“On the Frontier of the Empire of Chance”

Summaries & Reviews

Arwen Mohun, “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance: Statistics, Accidents, and Risk in Industrializing America.” Science in Context 3 (2005): 337-357.

In “On the Frontier of The Empire of Chance,” author Arwen Mohun examines the rise in statistics and probabilistic thinking in the American vernacular context from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Through the lens of a cultural historian of technology, Mohun takes a closer look at how the industrial-era quantification of risk altered the way people understood it; she asks why and how this transformation took place, and then delves into how these understandings were shaped and used in order to mold individual behavior and enact widespread change. Mohun argues that the actors in her narrative existed on the periphery of the Empire of Chance. While experts, primarily located in European centers of statistical theorizing, formed the “epicenter” of the empire, those on the frontier employed statistics as a tool in social manipulation. Far from relegating popular audiences to a primarily observational, inert role, however, the author also acknowledges their agency in the story by explaining how their motivations affected their choices regarding risk and reward.

Obviously, Mohun’s work builds off of the book she references in her title — The Empire of Chance. Her piece is different from that of Gigerenzer et al., however, in that it addresses how the methodological and intellectual developments of professional statisticians found their way into popular understandings of variability and the risks associated with it. This is reminiscent of Dr. Pandora’s assigned reading for her two weeks of 5990 at the beginning of the semester — Spectacular Nature and The Whale and the Supercomputer. Like Mohun’s work, Susan G. Davis looks at how ideas from the “top,” the professional scientists, filter down into the vernacular through institutions like SeaWorld. Mohun also looks at how institutions influence the way that popular audiences understand scientific theories, their consequences, and their uses. In contrast, Charles Wohlforth focuses on how non-professional ways of knowing had a major impact on the way scientists looked at and understood climate change in the arctic. Mohun mimics this approach when she includes in her analysis how the importance of individual experience affects the way that the average American understood and behaved in regards to risk-taking. When the approach involves popular science, both perspectives — top-down and bottom-up — are important for a holistic understanding of how science and vernacular audiences interact and influence one another, and in this regard, Mohun as clearly covered all of her bases.

Something I found particularly interesting in this piece was the discussion of the “pragmatic approach” to science that Mohun discusses primarily on pages 339 and 340. She argues that it was especially characteristic of American statisticians in the time period she covers, and cites as evidence their absence from histories of statistics. American statisticians worried less about developing sound theories and methods and more about applying their knowledge (no matter how unsound or theoretically dubious) to real-world problems. This embodied what I have come to understand as being a very Industrial-American ideal; the self-made, self-trained practitioner unconcerned with the useless, bookish knowledge so characteristic of their less hard-working, impractical European counterparts. I wonder if the different approaches caused animosity between American and European statisticians; they were obviously sharing ideas. What did these conversations look like, and how did they take place? Was it common for Americans to train abroad, or were universities in America training these frontiersmen of the Empire of Chance?

The Empire of Chance

Summaries & Reviews

The Empire of Chance: How Probability Changed Science and Everyday Life, Gerd Gigerenzer, Zeno Swijtink, Theodore Porter, Lorrain Daston, John Beatty, and Lorenz Krüger

            In their collaborative work, authors Gerd Gigerenzer, Zeno Swijtink, Theodore Porter, Lorrain Daston, John Beatty, and Lorenz Krüger attempt a cohesive study of how the science of statistics “transformed our ideas of nature, mind, and society.” (xiv) The first three chapters present a timeline on which the intellectual development of the science of statistics — with some consideration of its particular applications — is situated, the middle three deal with statistics in particular fields, and the last two concern broader implications of statistical analyses, ideologies, and methodologies. A central theme of the book is the idea that the science of statistics was both shaped and shaped by the sciences that it aided and that helped to develop it for their own explanatory and predictive goals. Professing to be the first of its kind, the survey offers detailed technical descriptions and examples that flesh out the mathematics and theories with which its actors are working.

The passages dealing with mid-nineteenth century debates surrounding the viability of statistical methods for physicians reminded me of S. Lochlann Jain’s criticisms of the same methods in her work, Malignant. Jain and her unlikely intellectual compatriots cite similar issues with the “numerical method” in medicine; it denies the complexity and uniqueness of the individual patient, aiming “not to cure the disease, but to cure the most possible out of a certain number” (Risueño d’Amador, 1836, 46). This results in the emotions Jain so skillfully articulates in her first-hand account as a cancer patient. Reduced to numbers, cancer sufferers are identified by the statistical methods their doctors use to diagnose and treat them. Equally concerning is the reliance of pharmaceutical companies on results from statistical studies to produce drugs that will target cancer on a broader scale, to the detriment of patients who would have benefitted from more personalized treatments. Perhaps these nineteenth century critics were not off base in their hesitancy to adopt such a dehumanizing method of handling disease.

