Wresting with Nature – Science and Place

Great Exhibition 1851
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations 1851

David N. Livingstone once again wraps things up with his “Science and Place.” Imagining science in the singular has been used by progressivists in the service of “philosophical argument or social policy in order to provide grounds for investment in such cultural capital as intellectual advancement, technical control, and instrumental progress.” But a “geography of science,” Livingstone tells us, reveals a “science” influenced in significant ways by location. This analysis undoubtedly “disturbs settled assumptions about the kind of enterprise science is supposed to be and calls into question received wisdom about how scientific knowledge is acquired and stabilized.” In other words, what passes as “science” is different not only from time to time, but also from place to place.

Livingstone supports these claims by looking at “productions of space.” Spaces are social productions of practice, including scientific ones. “Venues like the laboratory, the observatory, the museum, the field, the botanical garden, and the hospital…” but also “cathedrals, coffee houses, tents, breeding clubs, royal courts, stock farms, exhibition stages and, no doubt, many more” are spaces and sites of scientific performance, principle, practice and theory, of institutions and ideas; and each is conditioned by geography.

The following sections on “spaces of experimentation,” “spaces of expedition,” and “spaces of exhibition,” are drawn largely from Livingstone’s Putting Science in its Place (2003), and a summary of them can be found here, here, and here.

Just as scientific knowledge is produced in a variety of places, so too the results of scientific inquiry are received in different venues. Darwin’s theory evolution is a case example, experiencing a “different fate in different national settings, religious spaces, and institutional arenas.” Protestants in Edinburgh, Belfast, and Princeton developed “markedly different tactics in their reading of the Darwinian challenge.” This leads Livingstone to posit that “scientific ideas rarely circulate as immaterial entities”—they are embodied.

More specifically, ideas are embodied “written texts,” for it is “print rather than thought or theory that is let loose upon the world.” A consideration of textual spaces is therefore necessary for understanding scientific culture. But because textual meaning is mobile, distinctive cultures of reading must be parsed within “regions and between them, within cities and between them, within neighborhoods and between them.”

“At every stage in the cycle of scientific culture, place matters. Where scientific work is conducted and where its wares are encountered make a difference to both the production and consumption sides of the enterprise. This means that if we are to understand the place of science in our culture we will need to attend more carefully to the places of scientific culture and to how these spaces have historically come into being.”

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