Posted by: soniahs | September 21, 2010

Exam reading: “Crafting science”

Here’s the thing. In philosophy, there is a spectrum of belief about the “reality” of the observable world. This ranges from extreme empiricism (we can only know that which we can measure with our senses, therefore science is the only way to know the world) to extreme postmodern relativism (all perception is subjective, therefore scientific observations are only as accurate as religious or philosophical notions about the world).

Debate among adherents of both philosophies (as well as those who fall somewhere in between) has occasionally been bitter (and has crept into the political realm.) I fall closer to the empirical end of the scale, though I do believe that there is room for discussion of social construction around scientific models and science as an institution.

Joan Fujimura’s “Crafting Science: Standardized Packages, Boundary Objects, and ‘Translation'” comes from a decided social constructionist perspective (for example, a footnote at the beginning assures the reader that she does not consider “facts” to “represent reality.”) That said, she does present an interesting way of looking at they ways in which scientific concepts are transferred among different fields (though I suspect my watered down view of the role of social negotiation in science would seem inadequate to her.) Here is my summary:

Summary: From a social constructionist perspective, scientific knowledge is produced not by consensus or by referring to objective nature, but by negotiation and argument. Fujimura combines Latour’s “boundary objects” with Star & Griesner’s focus on collective negotiation in constructing scientific “facts.” Fujimura suggests that “standardized packages” of both technologies and a theory (i.e., several related boundary objects) facilitate cooperative work by acting as interfaces between different social worlds. The packages allow cross-communication (via “translation”) and cooperation between disciplines, while still letting disciplines maintain the integrity of their viewpoints. Such packages are more rigid than just single boundary objects, because the different parts co-define one another. She uses the example of oncogenes as a recent conceptual framework for cancer research to illustrate how this process works. In this case, boundary objects include concepts (e.g., gene, cancer), databases (which create a standard language), and sequences (DNA & protein). The primary theory is “translated”/mapped onto existing problems in different fields, e.g., links retroviruses (virology) to oncogenes (genetics), then oncogene proteins to proto-oncogenes (developmental & evolutionary biology.) When used together, shared theories and standard tools can ensure “fact stabilization.”

Comments: Provides a framework for how ideas are communicated across disciplines or among interest groups. Can this be used in a less-extreme constructionist setting? If people can argue about multiple perceptions of a thing, then that suggests that there really is a “thing” out there to argue about (in other words, I believe in reality.)

Links to: Hellsten & Nehrlich (metaphors in sci. comm); Bucchi (metaphors for communication between disciplines)

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