Another bit I found particularly interesting was section 3.5, “Hybridization: the Silent Solution.” Having taken statistics and seen it in what I am now realizing was a surprising amount of my undergraduate science classes, I was struck by the fact that the statistical methods we learn as absolute and established are in fact far from it. Integral tenets to the type of statistics I was taught are, in actuality, theoretically at odds with one another, and yet, as the authors contend, “Statistics is treated as abstract truth, a monolithic logic of inductive inference.” (107) Because statistical methods are so widespread, I find it both surprising and alarming that these obvious impediments to its image as a well-established and unproblematic method of analysis are kept more or less hidden. It lead me into thinking about how oftentimes, when scientific disciplines are “successfully” mathematized, we deem them somehow more intelligible; they become more solid, their results more trust-worthy. Is this a valid logical jump to make, especially if statistics, one of the mathematical sciences that is employed most often, rests on shaky ground?

Disease as Framework

Papers

Medical historians, medical anthropologists, and other scholars concerned with a plethora of topics have written works centered around specific diseases; what comprises their arguments, evidence, and conclusions, however, varies greatly and begs the question, what exactly is the history of a disease, and how have scholars employed disease as a schema through which they analyze other topics? This essay will attempt to provide specific examples of historians (and anthropologists and literary scholars) using illness as a framework, and it will elucidate the benefits, drawbacks, and consequences of such work.

Few medical historians would argue with the statement that a disease is a constructed entity. The biology of an illness constitutes only a part of its meaning to the society from which it emerged. Oftentimes, there are non-biological factors — “beliefs, economic relationships, societal institutions,”[1] to name a few — that also make up the concept that is a particular disease. Syphilis is a good case in point. The biology of the disease is fairly standard; it is a bacterial infection that, if left untreated, can become quite serious. Because of the way that it is transmitted, however, syphilis has garnered a scandalous reputation and has been associated with sin since its appearance in Europe in the late 1400s. The way the disease was handled institutionally (syphilitics were often banned from hospitals or placed in homes amongst one another) and the way that sufferers experienced it (often shunned from society, and when treated at all, given needlessly harsh “remedies”), shows that it was, at least in the eyes of the religious societies it ravaged, much more than what its biological attributes would suggest.[2]

Nuclear Energy

Summaries & Reviews

Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade, Gabrielle Hecht

            Gabrielle Hecht’s unconventional approach to a history of the global uranium trade — centered around a traditionally forgotten player, Africa — offers new insight into the effects of the post-World War II technopolitical atmosphere. Hecht introduces the term “nuclearity” to describe the degree of association of various places and things with “nuclear exceptionalism,” a category that placed entities in a position in which they would be regulated according to their perceived risks as nuclear things. The nuclearity of different places and things was renegotiated in various places and times, Hecht argues, often due to changing political and technological climates. The author traces the development of the nuclear market, an action made possible by politically motivated nations’ reclassifying uranium as a marketable commodity not associated with its nuclear qualities in Part I, and goes on in Part II to examine the struggle to assign nuclearity again to African uranium mines in order to ascertain the presence and severity of health issues associated with radon exposure. Notable in her narrative is Hecht’s inclusion of the underpriviledged workers and communities that the fluctuating definition of nuclearity often subjugated to the economic and political interests of those in power.[1]

I was fascinated by Hecht’s work in Part II on nuclearity’s effect on organizations’ and governments’ handling of the occupational health issues of uranium miners. In her narrative, retold through many examples throughout the book, workers and organizations concerned with workers’ health had a very difficult time making the medical consequences of radon exposure visible. One reason for this, Hecht argues, is that the infrastructure required to create knowledge about uranium’s health effects was not present. An association between the work performed by the miners and the (often long-term and delayed) illnesses from which they suffered proved difficult to ascertain with certainty — especially when the economic consequences of such an association were of such importance. I wonder why knowledge created elsewhere — in studies conducted on uranium mines in the United States or France, for instance — was not transferrable. Why should the same study need to be conducted in every individual uranium mine? Could nuclearity, either through its political or economic interpretations, have had an effect on how mobile knowledge about radon exposure was? Technopolitical and economic motivations, it seems, have direct implications for knowledge mobility.

