Since the 1970s, post-Kuhnian history and philosophy of science has become increasingly concerned with scientific practice. Historians began to look beyond the published sources that underlay the work of Kuhn and Koyré. In part, this was due to the influence of changes in other disciplines. Feminist scholars aligned with the influence of the “new” social history in the desire to capture the history of the marginalized. But those marginalized by science—native populations, women, study subjects, animals—do not have robust lives in scientific publications, if they are mentioned at all. The archival records and material traces of science was needed to tell these stories. Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish connected everyday practice to l’histoire de des mentalités (1977). This all fit well with the development of “microhistory,” extending the influence of Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1980; first published in Italian in 1976) and Clifford Geertz’s “thick description” ethnography The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). Geertz brings us to the influence of anthropology on HPS, but I will not recount the intellectual history of Edinburgh’s Strong Programme (Barnes, Bloor, Shapin) and the Bath School (Collins, Pinch, Yearly) (See Zammito, 2004; Ashmore, 1989) By the 1980s ‘French’ studies of science lead by Michel Callon and Bruno Latour challenged the Anglophone interpretation of ethnography of science. (It is not really a ‘French’ school, of course. Though Latour is Actor-Network Theory’s public face, he was deeply involved in collaborations with two British sociologists: John Law and Steve Woolgar. The debate plays out in Pickering, 1992.) Neither group accepted the positivistic idea that Nature speaks the Truth to great scientific men. The British sociologists moved the agency in scientific investigation on to the scientists and promulgated various versions of social constructivism. The `French’ analysts preferred to investigate how and why a line is drawn between the actions of scientists and the actions of nature; and they therefore ascribed agency to both people and things (together “actants”). The most important question about scientific practice was Who does the practicing?
I contend that…
…the most important question is not Who does the practicing? but rather What do we mean by scientific practice? Focusing on what scientific practice means for each author puts the debates over agency in a new light and points the way to a more productive historiographic debate. (A debate that still needs to happen in public.)
But before wading into any more historiography, it will pay to take a closer look at what ‘scientific practice’ means. ‘Scientific’ has a straightforward meaning ”3. Of or pertaining to science or the sciences; of the nature of science” (Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition 1989). But the quotations provided indicate that this is not quite the sense we are looking for. The adjective modifies “studies,” “truth,” “language,” “temper,” and “spirit.” “Studies” is close to a practice, but it is an early usage (1722) outweighed by the later usage that applies “scientific” to concepts and intangibles. Rather we should look to “4. a. Of an art, practice, operation, or method: Based upon or regulated by science, as opposed to mere traditional rules or empirical dexterity,” where we find “Scientifick Dyalling” [using a sun dial] (1678) and “scientific taxation” (1902). So, some activity is scientific if it is “based on or regulated by science.” We should note that what is scientific need not be part of science, but can be an extrapolation of science or something regulated by science. This simultaneous ascription of ‘scientific’ meaning ‘activity that has science at its heart/base’ and scientific meaning ‘regulated by science’ is matched by the definition of ‘practice.’
The first entry for ‘practice’ in the OED (June 2010 revision) refers to professionals: “1. The carrying out or exercise of a profession, esp. that of medicine or law.” This refers to both the rationale at the base of the activity, but also the social structure surrounding it. Professionals have a vocation but also a socio-politics (Shapin, 2008). The second definition of ‘practice’ captures the idea of practice as practical. “2. a. The actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to the theory or principles of it; performance, execution, achievement; working, operation; (Philos.) activity or action considered as being the realization of or in contrast to theory.” The opposition of practice to theory is a common theme in contemporary history of science, but it is worthwhile to note that the OED cites a 1969 translation of Husserl’s Formal & Transcendental Logic: “The distinction is after all a relative one; because even purely theoretical activity is indeed activity—that is to say, a practice.” From this parsing, `scientific practice’ means an action that is based on or regulated by science; this action is exercising a profession or the application of an idea, belief, or method.
The naive view of science that so often stands as a straw-man for historians of science is the positivist view of science as (rationally reconstructed) theoretical progression. By the time the 1980s this was a non-starter. The new naive view (expressed in caricatures of “technical” historians of science and in histories written by scientists) is that science is what happens in journal pages. And already—without introducing Actor-Network Theory or social construction—a brief linguistic analysis suggests this cannot be right. Scientific practice by definition includes the social structure of science, the actions of those regulated by science, and the functioning of scientists as professionals in society.
I think focusing on what understanding of ‘scientific practice’ underlies authors other methodological moves—studies of Actor-Networks, experimental systems, epistemic things, trading zones—can clear up the issues at play and allow for useful comparison across authors. Does Latour’s Pasteurization of France fail to account for scientific practice? Or is it just Latour’s stress on the regulatory and professional aspects of the phrase. Watch this space for some examples in the (hopefully) near future.
Thanks for reading!