What is scientific practice?

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!

6 thoughts on “What is scientific practice?

  1. Will Thomas

    I can’t agree with the intellectual history you set out in the first part of your post. It’s very much in the vein of the professional self-mythologizing that is fed to grad students to keep them content and docile as they’re sent to slaughter on the job market. (Hyperbole, but only by half.) The questions of craft that you mention did not hinge on the theorists you mention, and are very much in the vein of Weber or Merton in asserting science as a social and cultural activity. The claim that “textbook” histories are inadequate stretches back at least to the 1940s.

    This is not to say there weren’t important contributions in the ’70s and later (in particular, Weber and Merton did not inquire much into the various facets of scientific practice or epistemology; nor, despite all the promises, has anyone done a fulfilling job since). But these later criticisms need to be measured carefully and painted in the most specific terms we can muster: we have to be careful not to take their slogans too seriously. Prior to the ’70s and ’80s, the historiography was a very long way from simply being exegesis of classic published science output.

    In identifying Foucault, Ginzburg, and Latour, you rightly, I think, pick up on a confluence of influential postures. However, where you portray these confluences as clearly complementary, I view the confluence as counterintuitive and historiographically stultifying. See my post from last year: “Foucault, Ginzburg, Latour, and the Gallery”.

    The “gallery” here is the “gallery of practices”. So this brings me to the point of the second half of your post, the historiographical interest in “practice”. The interest, as near as I can tell, is not in practice, per se, but on an invocation of practice as a commentary on an extant philosophy of science and history of ideas.

    There are three main strands. The first is practice as a hinge in the establishment of claims: instruments, assistants, exhibits, evidence, and so forth as a prerequisite to knowledge. Either the reliability of these become a site where knowledge claims are challenged (Collins’ calibration problem), or they simply represent potential logistical instabilities and must be secured on a practical basis for knowledge-making work to proceed (can’t get my damn observatory built). On the basis that this is an important insight, an illustration of specific instances of these aspects of practice is still often considered a contribution of value.

    The second is practice as a more straight-forward anti-philosophy. Galison’s How Experiments End, and his explicit criticisms of the historiographical worth of positivism and anti-positivist challenges fails to describe the decisions involved in the declaration of satisfaction that a claim is robust. This tends to push the level of explanation down to the microscopic, but Galison himself has resisted this conclusion, and has hoped to derive new histories of “mesoscopic” epistemological ideas from histories of practice. This line sort of sputtered out at the end of the 1980s once what I call the “great escape” from the philosophy of science had been accomplished to historians’ and sociologists’ satisfaction.

    The third, then, is practice as a place where tacit ideas might be read, whether this is epistemological ideas (per Galison and Daston, for instance), or cultural ideas (as I’ve been discussing recently on my blog in terms of the “grand cultural ideas” referenced in boundary polemics). I think Rosenberg is correct to point to this trend as essentially continuing in the tradition of Arthur Lovejoy’s history of ideas, although often in ways that diverge from a sort of rote intellectual history.

    None of the debates are really alive anymore, with I think the various points having been made to pretty much every historian’s satisfaction, at least (I won’t speak for the sociologists). Nevertheless, the basic strategies taken in making those arguments live on in a sort of museological zombie literature — the gallery of practices — which is the point I make in the Foucault, Ginzburg, and Latour post. Some scholars are perfectly satisfied working in this literature, but, aside from my own dislike for it, more eminent scholars such as Galison and Daston have registered similar complaints, though they might disagree about why it has taken hold.

    Anyway, I hope I haven’t jumped the gun on your follow-ups here, but that’s my take. Let me know if I’m being too unclear on any points.

    1. Aaron Sidney Wright Post author

      Hi Will,

      Thanks for the detailed comment. I suppose my “in part” was meant to acknowledge that this one-paragraph-history was just that, and necessarily incomplete. I’ll certainly cop to being a graduate student, though I can’t say that this is exactly what I’ve got from my professors. (And yes, I’m up on the job market disaster, as far as one can be from reading The Chronicle or Marc Bousquet, etc.) And certainly Weber and Merton saw science as a social activity (I referenced Shapin’s Scientific Life, which has a discussion of this), but we would have to agree that this was not a micro-social analysis. Mertonian norms aren’t exactly the same sort of norms that Collins was after.

      And I do see the confluence of Foucault/”new” social history/ microhistory as having been productive (taken too far and stultifying as in the Daston piece you reference, probably). And, from what reading I’ve done, I think these authors were certainly cited well in the HoS literature. Whether these citations correspond to an actual faithful engagement with their ideas is far out of the bounds of this post.

      I think you misunderstand me if you take mt to be disparaging earlier literature. If I recall correctly, Koyré used mostly published sources. But, my later point was about HoS-as-about-journals becoming a straw man for those who published under the flag of `history of scientific practice’. Clearly Kuhn, for one, was deeply involved with preserving and using manuscript sources for the AHQP. I was not complaining about `textbook’ histories, but I think you’ll agree that since the 1970s many people have been claiming to move past an earlier generation. Of course, this is exactly what Latour would expect from a `modern’ historiography: it must depend on erecting a boundary with its past.

      I hope to be questioning people who claim that such-and-such a work/author/approach isn’t sufficiently about `scientific practice’ by examining what that phrase actually means. Where historian’s usage departs from common language usage, we can see some of the politics / rhetoric of our field. And with this, I think we see the assumptions about the nature of `science’ that underlie these positions, which I hope to get at later.

      (I’m very attuned to the micro /meso issue with Galison—see his ten problems in history and philosophy of science, available for free here—and I hope to make my dissertation a `meso’ history. Though that’s some way off for now.)

      So, if you are right and appeals to `practice’ are directed outward to a (long dead?) philosophy of science, I think we’re on the same page. I see that sort of situation as a problem. Partly because there really is something to get at with a history of practice, and partly because lazy characterizations of previous work doesn’t improve history (whatever that means).

      Hopefully I’m not too guilty of the above!

  2. Will Thomas

    Ah, OK, I thought that in moving from the first “straw man” (positivism) to the second “naive position” (journal articles) that you might have been taking the naive position to be more of a real, or actually dominant position than the first. I misread your intent there.

    I think we’re on the same page re: the originality as well as the limits of interest in the earlier sociology of science, as well. I also agree about the influence of F, G, and L; I’m just sensitive to the issue of how we talk about them in the history of our profession, because I think the types of history-writing that their influence is often believed to have made possible are often painted in far too broad of strokes (“now the history of science can have people in it!”), so we do well to try and track down what and where the actual innovations in historiographical craft are. On this score, your mention of AHQP is much appreciated.

    The crack about grad students basically meant that the viewpoint (as I’ve experienced it anyway, not sure what Toronto is like) is something like “if you’ve done a fascinating case study of some incident or person, this is all very cutting-edge, and you’ve done everything you can do to write good history, and isn’t it a shame the world STILL doesn’t get Latour, and so they don’t recognize how important all this is. If they did, there could be jobs for everyone, but they don’t, and isn’t that just academia for you? Anyway, off to the roulette wheel with you, good luck!” Nothing to do with your particular awareness of the situation.

    Anyway, thanks very much for the clarifications. I look forward to your future discussion of the practice question.

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