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Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge
David N. Livingstone
University of Chicago Press, 2003
244 pp., $35.00
By John Stenhouse
The View from Somewhere
In Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, David Livingstone brings a geographer's gaze systematically to bear on Western science over the past five centuries. Place matters, he contends. That is the case not simply because human beings do science—dig out fossils, breed fruitflies, and split atoms—in particular sites. This book makes a bolder and more arresting case. The spaces in which human beings practice and produce science have shaped not merely its contexts but also its content. Those seeking to understand science must take space (and geography) as seriously as time (and history). The scientific enterprise is "inescapably spatial."
This thesis may strike some readers as counterintuitive or even disturbing. Many modern people think of science as universal. Gravity draws apples earthward as surely in Tehran as in Tokyo. Quantum physicists from Vienna to Vancouver debate the latest theories in a common, global scientific language. Science enjoys remarkable cultural authority in the modern world, many scholars have argued, thanks to its capacity to transcend locality. By setting aside prejudice, presupposition, and parochialism, scientists secure the most objective, trustworthy, and universal knowledge human beings can attain. On this view, science constitutes a fundamentally "placeless" enterprise whose workings the geographer can illuminate in only minor, inconsequential ways.
Putting Science in its Place constitutes a lively, lucid, and compelling argument against this view of science. Situating scientific projects in a remarkable variety of spaces—material, social, intellectual, cultural, religious, acoustic, olfactory, and so on— from the 16th through the 20th centuries, Livingstone argues that science bears "the imprint of its location." We should think of it not as a "transcendent entity that bears no trace of the parochial or contingent" but rather as "a human enterprise, situated in time and space." Heterogeneous and pluriform, science ...