Historiographic Mash-Up

Previously, I wrote about the hybrid or interdisciplinary interstice in which my work rests. One of the exciting features of such an in-between area of focus is the freedom to read eclectically across a number of different fields. Here’s a very brief overview of some of the literature that is influencing my approach to the mercury project. Not present is the larger theoretical discussion—and associated literature—behind the politics of post-normal science and interdisciplinarity, discussed elsewhere.

Because my project functions at the intersections of environmental history, the history of science, and policy studies, it is indebted to an interdisciplinary and eclectic body of scholarly literature. The emergence of world environmental history suggests an important intellectual home for my work. John McNeill, Alfred W. Crosby, J. Donald Hughes, Clive Ponting, Richard H. Grove, and John Richards have each examined environmental history, putting particular emphasis on the idea that nature transcends national boundaries and paying careful attention to comparative transfers of materials and ideas across time and place. Further, Alf Hornborg has challenged historians to make distinctions and draw correlations between the social “world system” and the environmental “earth system,” in global historical contexts. But while these works have typically sought to survey the role of nature in world history or within the framework of a specific time period, the new trend—in which I see my project—is interested in tracing the place of a discrete piece of nature through world history. Popular accounts of cod and spice in world history provide popular examples of this trend, while scholars in environmental history are engaged in similar studies on quinine and the coffee rust virus. In exploring a single pollutant and the scientific and regulatory efforts to control that pollutant, I see my project as contributing to a world environmental history from mercury’s point of view.

Understanding mercury’s role in my account also demands that I put environmental history and the history of science in conversation with each other.  Strangely, the overlap between these two fields is limited to histories of ecology and—from the environmental history perspective—criticisms of the ecologically destructive nature of western science and technology. Peter Bowler’s methodical evaluation of the environmental sciences and their evolution is a solid example of important work that has been more roundly adopted by historians of science interested in the history of the expansion of ecological knowledge. Stephen Bocking’s discussion of professional ecology and ecologists provides a template for discussing ecology as both a scientific discipline and a political tool. New work on toxicological studies also offers a bridge between the two historical fields. Christopher Sellers, Gerald Markowitz, and David Rosner have discussed the relationship between toxicology and occupational health and safety as environmental issues. Underpinning my entire discussion of the science and regulation of mercury pollution is the specter of its threat to human health and how this is a critical step in what Sverker Sörlin calls “environing,” the expansion of social environmental awareness.

Addressing the relationship between science, environment, and policy might sensibly be divided into two spheres, one examining the sociology of scientific knowledge—which seeks to illuminate both the structure of scientific disciplines and scientific knowledge more generally—and the other exploring scholarship on international environmental policy. A number of studies have analyzed the “birth” of new scientific disciplines and the manner in which knowledge is manufactured and accepted. The prevailing theme here, championed by Robert Kohler, Harrison Echols, and others is that the development of new sciences is a fundamentally social undertaking. Perhaps the most significant work in this vein is Jan Golinski’s, which highlights scientific knowledge as a product of human culture. At the nexus of scientific knowledge and environmental policy, Chandra Mukerji takes this argument even further, by suggesting a complex interdependence between scientists and the state, in which scientists provide the state not with knowledge but rather legitimacy in return for financial support. From the perspective of policy studies, Sheila Jasanoff’s work follows modern political cultures and their struggles to control scientific knowledge in the public interest, while she and Sylvia Noble Tesh consider the social dynamics of scientists in the public and political arena.  Another important policy avenue involves the study of the chemical regime, writ large.  Jennifer Clapp and Henrik Selin provide valuable guidance in the politics of chemicals, their motility, and their disposal in international treaties, while Elizabeth DeSombre and others critique the dynamics of global environmental governance.

Another important direction in the sociology of scientific knowledge involves questions pertaining to the geography of science and the important assertion that science occurs in places, and is not singularly abstract or universal.  Put more succinctly, scientific knowledge is situated, but mobile.  This is an extension of Bruno Latour’s work and, indeed, Golinski’s, and David N. Livingstone, Nigel Thrift, and others have stressed the role of geography in the production and consumption of scientific knowledge.  In the context of mercury pollution, it matters where mercury is found—and that some people in some places were looking for it—where environmental toxicology was developed, and where and in what shape mercury regulation took place.  But while much of the current scholarship underscores the situated but mobile nature of scientific knowledge, one of the curious—and recurring—characteristics of the mercury story is that the science is situated, but not nearly as mobile as the existing literature might indicate it should be. Indeed, one of the most interesting intellectual features of this project is the tension between the global phenomenon of mercury as a pollutant, the more limited transnational exchange of scientific ideas pertaining to environmental toxicology—spurred forward by specific cases of mercury pollution—and the national and international processes integral to the negotiation and passage of environmental regulation. This warrants further analysis and consideration, but it opens up a fascinating historiographic question about the motility of scientific knowledge and its communication.

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