Cultural History of Knowledge and Post-Marxist Social History of Science April 30, 2011Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
Tags: Barry Barnes, Bruno Latour, Clifford Geertz, David Bloor, David Kaiser, Karl Mannheim, Mary Douglas, Morris Berman, Peter Berger, Robert K. Merton, Steven Shapin, Thomas Gieryn, Thomas Kuhn, Thomas Luckmann
Circa 1980, “social” historians who explored the connections between scientific work and its political, social, and economic milieus showed an interest in how scientists selected their objects of inquiry, in the allocation of scientific research effort, and in the social function of scientific work. Unlike many historians of science, they showed comparatively little interest in the development of scientific knowledge itself. In 1982 Steven Shapin wrote that he saw “no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but,” he observed, “much literature in the social history of science has less of a connection with the sociology of knowledge than many apparently traditional exercises in the history of ideas” (my emphasis).
At that time, Shapin was a key figure in a movement that was opposed to a traditional philosophy-inspired history of science, which sifted “science” out of history and narrated its progress; to a Mertonian sociology of science, which delineated the conditions in which “science” takes place; and indeed to the social history of science, which linked lines of research to social interests, but which often took research results for granted.
The movement was related to sociologist (and Robert Merton student) Thomas Gieryn’s contemporaneous investigation of the nature and boundary of “science” as a matter of historical contest, but it was really more concerned with the cultural conventions that governed how agreement on individual ideas were reached. This included both an interest in the professional standards that governed the assignment of validity to experimental and observational facts, and in the intellectual links between scientific, methodological, social, and political ideas. (Bruno Latour, in search of a universal descriptive language, would criticize this apparent dualism as “internalist epistemology sandwiched between two slices of externalist sociology”.)
The objective of the movement was to come to an account of how various groups have established bodies of knowledge that they accept, and how they have delineated themselves from other groups, and fought to have their claims and recommendations accepted more broadly. The project was viewed as an extension of the sociology of knowledge of Karl Mannheim to encompass the natural sciences.* Like post-Marxist social history of science, it drew inspiration from anthropology, although favoring Mary Douglas over Clifford Geertz, but mainly to take the same general point: knowledge systems abide by a coherence that is intuitive to those who inhabit them. On this point, see especially Barry Barnes and Shapin’s 1977 review of Douglas’s Implicit Meanings essay collection.
To return to this blog’s recent exemplar of post-Marxist social history of science, Morris Berman’s account of the early years of the Royal Institution: his references to the “epistemology of modernization” and Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966) refer not to the acts of learning or constructing ideas, per se, but to the rationales that underlie a modern, industrial way of life. The argument in Berman’s book is that a “legal ideology of science” psychologically, culturally, and socially smooths over structural disjunctures in the logic of society, constraining political action, and precluding the possibility of a more logical and just polity.
By contrast, the “cultural history of knowledge” (as I will call history inspired by the “sociology of scientific knowledge” and related programs) adhered to the doctrine of symmetry, admitting no preference for one or another system of ideas, which allowed for a more “naturalistic” description of history. By handling systems of knowledge evenly, drawing on Thomas Kuhn, cultural history dismissed the possibility that any one system would win out by virtue of its innate obviousness. This point was supposed to make cultural history into a potent talisman against Whiggism.
It also aimed to be apolitical. According to Barnes and Shapin, “Naturalism closes no evaluative or political options; it merely ejects them from historical practice.” They referred here to philosophical efforts to assess the purity of scientific knowledge. However, the avowed lack of political motivation of Barnes, Shapin, and their colleagues in the “Edinburgh School” dismayed Marxist historians as well.
Now, as I have previously argued, the cultural history of knowledge did in fact carry a deeply normative component, not by revealing a preference for one system of ideas over another, but by casting itself as a sensible system of ideas, a mature recognition of science as something other than an abstract form of thought standing apart from its cultural surroundings.
The idea of a historical abundance of naive understandings of how science worked is, of course, very close to the idea that society unwittingly adhered to an ideology of science, as found in the post-Marxist strand of the social history of science that I have examined in the past few posts.
Where this post-Marxist thought embedded its ideology in a communal psychology that looked to technology and scientific reasoning to avoid confronting social and political problems, the cultural history of knowledge embedded historical naivete concerning science (with technology sometimes awkwardly included, notably in the Social Construction of Technology program) in unexamined conventions of trust that permitted agreements about knowledge and its implications to be formed around mutable concepts.
Where in post-Marxist historiography communal psychology caused subsidiary effects through the unwarranted extension of scientific expertise and technology to the solution of social and political problems, within the cultural history of knowledge conventions of trust caused subsidiary effects by embedding cultural assumptions in knowledge itself, which influenced social and political affairs because knowledge claims are generally assumed to have equated with authority claims.
