Nineteenth-Century Science outside the Laboratory

AHA Session 171
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Joyce Chaplin, Harvard University
Joyce Chaplin, Harvard University

Session Abstract

In his essay “The House of Experiment in Seventeenth-Century England,” Steven Shapin argued that the norms of behavior in early scientific societies and laboratory spaces were adapted from previously-existing social practices of the gentleman’s house. Two centuries later, with the epistemic and social authority of laboratories and other built scientific spaces well established, science was also flourishing well beyond the walls of laboratories, observatories, and museums. The three papers in this panel investigate this outdoor science of the nineteenth century, examining both how knowledge was produced and (following Shapin) how its status as scientific knowledge was established. The latter issue is particularly significant because each author identifies techniques, specimens, values, and norms being imported into the realm of scientific knowledge-making from much larger and longer-established practical pursuits. Thus Woods describes conflicts over how to define scientific activity within agricultural activity, Sponsel argues that much of what proved to be distinctive about Charles Darwin’s theoretical perspective was a product of his long-term immersion in the daily activities of maritime surveyors, and Rieppel demonstrates that paleontology was a technical, social, and economic activity patterned after--and in many respects a product of--the mineral industry. Each paper focuses on a community that included both members whose primary goals were the production of explicitly “scientific” knowledge and others whose motivations were rooted in their vocations of agriculture, surveying, or mining. The spatial extent of these groups is central to each story. Woods and Rieppel examine national-scale cases in which geographical location and social class of participants played significant roles in their relationship to the production of knowledge. Sponsel focuses on the practical activities and knowledge economy of those aboard a single surveying ship. The authors do not see science as being inherently distinct from the practical pursuits of agriculture, surveying, and mining. Rather we each consider the scientific activities we have observed to have been blended with other pursuits in these larger communities of practice. While the session will appeal to those interested in the histories of science and technology, it is aimed at several other audiences including economic historians and those interested in the histories of labor, industry, and agriculture. By showing how outdoor science was done within vocational realms of agriculture, mining, and surveying, we propose that there have been additional layers of significance to Richard White’s premise of “knowing nature through work.”

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