Osiris — Global Power Knowledge: Science and Technology in International Affairs

Osiris’s special issue on “Global Power Knowledge” offers a broader perspective of one of the key issues that underlies Being Nuclear — that of science and technology’s changing relationship with politics after World War II and its importance in understanding international affairs in the Cold War and modern era. Articles, roughly divided into temporal sections, deal with multiple themes. One such topic is the technopolitical race for sovereignty and supremacy; decolonization ushered in a new era where international power hierarchies were based upon scientific and technological adeptness, and nuclear technologies played only a part in this discourse. Another important line of inquiry is the effect state patronage (and thus, at varied extents, state motivations) has had on the kinds of knowledge produced, its mobility between nationalized centers of production, and the institutions and frameworks that sponsored it. The last theme, globalization, underlies articles that discuss the relationship between science and technology’s increasingly important role in politics in the modern era. The rise in significance of NGO’s and their influence on scientific work, collaboration, and funding has changed the technopolitical atmosphere in which researchers conduct studies. While far from exhaustive, this summary offers the main ideas that run through the many more specific articles that make up the collection.

I was taken aback by something after reading Being Nuclear and browsing through Osiris’s “Global Power and Knowledge” special addition: the degree of integration of technology into politics and the many effects this has had. If I had a nickel for every time the term “technopolitical” came up in the readings this week, I would be a very rich woman, and for good reason — it seems that the twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented increase in the integration of scientists, engineers, and their technologies into the political realm. The rise and attempted control of nuclear power sources exemplifies this transition. Hecht’s work discusses how the political implications of nuclear power resonated in many different spheres, and one example she articulates in particular resonated with me. The value of uranium to African countries attempting to solidify their sovereignty was paramount due to the (however well-hidden in the development of the “banal” uranium market) political implications of a nuclear research program in the international community. This had direct ramifications for those working in African uranium mines; the radon particles poisoning workers’ lungs was, although known to some extent, underplayed and understudied. Politics, in this instance, dictated not only what would and would not be scientifically studied in regards to the development of an atomic industry; it harmed an entire group of underprivileged people in a very real way. Technology and politics, I think, are two entities that should be very carefully monitored if allowed to join their power and motivations at all.

This led me into further reflection about something we have discussed many times in class — the line between history and social and political commentary. While I still find “purer” histories more to my intellectual taste, the value of histories that address modern-day implications is difficult to contest. In the case of Being Nuclear, there are still workers subjected to dangerous levels of radiation in uranium mines; how could a researcher not include this in her study? And how could a reader, whether or not the language used by the researcher implies it or not, not feel moved to action by such facts? Perhaps what I am getting at here is that a book does not need to be written politically to have political implications for its readers. If there truly is an injustice at hand, honest research and fact presentation should produce a result in reader activism just as readily as a polemic-ridden commentary on a perceived transgression would.

[1] Sorry for the nineteenth century paragraph, but this book was long, the arguments many, and the subject matter complicated.

Routes of Power

Summaries & Reviews

Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America, Christopher F. Jones

            In his study of shifting power regimes in industrializing America, Christopher Jones emphasizes the importance of transportation networks in the formation of an “energy-intensive world.” Jones covers the time period from 1820, when citizens garnered their energy in an organic way (using primarily plants, falling water, and wind, all derivatives of solar energy), through to 1930, when the transition to a mineral-based energy was completed (coal, oil, and electricity covering most of Americans’ energy needs). The effects of such a transition are highlighted and include the proliferation of larger cities with concentrated industrial output, energy’s correlation with cost instead of labor, and communities’ differing degrees of inauguration into the new energy regime with various consequences. In each chapter, the author emphasizes transportation networks — canals, railroads, pipelines, and wires — and their role in creating “landscapes of intensification” that created the demand that would sustain the transformation from an organic to a mineral energy regime.

