Geographies of Scientific Knowledge: Site, Region, Circulation (Part 1)

Steven Shapin has called historians of science to take up the task of providing a more “contextulaized” historiography of the history of science. Since then there has been much progress in putting science in its historical context. In his well-written small book, Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge (2003), David N. Livingstone sets out to evince scientific knowledge and practice as deeply embedded in specific times, places, and local cultures—science, in fact, is always “a view from somewhere.” Documented by an extensive bibliography, Livingstone’s Putting Science in its Place convenes much of the best recent research in history, geography, and social studies of science.

Livingstone - Putting Science in its PlaceLivingstone divides his book into three sections: “Site,” “Region,” and “Circulation.” In his introduction, “A Geography of Science?” Livingstone relates the inherent bias in studying the enterprise of science. “Science, we have long been told, is an enterprise untouched by local conditions. It is a universal undertaking, not a provincial practice.” Science is not to be touched, not to be reduced to the social, to its locality. Livingstone questions this bias. He argues that “space matters,” that place is central to the constitution of society. One’s life is greatly controlled by environment, “human life” has a “spatial dimension, and where an individual, a social group, a state, or a subcontinent is located in material space is therefore highly significant.”

But there are also “abstract spaces.” “We also occupy a variety of abstract spaces, and we infer in spatial ways to the intellectual, social, and cultural arenas through which we move.”

The “social” is another important, ever shifting and overlapping, space. The factory floor, the sports field, the dinner party, the dance floor, the office, the home are all sites that provide “repertories of meaning that facilitate communication.”

Space thus enables and constrains us; dictates what we can say and do; allows only a range of possible, permissible, and intelligible utterances and actions. This is Livingstone’s emphasis of “location and locution”: the positions we speak from are crucial to what can be spoken.

Space is thus significant to the scientific enterprise. In 1863, for example, the Southern Monthly Magazine of New Zealand proclaimed Darwinism as “demonstrating how a ‘weak and ill-furnished race’ inevitably had to ‘give way before one which is strong,'” thus justifying New Zealand imperialism. In the American South, on the other hand, Darwinism was opposed by racial politics because it “threatened traditional beliefs about the separate creation of the different races and the idea that they had been endowed by the Creator with different capacities for cultural and intellectual excellence.” As Livingstone puts it, Darwinism enjoyed remarkably different fortunes in different places, “in one place it supported racial ideology; in another it imperiled it.” Darwinism meant different things in Russia and Canada; in Belfast and Edinburgh; in clubs and church halls. “Scientific theory,” according to Livingstone, “evidently does not disperse evenly across the globe form its point of origin. As it moves it is modified; as it travels it is transformed…[thus] scientific theories [are] not stable; rather, [they] are mobile and varies from place to place.”

Space is thus not immune to the vicissitudes of international exchange. This is particularly important in how we imagine distant people and places, and how we choose to represent them to ourselves and to others. This is of immense moral and political significance, as was the case with Europe’s rendezvous with the New World, or the construction of the South Pacific or the “Orient” by Victorian imperialists. “What is striking about these representations,” Livingstone writes, “is the complicity of scientific endeavor in their propagation.” As such, science did not reveal “truth”; it only continued stereotypes.

Science is concerned with things that have spatial dimensions, with ideas and institutions, with theories and practice, with principles and performance. But who imagines this space? What are its boundaries? Who is allowed access? Can certain types of scientific inquiry be correlated with certain social classes, or with those of a particular religious persuasion, or with metropolitan or provincial cultures?  Has scientific work been used to sustain the ideology of particular groups and to promote their interests over those of others?

According to Livingstone, “What is known, how knowledge is obtained, and the ways warrant is secured are all intimately bound up with the venues of science.” Investigating the local, regional, and national features of science means that science is not to be thought of as some transcendent entity that bears no trace of the parochial or contingent. “We must work,” writes Livingstone, “with a less fixed conception of what science is.” What passes as science is contingent on time and place; it is persistently under negotiation. After all, science is a human enterprise: “it is not some preordained entity the fulfilling an a priori set of necessary and sufficient conditions for its existence; it is a human enterprise, situated in time and space.”

These are some of the geographical questions central to Putting Science in its Place. Livingstone is aware that this little book is not exhaustive in scope. His focus is rather on and around historical examples drawn from the sixteenth century to the early twentieth. Although brief and concisely written, each chapter discloses a considerable amount of information and erudition. In this post we will look at the content of chapter one, “Site.”

On Site

In the first chapter, “Site,” Livingstone surveys a spectrum of locations where scientific work is done—the laboratory; the cabinet, which evolves into the museum; the field; botanical and zoological gardens; the hospital; and the human body.

Scientific practice is undoubtedly influenced by spatial settings. Equipment regulates human behavior in one way or another. The scientific site is often constructed so as to restrain or promote certain interactions. It is also within these sites that students socialize with their respective scientific communities; here they learn the questions to be asked, the appropriate methods of tackling problems, expected codes of conduct, and interpretation. “Here decisions are settled about what passes the scientific knowledge, how it should be acquired, and the means by which claims are warranted.”

The most common scientific site is the laboratory. A long-standing tradition in the West was the idea that retiring from society was a precondition for securing knowledge that was of universal value. “Ironically, to acquire knowledge that was true everywhere, the seer had to go somewhere to find wisdom that bore the marks of nowhere.” This tradition originates from the monastic life of solitude and was central to the practice of science.

