Taking Constructivist Criticism: A Review of Making Natural Knowledge:Constructivism and the History of Science

Book Review Jan Golinski.  Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science. 2nd edition with a New Preface, Chicago / London: Chicago University Press, 2005, xxii + 236 pp., illus., $25.00. ISBN-13: 978-0226302317 ISBN-10: 0226302318.  Kindle Edition cited here.


To my colleagues working in science: we‘re being watched.  Not by the NSA or the CIA, but by the HST, SSK, and HPS.  Significantly less scary than spy agencies, these groups are scholars in the fields of the History of Science, the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, and the History and Philosophy of Science.  If you are a scientist working in an academic institution, you should know that these folks are working somewhere on your campus, tucked away wherever they put your liberal arts people and they are very interested in you.  You probably enjoy reading about the history of science or even find  History Channel documentaries fascinating entertainment, but these are not the same thing.

For instance, Jan Golinski authored a history of the history of science, Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science.  The University of New Hampshire professor, by way of Cambridge University (B.A and M.A.) and the University of Leeds (Ph.D.), offers an intellectual history. It is not a walk in the park, but it is a walk you should take, especially if you invested your college career acquiring credits for a bachelor of science degree and only took two or three humanities classes.  Golinski, like many historians of science, espouses the constructivist view of the subject. He outlines various categories of research into the activity we call science, claiming that “scientific knowledge is a human creation… rather than simply the revelation of the natural order… independent of human action” (Loc 473).

Golinski’s constructivist approach states that human choices and interpretations determine the knowledge product.  You are social actors, even in your role as scientists; therefore gaining scientific knowledge is contingent on an array of social factors such as your station on life, where you live, or your gender.  Your work is not merely about revealing the secrets of nature.  The layers of unknowing are not peeled back simply for their own sake. The author notes the history of science for the better part of four hundred years has been a history of glory. As it has been told until around the 1970s, a spark struck humanity; we progressed to the highest point of creation, fueled by the secrets of the universe we discovered in doing pure science.  Now, HST, SSK, and HPS make it all about you.  For example, Golinski offers up Biagioli’s 1993 work Galileo, Courtier which insists the astronomer’s scientific work must be comprehended in relationship to his position in the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany.  Well, who doesn’t have an appreciation of their relationship with the signers of grant checks?

As Golinski follows the development of this approach to the history of science, he presents other theories besides his preferred constructivist view.  The “actor-network” theory of Bruce Latour, is especially interesting because you will find the topics and language quite familiar.  Latour and his researchers actually spent time in laboratories observing the work behaviors of scientists and technicians.  This ethnographical approach spotlights very practical aspects of generating scientific knowledge, marrying scientists to technology not only at the level of basic science but also for other end-users (Loc 928).  Latour calls this technoscience, which somewhat equates with “applied science” (Loc 3256).  He also recognizes the importance of instrumentation as an actor in the network, the same as humans.  Latour astutely assigned heavy prominence to metrology(Loc 1183).  “Things” are what they are solely because we say so.  We say so because our instruments can identify and measure them.  The onus returns to humans to place the appropriate controls around an experiment and to properly calibrate or standardize the instruments, so our “things” can be universally understood.  

To be fair, Golinski does not shoo Latour out the door.  The actor-network descriptions smacks of constructivism with an extra layer. For example, a story of Hobbes’s objection to Boyle’s air pump. “For Hobbes, a device of this kind was simply not an appropriate means of producing philosophical knowledge: ‘not everyone that brings from beyond seas a new gin, or other jaunty device, is therefore a philosopher. For if you reckon that way, not only apothecaries and gardeners, but many other sorts of workmen, will put in for, and get the prize’ (Loc 3140). Tell that to the creators of the Large Hadron Collider.  

                There are important themes addressed in this work.  Scientific knowledge as a product of human labor, changes in intuitional settings, fieldwork outside of the controlled environment of laboratories, inconsistencies of data from lab to lab—all these themes feed into an ultimate question: how pure, how true is science?  There is a mandate that science must be good because “Adherence to scientific reason is a constituent element of cultural belief in advanced industrial societies, even in countries like the US where a vast portion of the population also believes that the world was created in six days. The authority of science is thus a central vehicle in a technocratic democracy.”[1]   Making Natural Knowledge underscores the critical elements needed to fulfill that mandate.  Read it.


[1]Andrew Ross, “Cultural Studies and the Challenge of Science” in Disciplinarity and Dissent in Cultural Studies, Cary Nelson, Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, eds. Psychology Press, 1996, p. 174).


