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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lorraine Daston on History of Science vs. Science Studies

Posted by Darin Hayton on 09/23 at 10:46 PM

In a recent address published in the History of Science Society Newsletter, Jane Maienschein indicated that as president of the society she had hoped to help refocus the discipline on science.1 Lorraine Daston’s current essay in Critical Inquiry suggests that Maienschein’s fears about the discipline having strayed too far from its core subject arise from the disciplinary tensions that exist today between science studies and history of science. Maienschein can be understood to be interested in ensuring that history of science remain distinct from science studies.

Daston argues that in the 1970s and 1980s science studies and history of science enjoyed fruitful exchanges. However, despite both science studies and history of science adopting “a position of estrangement toward contemporary science,” they adopted this position for different reasons.2 Science studies scholars rejected any special nature to science and refused to privilege scientists’ own accounts of what they were doing. Historians of science, according to Daston, harbored fewer suspicions about contemporary science and scientists’ descriptions of it. By contrast, they seemed more likely to question scientists’ histories of their own disciplines, their translations of past science into modern terms. Because it focused on modern science, science studies could take its object for study as prepackaged, asking not what science is but how science works. Historians of science, particular those who study the pre-modern world, had to determine what science was as well as how it was practiced. Daston claims that this produced two very different forms of estrangement: “as sociological suspicion and as historical Verstehen.” Further, these different forms of estrangement have lead scholars to construct different subject matter: “science as the given versus science as the explanandum.”3

As a result of these differences, historians of science were increasingly trained in historical methods and cultivated ties to the discipline of history. Through these practices historians of science have become increasingly disciplined in history. Science studies, however, have escaped or avoided these disciplinary moves. History of science has become a discipline; science studies remains an outsider.

If this analysis is accurate, then Maienschein’s comments take on a different nuance. Instead of being about science, per se, her comments are about the discipline. She fears that historians of science are becoming too much like science studies scholars rather than historians of science. As such, historians of science are undermining their own credibility with both historians and scientists.4 Then again, maybe I’m completely off base about this.

Daston’s article, “Science Studies and the History of Science,” Critical Inquiry 35(2009): 798–813, is here, unfortunately behind a paywall.


Notes—
1My thoughts on that address are found here.
2Lorraine Daston, “Science Studies and the History of Science,” Critical Inquiry 35(2009): 805.
3Ibid., 808.
4At the end of her essay Daston has some telling comments about how history of science should not be threatening to scientists in the way that science studies is.

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