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We Love Science for What It Is, Not for What We Want It to Be: An Interview with Professor Carroll

Posted by Aaron Norton at Apr 22, 2014 05:55 PM |
(by Alexis Caligiuri)

Alexis Caligiuri (AC): Good morning, Professor Carroll.

Patrick Carroll (PC): Good morning.

AC: What is STS to you?

PC: What is STS to me? Well, I think the pretty formal definition is that it’s the study of science, understood in a very broad sense to include technology, engineering, medicine, public health, social sciences, etc. This sense of what science is can be seen as systems of knowledge and intervention in the world. STS examines science in its social, cultural, historical and philosophical context. That’s what I think STS is. And it’s an interdisciplinary project—well its disciplinary on one level, some people do more readily identifiable sociological work and other people do more readily anthropological, philosophical, historical etc., but these are not mutually exclusive either. The way the field has developed historically has always been a conversation between the sub-disciplines, because as soon as a sociologist starts talking about the social dimensions of scientific knowledge, that’s treading on the ground of epistemologists, and philosophy, and also then the historians are thinking about how they are going to write the history of science now that these guys are talking about science in a different way than we’re used to thinking about it. So the way the field developed, it necessarily became interdisciplinary.

AC: It sounds kind of like a battle—with many different disciplines trying to stake their claim. Is that a valid way of perceiving it?

PC: I think there were battles, in the 60’s and the 70’s, as challenges to the old ways of looking at science were mounted. Mertonian sociology of science, framed in the 30s and 40s, studied science as a social institution governed by its own norms of conduct -- and also how those norms could conflict. For instance, the norm of the free sharing of ideas could conflict with the norm of originality.  Scientists didn’t share for fear another would claim a discovery as their own.  This turned out to happen a lot because reward in science is less about money and more about the prestige that comes from discovery. So they provided a lot of insight into conflicts between scientists over who could claim to have made a particular discovery.  But a critique was mounted in the 70s because the Mertonians were studying everything about science except scientific knowledge. So what they were doing was not a sociology of science at all, but just a “sociology of scientists,” as the new kids on the block put it. The Mertonians didn’t take this affront lying down.  They were not about to turn around, just as Kuhn predicted, and say “Oh, we’ve been thinking about science incorrectly for 30 years, now we should adopt this approach.” They didn’t. They fought back and they fought back well into the late 80’s and the early 90’s even.  They were insisting that you could not have a sociology of scientific knowledge, because scientific knowledge is not social by definition. So it took a long time for the new sociology of scientific knowledge to dislodge the Mertonian sociology of science, which itself was institutionalized-- it was in departments, it had resources, it had faculty. You don’t change that overnight. So there was certainly a battle there—and there was a huge battle between the philosophers and the sociologists, because, again, for the philosophers, you could not have a sociology of science, because science was truth, logic — there wasn’t anything social about it! It was above culture, it was in this special place.

So there were fierce battles there, and there were battles then, even within the sociology of scientific knowledge.  Sometimes you would have a couple of representatives of different types of positions really going at each other in article exchanges, but that’s kind of the nature of the beast, science is not for the meek.  We like to think of it as this very light, genteel space, but it can really get very rough. But as things are now, I see less of those large battles that we had when the field was forming, the Mertonians have pretty much been displaced, so that’s over. The analytical philosophers have acknowledged that the project that they had laid out with reconstructing the logic of science has pretty much failed, although that doesn’t stop them from trying. And the historians, largely, have taken on board the understanding of science developed within sociology and anthropology, as distinct from that developed in philosophy, so they have moved away from philosophy and towards the social science. So the big battles are gone but there are still all these little skirmishes all the time.  And there is this whole question about the normative question, whether we should be intervening in controversies. There are some very strongly held beliefs on that and it is a significant division. But this kind of stuff is characteristic of science, it’s not unique to STS. But I think more so in an interdisciplinary field.

AC: What is the current state of activism in STS?

PC: That’s an area where some people feel, and I’m one of them, that people are being too eager to dive into controversies out there on the side of the weak, in a sense to help them, without recognizing that in a sense, you can “not help” them.  And there are cases of that, and then also the logic of it. For instance, if you are going to help the weak then how do you judge which ones you’re going to help? In the battle between evolutionary biology and creationism, the creationists are the ones who have the weak argument, right? And we actually have someone in the field, Steve Fuller, who testified in court on the behalf of the creationists, so there was considerable controversy over the wisdom of that.  And he’s arguing that on principle. We’re saying that science is socially constructed so we have to be prepared to say that it’s not truth with a capital T.  If that helps the creationists, then so be it. But other people think that’s a bad idea. And his testimony was cited by the judge in a way that didn’t help the creationists.  A similar thing happened when a sociologist of science testified about the unreliability of finger printing. So, it’s an interesting moment in the development of the field. People are friendly to each other, generally, though I have some friends that say things that are really hostile to some folks. But I think most people agree that STS is a big tent and there’s plenty of room for different approaches.

AC: Are you doing any research right now?

PC: I’m working on a book. My research basically deals with the relationship between science and governance and the consequences of that relationship for the form and formation of the modern state, which I call a “Technoscientific State.” It’s not the idea of scientific government, it’s not the idea that the communists had of a “scientific government that is going to run the society.” This is an understanding of different kinds of science and experts who are pervasive in everyday, mundane government. Engineers, and people like that, geologists, cartographers, public health officials, fish biologists, hydrologists, you name it … they’re everywhere!

