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Perspectives on Science 13.2 (2005) 267-278

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On knowing, acting, and the location of technoscience:

A response to Barry Barnes

University of Manchester

First, many thanks to Barry for his comments and for the critical questions, which I found helpful in explaining and refining the arguments launched in my book. I also benefited from other papers and discussion at the conference, and refer to some of the points in this revised version of my response to Barry.

With the main thrust of Barry's argument, I agree: the current interest in the history of technoscience, variously defined, is to be explained in part by the present positions and perspectives of historians and sociologists of science, technology and medicine (of STM, for short).

My own approach, exemplified in my Ways of Knowing book (Pickstone 2000), is certainly conditioned by my having worked from the mid 70s as a historian of medicine, interested in medical practice (which could be called technology, though it wasn't) as well as "medical science" (which is an actor's term—with many meanings). It also derives from my historical research on the STM of the industrial revolution, especially on Manchester, where actors' science-technology distinctions were historically weak, and where our historical research interests usually ran across S T and M; and from my current interests in recent medicine, including its industrialisation. To these historical interests and orientations, one might add a long-standing interest in historical sociology of STM, and an informal political concern with the governance and ideologies of recent medicine and of the academe. With this background, and having run a Centre of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) in Manchester University, I wanted to explore, on a grand scale, whether it was possible to write the histories of non-medical sciences and technologies in ways which undoubtedly work for the history of medicine, past and present. [End Page 267]

For such reasons I tried to sketch a history which treated science, technology and medicine together, as STM. I tried to emphasise practice and routines in history of science, as is customary in (some) history of medicine. I wanted to get away from "frontier" histories, concerned only with discoveries and inventions, hoping to reveal the synchronous variety of practices and knowledge forms, so opening better linkages with economic history. For technology, I tried to recognize the importance and persistence of crafts, especially those based on organic materials; but I also wanted to measure the characteristics of the industry-science-government interpenetrations characteristic of the later twentieth century. I saw these interpenetrations as derived from, or otherwise resembling, the linkages established at the end of the nineteenth century within electrotechnics and in synthetic organic chemistry. I called these interpenetrations "technoscience."

But, what I wrote about technoscience was not determined solely by my interests. Like the Edinburgh strong-programmers, and all good historians, I have, of course, always maintained that our scholarly perceptions and inventions must be externally constrained—in this case by the historical record. Many historians find "technoscience" interesting because they are surrounded by it—for example, they work in universities where science departments are much more dependent on industrial funding than was the case 30 years ago. That is arguably a demonstrable fact, and it is part of the reason for the growth of interest in academic- industrial relations and in the "impurity" of science past.

But, to be sure, how and where we can find technoscience must depend on how we define it; under some definitions it can indeed be found anywhere in STM. If we say that technoscience is any research into nature or artefacts which depends heavily on equipment, and if we allow, as we ought, that commonplace instruments of today were once state of the art, then most of the history of science will be the history of technoscience. Whilst such a definition may usefully stress the material base of science, and also suggest that modern technology may be rather similar to modern science, it may not...


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