Medical Museion posts

Emotions in science — reinventing the wheel

By December 20, 2008 No Comments

I’m fascinated by how often scholars of science studies reinvent the wheel — because they are ignorant of other approaches to science than their own myopic perspective.

For example, I just stumbled over an otherwise excellent article — “Counting Corncrakes: The Affective Science of the UK Corncrake Census”, Social Studies of Science, vol 38, 377-405, 2008 — in which Jamie Lorimer, a postdoc at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment, discusses how emotions play a role in scientific work.

Lorimer observed, during his field work, how surveyors, researchers and their study objects were linked in a way that triggered “a variety of emotional responses among surveyors and researchers”. These “complex and multi-faceted” emotions, Lorimer suggests, provide “the vital motivations” that compel investigators to their work. And continues:

Although social studies of the field and laboratory sciences are beginning to concern themselves with the body, they have not yet fully engaged with the role of emotion in scientific practice. In Latour’s famous account of his trip to Boa Vista, for example, we hear little about what he and his research subjects were feeling at the time, what they enjoyed about their work and what they found frustrating. Perhaps this general reluctance to discuss emotion is a hangover from the radical symmetry and anti-ontological stance advocated by early actor-network theory, which effaced the specific skills and feelings of humans (Lorimer 2008, p. 398).

What Lorimer says, is that the community of actor network theorists (ANTs), headed by Bruno Latour (a follower of Michel Serres), have effaced the emotional dimension of scientific work. And that he is now filling out this lacuna by introducing affect into science studies:

This paper has shown that affect plays a vital role in motivating field scientists, many of whom work long hours in challenging conditions for little material reward. They do it because they enjoy it; in Massumi’s (1996) terms affect provides the ‘vital glue’ that impels these human–corncrake interactions … it is likely that there is a clear topography of fun, awe or intellectual challenge that can be had in the field (Lorimer 2008, p. 398).

Well, the importance of affect may be new to some students of science studies. But the rest of us, especially we who read and write biographies and autobiographies of scientists, have known this for — yes, centuries! In fact, a focus on the affective dimension of science is one of the defining traits of the genre of scientific biography.

Lorimer’s article illustrate one of the dangers of intellectual movements like ANT — they form cognitively closed communities that become so absorbed in their own terminology that they don’t realize that there exist other analytical approaches to the world. And when they find lacunas in the construct they believe they have found out someting new. We may expect to see many post-ANT scholars reinventing lots of wheels in the years to come.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

More posts by Thomas Söderqvist