Les cultures et styles de pratique scientifique (2) / Cultures and Styles of Scientific Pratice (2)

Colloque organisé par Karine Chemla (CNRS, Paris) et Evelyn Fox-Keller (Chaire Blaise Pascal, ENS) du 20 au 25 juin 2011


Bruno Belhoste, Karine Chemla, Caroline Ehrardt, Fa-ti Fan, Evelyn Fox-Keller, Emmylou Haffner, Kenji Ito, Guillaume Lachenal, Donald MacKenzie, Francisco Javier Martinez-Antonio, Mary Morgan, Nancy Nersessian, David Rabouin, Jonathan Regier, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Claude Rosental, Koen Vermeir.


This meeting at Les Treilles aimed at finalizing the contributions for the bookmanuscript, Cultures without culturalism, the idea of which took shape during the first meeting in 2008. Each participant had submitted a draft of her or his chapter before coming to the conference, and was invited to comment on the other chapters. Each member of the group was expected to comment in greater detail on two chapters that were assigned to her or him before the meeting.

Karine Chemla launched the discussion, with a chapter devoted to the identification of different mathematical cultures in ancient China and to the issues at stake in bringing them to light. The defended thesis was that the description of these cultures is essential to interpret the mathematical documents that were produced in the context of these cultures. Moreover, she emphasized how conceptual history can be renewed from this perspective, highlighting how the concepts of algebraic equations that were shaped in ancient China could each be correlated to material and epistemological features of the cultures in the context of which they took shape. Through case studies dealing with the history and historiography of physics in Japan in 20th century, Kenji Ito advocated, for his part, how any reasonable use of culture in the history of science should start with a trenchant, radical, reflexive critique of culturalism. His chapter presented explicit, precise and clear arguments to develop this critique, through a discussion of culturalism as permeating historians’ practice, as well as an analysis of how it can become an actors’ category. With his chapter devoted to the “cultural politics of an African Aids vaccine, ” Guillaume Lachenal formulated a similar concern with the use of the term “culture” in science studies. His chapter deals with the story of the invention of an alleged therapeutic vaccine against AIDS, a case study that raises many questions concerning the political use of culturalism in the context of science and medicine.

The critical reflection on culture and culturalism in dealing with scientific practice was continued by Evelyn Fox Keller from a different perspective. Her chapter analyzes in a historical way how, in the last decades, feminist theory developed a similar critique of culturalism in another domain. E. Fox Keller discussed the question of what historians and philosophers of science can learn from decades of reflections on essentialism that developed since the 1980’s, when it comes to approaching differences in scientific practices in cultural terms. She derives from this other domain the suggestion that a form of strategic essentialism could be useful.

In her contribution, Mary Morgan raised a fundamental question: how do social scientists come to recognize and establish a phenomenon as a bona fide object of study? How a phenomenon becomes visible? How it becomes an object of study (an epistemic object)? The glass ceiling was her example. This chapter reflected our agenda in two important ways: first, it described an example of what might be called cultural epistemology. I.e., it is a case study of the emergence of an epistemological object out of a cultural transformation. Because of this cultural transformation, what had previously been unobservable (or if not unobservable, not noteworthy) became, in late 20th century America, not only visible, but a sore thumb, a problem to be rectified. The glass ceiling is also an example of epistemological culture; the scientific study of the glass ceiling made crucial use of a mode of analysis – in this case, the use of qualitative personal experience – that had been quite absent from conventional social science studies. In a similar vein, Donald McKenzie’s chapter reflects on the general usefulness and pitfalls of the notion of culture in science studies from the specific viewpoint of a particular case study devoted to securities and ratings in the last financial crisis. His aim was to determine how concepts of culture could matter to account for the decisive differences between actors’ treatments in the respective evaluation of two financial products, the ABSs and the CDOs, which seems to be, otherwise, quite similar. The chapter suggested that two concepts, that of “clusters of practices” and that of “culture”, are both useful to capture specific features in the situation under analysis, allowing, each, the historian to carry out distinct interpretative work.

