special. Whenever I see an impressive piece of STS, I tend to think, “yes, that was a good piece of policy analysis”.

My impression is that STS tends to try and find short-cuts to relevancy by saying that when it comes to sci-tech, other people just can’t seem to think straight. Per my point (1) in my main post, I think they can, or leastaways, there’s nothing systematically wrong with the way other people think because the subject matter happens to be sci-tech. When you think you have an automatic leg up on other fields, you tend to feel there’s less of a need to take their thought seriously. When you don’t take other people’s ideas seriously, it’s little wonder when they don’t seem all that interested in what you have to say.

(Actually, I think there’s a good irony in that…)

Anyway, I do think that grounding analysis of present problems in history may well be a way forward, and one where the traditional STS affinity with HoS could be of service. However, I see far too much use of history as a source of “morals” than I do really intensive use of history. (Taking “morals” from history requires little engagement with it, so this could explain the sense that the fields have drifted apart, even though they think pretty much alike.)

I think our understanding of history needs to be more “encyclopedic” (if you will), and it needs to concentrate on recent decades to connect up directly to the present, if we ever want that sort of thing to work out.

My thinking on this topic is much influenced by my work on the “sciences of policy” 1940-1960. Coming out of WWII, scientists who advocated a professionalization of the field of “operations research” viewed themselves as potential policy generalists; as a consequence, they did not take other sets of people doing policy analysis anywhere nearly seriously enough. They tended to find some reason why those people just wouldn’t live up to the sort of thing they had in mind. This underestimation of competition could have been an existential threat to OR (as I argue in a forthcoming paper), but fortunately for them, they had access to a novel store of mathematical techniques, which gave them a defined niche, albeit one much more constrained than the role they initially envisioned for themselves.

4. Weekly Roundup « Contagions - March 5, 2011

[…] weighs into the debate on the nature of the ‘history of science’. Ether Wave Propaganda has a post on the same topic. It seems likely that the debate will go one for quite a […]

5. Michael Bycroft - March 11, 2011


(I’m a new commenter but have read your blog for some time and find it really valuable. Sorry about the long post, but I found these articles and your discussion quite interesting).

—I think I disagree with your claim that “there’s nothing in principle that should separate HoS and STS”. If one believes that, surely one must also believe that there is nothing in principle that separates history in general from sociology in general. If one can pull the unifying trick for sciene, surely one can pull it for any topic that sociology and history both study: sport, politics, entertainment, city planning, etc. But I doubt that D&J would advocate the construction of departments for the “history and sociology of sport” or “history and sociology of politics.”

(Then again, there is history and philosophy of science, HPS. It seems that one could run the anti-unification argument I have just run for HPS as well as one can run it for the “history and sociology of science” or “HSS” ideal that D&J advocate. One of the useful things about the D&J article for me was to explain why we have HPS departments but not HSS departments–but their explanation makes it look like a historical accident that we cannot easily justify today.)

—Moreover, even if disciplines were best individuated by their objects of study (sport, entertainment, etc.), one could argue that the “objects of study” of the historian of science are quite different from those of sociologists of science. This is because the historian is in a sense more open to the different aspects of science they allow into their work. To be sure, STS folks can make promiscuous use of law, politics, and perhaps economics (as D&J point out). But historians of science are at least in principle interested in all these aspects of science *as well as* a bunch of other things that as far as I can tell are not of deep interest to STS folks eg. the technical content of theories for their own sake (eg. think anything by Jed Buchwald), psychology (think all the work on the psychology of Newton and Boyle) and straight biography (eg. think Heilbron’s book on Galileo and Michael Hunter’s on Boyle, for two eminent and recent examples). As far as I can tell from my distance, STS is broader than SSK but not that much broader — it still has the sociology at its core, but has some politics and law and economics added on. HoS is much broader, and can afford to be if Daston is right that its disparate objects of study are unified by a distinctive historical method.