But during the emergence of English science in the mid-to late seventeenth century laboratories were erected in homes. This change was significant, because while solitude was still important, these “houses of experiment” instilled scientific knowledge as public. “In order to achieve the status of knowledge, claims had to be produced in the right place and had to be validated by the right public.” Where science was conducted was thus a crucial ingredient in establishing whether an assertion was warranted. But these “houses of experiment” were not public in today’s sense. They were only open to “the experimental public,” privileged gentlemen “whose presence was essential to the confirmation of empirical findings.” Women, children, laborers, and the like were not allowed entry.

Establishing experimental claims, however, was simply not just a matter of disclosing them; it was frequently necessary to dramatize. This meant that experimental display inhabited a space poised between conjuring tricks and scholarly authority, between theater in the academy. Serving at theater and microworld, manipulated, controlled, and reconstructed nature, the laboratory was an “emblematic space replete with cultural meaning,” functioning only in the “presence of the geographically privileged who were permitted to cross the threshold.”

Predating the laboratory were spaces of accumulation such as the museum and the archive, where specimens and samples were collected and organized according to the prevailing norms. These “cabinets of curiosities” served as an insignia of a civilized household. It was a social standing to have a collection of the “wonders of the world.” When these cabinets transformed into museums they were more than just collection sites; they were a synthetic space, a place for scholarly conversation. Thus while museums exhibited real world objects, they refashioned reality, through classification, location, and genealogy. In this sense they were more than the accumulation of global objects to gain knowledge; they were a form of global control: “by accumulating, reorganizing, and reproducing information on the remotest corners of the earth, the Victorian archive played its part in shaping worldwide geopolitical relations.”

The museum performed a variety of roles in the historical unfolding of scientific inquiry. “In the museum people learned how to look at the world, to value the past, and how to visualize relations between specimens.”

Yet no matter how extraordinary the exhibit, no matter numerous the specimens, no matter how categorized its contents, the museum was not the world itself. To view that required moving outside the confines of laboratories and collection cabinets and into the open spaces of the field. But the field, according to Livingstone, turns out to be anything but the obvious scientific site. It was often characterized by ambiguity. “The observations of the field worker were broken and fleeting; by contrast the bench-tied student of nature had time to spread out samples to collate and analyze them, and thereby to come to reliable conclusions.” The field was fragmentary, precarious, and unprofessional. The laboratory encouraged patient comparison, correlation, and contemplation. Indeed, “the rhetoric of adventure dominated the culture of field science: adventurousness conveyed its own authority. Laboratory opponents, by contrast, thought that high adventure and uncontrolled wilderness delivered nothing like the precision good science demanded.”

Between the archive and the field, the world of the museum and the world of nature, stands the garden. “Enclosed yet expansive, open yet delimited, natural yet managed, the garden occupies a place between the great outdoors and the cloistered cabinet.” Gardens “depended on its capacity to represent order over against chaos, cultivation in opposition to wilderness, art as opposed to nature.” They were an attempt to return to the Paradise of Eden, an escape from the postlapsarian world. In the wake of the European voyages of reconnaissance in the New World, the conception of the garden as a hollowed refuge from the world began to be supplemented by a vision of the garden as a “living encyclopedia.” But as well as being sites for accumulating botanical specimens, gardens also became maps of both social status and buying power. Indeed they were increasingly seen in political metaphors. Botanical gardens were agents of Empire. Insofar as zoological gardens were bound up with animal domestication, they were invariably implicated in colonial projects. Gardens, then, were multifarious spaces. They “hankered after the Garden of Eden; they sought to reproduce global biogeography; they exhibited social standing; they wielded biomedical power.”

Like the museum, the garden, and the zoo, the hospital stands somewhere between the worlds of science and public culture. In the beginning the hospital was feckless and friendless — it served in general as a correctional facility, for paupers and petty criminals. “The history of the modern hospital can be traced back to the monastic infirmary, almshouse for the hopeless, army barracks adapted to attend to tend the wounded in wartime, plague houses, and various other institutions that from time to time had to care for the sick.” Hospitals, in other words, was a place of more harm than good.

Hospitals were also moral spaces, manifesting the values of their surrounding cultures. According to Livingstone,  “medical prescription and moral orderliness” went “hand in hand” with hospital care.

The meaning of hospital space moved with social judgment as well as changing architecture. The “hospital,” writes Livingstone, “was a sermon in bricks and mortar on the medical benefits of moral discipline as fundamental to healing.” The idea that hospital interiors are readable cultural spaces is perhaps nowhere more closely disclosed then what were called insane or lunatic asylums. “Asylums have regularly been sites of surveillance dominated by the imperatives of supervision and control.” In the Middle Ages asylums were spaces of exorcism; in the seventeenth century they were used for reestablishing political order; and during the enlightenment they were used for disciplining “unreason.”

In the final section of chapter one Livingstone considers the body, human or otherwise, as a space for scientific knowledge. Rabbits used in toxicology work, rhesus monkeys for experimental surgery, rats in polio research, horses in investigations of emphysema, tests carried out on women in Puerto Rico using oral contraceptives in the 1950s, racial hygiene in Nazi Germany, are all examples of embodied scientific knowledge. “Given that bodies are resolutely located in space, there are grounds for suspecting that scientific knowledge is always positioned knowledge, rationality always situated rationally, inquiry always local inquiry” (my emphasis). Accordingly, “science displays rather than transcends human particularity—in terms of race, gender, class, and in all likelihood a host of other factors.” Whether science is practiced in a laboratory, a museum, a garden, a field station, a hospital or whatever, “these spaces are always occupied by embodied investigators.”

There are other spaces Livingstone considers. From cathedrals, ships, tents, royal courts, coffeehouses, lecture theaters, to salons, what all these spaces share is that they are made. “Space is therefore not dead, inert, and fixed; rather it is lively, shifting, fluid. Space is animated by events. It is always a production. And scientific space is no exception.”

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2 comments

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