Thursday, February 6, 2014

Charles Rosenberg, "Toward an ecology of knowledge: On discipline, context, and history

Rosenberg’s work is part of his book, No other Gods: On Science and American Social Thought, published at 1976.Though this chapter is covering his general insight on social history of knowledge, discipline, and institution, it is not easy to draw big scheme what is his bigger argument that he wants to suggest throughout whole book. And yet, this chapter clearly reveals author’s view of history, especially the way how we should investigate and understand the history of knowledge and discipline; thus resonate with other assigned reading materials of this week.
           Overall, this chapter is not exclusively written to describe the history of academic disciplines and knowledge of early 20th century, although the author emphasizes that this period’s “revolution in the organization and management of knowledge” constitutes broader social changes of US. Rather than historical analysis, this chapter can be also read as a manual for historians who are interested in disciplinary history. Frequently, he uses the subject “we”, which obviously refers his fellow historians of science, to call attention to his argument. For example, he eloquently declares that “we have become conscious of the need to integrate knowledge into precise configurations of institutional, economic, and cultural reality” (p. 227). This integration alludes his metaphor, ‘ecology of knowledge’: state of interdependency among the different layers of society that has been changed in history.
           The ecology of knowledge is never simple. For instance, biochemistry was supported by the world of medicine, whereas genetics were shaped within zoology, botany, and agricultural science. However, medical science was not the only institutional background that reinforced the growth of biochemistry. Industry, agricultural college, physiology, and physiological chemistry were among the important ‘contexts’ that formed the discipline, biochemistry. Complicated interrelationship among the different academic disciplines reveals not only the social components of the discipline, but also uncovers the dynamics of knowledge and culture. Knowledge forms the 1) identity of the discipline partly by organizing peers’ network, 2) social place of discipline by interacting with social needs, and 3) disciplinary culture that constitutes the institutional decisions.
           As an historian, Rosenberg rejects the simple model of ‘give-and-take’ between the realm of knowledge and society. In other words, his ambition of ‘historical sociology of knowledge’ is for grasping the internal and external texture of the discipline that interacts with many different layers of society: again, ecology of knowledge. For this project, he urges us to see not only narrow intellectual history, but also the comprehensive context of American society.
           However, for Rosenberg, economic interest is relatively narrowly defined, so that influence of economic interest is underestimated. He examines that 19th century physicists worked for a ‘moral legitimacy’, not for the economic interest. However, even though those ‘spiritual value’ is important to understand the scientists’ motivation, I would say the influence and importance of economic motivation is worth enough to consider more cautiously, because the ‘influence’ is sometimes invisible or subtle.
           My next question is, then, ‘what is discipline?’ though. According to Rosenberg’s interpretation about academic discipline, there is no room for ‘inter’-disciplinary field, because it could be also counted as a part of ecology of knowledge. In other words, even though Rosenberg examines the case of biochemistry with its interrelationship with other fields and social components, his insight is limited to describe the static picture of the ecology of knowledge, not the process in which such ‘new’ discipline is made from traditionally well-established disciplines. If discipline itself is just so much flexible as much as it is part of ecology of knowledge, definition and distinction of interdisciplinary field per se becomes not important at all.

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