Book Review: Studying the Scientists

Scientists. Applera/Perkin-Elmer Collection, CHF Collections.

Two scientists work on an electron-beam lithography system. Applera/Perkin-Elmer Collection, CHF Collections.

Steven Shapin. The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 486 pp, $29.

Given our dominant and overlapping cultures of corporate capitalism and innovation, characterized by uncertainty and risk in knowledge making and its practices, how do we come to believe scientists and their research findings today?

In The Scientific Life, historical sociologist Steven Shapin provides us with an answer and a major exploration of the cultural infrastructure of contemporary science. As one of the leading figures in science and technology studies, he has written extensively on the basis of scientific knowledge production in 17th-century Britain. In this present volume he extends his reach to write a cultural history of 20th-century American science. Despite this temporal-spatial move his primary thesis about the basis for authority in science in 17th-century Britain remains: scientific authority rests on trust. In 17th-century British science, people mattered. In contemporary American science, people still matter.

This is a consciously focused history. Shapin is acutely aware of the difficulties of drawing clear lines between descriptions of science, such as basic versus applied science or academic versus industrial. He is critical of these distinctions, but nonetheless his history of the scientific life primarily focuses on understanding its industrial component in the United States.

Shapin builds his argument methodically. Working chronologically, the initial chapters map out the social and cultural transition from science as a calling to science as a job. He traces the scientist’s ancestry from early modern conceptions of the natural philosopher to “priests of nature.” When his story reaches the 20th century and World War II, he suggests that the idea of the scientist as morally ordinary begins to take hold more broadly.

Moving further into the mid-20th century, the middle chapters focus on the integration of science and companies—that is, civic structures that project power and create wealth. He convincingly argues that this integration had far-reaching consequences for the scientist’s identity and what vouches for scientific authority then and now. But these chapters also serve to further his critique of the dichotomous frames that continue to haunt our articulations and evaluations of scientific knowledge.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to those he calls the “external commentators” of this period—mostly social-science researchers but also popular authors and journalists. In Shapin’s view academic social researchers often took a critical tone in characterizing industrial and state science as routine, unimaginative, and collective. Where university represented the good society, industry permitted only the ”organization man.”

While in the fifth chapter Shapin discusses the views of participants in science themselves—especially research managers of industrial laboratories—the following chapter combines the views of both external commentators and participants for a more focused discussion about scientific organization in mid-20th-century America. He shows the views of these groups as much more complicated than is often described and the dichotomous framings that induced tensions for working scientists both in the university and the company.