14 November

'Science', 'technology' and 'economy' as historical concepts: How to historicize categories in STS?

Location: Ravelijn, RA 1315

Speaker: Joppe van Driel (STePS)


In science and technology studies problems and analyses are often are often framed in oppositional categories: ‘pure’ vs ‘applied knowledge’; ‘theory’ vs ‘practice’; ‘science’ vs ‘technological application’ or ‘economic exploitation’; and ‘nature’ vs ‘society’. Such dichotomies refer to two supposedly different spheres of knowledge, with facts inhabiting the one and values inhabiting the other. They tend to structure STS research a-priori, functioning as black boxes carrying presupposed meanings ripped out of their complex historical dynamics.

In this seminar: (1) A case will be made for conceptual history, approaching ‘science’, ‘technology’ and ‘economy’ as historical concepts that acquired their oppositional characteristics only in the late eighteenth century; (2) A short historiographical discussion on how to historicize concepts will be given; (3) This will be brought to bear on two cases of eighteenth-century Dutch ‘oeconomic science’.

In the end, it will be argued that any history tackling either the rise of ‘science’ or of ‘industry’ must not approach science and technological application as separate spheres of creativity, related merely through social context, but must approach them as integral parts of local spheres of productivity. Here, the above-mentioned dichotomies served to order complex productions processes retrospectively into hierarchies of peoples, professions and principles; hence these dichotomies should not be used as methodological starting points. By reducing science and technology to local activities, however, global and long-term perspectives are lost – in both their synchronic and diachronic dimensions. The tension between these two levels of historiographical explanation (local vs global) has yet to be satisfactory resolved without a-priori invoking the theory-practice dichotomy. Perhaps the notion of ‘productivity’ as a historiographical focal point, which links to both local contexts of production and global contexts of economic competitiveness at the same time, and where social and natural reality mutually shape each other through combined activities of persons, instruments and material objects, can help resolve this tension.