Overcoming the Division of Labor in Global Tectonics

Overcoming the Division of Labor in Global Tectonics: Eduard Suess‘ The Face of the Earth

Andrea Westermann


Working by the book in tectonics as envisioned in 1857. Taken from Charles Lyell, Geologie oder Entwicklungsgeschichte der Erde und ihrer Bewohner, Berlin.

In the late nineteenth century, geological research practices were subject to a definite change. Geology turned from stratigraphy, i.e., the ordering and historicizing of local and regional rock strata, to global tectonics as its guiding principle: Geologists started to study dynamic geological processes such as mountain building and other large-scale movements of the earth’s crust. It is a crucial shift in the history of geology because what we find here is not only a change of the disciplinary focus but also a change of scale.

As a consequence of the turn, the problem of generalizing from locally-gathered research data gained new and practical meaning. Modern global tectonics c. 1900 had to manage the problem of communicating and validating knowledge generated at different places and in different disciplines. However, if it is true that only the division of research labor allowed for a global tectonic view of Earth, it is also true that this division had to be overcome at some point.

Coping with the division of geological research labor involved a heavy load of theorizing as can be seen, most obviously perhaps, by the fact that global tectonic research shifted sites: while geology had been mostly a field science in the early and mid-nineteenth century, the geologist’s desk and the seismological observatories or other laboratories of remote data collection became important sites of the geological knowledge production in the twentieth century. Andrea Westermann further explored this idea by focusing on the history of one particular book, Eduard Suess’ (1831–1914) The Face of the Earth. Published between 1883 and 1909, the volumes were considered the long-awaited “synthesis” of the empirical work done in the previous decades and opened the way to twentieth-century geology.