Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge

Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge

by David N. Livingstone

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We are accustomed to thinking of science and its findings as universal. After all, one atom of carbon plus two of oxygen yields carbon dioxide in Amazonia as well as in Alaska; a scientist in Bombay can use the same materials and techniques to challenge the work of a scientist in New York; and of course the laws of gravity apply worldwide. Why, then, should the spaces where science is done matter at all? David N. Livingstone here puts that question to the test with his fascinating study of how science bears the marks of its place of production.

Putting Science in Its Place establishes the fundamental importance of geography in both the generation and the consumption of scientific knowledge, using historical examples of the many places where science has been practiced. Livingstone first turns his attention to some of the specific sites where science has been made—the laboratory, museum, and botanical garden, to name some of the more conventional locales, but also places like the coffeehouse and cathedral, ship's deck and asylum, even the human body itself. In each case, he reveals just how the space of inquiry has conditioned the investigations carried out there. He then describes how, on a regional scale, provincial cultures have shaped scientific endeavor and how, in turn, scientific practices have been instrumental in forming local identities. Widening his inquiry, Livingstone points gently to the fundamental instability of scientific meaning, based on case studies of how scientific theories have been received in different locales. Putting Science in Its Place powerfully concludes by examining the remarkable mobility of science and the seemingly effortless way it moves around the globe.

From the reception of Darwin in the land of the Maori to the giraffe that walked from Marseilles to Paris, Livingstone shows that place does matter, even in the world of science.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226487243
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/15/2010
Series: science * culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 244
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

David N. Livingstone is a professor of geography and intellectual history at Queen’s University, Belfast. A Fellow of the British Academy and a member of both the Academia Europaea and the Royal Irish Academy, he is the author of numerous books, including The Geographical Tradition: Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise and Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion and the Politics of Human Origins.

Read an Excerpt

Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge

By David N. Livingstone

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 David N. Livingstone
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226487229

1 - A Geography of Science?

Scientific knowledge is made in a lot of different places. Does it matter where? Can the location of scientific endeavor make any difference to the conduct of science? And even more important, can it affect the content of science? In my view the answer to these questions is yes.

The suggestion that science has a geography goes against the grain. We can readily understand that there is a philosophy of science and a history of science, even a sociology of science. But the idea of a geography of science runs counter to our intuition. Science, we have long been told, is an enterprise untouched by local conditions. It is a universal undertaking, not a provincial practice. Of all the human projects devoted to getting at the truth of how things are, that venture we call science has surely been among the most assiduous in its efforts to transcend the parochial. It has been extraordinarily diligent in deploying mechanisms to lay aside prejudices and presuppositions and to guarantee objectivity by leaving the local behind. Credible knowledge, we assume, does not bear the marks of the provincial, and science that is local has something wrong with it. As one observer has put it, "It was the endfor cold fusion when people decided that it only happened in Salt Lake City." Genuine science, after all, is carried on in much the same way everywhere from Boston to Beijing; experimentalists replicate each other's results in Moscow and Melbourne; conference delegates from Paris and Prague can engage in scientific conversation.

The places where science is conducted, then, seem to be of little or no consequence. Even geographers, despite their professional stake in matters of place and location, have been inclined to exempt science from the imperatives of spatial significance. To be sure, they have acknowledged from time to time that a geography of, say, astronomy could be written. But beyond such trivial circumstances as the fact that observatories are not erected in foggy valley floors or that the Pole Star is not visible in the Southern Hemisphere, there was really nothing more to say. To suggest that the methods of astronomy, or the theories astronomers devised, might be influenced by their spatial settings was little short of absurd. Of course geographers-- like everyone else--readily conceded that the diffusion of scientific discoveries and technical innovations could be charted over space and time. The paths by which a new agricultural technique or medical serum spread from its point of origin, for example, could be presented in map form. But beyond such platitudinous concessions, geography seemed to have little bearing on science.

