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Sketch: UK Agricultural Research and Education January 7, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Technocracy in the UK.
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Joseph Henry Gilbert (1817-1901)

It is difficult to trace the lineage of agricultural research in Britain without the bottom falling out from underneath your feet, putting you in freefall until you land with a thud in the eighteenth century.  Since this is well outside the scope of my project, I will just note a few reference points before scrambling back toward the twentieth century: the growth of experimental farming by “improvement”-minded landowners (good ol’ Turnip Townshend and co.), the 1791 foundation of the Veterinary College of London (later the Royal Veterinary College), and the 1796 foundation of the Sibthorpian Chair of Rural Economy at Oxford through the benefaction of John Sibthorp (1758-1796), who was Sherrardian Professor of Botany there from 1784 until his death (having replaced his father, Humphrey, who held the post from 1747 to 1783).

A Board of Agriculture existed in England from 1793 until it was wound up in 1820.  The Royal Agricultural Society of England was founded in 1838, and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons was founded in 1844.  For reference, the Board of Longitude was wound up in 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society was founded in 1820, the British Medical Association was founded in 1832, and the Chemical Society of London was founded in 1841.


Foucault, Ginzburg, Latour, and the Gallery September 30, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post is an expansion on my previous post on Lorraine Daston’s discussion of the proliferation of microhistories that are “archivally based and narrated in exquisite detail” but that seem to serve no clear end.  I largely agree with her assessment of this trend as an unsatisfactory state of affairs, as well as with her linking of the trend to a divergence from a prior era of productive dialogue with the other fields of science studies.  However, she makes two key claims with which I disagree:

  1. “…in large part because of the mandate to embed science in context, historians of science have become self-consciously disciplined, and the discipline to which they have submitted themselves is history” (808).
  2. “Insofar as there has been a counterweight to these miniaturizing tendencies in recent work in the history of science, it has been supplied not by science studies but by a still more thoroughgoing form of historicism, namely, the philosophical history of Michel Foucault” (809).

I do not believe historians of science have in some way exchanged science studies for history, and I believe the historicism associated here with Foucault represents a continuity with the scholarship of the ’80s.

Let’s start with the intertwined set of highly productive conversations that took place around the ’80s (which we are beginning to revisit on this blog, and of which Daston was a part).  Participants understood their gains to be generated by studying things like “practice not ideas”, “instruments”, “cultures of the fact” and so forth, which are slogans that make sense if you have a (more…)

Primer: Drosophila September 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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What value do historians of science gain from locating a point of origin?  Scientists, I think, like origins, because it’s customary to give credit where credit is due in scientific papers.  Historians can find origins very useful, because they often reveal a certain motivation or meaning in a tradition, which was later lost even as the tradition persisted.  There’s probably a certain satisfaction to be found in looking at some point in history, and finding that “before this point in time, this idea did not exist.”  But there are dangers as well.  Meanings change notoriously over time, so when we look for the origin of this or that belief that we hold today, though we may recognize it in the past, it would look quite different to those who “came up” with it.  Origins are also slippery in other ways.  We often find that when we track them down, some new “predecessor” presents itself, and we’re stuck chasing a constantly retreating mirage.  Thus, when we bother to track things down, we should make sure we gain value from the act of tracking.

In the case of genetics, there’s a well-known tradition that dates the study of genetics back to the monk Gregor Mendel and his famous green and yellow peas (get out your Punnett squares, class).  There’s even a historical scandal suggesting that Mendel cooked his data: statistically it’s too good.  But why should we really care about Mendel?  I mean, it’s good to know about him, and it’s good to know how others have viewed him and used his precedent to further their own work, but there’s not much value in worrying too much about him, specifically.  His work wasn’t used or even known until 35 years after its publication in an obscure journal, when it was unearthed by Hugo DeVries and Carl Correns, who were part of a thriving botanical/laboratory-biology culture circa 1900 that was already deep in theorization about how (more…)

Holmes, Part 3: Does Nature Matter? April 18, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Comparing what I’ve (poorly) called the historical arc vs. the historical reality models of writing history, Holmes goes on to discuss some of the relevant literature. Probably his main target here is Robert Kohler’s (1982, now out of print) From Medical Chemistry to Biochemistry: The Making of a Biomedical Discipline, the first chapter of which explores how “physiological chemistry” was caught in a sort of professional limbo between physiology and organic chemistry in the German university system–hence this gap between first major calls for a cell-oriented chemistry ca. 1850, and the eventual instantiation of a full-blown biochemistry ca. 1900.

Now, things get complicated here, so all this is all too-fast, too-rough recapitulation, but, long story short, Kohler’s book focuses almost exclusively on the non-scientific politics of disciplinary formation. One of Holmes’ big points is to bring the science back into the picture. “If we are to understand scientific innovation and change comprehensively, then we need studies at all levels of organization, from the individual investigator [which he goes on to defend vigorously] and the local research school to the international field; and on time scales ranging from daily experimental operations to the several decades or even much longer that are often required for scientific problems to evolve and for major domains of scientific knowledge to be acquired.” He had previously discussed Mulkay and Edge, but he’s also clearly addressing the points made by Kohler and Latour: “A research field is more than a network of communication and ties of professional interest.”

In some sense, this boils down to the usual, “but nature matters!” argument deployed against the “spin up” interpretation of sociology. Rudwick (see the last post) certainly agrees (see the latest HSS newsletter). Kohler seems to as well, and actually, in his 1982 book, seems to lament the politics of the German university that prevented biochemistry from emerging. Although Holmes gets into it, repeatedly, with the sociologists’ “spin up” arguments throughout the lectures, I get the feeling his main concern is not with proving that nature matters, but, rather, that he has his own, very historiographical agenda. He wants to know how we get down to telling histories that reveal what mattered, and thus why his approach to history is best in this case, as opposed to an approach like that used in, say, Great Devonian Controversy or From Medical Chemistry to Biochemistry.

By embracing both long time spans (unlike a case study approach like Rudwick’s), and by embracing laboratory-level practice (unlike Kohler’s approach to a similar topic), Holmes aims to show how the formation of a field like biochemistry is not simply a matter of willing it into existence provided there are no political barriers, but that nature and the evolution of ideas about nature matter in determining what is deemed worth investigation. Most of his lectures are centered around constructing a narrative in which such points are pertinent. In other words, he shows how a more sociologist-friendly book like Kohler’s is actually more Whiggish than his approach, because it presumes that a field like biochemistry ought to exist, and that it was necessary for the emergence of biochemical knowledge (as Kohler himself seems to confirm). This could all be a big misinterpretation of the historiographical argument taking place, on both Holmes’ and Kohler’s parts–I read this stuff quickly–but it’s what I took away from it.

Next time: Holmes responds to some criticisms in his epilogue.