Methods and Expertise

A History of Scientific Methods and Expertise in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Cooperation Partners: 

History of Science Unit, University of Regensburg, Institute for Science and Technology Studies, University of Bielefeld, Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, Anthony S. Travis, Leo Baeck Institute, Jerusalem

In nineteenth-century society, the sciences gained in importance. Technology and industry, nutrition, public health, and the law are only a few examples of fields that interacted with science. This process constitutes the historical longue durée of today's knowledge society postulated by sociologists. Scientists' claim to represent nature in objective terms bolstered their status as legitimate experts. Furthermore, their ability to act—e.g., to synthesize new (and useful) substances, to find hidden traces of precious (or dangerous) materials, to combat diseases—greatly amplified their impact. The capability of scientific methods determined the legitimacy and authority of scientific expertise. In order to be effective, methods had to be linked to societal demands. Such links, alliances, and collaborations were the subjects of this project.

Science and the Law: In mid-nineteenth century Germany, both analytical chemistry and the juridical system underwent profound transformations. In court, chemical experiments and measurements supplemented and replaced other, especially medical, forms of expert opinion. This project tried to answer the question of how the evidence judged at the bar related to the evidence scrutinized at the bench.

Regulatory Science: The consequences of industrialization and the mass consumption of technical goods have been an issue since the late-nineteenth century. In the 1960s, the focus changed from discrete domains to the environment at large. This project reconstructed the boundary work that both separated and connected science and policy. It aimed to encircle the boundary objects involved and to trace their trajectories when crossing social and natural spheres.

The Making of Methods: The basis for scientific expertise is the development of methods to generate evidence and to control hazards. Some scientists concentrate on the development and paradigmatic application of methods that can be of use to other researchers. For such scientists, methods are the final outcome of their work, and method-oriented scientists had a crucial impact in adapting physical methods to chemistry. This project tried to clarify the epistemic conditions, social structures, and historical phases of the making of methods in twentieth-century science.

  • Shifting and Rearranging. Physical Methods and the Transformation of Modern Chemistry. Sagamore Beach, Mass.: Science History Publications, 2006
  • "A Lead User of Instruments in Science. John D. Roberts and the Adaptation of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance to Organic Chemistry, 1955–1975," in: Isis 97 (2006), pp. 205–236.
  • "Wissenstransfer durch Zentrenbildung. Physikalische Methoden in der Chemie und den Biowissenschaften," in: Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 29 (2006), pp. 224–242.