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  • What Are Cultural Studies of Scientific Knowledge?
  • Joseph Rouse (bio)

Interdisciplinary studies of the sciences have been dramatically transformed over the past two decades by sociological studies of scientific knowledge. The postpositivist interdisciplinary formulation of “history and philosophy of science” has been fundamentally challenged by the sociological perspectives offered by the Edinburgh “Strong Programmed” the Bath constructivist-relativist approach, applications of discourse analysis to science, and ethnographic laboratory studies. Many features of scientific work that have been highlighted by these sociological traditions have become indispensable considerations for any subsequent interpretation of science. These “social constructivist” studies have brought renewed attention to the epistemic importance of laboratory practices and equipment, to the omnipresence of conflict and negotiation in shaping the outcome of scientific work, to the formation and dissolution of disciplinary boundaries, and to the permeability in practice of any demarcation of what is “internal” to science. Constructivist studies have also effectively highlighted the sheer difficulty of scientific work: getting equipment and experiments to work reliably, replicating their results, and achieving recognition of their success and significance.

Despite the significance of social constructivism, however, much of the subsequent work in science studies does not easily fit within the terms set by the disagreements between social constructivists and the proponents of internalist history and philosophy of science. [End Page 1] Among the central issues between social constructivists and internalists were the relative importance of social and rational (or external/internal) “factors” in explaining the content of scientific knowledge, the relations between empirical descriptions and epistemic evaluations of the methods and achievements of scientific research, and the coherence of either realist or relativist/constructivist accounts of how scientific knowledge is related to the world. Recent work in a variety of science studies disciplines has increasingly challenged the very terms of these debates. Concerns have been raised about the goal of explaining scientific knowledge, the presumed explanandum of the “content” of knowledge, the supposed opposition between descriptive and normative approaches, and the intelligibility of the question that realist or constructivist interpretations of knowledge are supposed to answer.

In this paper, I shall try to articulate and illustrate some important issues that mark the movement beyond the terms of the disputes between internalists and social constructivists. For convenience, I adopt the phrase “cultural studies of scientific knowledge” to refer to this quite heterogeneous body of scholarship in history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, feminist theory, and literary criticism. In using such a term, it is crucial to keep in mind that it cuts across some very important theoretical differences, including some significant scholarly work taking place across the very boundaries I am articulating between cultural studies and the social constructivist tradition. My aim is not to reify cultural studies, but to highlight some important issues which might reshape the terms of interdisciplinary science studies.

So what are cultural studies of scientific knowledge? I use the term broadly to include various investigations of the practices through which scientific knowledge is articulated and maintained in specific cultural contexts, and translated and extended into new contexts. The term “culture” is deliberately chosen for both its heterogeneity (it can include “material culture” as well as social practices, linguistic traditions, or the constitution of identities, communities, and solidarities) and its connotations of structures or fields of meaning. An extensional characterization might usefully help specify this still quite broad notion, at least for those familiar with the science studies literature. Among the practitioners of cultural studies of science I would include such diverse historians as Donna Haraway, Robert Marc Friedman, Simon Schaffer, Evelyn Fox Keller, Robert Proctor, and V. B. Smocovitis; sociologists and anthropologists such as Sharon Traweek, Bruno Latour, Paula Treichler, Leigh Star, Michael Lynch, and Karin Knorr-Cetina; philosophers like Ian Hacking, Helen [End Page 2] Longino, Arthur Fine, Sandra Harding, and myself; and literary theorists such as Gillian Beer and Ludmilla Jordanova.

Anyone who knows these scholars’ work knows that that list is very far from comprising a monolithic group: it encompasses sharp and far-reaching theoretical, methodological, and political differences. Yet there are both historical and philosophical considerations that have narrowed this list substantially, and that provide its coherence. I shall begin with several historical vignettes that may help...

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