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A Fluid Taxonomy of 20c. Sciences October 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, Collins-Evans Q&A.
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Will (L) and Christopher pretending to work on the project for the AIP newsletter.

Will (L) and Christopher pretending to work on their web project for the benefit of the AIP's weekly newsletter.

One of my ongoing concerns is the problem of writing a coherent history of 20th-century science and technology.  As I’ve been working on assembling names for my web project on notable post-1945 American physicists (on which Christopher is assisting me), I’ve been trolling through the National Academy of Sciences’ database of deceased members.  Living members are helpfully grouped by section, and we’ve simply taken members of the “physics” and “applied physical sciences” sections.  Deceased members, on the other hand, are not so grouped, so I have to look everyone up and sort out the physicists from the psychologists, anthropologists, chemists, geneticists, and so forth.

Predictably, this has resulted in some problematic category issues.  What to do with physical chemists, electrical engineers (especially those who won Nobel Prizes in physics)?; what separates an astronomer from an astrophysicist? when is mathematics physics-y enough to include mathematicians?

Another interesting problem that I’ve run into is that certain fields seem to have stopped being physics.  Ballistics research becomes more statistical than physical.  Thermodynamics, one of the great products of (more…)

Wave Three in the Sociological SEE March 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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By far the most interesting thing cropping up in my semi-annual journal review will not be featured in the History Center newsletter, because it is not directly concerned with physics. It is the recent Studies in History and Philosophy of Science dedicated to Harry Collins, Robert Evans, and Mike Gorman’s attempt to create “Wave Three” in the sociology of science, which Collins calls Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEE) (originally outlined in a 2002 article by Collins and Evans in Social Studies of Science). To recap, Wave One is the “science is a special form of knowledge” associated with Merton et al.; Wave Two is the “no it isn’t” SSK trend that I’ve been rambling about here as a central motivator of the case study literature found in the history journals.

Wave Three is designed to correct the obvious and longstanding shortcomings in Wave Two by focusing on the social dynamics of “expertise” rather than “truth-production”–that is, roughly, trying to explain not only how knowledge is validated by society, but the mechanisms by which it actually becomes useful. Before descending into the usual sociological hell of illustrative case examples, labyrinthine jargon, and funny diagrams (here, things like the “Periodic Table of Expertises”), the three of them come up with some useful ideas, particularly one about “interactional expertise”, which they seem to view as a generalization of the Galisonian “trading zone”.

Effectively, interactional expertise deals with knowledge exchange between groups who overlap, whose knowledge is relevant to each other’s activities, but who are not part of the same expert community. It also puts knowledge in the framework of decision-making rather than knowledge-production, which has some interesting possibilities I could talk about later. (It also suggests they may simply be covering ground that Herbert Simon covered in Administrative Behavior 60 years ago during the supposed heyday of Wave One).

I think the Wave Three’ers are a little hamstrung by their seeming unwillingness to discuss epistemology (a remnant of the old antagonisms with the philosophers?), but it still strikes me as salubrious given the historiographical trends produced by Wave Two. (Conveniently, it also meshes quite well with some ideas appearing in my dissertation and forthcoming book, but that’s a topic for a time when the book is much nearer to the printing press!)