"Science Conservatively Defined"

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Reflecting on how we came to name ourselves "AmericanScience" as HSS approaches, I noticed an interesting thing under our "About the FHSA" tab. The submission criteria for the Forum's Publication Prize are that the work be "on a topic in American Science ('American' loosely defined to include the western hemisphere, 'science' conservatively defined to exclude articles focusing on either the 'clinical and social history of medicine' or the 'history of technology')."

"American loosely defined," "science conservatively defined." On the one hand, these criteria are easy to understand (and justify). The looseness of the former accommodates work on Central and South America that has no other group identity in HSS; the rigidness of the latter prevents encroachment from those working on topics (medicine, technology) with their own associations, annual meetings, and opportunities for prizes elsewhere. Definitions reflect their institutions.

On the other hand, though, there's a sense in which this balance of loose and conservative definitions mirrors a wider phenomenon in the field. In the wake of the most dogmatic years of the "transnational turn" – during which one could pick a project for the very sake of its being transnational – there's still a strong emphasis (at least at Princeton) on dissolving national boundaries as one tracks ideas and practices across them. "Why only in X?" is a common query.

Not so for defining the ideas and practices themselves. In many respects, there is still a pressure to focus on figures and texts that are either part of an ill-defined canon or – more commonly – represent the origins, past lives, or paths-not-taken of acknowledged fields of scientific inquiry today. You can write about mesmerism or pseudo-science precisely because of their relationship to "science." Often, it's this relationship that constitutes the elevator pitch for one's project.

What does that leave out, for American science? It can be complicated to identify as a historian of science (as opposed to a US cultural/intellectual historian) if one's topic is the extra-scientific lives of scientific ideas – their origin in, and influence upon, wider American culture. When I proposed to write a dissertation on methodological debates amongst psychologist, philosophers, and scientists, an elder statesman of the field asked a telling question: "Where's the science?"

That perspective seems to be on the decline, but the other structuring factor here is ... the job market. Programs in the history of science still tend to imagine needs in – and conduct job searches for – the "life" and "physical sciences." This fact shapes how new graduate students conceive dissertation topics. Science, defined "conservatively" according to the need to get a job, thus helps maintain an identity barrier between American history and the history of science.

2 comments

I want to second the sentiment here, what we should be doing is contextualizing our object of study in social, cultural, and, perhaps, economic history more broadly -- precisely the opposite of conserving a narrow definition of science. I'm less sure about the job market point. Seems to me there are far more jobs in American history than the history of science. Moreover, what courses you can teach is largely a function of your general examination fields more so than your dissertation. Its possible to write a broad intellectual history of philosophical debates among physiological psychologists and still sell oneself as a historian of the life science; albeit one who isn't weighed down by the old-school historiography.

I've been interested to see some shifts in the job market and in US cultural/intellectual history toward carving out space for science studies approaches. I hear from friends on the job market about a small uptick in recent years in the number of "science and culture" or "science in culture" jobs---jobs that folks who aren't HSS-regulars will find attractive.

Then there's something like Ann Fabian's book, which clearly drinks deeply from science studies, but looks like standard fare US culture history (of the best sort).

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