Field Work in the American West

Knowledge, Environment, and Field Work in the American West

Jeremy Vetter

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Mr. Peter Wood and Child at Amarillo, Texas, Weather Station, June 1, 1903. Courtesy US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service Collection.

This project considered the American West region as a useful scale for analyzing the environmental context and work organization of science, a middle level between local and global. It focused on field work between 1860 and 1920 in the US Great Plains and Rocky Mountains—a region that includes all or part of present-day Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. Not only has this region been geographically central to the American West as a whole, but it has also demonstrated many of its key features, such as aridity or semi-aridity; rugged topography mixing plains, mountains and deserts; generally low population density with a few thickly-settled urban areas; a strong federal government presence; and a visible settlement imprint by science and technology.

It adopts an operational definition of “field work” that distinguishes it from laboratory work. While the latter is intended to occur in a controlled, place-less setting, field work is always tied to the specific geographical place in which it is done. In other words, the environmental features of place are explicitly included in reports of the knowledge produced, rather than being concealed. Often field work involves the scientist actually traveling into the field—for example, on an organized expedition—but some field work relies on the presence of surrogates in the field who communicate with and send specimens to a researcher located elsewhere.

The project analyzed how the region’s environment shaped scientific observation in the field, through its provision of particular natural resources, its relation to economic and cultural activities, and its effect on practice. Jeremy Vetter also examined the organization of work in the field as specimens and observations of nature were converted into knowledge that can circulate in the global scientific community. This work was partly cognitive, of course, but it also involved moving through the environment, manipulating equipment and supplies, measuring things, taking specimens, and sometimes transforming the Earth itself.

To integrate an analysis of environment and work in the history of the field sciences, the project investigated several modes of knowledge production, a conceptual borrowing from the history of capitalism describing the different, co-existing ways that nature can be converted into knowledge through work. By the late nineteenth century, the quintessential mode of knowledge production in the modern world was becoming the laboratory, which proved to be enormously productive and ruthlessly powerful in shaping the epistemological contours of the world in the same way that large-scale factory production reshaped the material economy. But another family of modes also continued to develop: the modes of production in the field.

Modes of field production differed from their laboratory counterpart in seeking a middle ground between the epistemological authority of universality and the practical usefulness of relating to particular regional and local environments and cultures. The four modes of field production that emerged most visibly in the American West between 1860 and 1920 were the network, the survey, the station, and the quarry. These modes, only gradually recognized as distinctively “field work” in opposition to the laboratory during its own nineteenth-century rise, evolved out of earlier modes of natural history collecting and exploratory expeditions.

Deploying a relational model loosely based on world-systems and dependency approaches, this project underscores how scientific frontiers do not pass through a fixed developmental sequence but rather develop in relation to other more developed parts of the scientific world, especially institutions in the eastern U.S. and Europe. This model emphasizes both the persistence of geographical hierarchies over time and the possibility for occasional mobility of regions between status levels. It preserves traditional categories like metropole and province, or center and periphery, but with room for a middle position between the peripheral collector and the metropolitan scientist.

The US Great Plains and Rocky Mountains did not suffer total scientific dependency. Instead, as a settler colonial region with emerging local sources of patronage, areas like the Colorado Piedmont attained at least semi-peripheral status over time by dominating scientific production from the more peripheral parts of the region. However, dependency relations with Eastern institutions remained pervasive. One of the underlying aims of this project was to explore the historical unfolding of that system of spatial hierarchy. Scientists in the center still controlled the production and circulation of knowledge, but they did so increasingly by going into the field to make their own collections and observations. At the same time, people of lower status levels—field collectors, amateurs, local collaborators, etc.—did possess some leverage. In addition to developing the general model, therefore, the project also examined case studies of field work through networks, surveys, stations, and quarries that illuminated how environment and work organization shaped knowledge production in the American West.

  • “Science along the Railroad: Expanding Field Work in the US Central West,“ Annals of Science 61 (2004): 187-211