Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Boundary work

I came across the term "boundary work" in a book entitled The Limits of Matter: Chemistry, Mining, and Enlightenment (U Chicago P) by Hjalmar Fors, a Swedish researcher in the history of science. The book caught my eye because of the word "mining" in the title. I have written (see here) on Goethe's interest in mining and in mineralogy, which led to his first "scientific" writings. The impetus for learning about these subjects was his appointment to head a commission to investigate whether the ancient Ilmenau mine could again be made workable and produce some revenue for the duchy.

The Limits of Matter has several subjects. One is to draw attention to the role that Sweden played in the creation of "transnational knowledge" in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly scientific knowledge. France and England are generally seen as the main centers of Enlightenment thought, but this "centrist historiography," as Fors calls it, marginalizes other actors. He wishes to enlarge this narrative. As he writes, “One cannot be content with discussing over and over again the relative importance of the familiar group of well-known heroes that is routinely called up in the older histories of science.”

The Falun copper mine, Sweden
Sweden’s rulers controlled the Bureau of Mines, which oversaw Europe’s largest (until ca. 1750) export-oriented iron industry. The mines were of course highly dependent on the production of minerals, and mining officials were encouraged to seek ways to improve the flourishing mining concern. As Fors writes, these officials traveled extensively in the Holy Roman Empire, England, and the Netherlands. (I wasn't aware that the Netherlands possessed mines of any importance, but maybe the officials went there because it was a center of publishing.)

Well known, at least in histories of science, are the Swedes Georg Brandt, for his 1735 discovery of cobalt, and Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, who discovered nickel in 1751. But Fors' other subject is the way that the new science of chemistry, especially as it developed in identifying and classifying metals and metallic elements, contributed to Enlightenment rationality. For "chymists" in earlier centuries the material world had been considered malleable, shape-changing, transmutable: think alchemy, but also think fairies, trolls, and gnomes. By the late 17th century, however, "all over Europe powerful state actors, driven by economic and political concerns, instigated changes and reforms in mining, smelting, industry, and manufacture,” with the result that "chemists" (as they would be called) excluded all subjects that could not be mechanically known. Fors quotes historian of science Lorraine Daston on the way that phenomena that had earlier interested "natural scientists" became unfashionable, due to their lack of utility: “A new ethos of utility replaced the old one of curiosity … the stabilization of physical phenomena [was understood] as the necessary, if not sufficient, condition for practical applications.”

Establishing boundaries through exclusion
The process by which this exclusion occurred Fors refers to as boundary-work, a coinage of sociologist Thomas F. Gieryn (see “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists,” American Sociological Review, 48, 6 [1983]: 781-95). Boundary work, as defined by Gieryn, "describes an ideological style found in scientists' attempts to create a public image for science by contrasting it favorably to non-scientific intellectual or technical activities." Fors applies this description to the transition from "chymestry" to "chemistry." In the early period, “interested scholars and learned magicians usually held magic to be within the bounds of nature, and as acting through and within laws of nature." Skepticism against such phenomena as magic and transmutation was still limited, but by the 1760s “an array of entities and phenomena previously conceived of as natural were defined as outside of nature,” and “self-proclaimed enlighteners found the courage to voice public skepticism.”

For Gierkyn, boundary-work is concomitant with discipline formation, as scientists in their various fields attempt to establish the parameters of the discipline. But he adds something that I find of interest, especially in the modern world, which is so fraught with political correctness: “Boundary-work is also a useful ideological style when monopolizing professional authority and resources in the hands of some scientists by excluding others as ‘pseudo-scientists.’” In other words, the circulation of knowledge itself closes off acceptable subjects of discourse.

Two things about the above show Goethe as a denizens of two eras. The first concerns world literature, a very modern idea, which concerns the circulation of ideas beyond national boundaries, indeed the very circulation that Fors describes as occurring among scientific thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries. One is surprised that Goethe, because of his own considerable scientific writing, did not include in his concept the rise of scientific progress that was occurring because of the exchanges among inventors and savants.

The other obvious Goethe connection is the subject of witchcraft. As Fors writes: “Witchcraft accusations and the weight they were given in juridical evidence serve as a powerful reminder that people of the late 17 century defined reality quite different” from those of us who live today. And think here of Mephisto: “The early modern body was subject to many influences. Not only could it fall ill and become the victim of sudden physical violence. It could also be bewitched and shape-shifted, even squeezed into a keyhole."

Photo credit: Intent Blog; Zheng's Photo Gallery

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