(In)visible Labour: Knowledge Production in the Human Sciences

(In)visible Labour: Knowledge Production in the Human Sciences

Jenny Bangham, Judith Kaplan


‘Motion study’, c. 1913. Reprinted with the permission of the Frank & Lillian Gilbreth Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

There are powerful epistemological, social and political reasons for concealing (or revealing) certain people, practices, and professions in the course of scientific research. Those sciences that take people as their subjects of research—including biology and biomedicine as well as anthropology, linguistics, and social science—depend upon constellations of contributors with diverse values and expertise, who have varied motivations and degrees of political agency. Research encounters often depend on actors behind the scenes such as tissue donors, survey respondents, student subjects, translators, activists, ethics review boards, civic or religious institutions, lawyers, nurses, and archivists. Their contributions move in and out of the shadows as scientific knowledge is made, with important consequences for the authority and authenticity of the human sciences.

Building on an intensive reading group and workshop that convened in the summer of 2015, this project encourages methodological reflection on how we, as historians, might recover the labour, experiences, and perspectives of those who make up the human sciences. We are exploring the motivations and processes of concealment, the social and political contexts of these practices, as well as their far-reaching epistemic ramifications. STS and the history of science are part of the constellation of human sciences up for discussion, and the trends of our own discipline are co-constitutive of the stories we want to recover. How and why do we choose the topics we study? What tacit moral valences do certain topics and methodologies have? What positions do we take in relation to the actors we write about? Do those positions vary with degrees of chronological, cultural and/or linguistic remove? Do historical and social studies of offer resources for the negotiation of risk, responsibility and justice? We consider how access to resources is shaped by our own identities, by legal frameworks, ethical scaffolds, and the activities of archivists and other brokers. We also analyze how our own professional, institutional, geographical and political circumstances condition who we claim to speak of and for.