Interpreting social order and the twentieth-century life sciences

A number of interpreters of science have interpreted episodes in twentieth-century life and social sciences in terms of concerns about social order and disorder, e.g., Haraway (1981/82, 1983, 1984/85); Cross (1987); Gilbert (1988); and Mitman (1994). The social concerns change as U.S. society changes, and social change is, in part, conditioned by changes in those sciences. Such interpretations extend Williams’ (1980) germinal work interpreting ideas of nature as projections into nature of people’s ideas about the social order they favor. The interpretations show that society has been naturalized and nature socialized not only in popular ideas about nature but also in the sciences of nature themselves. Of course, reciprocal processes of naturalization and socialization occur in unevenly changing and partial ways, which are sometimes contradictory. For example, organismic metaphors in social and biological thought gave way after World War II to both cybernetic and individualistic metaphors (Haraway 1981/82; Mitman 1994; Keller 1988; and Taylor (2005, Chapter 3); see also Moore 1997 for an entry point into an analogous literature interpreting Victorian science in terms of a “common context”—or fragmenting common context—of politics, economics, demographic, and institutional developments).
Where connections between science and social order are observed, the question of agency arises: how did scientists and allied agents do their work in a way that one can later interpret as corresponding to concerns about social order? Haraway argues that it is not possible for biologists to do otherwise: Like all organisms they are “material-semiotic” beings so that “understanding the world [or “worldly practice”] is about living inside stories” (Haraway and Goodeve 2000, 107). Because the embeddings are multiple, the interpreter of science needs to look for “diffraction patterns [which] record the history of interaction, interference, reinforcement, difference” (102; see also Law and Mol 2002). But notice here the reliance on “mental or verbal images, images that we believe or think that the world is like, or that we speak or write as if it were like” (Taylor 1997c, 209). In contrast, the interpretive approach developed in Taylor (2005, Chapters 3 and 4) relies less on images of mind-based subjectivity (through which social ideas can be projected more or less directly into scientific ideas) and attempts to make more space for examining the material aspects of specific scientific practice (see note on metaphors).

Cross, S. J. and W. R. Albury (1987). “Walter B. Cannon, L.J. Henderson, and the Organic Analogy.” Osiris 3: 165-192.
Gilbert, S. F. (1988). “Cellular Politics,” in R. Rainger, K. Benson and J. Maienschein (Eds.), The American Development of Biology. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 311-345.
Haraway, D. J. (1981-82). “High Cost of Information in Post-World War II Evolutionary Biology: Ergonomics, Semiotics, and the Sociobiology of Communication Systems.” Philosophical Forum XIII(2-3): 244-279.
—— (1983). “Signs of dominance: From a physiology to a cybernetics of primate society.” Studies in History of Biology 6: 129-219.
—— (1984/1985). “Teddy bear patriarchy: Taxidermy in the garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936.” Social Text 11: 20-64.
—— and T. N. Goodeve (2000). How Like a Leaf. New York: Routledge.
Keller, E. F. (1988). “Demarcating public from private values.” Journal of the History of Biology 21(2): 195-211.
Law, J. and A. Mol (Eds.) (2002). Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mitman, G. (1994). “Defining the organism in the welfare state: The politics of individuality in American culture, 1890-1950.” Social Sciences Yearbook XVIII: 249-280.
Taylor, P.J. (1997c). “Afterword: shifting positions for knowing and intervening in the cultural politics of the life sciences,” in P. J. Taylor, S. E. Halfon and P. N. Edwards (Eds.), Changing Life: Genomes, Ecologies, Bodies, Commodities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 202-224.
Williams, R. (1990). People of the Black Mountains: The Beginning. London: Palladin.

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