Varieties of Popular Science and the Transformations of Public Knowledge: Some Historical Reflections

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  • Varieties of Popular Science and the Transformations of Public Knowledge: Some Historical ReflectionsAuthor(s): By AndreasW. DaumSource: Isis, Vol. 100, No. 2 (June 2009), pp. 319-332Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 12/04/2013 15:55

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  • Varieties of Popular Science and theTransformations of Public

    KnowledgeSome Historical Reflections

    By Andreas W. Daum*


    This essay suggests that we should understand the varieties of popular science as partof a larger phenomenon: the changing set of processes, practices, and actors that generateand transform public knowledge across time, space, and cultures. With such a reconcep-tualization we can both de-essentialize and historicize the idea of popularization, free itfrom normative notions, and move beyond existing imbalances in scholarship. The historyof public knowledge might thus find a central place in many fundamental narratives of themodern world. More specifically, the essay proposes that we pay more attention to formsof knowledge outside the realm of science, embrace the richness, traffic, and transfer ofpublic knowledge on a transnational scale as well as in comparative perspective, andrethink conventional forms of periodization.

    T HE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF POPULAR SCIENCE seems to be one of the rare casesin which a young research field has been more haunted by its methodological problemsthan convinced of its strengths, more concerned about its empirical gaps than forthcomingabout the results it has generated, and more doubtful about its positioning in historiog-raphy at large than adventurous in exploring where to situate itself.1 This paradoxical

    * Department of History, State University of New York at Buffalo, 570 Park Hall, Buffalo, New York 14260;

    I would like to thank Jim Bono, Bernard Lightman, Ralph OConnor, Jim Secord, and Jon Topham, as wellas Justin Donhauser, Kate Doran, and the audience at the University of Erfurt, Germany, where I presented aversion of this essay in October 2008, for providing valuable feedback and suggestions.

    1 See Steven Shapin, Science and the Public, in Companion to the History of Modern Science, ed. R. C. Olbyet al. (London/New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 9901007; Roger Cooter and Stephen Pumfrey, SeparateSpheres and Public Places: Reflections on the History of Science Popularization and Science in Popular Culture,History of Science, 1994, 32:237267; Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, A Genealogy of the Increasing Gapbetween Science and the Public, Public Understanding of Science, 2001, 10:99113; and the short summary


    Isis, 2009, 100:3193322009 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved.0021-1753/2009/10002-0005$10.00


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  • situation has a lot to do with the indisputable problem of defining the actual object ofinquiry. The terms popular science and popularization quickly turn out to be prob-lematic asin Max Webers terminologyideal types that would serve as universalcategories open enough to structure empirical observations without equating the languageof historians with the language of their sources. Undoubtedly, these terms are of limiteduse if we test their logic: Is popular science only science popularized or something moreand different? What does popular mean? Can we still speak of science if scientificknowledge transforms into something very differentwith respect to its reach, validity,and interpretationonce it is being consumed as a public good?

    Today, older trickle-down or two-stage models that attempted to capture what happenswhen science is being popularized are passeand rightly so.2 These models understandpopular science as the result of forms of communication through which specializedknowledge produced on a higher levelthat is, within the realm of research-orientedscienceis translated to a largely passive audience. Popular science thus represents a kindof science lite, derivative at best, if not the illegitimate brainchild of true knowledgedragging its audience down the slippery slope toward trivialization. Criticism of thismodel has been endlessly varied, almost becoming a mantra; but in itself it offers no usefulalternatives. This is rather ironic, since hardly any historiansif any at allin the lastthirty years or so have actually subscribed to the two-stage model.3

    It might be time to take a more optimistic stance, without repeating the tropes ofemphatic promises that so many new research fields have used since historians saidgood-bye to the noble dream of finding the truth by reading the right sources correctly.4Specifically, I want to suggest, first, that we appreciate the new wealth of historical studieson popular sciencebut also acknowledge some of the persistent sociological anddiscursive imbalances that mark the field in which these studies situate themselves. Thisshort review may help to analyze the historical varieties of popular science more vigor-ously and introduce more comparative questions to the field. Second, I would like topropose some heuristic categories that can be applied within local, regional, and nationalcontexts, as well as to questions about transcultural communication, all of which wouldmake it easier to design strategies for placing what is so insufficiently called popularscience into broader frameworks. With the aim of de-essentializing and historicizingpopular science in mind, my third suggestion is that we might understand forms ofpopular science as specific variations of a much larger phenomenonthat is, as transfor-mations of public knowledge across time, space, and cultures. Ultimately, then, thehistoriography of popular science would become the nucleus, and perhaps even thetrendsetter, of a broader and more interdisciplinary endeavor.

    by Bruce V. Lewenstein, Popularization, in The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science, ed. JohnL. Heilbron (Oxford/New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 667668.

    2 Stephen Hilgartner, The Dominant View of Popularization: Conceptual Problems, Political Uses, SocialStudies of Science, 1990, 20:519539. For the diametrically opposite concept of expository science, whichassumes a sort of continuum of methods and practices utilized both within research and far beyond, for purposesof conveying science-based information, see Terry Shinn and Richard Whitley, eds., Expository Science: Formsand Functions of Popularisation (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1985), p. viii.

    3 The sweeping critique of the two-stage model tends to overlook, however, that popularizing activitiesthroughout history have often construed rhetorically a gap between expert knowledge and popular knowledge tomake the opposite argumenti.e., to present popular knowledge as something positive and necessary.

    4 Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession(Cambridge/New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988).

    320 FOCUSISIS, 100 : 2 (2009)

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    It is both easy and necessary to identify the wide gaps in our understanding of thehistorical varieties of popular science. We know considerably more about these today,however, than half a generation ago. There are new surveys concentrating on individualcountries and original monographic studies, in addition to a plethora of articles and someessay collections that cover a wide array of themes, media, and actors.5 We know moreabout the many individuals and loosely formed groups that have popularized science,especially about female writers and other authors left aside by a whiggish historiographyof science.6 Scholars have identified a variety of sites in which knowledge has been madepublicfrom bourgeois family homes and pubs to natural history associations, fromworlds fairs to television screens.7 The history of print media, book production, andreading has been conceptualized as a prime field for studying both the intellectualdynamics of popular science and the material practices that enable these pursuits.8 The

    5 For exemplary studies that focus on national settings see, for England, David E. Allen, The Naturalist inBritain: A Social History, 2nd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994); Roger Cooter, The CulturalMeaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984); Alison Winter, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain(Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1998); and James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publica-tion, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago: Univ. ChicagoPress, 2000). For France: Bruno Beguet, ed., La science pour tous:


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