In adopting this hands-off attitude toward science, geographers have certainly not been alone. While sociologists--for long enough-- were only too happy to socialize most everything from families and fiestas to rituals and religions, they drew back from looking at science in sociological terms. Whereas religion, for example, was supposed to reflect the character of the soil in which it had grown, science generated knowledge free from the imprint of the local. To be sure, certain aspects of science did seem open to sociological analysis. When scientists went off the methodological rails, allowed political prejudices to influence their research, fudged the data, read religious meaning into their findings, or came to erroneous conclusions, such "deviations" could be, and were, explained by reference to parochial factors. A sociology of what we might call "pathological science" was permissible. Or again, national and international patterns of funding and levels of state support for research were acknowledged as influencing the direction of scientific progress. But beyond either the deviant or the fiscal, there was little to say about how local circumstances might bear on the scientific enterprise. It seemed that any more comprehensive effort to situate science in the places of its making would be taken as an assault on the integrity and authenticity of scientific knowing. Indeed, the modern invention of the laboratory can be interpreted as a conscious effort to create a "placeless" place to do science, a universal site where the influence of locality is eliminated. Securing credibility and achieving objectivity required "placelessness," and the triumph of the laboratory as the site par excellence of scientific plausibility since the middle of the nineteenth century bears witness to this prevailing conviction.

This book questions such assumptions. While monumental efforts have gone into constructing "placeless places" for the pursuit of science, spaces that aspire to ubiquity, I believe there are questions of fundamental importance to be asked about all the spaces of scientific inquiry. What excites my interest, therefore, is the attempt to determine the significance for science of the sites where experiments are conducted, the places where knowledge is generated, the localities where investigation is carried out. The range of spatial questions we might pose is considerable. Does the space where scientific inquiry is engaged, for example, have any bearing on whether a claim is accepted or rejected? What weight is to be attached to the locations where scientific theories are encountered? In what ways has the circulation of ideas been dependent on the replication of instruments and the standardizing of methods? What strategies have been devised to acquire knowledge of things far away from direct observation? My suspicion is that along the spectrum of scales from particular sites through regional settings to national environments, the "where?" of scientific activity matters a good deal.

In anticipation of what is to follow, an illustration or two of how places matter in scientific enterprises will help to show why it is valuable to think geographically about science. During the first year of its existence in 1863, readers of Auckland's Southern Monthly Magazine heard the praises of Darwin's theory of evolution sung long and loud. Darwinism, they were assured, had shed new light on the settling of New Zealand by conclusively demonstrating how a "weak and ill-furnished race" inevitably had "to give way before one which is strong." Here Darwinism was welcomed because it perfectly suited the needs of New Zealand imperialists. It enabled the Maori to be portrayed in the language of barbarism and thereby provided legitimacy for land-hungry colonists longing for their extinction. At the same time, things were dramatically different in the American South. Here Darwin's theory was resisted by proponents of racial politics. Why? 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. For racial reasons, Darwin's theory enjoyed markedly different fortunes in Auckland and Charleston. In these two places Darwinism meant something different. In one place it supported racial ideology; in another it imperiled it.

This case could be vastly extended, as we will later see. Darwinism meant different things in Russia and Canada; it meant different things in Belfast and Edinburgh; it meant different things in work-ingmen's clubs and church halls. And much the same was true of Newton's mechanical philosophy, of Humboldt's global physics, and of Einstein's theory of relativity. Their accounts were understood differently in different locations and were mobilized for different cultural and scientific purposes. Scientific theory evidently does not disperse evenly across the globe from its point of origin. As it moves it is modified; as it travels it is transformed. All this demonstrates that the meaning of scientific theories is not stable; rather, it is mobile and varies from place to place. And that meaning takes shape in response to spatial forces at every scale of analysis--from the macropolitical geography of national regions to the microsocial geography of local cultures.

Space and place can be scientifically important in other ways too. Charles Elton's theory of animal communities, for example, was born in a very specific place--on Bear Island in the Arctic during the early 1920s. And later his successor, Raymond Lindmen, developed Elton's trophic scheme through his work at another particular location, Cedar Creek Bog, Minnesota. In both cases the natural places where biotic inquiries were conducted were fundamental to the scientific knowledge generated. They were isolated sites, and their natural features made it possible to restrict variables and to carry out comprehensive measuring. They required the development of a highly specific range of what have been aptly called "practices of place." For these investigators, as for field scientists more generally, place was centrally implicated in everything they did. To such practitioners, the "where" of inquiry was fundamental to the practice of authentic science. Particular physical places shaped scientific theories of ecological succession, animal communities, and dune morphology.

