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.  

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