Vernacular Knowledge

The Crafting of the 10,000 Things: Knowledge and Technology in Seventeenth-Century China, Dagmar Schäfer

            In her analyses of the writings of Song Yingxing (1587-1666?), author Dagmar Schäfer elucidates the intricate and complex systems of knowing in seventeenth-century China. Song was part of a society in which individuals were divided into four major classes: scholars, farmers, merchants, and craftsmen. While Song’s writings reflect these subdivisions (and the social hierarchies in which they were placed), they also defy his society’s unique knowledge classification systems by emphasizing the role of qi in universal harmony and understanding. In a method markedly different from his contemporaries, Song proposed a chaos-defying system based on qi and “natural phenomenon and the production of material objects,” instead of on “moral categories of ‘heaven’” imposed on humanity.[1] Schäfer brilliantly highlights how cultural, political, and societal influences play a role in knowledge production and understanding through her case study analysis of a single, at times abnormal and at times quite typical, lower-ranked Chinese scholar. 

Science in the Everyday World: Why Perspectives from the History of Science Matter, Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader

            Science in the Everyday World brings attention to the tendency for scientists and historians of science to discount or altogether ignore the importance of those “outside the temple of science” and in the realm of popular culture in the production and perpetuation of knowledge.[2] To assume that all knowledge is synthesized in the laboratories of professional scientists leaves out the many, equally important actors at play in the lay world. If historians will venture into the realm of popular cultures of science, Pandora and Rader argue, we have to gain “the positive transformation of relations between expert scientific practitioners and nonexpert public science participants.”[3] The authors then illustrate how this type of analysis should be carried out by discussing three examples: historians’ work on the nineteenth-century scientific popular culture, the development of and motivations behind scientific museums, and twentieth century media portrayals of the scientist. By understanding the ways that the scientific community and laypeople communicate with one another, scientists can benefit from historians in a way that will make future conversations far more rewarding.

Pandora and Rader’s piece on popular science reminded me very much of Nancy Tomes’s work, The Gospel of Germs. Tomes appears to use the exact analytical strategies proposed by Pandora and Rader; she attempts to understand the lay American reaction to an awareness of microbial disease-carriers. A marked difference between this approach and the more traditional, top-centered strategy can be located in the source base. Pandora and Rader’s brief discussion on popular representations of scientists in the twentieth century focus on film and television shows, while Tomes uses similar sources that lay outside of the professional realm, including advice books, patent applications, advertisements, and oral histories. While these sources may not always be the most visible, apparent, or traditional, they offer insight into a completely different aspect of scientific culture — one that is equally important to the acquisition and transmission of knowledge.

I find the indirect approach to the historical study of scientific understanding the most fascinating, and arguably the most important. While scientists like to isolate themselves physically and professionally, they are still part of the worldly, human-comprised community. They are not immune to its structure, politics, culture, or ideas, as many proponents of the SSK school would argue. I think, however, that one of the most effective ways of understanding the context in which science is conducted is to study the consumers of science. Their role in the creation of scientific knowledge has been paramount; after all, without public support science (usually) cannot operate. And how science sells or isolates itself from the common people can have major implications for what kind of science is done. Equally interesting and useful is the study of how science has affected the communities for which it operates; how did your average American understand germ theory, and how did this change how they behaved? A question taken up by Tomes, this kind of inquiry can lead the historian to better understand what role science has played in the overall history of humanity, and like Pandora and Rader argue, it can facilitate important modern-day conversations between scientists and common audiences.

[1] Dagmar Schäfer, The Crafting of 10,000 Things, 52.

[2] Katherine Pandora and Karen A. Rader, “Science in the Everyday World,” 350.

[3] Ibid, 354.

Technology and Gender

Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China, Francesca Bray

            Making use of a broad definition of technology — “an action performed on some form of inanimate or animate matter, designed to produce an object with human meaning … [as] exercised in its social context”[1] — author Francesca Bay analyzes the ways in which Chinese “gynotechnics” created the world in which women lived and also influenced the way they interacted with and within it in late Imperial China. Bray does this in three domains: in the creation of hierarchical, gendered, and ritualistic spaces within the practices of homebuilding, in the transition in textile, particularly silk, production from the female to the male sphere and its affect on gender roles, and in the technologies of women’s health and their part in creating and reinforcing class and gender distinctions. With the intention of conducting an investigation into technology’s role in social reproduction, the author outlines how these three “technologies” created and perpetuated the social and cultural frameworks in which Chinese women operated.

Bray’s approach to talking about spaces — the way that they were built for certain purposes, and what those purposes can tell us about the society that found them important — is reminiscent of other constructivist approaches to historical spaces. The quarters in which the Royal Society worked and socialized in, as described by Schaefer and Shapin, served to promote an orderliness based off of gentlemanly etiquette; the homes constructed in Imperial China similarly functioned as a way to promote social order in the form of strict hierarchies founded on ancestral respect and the home as a governmental microcosm. The rooms of the Royal Society were often seated with very little attention paid to rank — everyone was encouraged, even required, to participate in the scientific discussion. Homes in China were centered around their ancestors’ shrine, the way that Chinese lives were meant to revolve around the expectations their ancestors, and through extension society as a whole, expected. Heights of roofs were dictated by social rank. The Royal Society’s strategy of spatial arrangement exemplified their attempt (within the strict boundaries of class) to promote observed, and therefore legitimate, scientific knowledge. The structure of the Chinese home promoted the generation of a different kind of product — one highly gendered, hierarchical, and controlled.


“Categories of Difference, Categories of Power: Bringing Gender and Race to the History of Technology,” Nina E. Lerman

            Nina Lerman questions the prevailing definition of a “technology” in SHOT literature, arguing that it is exclusive and teleological. She highlights the scholarly focus on technologies as “markers of progress,”[2] judged in their relation to modern science, instead of the broader definition of a technology as “ways of making and doing things.”[3] By focusing on technologies that historians have viewed as particularly productive or progressive in light of modern science, the SHOT industry has sidelined many important technological developments and missed many contemporary cultural emphases on certain kinds technologies — and what these emphases say about gender and racial relations. Lerman presents an example in analyzing the records of an organization in Philadelphia devoted to providing technical training to problematic youths. White males were given tasks more in line with valuable technical knowledge (notably different from what a modern organization of the same kind would find most appropriate), while young women and people of color were trained in less valuable and sometimes less technical subjects. By adopting an approach where the modern “keyword” of technology is stripped of its modern exclusivity, Lerman is able to comment on gender and race relations through the unique lens of non-exclusive technology.

I read Technology and Gender before Lerman’s article (primarily) concerning an expanded definition of technology, and that was probably a mistake. I spent a lot of energy trying to wrap my mind around the idea of technology as a social construction and as a means of social reproduction. Lerman enlightened me, describing the way that modern historians have restricted the definition of technology to things that we, in our current time, view as progressive: telescopes and microscopes, computers and phones, etc. Grappling with the broader definition after having read both works, however, still left me slightly dissatisfied; if technology is constructed in contemporary contexts, and it also reinforces and perpetuates the ideas, traditions, or theories that created it, what makes it so important? It comes from a culture and produces things within the frameworks of that culture. What does technology do in the grand scheme of things? It certainly, by the definition Bray offers, cannot contribute to change; does this definition of technology, then, have a place in any study not focused on stability (like Technology and Gender)? I think not.

[1] Francesca Bray, Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China, 15-16.

[2] Nina E. Lerman, “Categories of Difference, Categories of Power: Bringing Gender and Race to the History of Technology,” 895.

[3] Ibid.