Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Thoughts on the formation of science

I want to write a few comments about science that I can return to some time in the future.

Science is rooted in an epistemic culture. An epistemic culture is an amalgam of people and things that allow us to know what we know. The personal, political, social, and physical are all important (Knorr Cetina, 1999).

That said, science is around for a reason. According to early work by Bernal ([1939] 1967), science has three different aims: the entertainment of scientists, the understanding of the world, and the application of science for human welfare. Bernal maintains that the first aim is probably the dominant operating one and enumerates a number of problems within the conventional structure of science. He suggests reforming science by changing the processes of communication that scientists—and researchers in general—rely upon: the scientific article.

Bernal’s suggestion is consistent with Giddens’s (1984) notion of structuration in which actors are both created by and create society in a reflexive process. By one interpretation of Giddens, this process is mediated by communication and physical artefacts. Changing publishing therefore, changes the nature of science.

In Giddens view, two different processes shape the structuration: practical consciousness and discursive consciousness. Meadows (1998) provides an exhaustive overview of how scientists actually work (i.e., practical consciousness) while simultaneously addressing the discursive and communicative processes of scientists. Other reviews of discursive processes are provided by Brown (1998) who details the narrative structure of scientific writing and addresses the power issues and inherent political economy of industrialized science. Brown’s views of “Big Science” were perhaps first introduced by Price (1963) who demonstrated the rapidly growing volume of scientific literature. Price also discusses the “invisible college” as a means of addressing the information glut.

The “invisible college” was popularized by Crane (1972). The expression apparently was used during the early days of the Royal Society when the scientific community used letters to share information and establish priority of discovery (Kronick, 2001).Basically, researchers maintain an informal community of contact to disseminate important information and to stay abreast of recent findings. Crane used citation analysis to demonstrate the existence of invisible colleges. As noted by Lievrouw (1989), Crane’s methodology complicates her findings since citations aren’t equivalent to direct communication. Lievrouw does, however, provide a definition for “invisible college”, something Crane fails to do: “An invisible college is a set of informal communication relations among scientists or other scholars who share a specific common interest or goal.” (Lievrouw, 1989 p. 622) Lievrouw also recommend the use of ethnographic methods.

In assessing LIS as a science (despite Buckland’s humanity description) there are a number of factors to be considered. Knorr Cetina, for example, conducted a number of ethnographic studies of the experimental science high energy physics and molecular biology. In the physics lab she noted the importance of sign systems and “negative knowledge” or knowledge about what not to study. In the wet biology lab she observed the importance of “visual scripts” and tacit manual skills in the preparation of samples. Do we have these sorts of things in LIS? Where are our visual scripts and what’s our negative knowledge?

Other LIS concerns can be inferred from Klein’s (1996) work on interdisciplinarity. Is LIS a hybrid discipline? Or is it a ghetto-discipline that’s held together only by the gravity inherent in our professional practice? Klein notes that cross disciplinary research is largely the result of “problems of the third kind”: those problems that are driven by societal needs and policy and need some quick resolution. The other types of problems are those intellectual problems from within traditional disciplines, and intellectual problems from multidisciplinary frameworks.


Bernal, J. D. ([1939] 1967). The social function of science. Cambridge,: M.I.T. Press.

Brown, R. H. (1998). Toward a democratic science : scientific narration and civic communication. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Crane, D. (1972). Invisible colleges: diffusion of knowledge in scientific communities. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society : outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Polity Press.

Klein, J. T. (1996). Crossing boundaries : knowledge, disciplinarities, and interdisciplinarities. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia.

Knorr Cetina, K. (1999). Epistemic cultures: How the sciences make knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kronick, D. A. (2001). The commerce of letters: Networks and "invisible colleges" in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Library Quarterly, 71(1), 28-43.

Lievrouw, L. A. (1989). The invisible college reconsidered : Bibliometrics and the development of scientific communication-theory. Communication Research, 16(5), 615-628.

Meadows, A. J. (1998). Communicating research. San Diego: Academic Press.

Price, D. J. d. S. (1963). Little science, big science. New York,: Columbia University Press.


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