The Science (Studies) Wars: Daston v. Jasanoff

As promised, I’m extending my post from last week in light of recent developments: a piece by Sheila Jasanoff and Peter Dear (in the most recent issue of Isis) responding to a piece by Lorraine Daston (in Critical Inquiry a few years ago) on the relationship between science studies and the history of science.

Briefly (as a background to this and a previous post), I am asserting: (1) that historians in general share a set of assumptions about structure and agency, (2) that the history of science is basically in line with this wider trend, and (3) that while there’s nothing wrong with this co-/convergent evolution, there’s another theoretical shift on the horizon.

I won’t dwell too much on (1), in part because I’m still developing an appropriate vocabulary for elucidating it. Very roughly: with the rise of anthropologically-inflected cultural history since the 1970s, the balance between structure and agency seems to have shifted from keywords related to the former (social, institutions, mentalités) to those related to the latter (individuals, agency, self-fashioning).

Lukas rightly pointed out that “our scientists are not merely a simple reflection of their cultural / political / social context but neither do they operate outside of that context.” However, it’s my claim that framing the issue in terms of “our scientists” is to beg the (which is to say, my) question. Yes, actors use available resources: right now (with some exceptions I mentioned), we tell stories about both but focus mostly on the actors, which, before the 1970s, was not a foregone conclusion. Dan Rodgers’ recent description of the “Age of Fracture” suggests a more general context for this disciplinary trend, and, while it’s far from airtight, I stand by his, and my own, appraisal.

Moving on to (2), and bringing in the recent events I mentioned, Daston’s piece supports this interpretation with reference to the history of science. In particular, she draws on the shift I suggest to explain the split between science studies (for which, she asserts, “The iridescent word social was and remains the talisman…”) and the history of science. Daston sees two different approaches to subject matter: science studies takes “science” as a given and approaches it with suspicion, while the history of science takes it as the explanandum and approaches it with “historical verstehen.” In apprenticing itself to history, the history of science became a discipline (and adopted its new masters’ theoretical assumptions) while science studies remained interdisciplinary and, paradoxically, clung to theoretical assumptions closer to those in the sciences.

Dear and Jasanoff disagree, to say the least. “Beneath the banter, ” they say, “Daston purveys a divisive and, in our view, profoundly misleading message on many levels.” Dear and Jasanoff attempt to correct this message by emphasizing what is shared (figures, ideas, and methods) across the historical boundary-lines Daston draws. Rather than assign historians the question of “what science is” and STS-scholars the question of “how science works,” these two (a) see disciplinary lines as more administrative than epistemic and (b) envision an interdisciplinary constellation around the study of science in which “all analytical and methodological techniques, and empirical resources, ought in principle to be available.”

One way (among many!) to approach this dispute would be to divide the institutional claims from the epistemic ones. About the former we can (and should) be realists: institutional and administrative boundaries exist – to different degrees in different contexts – between science and science studies, history and STS, &c. We can talk about bridging (or fortifying) these barriers, but such discussions should be based on the specificity of the programs we’re discussing. About the latter, however, relativism seems more appropriate: fundamental epistemic distinctions between science and non-science, or between different approaches to science studies, are harder to pin down in either past or present.

Of course, here isn’t one “relativism” to apply, and unpacking that is how I’ll lead into my concluding thoughts. As Daston laments in her own conclusion, critics of “science studies” (the labels are confused, since she hers are incommensurable with those of Dear and Jasanoff) too often blur together the social constructionism of STS and the historicism of the history of science. She claims that the former fails when it purports “to impugn both validity and honesty” in science, while the latter succeeds (more or less) precisely because it isn’t an attack.

This taxonomy (and the impulse to formalize it), Jasanoff and Dear insist, is peculiarly Dastonian, or is at least far more contentious than she allows. The “historicism” she describes is one tool for the study of science, but it doesn’t define that study. For Jasanoff and Dear, what does define it is the question of “what kinds of questions, originating from what foundations and subject to what social or material constraints, drive historians of science in general,” a factor in which they see “much, if not complete, overlap with drives within contemporary STS.” When Daston suggests that historians believe that “scientific practices are both socially constructed and real,” Jasanoff and Dear would probably say “So do we!”

What is the relevance of this dispute to claim (2), above? Well, if Daston is correct and there is something distinct about reasoning in the history of science vs. that in STS, then my claim really only applies to the history of science as she defines it. However, if Dear and Jasanoff are correct that institutional division masks epistemic commonalities, then I would have to do more work to elucidate how the pervasive assumptions I suggest in (1) are active in STS scholarship.

Either way, this debate seems relevant to lots of issues we’ve been raising: the relationship between science and those who study it in various ways, the institutional and intellectual links between historians of science and general historians (of the United States or otherwise), and the question of who reads the history of science and why.


*Note: Now that I’ve touched on the dispute between Daston and Dear/Jasanoff, I’ll address my third claim – (3), above – in a future post, touching on methodology and its relationship to historical ontology and, especially, epistemology within the discipline. To do so, I’ll relay bits of a discussion we had here in Princeton last week during a colloquium by Jim Endersby, at which we discussed issues of audience and scope for the history of science as an academic discipline and a genre of (historical) writing. More soon...


One thought on “The Science (Studies) Wars: Daston v. Jasanoff

  1. Dan

    I read both of these pieces this weekend and didn't know exactly what to make of the dispute. Hank, I think your framing helps. S&J do argue that “institutional division masks epistemic commonality.”

    S&J insist that their history of STS differs in important ways from Daston's. Yet I thought they told essentially the same story. In both papers, HOS and STS fused in the 70s and 80s in enormously productive (if occasionally threatening) ways. The papers split on whether that fusion has ended.

    The most convincing part of S&J's argument rested on their contention that we do not generally demarcate disciplines “along temporal lines.” Thus, they argue, we should have a discipline devoted to the study of science that encompasses studies of science's past, present, and future.

    I have close friends with HOS training who now work in STS programs. There is no reason the fields cannot still blend. Yet those same friends have also come to ask different sorts of questions than I do in my history department. They aim to a greater level of generality—one that is relevant to the present practice of science, and occasionally outright reformist—than I or my fellow historians would usually consider appropriate.

    Most fields do not split along temporal lines. But history, on the whole, maintains one firm line: that between the past and the present/future. Do S/J overlook that? Or am I mis-reading?



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