–surely there is room for compromise between the Daston article and D&J? What about old-fashioned interdisciplinarity ie. two disciplines are by and large distinct (both “epistemically” and “organizationally”) but they are free to draw “morals” from eachother, and if there are some members of each discipline whose work is especially closely related they can get together for a more substantive symbiosis. This way we could recognize both that some HoS work (eg. just about any HoS that looks at post-WWII science with a strong sociological interest) is closely related to STS work, and that when we consider the full range of HoS (from ancient astronomical instruments to 19C Victorian culture) we see that all things considered it is quite different from STS. Perhaps cases like 20thC regulatory science are just borderline cases that give an illusion of intimacy between the disciplines. (All established disciplines have borderline cases, eg. physics and chemistry, but no-one would advocate that physics departments be collapsed into chemistry departments or vice versa).

Two other things that bother me about D&J’s article:

–The self-defeating critique: At some points they seem to say that *all* disciplines are arbitrary; this is based on a sociological-cum historical critique of the notion of a discipline. But again, if they really believe this then they should be lobbying just as hard for the unification of English and History departments, Classics and Linguistics departments etc. (and STS and English departments, Classics and STS departments, etc.) as they are for the unification of HoS and STS departments.

–Hairsplitting nominalism: At one point they say that history cannot count as a discipline because it contains lots of sub-fields like 17C theology, ancient warfare, etc. But one can say the same about *any* existing department in the arts or sciences. Indeed one can apply it to just about any object one can think of, with counter-intuitive results: my body contains both arms and legs, but I do not conclude that my body cannot be meaningfully distinguished from other people’s bodies.

The reason I highlight these two things–the self-defeating critique and hairsplitting nominalism–is that they are just the sort of argumentative moves that (in my limited experience) were common in the “yeasty” ’80s and ’90s. And my ill-developed hunch is that they are the sort of moves that stand in the way of decent historiography eg. historians who are hairsplitting nominalists will alawys find it hard to build a decent medium-term picture of a historical topic or period.

6. Will Thomas - March 11, 2011

Michael, thanks for your comments. I think I’m going to take the weekend at least to digest them fully, but just as a preliminary reaction, I think there is some question about what various parties mean by an interaction between HoS and STS.

I take it your point about science vs. sports vs. politics, etc. is that STS provides an epistemology, which historians of science must use for their work to make sense?

(This said, I don’t think there would be much resistance to extending the hist-soc interaction. I think Harry Collins and Rob Evans have actually written about sports quite recently; and, of course, one of Shapin’s side interests is the history and sociology of food consumption.)

I reckon my HoS-STS conflict of interest argument could easily be interpreted to mean that the fields need to be isolated. So when I say that there’s nothing that should separate the fields, I just mean that we need to be wary that the mixture of the fields can create scenarios where the fields generate specious arguments to justify each others’ sense of their own importance, but that there’s no need for quarantine. However, I would argue against a conflation of the fields. I agree with you that HoS concerns do (or at least should) extend beyond the typical socio-epistemic boundary issues that tend to typify STS contributions.

I similarly gather that D&J’s response to Daston is based on Daston’s belief that STS really doesn’t have much to contribute to the future of HoS. I gather that Daston doesn’t think that the fields need to be isolated; just that nothing new is really coming out of the relationship.

D&J’s argument seems to be that the fields can still go together as they always have. A good question is whether HoS actually needs STS to analyze boundary issues. Are D&J claiming that HoS can’t do these kinds of things without STS?

Anyway, probably more later. But just as a side point, don’t tell the people at Penn that there are no history and sociology of science departments!

7. Michael Bycroft - March 14, 2011

Will — thanks for your comments, and for saving me from future embarrassments about “history and sociology of science departments”!

“I take it your point about science vs. sports vs. politics, etc. is that STS provides an epistemology, which historians of science must use for their work to make sense?”

I was perhaps not very clear when I made the point you are referring to. Here are three claims:

1. Sociology of science and history of science are inseparable.
2. Sociology of X and history of X are inseparable, where X is any subject matter (politics, sport, entertainment, etc.) that sociology and history have in common.
3. Sociology in general and history in general are inseparable.

My point was that 1. implies 2. and 3. So we should not accept 1. unless we are prepared to accept 2. and 3. as well.

I agree with you that “there is some question about what various parties mean by an interaction between HoS and STS.” In my terms, whether we accept 1.-3. depends a lot on what we mean by “inseparable.” I have been assuming that D&J mean “conflation” whereas (as you say) they often seem to just mean something more like “interaction” or “future friendly relations.”