I published a book like that on the case of Ireland. It was very easy to make the case in Ireland because Ireland was the laboratory for the English—a laboratory of statecraft, and the colonists were very much interested in using science to develop the state.  It wasn’t necessarily bad stuff—they were trying to make the land more productive, add drainage systems, straightening out the rivers, of course now that’s bad, you don’t want to straighten the rivers, because you want to keep them natural; but they would be straightening them so it wouldn’t flood. And so you look at Ireland and you see all the beautiful green fields and you think of the natural beauty of Ireland—but that’s totally engineered! It’s got nothing to do with what it looks like in the state of nature!

So I did that book, and it was well received, but some people said that was in the colonial context, where the government has this power that it wouldn’t have in another context. So now I’m looking at California—the relationship between science and governance in California, and the development of California’s Technoscientific State, specifically around water, as a boundary object between science on the one hand and governance on the other.  As in the case of Ireland I’m focused on how science and government network around critical boundary objects, in this case water. The scientists are the usual suspects I mentioned earlier. I’m interested in how the technoscientic state in California is built into and out of its vast water infrastructure.  The case of California really shows the cyborg character of the modern state; but it’s more than that, its what I call an “organic engine.”  Sure it’s part organic and part machine, but its also characterized by relentless and endless growth.

AC: Why California?

PC: These things are arbitrary and contingent sometimes, and I happen to be here. I discovered the extent of the water infrastructure here, and was fascinated to discover it.  I had no idea before, because when people talked about having a drought before, like we’re having now, I would say “why don’t they build reservoirs?” I had no idea that basically California built—well the federal government initially, but it was a state plan during the great depression, built the Central Valley Project; which was the greatest public works project in the history of the world. Only 20 years later, when they’re getting it finished, the state of California starts building another project, called the State Water Project, and it’s the greatest public works project any state in the union has ever built. The fact that this state could develop from a few thousand settlers in the 1850’s to almost 40 million people today, is inseparable from this massive water infrastructure—this whole Technoscientific formation. That’s what the concept of the organic engine gets at; its driven, its powerful. So, that’s how it got my interest.

And I also wanted to do it in such a case, a sub-national state. I wanted to emphasize that you didn’t have to talk about sovereignty so much to talk about states, that you can look at a state as an actor-network, an assemblage of humans and non-humans. The American case is actually quite unique, the way sovereignty is parceled out. The states do assert their own sense of sovereignty, so you get this language that develops between the federal government and the state government about what they call “cooperation”. All of a sudden, in the words of the reports in the early 20th century, you get “cooperative agreement” between the state and the feds.  So it’s not the federal government telling the state what do, and it’s not the state telling the feds “go away and leave us alone,” in fact they wanted them to help them.  But there’s this way of articulating the governance regimes through cooperation, it’s not normally how you think states work. You’d think the federal government would have the authority to impose its will. But when you hear people in the 1850’s refer to California, they refer to it as a country, not as a state. We tend to think of countries these days as things called nation-states. But that’s not necessarily how people have always thought about countries.

So I like to historicize things. I like to know when the word came to have the meaning that it has. Don’t take a term from the twentieth century, with those sets of meanings and impose it back on another period of time when it didn’t have those meanings, which is something we do all the time.

I think California is a fascinating illustrative case of the argument I’m making.

AC: Are you teaching or planning on teaching any STS courses?

PC: Yes, I’m teaching STS courses. I regularly teach STS 1, Introduction to Science and Technology Studies. My teaching is split between sociology and STS, so it’s a memorandum of understanding.  I teach two classes in sociology that have nothing to do with STS, although one of them, occasionally, is Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, which I redesigned and then had approved. I get to teach that once every two or three years. My other class in STS is a small seminar, STS 180, which is about Science and Power.  I talk about the power of science to legislate reality, network with other powerful forces like government and industry, and of course the power to transform the world. I’ve kind of honed it more to my own research in the past years.  We still talk about science and power, but we view it more through the case of California. So that’s pretty much my teaching. I’m not teaching it this year because I’m on sabbatical in the spring.

AC: What drew you to STS?

PC: Again these things are contingent. It’s amazing how much your life is determined by accident. I never set out to join STS, really, though I was introduced to the work of Michel Foucault when I was in my junior year as an undergraduate student. I wrote a review of his book, Discipline and Punish (1), as a theory paper, and I was really captivated by that book’s idea that power and knowledge are deeply intertwined.  So I already had this interest in power. Then I read Foucault (2), and saw how power was connected to knowledge and I found that fascinating. I wrote a Master’s dissertation that was later published that was looking at the history of prisons in Ireland, and looking to see if Foucault’s analysis applied, and for the most part it did. I went to UC San Diego to do my Ph.D., and they had just, a year or so earlier, created a Science Studies program that I didn’t even know about, that was made of history, philosophy and sociology. I also ended up, completely by chance, sharing graduate student housing with a guy from Canada who became a very good friend, who came specifically to study in the program. It was an STS program, they just called it a Science Studies program; it’s basically the same thing. He had actually spent a year at the Edinburgh School (3), one of the places where the sociology of scientific knowledge was first institutionalized. So we’re yapping, and he’s telling me all about this stuff and I’m getting more and more interested in it, and so I decided to join. I have to admit that it didn’t hurt that by joining I was relieved of the statistics requirement in sociology! And that was my second year and I was in it, and the rest is history! So with that program you could get your degree in Sociology, History, or Philosophy with an emphasis in Science Studies, so it was official.


For more information about Professor Patrick Carroll:

  1. Discipline and Punish:
  2. Michel Foucault:
  3. Edinburgh School:

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