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  • Comments on Andrew Pickering’s Paper
  • Jonathan Harwood (bio)

It will be evident from Andrew Pickering's and my papers that we write history in very different ways. It would be naïve to think that the remarks below might persuade him to change his mind, but my aim is a more modest one: merely to try to clarify where our premises and presuppositions differ.

The aim of his paper, I take it, is less to investigate the nature of technoscience than to use a historical example of it in order to defend a position within sociological theory; namely, to make the case for a "decentered sociology," to show "how it might be done and why it should be done." In some respects this means that I am not the ideal commentator for Pickering's paper since for the last twenty years or so I have been trying to write sociologically informed history of science, but am not well-informed about current sociological debate. When he stresses, for example, the fact that the "powers and performativity of the material world" can alter the social world, I have trouble identifying against whom he is arguing. Readers more familiar with contemporary sociology may be better placed to judge this.

Given the aims of this issue, in the following pages I want to explore what we learn about technoscience from Pickering's account, but also to establish to what extent a "decentered sociology" differs from others in science studies. Finally, I want to suggest why historians are likely to have problems in using this approach to write history.

1. What do we learn about technoscience?

In the main sections of the paper Pickering uses the history of the dyestuffs industry in order to illustrate how the social, conceptual and material all served to change the others in the process. What strikes me about [End Page 411] this account is that despite major differences between the programmatic aims of "decentered sociology" and SSK, in practice almost all of the explanations Pickering offers (for cognitive or social change) seem perfectly consistent with SSK.

Take, for example, his account of Perkin's new factory. I have trouble finding anything here to which anyone would take exception. It would be interesting to know, therefore, whether there are in fact any existing accounts of the emergence of the synthetic dye industry which treat these new institutions in some kind of determinist/reductionist fashion, whether exclusively "technocentric" or exclusively social-centric.

Or consider Pickering's account of the development of the dye, magenta. Here he stresses the symmetry of social and material explanation: the exploration of the ways in which aniline could be modified to produce new dyes, he says, was "socially structured," and these new pathways in turn had social consequences, "reinforc[ing] the nascent dye industry." Thus "social and material developments hung together and structured one another in a decentered fashion"; "it was not a purely social process." The problem in presenting the story in this way, however, is that it obscures an important asymmetry: viz., that although synthetic pathways certainly did have consequences for the dye industry, the only reason chemists began to search for such pathways in the first place was because of the social and economic processes favoring the emergence of such an industry. It would appear, therefore, that primary causal importance should be placed on social processes, which prompted certain kinds of research which then in turn fed back upon—and altered—the social domain. But how does this account differ from SSK?

Or consider what Pickering says about the emergence of organic chemistry; nearly all of it seems to be straight-forward SSK. As far as the "performativity of the material world" is concerned, of course, not everything which chemists sought to do with organic molecules was actually possible, but is anyone surprised by this? Is it really necessary (e.g., in mainstream sociology or anthropology) to emphasize the impact of the material upon social relations? Don't anthropologists take for granted that societies inhabiting deserts may be differently organized from those who live in agriculturally rich lands? Isn't it obvious that the social norms governing acceptable behavior will be different...


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pp. 411-415
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