In these ways and in many others, issues of space--location, place, site, migration, region--are at the heart of scientific endeavor. But before pursuing such cases in any further detail, it is important to reflect a little on the nature of "space" and on its role in social life more generally. Once we have grasped something of how central places are in the constitution of society, we will more easily begin to discern the inescapably spatial nature of science.

Space Matters

Human activities always take place somewhere. Where you live on the earth's surface makes a difference to the life you lead. Your location, locally and globally, has much to do with the economic, social, and cultural circumstances you find yourself in. There is an uneven geographical distribution of resources, a discernible pattern of ways of life across the face of the earth, and a distinctive spatial arrangement of the planet's physical features. Accordingly, it makes sense to speak of a regional economy, international geopolitics, a nation's cultural landscape, the social morphology of a city, or the map of world religions. These facets of human life have an obviously spatial dimension, and where an individual, a social group, a state, or a subcontinent is located in material space is therefore highly significant.

But we do not just inhabit material spaces. We also occupy a variety of abstract spaces, and we refer in spatial ways to the intellectual, social, and cultural arenas through which we move. People close together physically may be "miles apart" in terms of social distance or cultural space, living, as it were, in totally different worlds. So it is not surprising that we routinely resort to cartographic and other spatial metaphors: we hear of projects to map the human genome; some speak of theories as maps to enable us to find our way around; we are told that we each have our own mental map; we all try to chart our way through an argument or map out a course of action. In everyday speech it is common to find people wanting more personal space, feeling disoriented, or believing they are out of place. Both materially and metaphorically the spatial matters a great deal.

The social interactions we engage in from day to day are also crucially dependent on the shifting and overlapping spaces within which we transact the affairs of everyday life. Take the different arenas where we encounter other people. These include such diverse venues as the factory floor, the sports field, the dinner party, the dance floor, the office, the home--to name a very few. Each site provides repertoires of meaning that facilitate communication. The ways people behave and relate to each other in these various places can be radically different. Indeed, it has even been suggested that such conventional designations as the "normal" and the "bizarre" depend in important ways on setting: what passes as appropriate behavior in one place may be regarded as weird or grotesque in another.

Clearly, the signs and symbols that are meant to give meaning to human actions are spatially linked. For this reason, making sense of even the simplest gestures and behaviors requires an understanding of the "imaginative universe" in which the occupants of any particular locality dwell. Familiarity with the "local customs" of the boardroom or the library or the building site or the church is fundamental to sorting out the coded messages within which communication is embedded. To figure these out requires unpacking the implications and inferences that are fixed in local structures. The task is to make particular sense of particular rules in particular places.

If these sentiments are in the right neighborhood, it is plain that space is far from a neutral "container" in which social life is transacted. Space is not (to change the metaphor) simply the stage on which the real action takes place. Rather, it is itself constitutive of systems of human interaction. At every scale from the international to the domestic, we inhabit locations that at once enable and constrain routine social relations. These sites dictate what we can say and do in particular social circumstances and--just as important--what we can't. Every social space has a range of possible, permissible, and intelligible utterances and actions: things that can be said, done, and understood. These spaces of discursive exchange are the consequences of social relations, and they are important because they are not simply about agreement; they also define what kinds of disagreements are pertinent and can be expressed.

Since the positions we speak from are crucial to what can be spoken, there are intimate connections between what we might call "location and locution." Of course, locutionary acts can no more be reduced to locational circumstance than geography can be reduced to geometry. Social spaces facilitate and condition discursive space. They do not determine it. This is to say that ideas are produced in, and shaped by, settings. They must resonate with their environments or they could not find expression, secure agreement, or mobilize followers. But ideas must also be sufficiently "disarticulated" from their social environments to permit them to reshape the very settings they emerged from. Spaces both enable and constrain discourse.

The spaces of everyday social life, moreover, are not insulated from the vicissitudes of international exchange. The very opposite is the case. All of us, in one way or another, are implicated in global transactions. As the Irish poet Seamus Heaney puts it, "We are no longer just parishioners of the local." The circulation of goods and commodities, information and data, means that the local is persistently shaped and reshaped by distant influences and agents.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. A Geography of Science?
2. Site: Venues of Science
3. Region: Cultures of Science
4. Circulation: Movements of Science
5. Putting Science in Its Place
Bibliographical Essay

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