Book Review: Reading Golinkski’s “Constructivist Bible” in its Third Decade

Jan Golinski. Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science (revised edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 236 pp. $35.00. ISBN 0-226-30231-8.

In this text, now in its second printing and with a new preface from the author to show for it, Jan Golinski successfully makes a case for the application of a constructivist framework to the history of science. Tracing the use of constructivism in the field to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Making Natural Knowledge functions as an extended historiography of constructivism as applied to the study of science both historically and as a discipline. Golinski’s argument is reasonably straightforward and, to my eyes, not very contentious: constructivism, he says, has changed the way we study the history of science for the better. Constructivist studies have contributed to a richer, more complete understanding of how scientific knowledge can be (and has been) shaped from a variety of sociopolitical forces rather than simply discovered. Golinski seeks to encourage academics, and especially their students, to adapt this framework for future work. The book also functions as a necessary evaluation of the “state of the field” in which Golinski asks the reader to consider what science means as a discipline and how historians of science shape knowledge.

Golinski defines constructivism loosely as a methodological orientation that “[draws] attention to the central notion that scientific knowledge is a human creation, made with available material and cultural resources, rather than simply the revelation of a natural order that is pre-given and independent of human action” (6). Golinski frames constructivism in opposition to more traditional “Whig history,” which implies that the history of science is a march of progress toward a more perfect and complete understanding of the universe. This line of thinking suggests that there are natural realities and truths simply waiting to be discovered, and that it is the scientist’s job to make the discoveries and the historian’s job to recount them. Believing that the best case to be made for constructivism lies in its successful application, Golinski unites works of scholarship which forego this empirical, often teleological, approach in favor of an approach which emphasizes the role of “human beings as social actors” (6). He does so, it should be noted, with little regard for whether or not the scholars themselves considered the work constructionist, making “constructivism” more of a flexible tool than a strict doctrine.

Golinski makes smart organizational choices to make the book as functional and readable as possible. He chooses to organize his historiography thematically rather than chronologically, an organization which itself resists the urge to establish a narrative of progress and gradual enlightenment in favor of a more nuanced perspective. The first chapter is dedicated to what Golinski perceives as the roots of constructivism in application to the history of science; he traces this back to Kuhn and through the strong programme and SSK (the sociology of scientific knowledge) in the 1970s and ‘80s. The chapters that follow establish different thematic areas in which a constructivist approach in the scholarship has provided enlightenment on how scientific knowledge is made: the identity of the scientist, the locations where scientific knowledge is created (the laboratory and in the field, for example), the nature of scientific discourse, the representational techniques scientists use in experimentation and communication, and the “culture” of science. Finally, the book ends with a brief examination of the narratives historians of science can and should be telling in the constructivist tradition, acknowledging that the work of historians (telling stories about the past in a meaningful way that is not necessarily linear or progressive) is often “at cross-purposes with scientific practitioners’ own narrative understandings of the development of their fields” (192).

Golinski mentions in his new preface to the second edition that the book has found an audience with graduate and upper-level undergraduate students of the history of science. This is for good reason; the book is an excellent introduction to the field and to the scholastic opportunities constructivism presents for finding fresh angles on old stories. Graduate students will find scholars they are already familiar with tucked between new names, making this text a logical companion to other texts about historical methods and practice. Just this semester I read Foucault and Geertz for a class on historical methodology; in Making Natural Knowledge these foundational works serve as jumping-off points for Golinski’s exploration of different elements of constructivism, helping me draw the kinds of connections that make reading academic scholarship, and historiographies in particular, so rewarding.

Also in the new preface, Golinski insists that he is not defending constructivism, merely illustrating what the approach has offered thus far and suggesting possibilities for the future (xix). However, that’s obviously something of a misrepresentation; by listing out constructivist contributions to scholarship, he is implicitly arguing that the approach has been a success and that future scholars (for example, the graduate students reading the book) should consider it for their own work in lieu of other, more conservative, approaches. If he thought constructivism was no good, he wouldn’t have devoted a book to lovingly drawing out its historiography, so this half-hearted claim to neutrality seems unnecessarily coy. I wonder, too, what perceived need drove the creation of this book—was constructivism under attack from unnamed conservative scholars in the late 1990s? From where I’m standing, a product of a liberal arts education in 2014, the general approach Golinski highlights in this book seems de rigueur, to the point that it almost feels as though practicing scientists need this book more than historians do. A crop of historians raised on post-structuralism, as I sense my peers and I have been, may appreciate this book mostly because it puts a name and a lineage to the way we’ve been trained to think about history and provides insight into how this general approach can be brought into conversation with the sciences.