Dear and Jasanoff on Daston on the Current Situation February 27, 2011Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Lorraine Daston, Peter Dear, Sheila Jasanoff
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.