Post-Marxism and the cultural history of knowledge both lean heavily on the cult of invisibility. Where post-Marxism takes the objectivity of science to render its ideological extension cognitively invisible (and thus unassailable by obvious questions), cultural history takes widespread misunderstanding of science to render its cultural components invisible.
In the case of cultural history, I believe this invisibility has created an impetus to overcome past prejudices by producing works that elucidate the function of these cultural components in particular cases, that enumerate the varieties of cultural invisibility, and that demonstrates the effects of this invisibility (which include both fractiousness surrounding knowledge claims and the authoritarian abuses so often highlighted by post-Marxists).
The profusion of such culture-centric, invisibility-dispelling works has, I believe, had malign effects on historical synthesis on the intellectual history of science, which was supposed to be secure within a cultural history of knowledge (as Shapin claimed in ’82).
The differences between the post-Marxist and cultural history traditions leads to slightly different historical pictures. The post-Marxist history tends to trace its ideology of science to industrialization, but also often to a mechanistic-theoretical “Cartesian” or “Newtonian” worldview. In the wake of Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985), the cultural history tradition has been more apt to trace naivete relating to science to the rise of experimental science and natural history, because it was the ascendancy of discrete facts as persuasive evidence that established the need for cultures of trust (see, for example, Latour’s odd characterization and periodization of “modernity”)
Also, where post-Marxists see the need to explain errant thinking about science in terms of the rise of a psycho-cultural condition, cultural historians, I believe, would be more apt to view the question “why didn’t X think sensibly about science?” to be akin to “why didn’t George Washington use tanks against the British?” The answer is simply (albeit tacitly): because STS theoreticians and cultural historians hadn’t yet invented sensible thinking about science. The cultural history of knowledge is at its core the history of people resorting to and establishing cultural tropes — some with real epistemological value, including the idea of “science” itself — to contend with their inability to come to general agreements about knowledge.
In a sense, I view the social history of science (Marxist or post-Marxist) as a better-thought-out tradition than the cultural history of knowledge. Recognizing that it needs to establish a case for the phenomena it seeks to describe, it both posits a source for those phenomena (class interests and ideology), and, at its best, makes its case for its characterizations systematically, embracing prosopography, economic history, and other means of charting social trends in the large. If its more radical proponents were not always convincing, they had the courtesy to wear their radical credentials on their sleeves.
By contrast, the cultural history of knowledge seems too satisfied with its ability to portray cultural complexity. Like Marxist and post-Marxist social histories of science, it depends on the cult of invisibility. But rather than developing a broad, coherent, and justified picture about that invisibility and what it conceals, as the social histories did, its use of invisibility as a historiographical device is haphazard and even more opportunistic than that of the social historians.
Cultural historians seem comfortable declaring that any old study hasn’t been done because some historiographical prejudice — whether professional, philosophical, or popular is usually left ambiguous — has prevented some new facet of “culture” from being seen. The liberty taken with the historiographical power to declare things invisible renders scholarship eternally path-breakingly heroic, but never synthetic, thus releasing it from any real scholarly responsibility, except to avoid committing a few basic taboos often afflicting more popular or philosophical historiographies.
It has been said (among others, by Shapin (paywall)) that cultural historians need to leave behind their “jargon” and to take their message to a broader audience. But it is exactly this jargon that makes the cultural history of knowledge, as it is currently practiced, sustainable. I would argue that the jargon does not allow scholars to communicate complicated and subtle ideas to each other (which would be the case with a true “hyperprofessionalism”). Rather, it seems to allow scholars to construct their thoughts in such an arcane way as to prove to themselves that they do not think about science like other people do. In fact, this is precisely why it is believed that the message needs to be better popularized.
The cultural history of knowledge does have some unique features — particularly an unprecedented (and generally beneficial) predilection for writing histories with a museological commitment to realistic portraiture of practices. Yet it is far from apparent to me that cultural historians of knowledge and their allies in STS do, in fact, think substantially differently about science and technology. They use the cult of invisibility to borrow radical postures from Marxist and post-Marxist historiography, but they use those postures to press fairly pedestrian points, generally about the mundane procedures and sources of support required to make the pursuit of scientific knowledge possible.
Further, it is unclear, for example, that the historiography’s realism of portraiture can realistically capture the complexity of either scientific or even political thought, preferring to believe (as did the post-Marxists) that a naive trust in certain authoritative practices is a sufficiently robust explanation of a very large swath of the historical record, rather than to explore past ideas in a fully complex and sympathetic fashion.
The cogency of the cultural history of knowledge seems to be predicated on its vision of itself as an unprecedently rich way of thinking about science and society, but in many ways it is simply an nth-generation rehash of a longstanding theodicy of science and technology.
*See David Kaiser, “A Mannheim for All Seasons: Bloor, Merton, and the Roots of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge,” Science in Context 11 (1998): 51-87.