Research, Documentality, and Industry

Maurizio Ferraris in his book Documentality: Why It Is Necessary to Leave Traces has argued that it is essential for all social systems (science, law, and the like) to create inscriptions or written traces in order to survive.  One of the largest such social systems, of course is state bureaucracy “the state’s first succumbing to bureaucratic documentality and then to informatics documentality” (p. 287).  According to Ferraris, informatics documentality is a way in which sovereign power is extended over a larger number of people.

The documents that I have been studying are largely nineteenth century scientific journals such as the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Journal of Science and the Journal of the American Chemical Society. In those journals, one might argue that professional scientists institutionalized larger cultural ideas.  In several previous posts, I have suggested that within the system of scholarly communication created in the late nineteenth century, industry dominated.  For nineteenth century American scientists more generally and for chemists in particular, their world was heavily influenced by the needs of a rapidly industrializing nation. These professionals tied their own futures to the needs of these industries, and often wrote in ways within their journals that would serve the needs of industry.

Why are such historical developments important in thinking even about the modern scholarly communication system?  Over time, throughout the twentieth century, the government became more involved with the work of scientists, and currently, federal funding through the National Science Foundation or other federal agencies continues to dominate the higher education landscape.   If indeed there has been such a heavy industrial influence for over 100 years, what does that say about the purpose of the scholarly communication system?  More importantly, if indeed the system needs significant reform, should the tie to industry be one of the things that is reformed?  Though history cannot perhaps answer these questions, it can, I think, help to identify these questions that certainly need to be addressed.

The Complex Professionalization of Science

When I was doing research in Philadelphia recently, I was looking into the origins of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  More specifically, I was looking at its relationship with the American Philosophical Society.  The standard history states that the association started in 1848 and formed from the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists (founded around 1840).  Though I have seen some references in secondary literature to the American Philosophical Society as well, I decided to check there to see if there was any discussion of AAAS in the early records of the American Philosophical Society.  Interestingly, there was mention of it, and it seems that this little piece of evidence alone complicates the story of early professionalization of science in nineteenth century America.

The “rough minutes” of the American Philosophical Society meeting on Oct. 5, 1838 record that, “Dr. Horner [William E. Horner] read before the Society a letter addressed to him by Dr. John C. Warren of Boston dated 23 Sept. 1838 expressing his wish and that of a number of gentlemen of Boston for the formation of an American Association for the promotion of Science, and inviting the cooperation of the members of this society.”  I still need to look to find some other references to later discussions about the formation of such an association.  It is interesting, however, that these discussions seem to date from ten years before the official formation of the AAAS and two years before the formation of the Association of American Geologists  and Naturalists.  Moreover, these two men (Warren and Horner) are not geologists, but medical faculty.  Warren went on to found the New England Journal of Medicine and become the president of the American Medical Association (founded in 1847).  Horner was Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

Thus, one small piece of evidence seems to suggest that “science” in 1838 at least was wider than just geologists, but include medicine.  Sometime between 1838 and 1847 these two strains of science split and form their own professional associations.  Additionally, for whatever reason, the American Philosophical Society seems not to involve itself in the actions of either of these groups.  I am interested in determining how this happened, and I think the answer may help to understand more fully the how science professionalized in the mid-nineteenth century.