Biology & the Public: Actor's and Analyst's Categories (Part 2 of 3)

One thing I like about HANK's post is that it questions the utility of both categories -- biology & the public -- by suggesting that their application to 16th century exploration, say, is anachronistic.  There was no such thing as a unified discipline of biology at the time.  Moreover, the relationship between natural history and its various publics were nothing like that between biomedicine and modern citizens.  So is it foolhardy to attempt a relatively longue durĂ©e history of biology and the public?

I'm not sure that it is.  It is indeed tricky -- risky even -- but I think the potential payoff of such a project outweighs its considerable pitfalls.

I'll restrict myself to two points, one methodological and the other more substantive.  First, a point on historical method:

I grant it is very important not to confuse actor's and analyst's categories when doing history.  It would be a grave error to import our modern notions about the relationship between biology and the public into a discussion about 16th century natural history, thinking they apply in roughly the same way.  However, that does not mean we cannot use modern concepts as a useful analytic jumping off point for a historically sophisticated conversation.

One way we might do so would be to trace a constellation of modern categories backwards in time, watching them coalesce into older concepts, disciplines, and ways of life.  Having done so, in our case it it would then be important to realize that early modern natural history has a number of descendants besides contemporary biology.  (Including popular institutions like zoos, acquaria, nature documentaries, etc.)  Moreover, as we trace the path of natural history to modern biology forwards in time again, it's equally important to take note of the many cultural and intellectual influences that creep in laterally, as it were.  (One obvious source would be medicine, but there are many others.)

Historical genealogy is difficult, to be sure, but that does not mean we should shy away from it at the get go!

The second point I want to make is more substantive.  Tracing the historical relationship between biology (or science more generally) and the public is extremely important.  One reason is precisely because in so doing we learn how difficult it is to make this distinction before the late 18th or early 19th century.  However, we also learn that issues of community membership are always being negotiated along some register or another.  Moreover, I do think we can say that an important shift took place around the turn of the 19th century.  As disciplines like biology coalesced into coherent and powerful social institutions, their practitioners deliberately went about setting themselves apart from other sectors of society.  I would argue that it is certainly worthwhile to investigate their reasons for doing so, as well as the mechanisms by which they succeeded in policing the epistemic boundaries that signal their status as holders of expertise.


Lukas, I love it. As you (maybe) know, the actor/analytic category distinction as invoked in discussions amongst historians is a favorite problem of mine. In particular (and I know you probably agree), it gets raised a lot to shut down analysis being imposed on the past. That is, instead of simply urging someone to clarify their terms and where they come from, I've seen the call to specify categories used to shut people down when critics feel they're doing too much "criticism" of past actors. "How would X have explained Y?" turns into "X would not have recognized Y" and can even turn into "You have to explain Y in a way X would've understood."

Yes, Hank, I do agree this sort of thing happens sometimes. But I would make one qualification: whether it is a problem depends on the kind of history you are trying to write. Take a materialist explanation of some historical event as an example. I might say: people at the time would have understood this event in the following terms, but I will argue that we ought to explain it as having had economic causes instead. I don't think there's anything wrong with making that move per se (it all depends on how convincing your particular story is). But it might be that things look different when we are doing intellectual history. If what you want to do is understand a historical actor's thoughts, you have to get inside of their heads. In that case I do see how an argument could me made that we should minimize our use of non-actor's categories as much as possible.

This conversation is very useful because as someone who works on the more 'recent' past, I'd argue that it is even more important to be very careful about the deployment of non-actors' categories.

Not only is there the risk of mis-representing what your actors were thinking, there is the additional risk of your readers mis-interpreting your attributions. Take, for example, 'ecology.'

It is common for analysts to borrow ecological metaphors in their descriptions of science and scientific practice. However, I'd get myself into a pickle (and have!) trying to use ideas about "ecology of knowledge" to describe diverse and contemporaneous practices of systems ecology.

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