Both Christopher Jones and David Nye in America as Second Creation discussed the role of the booster in garnering support for the usage of new technologies; these men obviously played a major role in encouraging the usage and the overall proliferation of novel technological feats. I find their presence often in works dealing with medical speculation as well, such as James Harvey Young’s Toadstool Millionaires, which discusses the rise of patent medicines in nineteenth century America. I wonder if there have been any studies of these men; what motivated them, and were they a uniquely nineteenth century phenomenon? They probably maintained a relatively precarious existence, because new technologies harbored grave risks for investors (and those touting their benefits) if a society did not see their value. What about the nineteenth century made these men so visible, and how did they influence the course of American industrialization? Was their participation needed, even inevitable?

I also found it fascinating how influential seemingly unrelated historico-political factors were in the inauguration of certain technologies into common usage. Susan B. Pritchard’s Confluence analyzes how the techno-manipulation of the Rhône was discussed in a nationalistic, conquering language, and how its goals reflected France’s attempts to legitimize itself after a humiliating defeat at the hands of its rivals. Similarly, the way that canals were built in America was influenced by the way that Americans saw themselves at the time; large-scale federal governmental involvement was discouraged at a time when republicanism dominated. Investors, then, and state charters decided the course and language of construction. Technology, both authors’ books discuss, is affected by social and political factors, just as it has effects on both.

Something I found particularly interesting was the way that mass commodification and physical distance between sites of energy production and sites of energy consumption has affected people’s relationship with energy. No longer something that must be earned through hard labor, energy can be purchased; this has changed the way that people use energy. This distance between production and consumption, I think, was a product of industrialization and mass production and can be seen in many other aspects of society. Medical knowledge, for example, has been standardized and delegated to a certain class of people, and most patients do not care to look into the technicalities of their diseases. They leave their lives completely in a doctor’s hands. The distance between the producer of medical knowledge, the doctor, and the consumer, the patient, has increased as the language of disease has become more technical and the technologies of diagnostics more specialized. Before medicine had been commodified and, more importantly, standardized, people played a much more active role in their health decisions. The commodification and standardization of energy consumption has had similar effects; people delegate their energy needs to others to the extent that they know almost nothing about its production. Commodification and standardization, then, create distance between producers and consumers. I wonder what sorts of ramifications this has, and especially what sorts of exploitation has resulted from it.

Vernacular Knowledge

Summaries & Reviews

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.

Visualization

Summaries & Reviews

Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions & Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment, Daniela Bleichmar

            Author Daniela Bleichmar bases her study of Hispanic botanical expeditions around the images created during them in order to analyze the place of illustration in the Enlightenment natural philosophical era. Through these images, Bleichmar elucidates the motivations behind their production (to exploit natural colonial resources and make colonial flora “mobile”), their place in and exemplification of the international botanical network, and what they said (and did not say) about the places from whence they came. Bleichmar also takes the opportunity the images provide to discuss and analyze Hispanic colonial changes in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries and the economic motivations for botanizing expeditions. Underlying her entire analysis is an insistence and explanation of the importance of visual epistemologies in Enlightenment science, especially in the Spanish Empire. 

The Image of Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison

            In a survey of atlases of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, authors Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison trace changing ideas in the scientific community about visual representations of natural phenomena. The predominate methods of representation in the nineteenth-century concerned themselves with being “true to nature.” Experts who put together the atlases were supposed to, with their professional knowledge of a subject, use their judgment to create images that would be representative of natural things. A different view, a mechanical objectivity, began developing mid-century and stressed instead the importance of ridding scientific representations of their human components, or subjectivity. Judgment on the part of even professional scientists was viewed as immoral; professional scientists were expected to refrain from inserting themselves into their objective representations of natural phenomena. This mentality propelled imaging machines to the forefront of representational technology, especially the camera, and encouraged publication in atlases of multiple images of the same thing, so that the burden of representation was transferred to the audience.

The role of visual epistemologies was also addressed in Daniel Margoscy’s Commercial Visions. The standards for anatomical representations — the way that different anatomists vied for various methods of representation as superior — stands in stark contrast to the homogeneity in opinion about the hierarchy of botanical representations. At least as Bleichmar presents it, most naturalists were in agreement that visual representations were better than textual or physical renditions of plants. That being said, the goal of a representative, ideally easily reproducible representation was common to both anatomists and botanists. The goal of classification, such a powerful component of Enlightenment natural philosophy, deemed the standardization of nature necessary.

