Debating New Approaches to Histories of the Sciences

All are invited to attend the online symposium “Debating New Approaches to Histories of the Sciences,” organized as part of the History of Knowledge Seminar Series @ Utrecht University.

Friday, May 21, 2021, 9:30–17:30 CET
Online via Microsoft Teams (registration not required)

Recent decades have seen the emergence of a number of promising new approaches to the historical study of the sciences. All share the goal of understanding scientific thinking and practice as historical phenomena, but each does so in its own distinctive way: created against different backgrounds and in response to different problem situations within and outside academia they orient themselves around different themes, topics and perspectives. This raises the issue of whether and if so, how, these approaches could best collaborate.

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Knowledge as an Object of Historical Research

Nearly two years ago, Shadi Bartsch tweeted five tenets for understanding knowledge that now appear the on website of the center she directs at the University of Chicago, namely the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. These tenets deserve further elucidation and discussion, a process I'd like to begin on this blog, starting at the end:

  1. Knowledge at any given time is exactly equal to what people think is true. As such, sub-knowledges, unauthoritative knowledges, and disputed knowledges can all exist simultaneously inasmuch as “people” is a plural concept.

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‘The Political and the Epistemic’ in ‘KNOW’

The Fall 2020 issue of KNOW focuses on a specific theme: "The Political and the Epistemic in the Twentieth Century: Historical Perspectives." Emphasizing the first half of the twentieth century, in particular, guest editors Kijan Espahangizi and Monika Wulz point to an emerging "politicized understanding of scientific inquiry" in the interwar period, which "shaped a new social epistemology." (163) The starting point for the contributors to this issue is the interrelation between "heated disputes over the political and economic foundations of society" and the equally contested and pressing debates about "the role of knowledge in society and the economy." (163) The payoff:

By analyzing histories of antagonistic and competitive forms of knowledge, it becomes possible to paint a more detailed picture of not only the relations between the epistemic and the political but also of the inherently political strategies involved in the boundary work of knowledge regimes. (166)

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Call: History of Intellectual Culture

Charlotte A. Lerg, Johan Östling, and Jana Weiß are editing a new open-access publication called the History of Intellectual Culture: International Yearbook of Knowledge and Society (HIC), which will be published by De Gruyter Oldenbourg. The first issue is planned for the spring/summer of 2022, and they are seeking contributions in the history of knowledge. See the call for further details. Proposal deadline: May 17, 2021. Article submission: September 6, 2021.

Freedom through Knowledge: Liberalism, Censorship, and Public Health in Early Planned Parenthood Campaigns

Nine warplanes flying in formation, lower left quadrant, and a family in a circle to the right and slightly above those of those planes. The family: mother, father, child standing, and toddler in mother's arms.

“Freedom through knowledge” was one of the slogans of Planned Parenthood’s first national campaign in 1942.1 Publishing pamphlets, posters, and testimonials under the headline “Planned Parenthood in Wartime,” the organization related contraception to the need for women workers in the war industries, the urgency of high maternal death rates, and the superiority of American democracy over totalitarianism. This was the organization’s first campaign since changing its name from the Birth Control Federation of America to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The campaign and the new name marked a shift in focus from promoting birth control, that is the use of contraceptives once there were too many children in a family, to advocating child spacing, the idea that couples should consciously plan the arrival of their children from the beginning of their marriage.

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Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Science

How do practitioners—of any form of specialized knowledge—learn technical skills, and how do they find knowledge deemed solid and secure? Clearly, much training occurs within formal situations such as schools and laboratories. Classrooms and their textbooks have attracted due attention from historians, with a focus in the last decade or so on how teachers convey working knowledge bodily and not only abstractly to their students or apprentices. But learning does not stop with formal education, and often enough it starts elsewhere. Manuals and handbooks have long enabled informal, often self-directed education and training. They also provide a new vantage point for bringing together history of science with history of books and media, from antiquity to the present. These instructional texts and compendia codify the knowledge of a working community with an eye to communicating what a new practitioner needs to know. Such texts have also played a key role in bringing local knowledge and know-how to far-flung readers and practitioners around the globe. By following these apparently mundane texts and their uses, rather than focusing only on elite practitioners, we bring into view an exciting new set of historical connections and participants.

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Symptoms of the Jet Age: Global Air Mobility and Disease Control in the 1960s

"United Air Lines DC-6 and DC-6B Mainliners 1950s,” via 1950sUnlimited on Flicker with some rights reserved (CC BY 2.0)

Soon after the global SARS outbreaks in 2003, and many years before the current novel coronavirus pandemic led to a historically unique shutdown of global air traffic, health experts anticipated the vital role air connections would play in the likely event of a worldwide zoonotic pandemic. In 2006, for example, the chief doctor at Frankfurt Airport observed, “In the context of globalization, we in Europe must assume that infection outbreaks on other continents will within 14–24 hours pose a considerable threat to our German population.”1 For medical and global historians, past relations between air traffic, plagues, and health policies present a promising, still largely unexplored research topic.2 Stranded last spring due to a COVID-19 flight ban myself, I started wondering how experts in epidemiology and sanitary control reacted to the rise of mass air travel. How did health experts cope with the breakthrough of the jet age in the 1960s and what were their strategies against the spread of contagious diseases by airplanes?

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