I wonder whether the dispute between D&J is more about what the range of options are for bringing HoS and STS, and less about the reasons that each article gives for picking one or other of those options. As you mentioned in your first post on Daston’s article, the article seems to take an all-or-nothing approach disciplinary relationships: if STS cannot supply the “next big thing” for HoS, Daston seems to say, then STS has nothing at all to give to HoS. Whereas for D&J there are a range of options in between the two extremes of wholesale infatuation and wholesale rejection.

I share your doubts about Daston’s all-or-nothing view — neither sociology nor philosophy nor anything else “replaces a responsibility for asking strong historiographical questions” (as you put it).

On the other hand I wish D&J were clearer about the range of middle options that they gesture towards. They go from the middling claim that HoS and SSK have a “potential for valuable synergy” (abstract) to the radical claim that STS *contains* all HoS (with talk of “a generic field of science and technology studies, with the history of science and technology at its center” (770)), to another middling claim that history *overlaps with* but is not *contained by* STS (I take it this is what they mean by “[h]istory, we would argue, is always already part of the STS project in three important ways” (773)). Sometimes their radical claim that STS *contains* the field of HoS just seems to be based on the following non sequitar: “STS contains *some* HoS; therefore STS contains *all* HoS.”

But I think what I will take away from the two articles is that they are both right. Daston is right that HoS has in the past aligned itself too for its own good with SSK/STS, and that now HoS to some extent has methods and topics of its own. And D&J are right that there is still room for fruitful interaction between the two. To borrow Daston’s metaphor, the romance is over but this doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends.

Will Thomas - March 14, 2011

I think that clarifies the issues a great deal. D&J did seem awfully exercised over Daston’s implication that STS just takes something called “science” and studies it, where HoS problematizes it. Of course, STS boundary analyses make a big deal about the social (if not so much epistemological) character [I meant, “boundaries”] of science, which of course is why D&J are taken aback, and why scholars in the area sometimes moonlight in areas like the criticism of sport, dietetics, and art.

As you point out as well, this presents all sorts of problems of disciplinarity, because, unconstrained, STS essentially becomes the study of everything, which runs into a set of issues that are actually extraordinarily well encapsulated in this recent xkcd comic.

Now, one could argue that STS offers an umbrella in which everything that is HoS can be included, but I think we’re taking the practical view here, which is that STS has cast its lot with a certain methodological viewpoint, and that HoS isn’t best served by limiting itself to this viewpoint.

Anyway, of course the “let’s be friends” position you arrive at is the only really sensible one, making the whole STS-HoS debate (rightly) seem rather uninteresting.


I’m digging up that paper on the prism experiments, by the way, and will have a read over soon, now that I have this book review I was doing kicked out the door.

8. Michael Bycroft - March 14, 2011

The xkcd comic — priceless!

I should qualify what I wrote at the end of my first comment on this post. I wrote that argumentative moves like what I called “hairsplitting nominalism” and “self-defeating critique” are “the sort of moves that stand in the way of decent historiography.” I said this was an “ill-developed hunch” and, on reflection, Dear’s work shows just how ill-developed it is. For Dear is one of the historians of science of the last 30 years who has done the *least* hairsplitting. That is, he has consistently favoured original long-term narratives about the intellectual content of science, from his book “Discipline and Experience” to his 2005 article Isis “What Is the History of Science the History Of? Early Modern Roots of the Ideology of Modern Science.”

Indeed, the more I think and read about Dear’s work, the more I find that he occupies an interesting place between the old historiography of science and the new: he is anti-hairsplitting yet anxious about avoiding “historical essentialism”; he insists that 17C science was completely different from the way science is now, yet has doubts about the “Cunningham thesis” (the idea that modern science did not exist in any form until about 1800); he has been at the vanguard of at least one fashion in the new historiography (“The literary structure of scientific argument”), but his studies of figures like Galileo, Boyle and Pascal also owe a lot to old-style work by the likes of Kuhn and Koyre.

Who is next on the list, after Schaffer, for the “Oeuvre” series…?!

9. Hank C. - March 14, 2011

Good stuff, both of you. And, Will, my vote for the next Oeuvre is … Daston!

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