In her chapter, Nancy Nersessian sought to shape tools to describe the different laboratory cultures that have taken shape in the context of different disciplines. Her analyses were based on fieldwork carried out in two laboratories working in interdisciplinary settings. Her chapter focused on the material models that represent the signature of each of these laboratories, their history and their uses in the laboratory. The chapter also addressed the larger discussion of the relationship between the laboratory’s culture and cognition, culture here meaning the set of material, cultural and social practices by means of which a given collective carried out research. Her suggestion was that there was no divide between the two, but rather that “culture and cognition are intimately entwined in research practices.” The notion of “Cultures of Experimentation” was also at the center of Hans-Joerg Rheinberger’s chapter and addressed on the basis of the case study of the pre-history for the in vitro research being conducted in areas of biomedical engineering. He defended the usefulness of a use of the term as the aspect of “material interaction” between systems of experiment “that engenders meaning while unfolding rather than instantiating or embodying ideas”. In other words, he suggested to focus on practices in a dynamical and historical way. Moreover, he advocated the usefulness of the notion of “experimental cultures, ” defined as “ensembles of experimental systems that share technologies and material constituents.” In his view, this notion has historiographical potential in that it transcends the traditional approach of history of disciplines.

Caroline Ehrhardt took up the issue of the multiplicity of professional mathematical cultures, in her approach to Galois’s theory and the distinct and parallel developments to which it gave rise in the 19th century. In her case, the notion of “local culture” is useful to account for the various readings that were made of Galois’s writings in different contexts and the various mathematical theories that were built as a result.
In contrast to these chapters devoted to “academic cultures”, Fa-Ti Fan’s chapter addressed an entirely different type of scientific practice, since he examined the culture of mass science during the Cultural Revolution in 20th century China. Fan analyzed this kind of culture as scientific knowledge and practice. In this case study too, the broader political and cultural context in which a people’s science took place (esp. the culture of the Cultural Revolution), is essential to take into account, if the analysis is to account for features of this practice of science. Moreover, this case study brought to bear on the discussion of cultural essentialism, echoing the concerns voiced in Kenji Ito’s paper.

Claude Rosental’s chapter might also be said to focus on a public form of scientific practice, although in a rather different sense of that term. Rosental’s concern is with the cultures and politics of public demonstrations of technological developments as deployed by the European Commission in the management and distribution of funding for research and development.

Raising an entirely different set of issues was Koen Vermeir’s paper on Divining Cultures. Vermeir broadened the discussion of this workshop by focusing on the treatment of radically contested claims at the turn of the 17th century both in the Low Countries and in Paris and Lyons, in popular and elite discussions. Quite apart from the intrinsic historic interest of his case study, it exposes the need to directly address a number of quite different meanings of ‘culture’ in scientific practice.

Finally, both Bruno Belhoste’s paper on Cuvier’s “working space” and David Rabouin’s on “Mathematical Style” (or “ways of writing mathematics”) brought us back to the more directly epistemological dimensions of our project. The former introduced the notion of “dispositif” to refer to the mobilization of social, material and intellectual resources on which Cuvier’s achievements depended. Rabouin, by contrast, focused on the relationship between the substantive content and “ways of writing” mathematics. He also offered a number of interesting considerations of notions of “style” — especially as discussed by Hacking and Crombie — that form much of the backdrop for this entire workshop.

Most importantly, the workshop gave to all authors important feedback on their chapters and allowed the group to shape a common set of issues. Despite the fact that the papers deal with many different disciplines as well as many distinct areas of the planet and time periods, as a result of our discussions in this meeting the book we aim to produce can be expected to achieve a definite coherence.

Citer ce billet
Fondation des Treilles (2011, 25 juin). Les cultures et styles de pratique scientifique (2) / Cultures and Styles of Scientific Pratice (2). Les carnets de la Fondation des Treilles. Consulté le 24 avril 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/quzi

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