Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life

The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation
by Steven Shapin

University of Chicago Press, 468 pp., $29.00 (Hardcover)

Reviewed by Talia Dan-Cohen, Princeton University

The Preface to Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, explains Shapin’s overarching commitment to a historical account with a sociological twist. Shapin’s main concern in this book—a concern towards which he gestures in previous works—is with “the way we live now” (xiv). He suggests, before proceeding to the subject at hand, that historical writing inevitably reflects such concern and that it is possible to produce a better understanding of the present, consciously, through historical accounts. That is, he is one historian who does not pursue the past for its own sake. Rather, in giving an account of late modern science, mainly from the Second World War to the present, his central aim is to understand the figure of the scientist today. And in pursuit of this understanding, Shapin mixes historical methods with ethnographic ones, enriching his approach to the history of the present.

Shapin’s main claim about practitioners of late modern “technoscience” is that “people matter.” Contrary to the view that science is impersonal and that the knowledge produced through its practices is divorced from the moral and personal traits of its practitioners, in Shapin’s account personal traits are a big part of how science works. Such traits influence the practices of scientists in diverse contexts of knowledge and power, from the academic to the industrial and entrepreneurial. In pursuing this theme, Shapin engages with Max Weber’s work on the separation of value spheres, and the rationalization and bureaucratization of late modern life. Rather than seeing the late modern as the time of “specialists without spirit,” Shapin points to the importance of personal traits in different sorts of scientific communities not as the sole determinants of scientific practice, but as important factors in understanding how science works. In doing so, he goes beyond bringing the human back, even going some way toward restoring scientists to a moral pedestal, from which they have been removed for quite some time. Shapin traces the scholarly notion of the moral ordinariness of scientists largely to Robert Merton, who argued that there is no evidence supporting the belief that scientific objectivity arose out of scientists’ unusually high degree of moral integrity, by now a commonplace. Though Shapin doesn’t explicitly roll this carpet back all the way, he does highlight scientists’ moral virtues and the way in which they can thrive in various contemporary types of organizations, thus contributing to the scientific enterprise.

Shapin provides a historically rich account of the discussions surrounding the moral status of the scientist from the interwar period to the cold war era in different institutional settings, exploring such questions as, What kinds of personal traits were valued and in what kinds of settings? How did changes in the position of science with reference to commercial, military and general governmental interests affect scientists’ public image in the twentieth century? The introduction of Big Science was accompanied by a host of concerns for the moral derailment of the scientific endeavor. Shapin pays much attention to the institutional contexts in which practitioners of technoscience have spent the last century or so, and the book moves gracefully between institutions and individuals, group ideologies and individual philosophies. Shapin consistently unsettles prevailing narratives, whether academic or journalistic, typifying institutional life, especially those that pit the University against the Industrial Laboratory. For example, freedom to pursue projects was often cited as a necessary characteristic of scientific research which would be curtailed by product driven industrial research. Shapin shows that many industrial labs provided significant freedom to research scientists, while increasing grant dependence has long restricted research freedom for academic scientists. Thus, Shapin writes, “[w]e can and should recognize a variety of institutional environments in which the virtues can flourish, make them visible as such, and show the good that they do in whatever institution is prudent enough to recognize and encourage them” (20).

The importance of the scientist’s personal traits is further accentuated in the last two chapters of the book, devoted to scientific entrepreneurs and the people who fund them. Shapin explains that if we are to gain insight into the scientific profession as it is practiced today, we must look also at those individuals, networks and organizations that commercialize knowledge. Here the book’s orientation leaves the past and present and extends towards the future. Shapin argues that the radical uncertainty which underlies the work of scientist-entrepreneurs and venture capitalism makes particularly important the merits and personal qualities of individual scientists. When little can be known of the possible in relation to a given scientific discovery, and the stakes are high, venture capital firms go with what they are more likely to know, and that is the character of the person behind the idea or discovery. Shapin writes, “People matter; their personal constitutions matter; their virtues matter. And the reason they matter has to do with the radical uncertainty of these future-making practices” (303). It is this radical uncertainty, this present which is future oriented, which constitutes a central part of the way we live now.

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