The role of the artist was addressed in both Visible Empire and The Image of Objectivity, and both works depicted the relationship between artist and scientist as a contentious one in some respects. The implied subjectivity of the artist was a source of tension, as was their propensity for creative license. Scientists felt the need to very literally look over their shoulders as they attempted to conform to the scientists’ particular definition of “objective.” What Galison and Daston and Bleichmar stress, however, is that standards of objectivity were quite subjective themselves. The leaving out of parts of plants, for example, was common practice in colonial Spanish scientific representations of colonial flora. These representations were also selective in that they portrayed only the plant, even simply parts of the plant, and left out their surroundings completely. Additionally, as Daston and Galison highlight, standards for objectivity in representation have changed over time, indicating further their transitory nature. It seems that the very subjectivity scientists were attempting to eliminate from their representations was present nonetheless, inherent in the selectivity scientists imposed upon the subjective artists they employed.

Dying in the City of Blues

Summaries & Reviews

Dying in the City of Blues: Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race and Health, Keith Wailoo

Through the lens of a controversial disease, sickle cell anemia, author Keith Wailoo traces important developments in mid-twentieth century American health, in race relations, and in state and federal politics. He shows how diseases can take on varied meanings in different political, cultural, and medical environments, and he analyzes how these meanings affect the people closest to the disease — the sufferers and their families. Especially prominently featured are the ways in which the disease influenced (and was influenced by) the turbulent racial politics of Memphis, Tennessee from 1940s through the 1990s — from a disease under the radar, overshadowed by malaria, to an embodiment of African American suffering and disadvantage, to a condition that evoked suspicion and anger, sickle cell anemia, like those it afflicted, was directly affected by the cultural and political environment in which it was situated.

Wailoo’s method — using a disease to elucidate the politics of a time period, and showing how diseases are active political players — is almost identical to that of Leslie J. Reagans’ in Dangerous Pregnancies. Both authors spend a lot of time discussing the political and cultural context in which their diseases arise, and they go on to explain how their chosen diseases stimulate conversations that end in major alterations in cultural values and, more concretely, in changes in medical law. Wailoo briefly discusses the commodification of the disease, which he defines as; “the process by which bodily experiences such as pain are assigned value (monetary and otherwise) by physicians, patients, insurance companies, and others.”[1] This method of analysis is reminiscent of Warwick Anderson’s in Collectors of Lost Souls, where brains are commodified in the international scientific community studying Kuru. Wailoo’s focus is more on domestic commodification in the form of sick bodies as “clinical material” for learning medical students, but both authors address the propensity for scientists to objectify the sick body and use it to their financial or reputational ends. Both studies focus on the twentieth century; I wonder if body commodification is a relatively new phenomenon, perhaps linked to the rise of the clinic in early nineteenth century Paris, or if it existed in different capacities much earlier (as objects of anatomical specimens, for example).

The conclusion, like that of Dangerous Pregnancies, offered up “lessons” that could be learned from the history of sickle cell anemia. I have noticed that some historical works’ final chapter (the conclusion, coda, etc.) often contain similar content. The historian takes what he or she has gathered from their study and applies it to more modern-day problems; sickle cell anemia, for instance, has taught us (hopefully) that eradication is not a simple process, and that when diseases take on cultural meaning, institutional methods of treatment/cure are not always viewed as beneficial by those afflicted by the illness. In the future, therefore, we should be careful when dealing with culturally-affected disease. I think this is a valuable lesson, but it led me to reflect on what exactly a historian’s job is. Is it within our realm of practice to take the arguments we make and extend them to encompass contemporary issues? Should it not be left up to our readers to decide how to apply our insights to their lives? I think this tendency to proselytize based on what an author felt he or she learned by conducting the research tends to bring in contemporary biases, and I feel including it takes away from a book’s merit.

[1] 18

Dangerous Pregnancies

Summaries & Reviews

Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America, Leslie J. Reagan

                        Adding to the literature on epidemics and their propensity to highlight, challenge, and even change cultural belief, Leslie Reagan’s work on the rubella virus tells the story of the disease’s discovery, society’s reaction to it, the media’s interpretation of it, and its eventual eradication via a heroic vaccination campaign. Along the way, Reagan discusses the issues rubella, contemporarily known as “German measles,” brought to the forefront of American thought: abortion and more extensively women’s reproductive and medical rights, doctors’ rights, the perception and treatment of disabled individuals, the medical field’s susceptibility to national and state law, religious issues surrounding women’s health, and the racial and class distinctions evident in medical treatment. Most importantly, Reagan discusses how prenatal care became a woman’s issue and then a family issue. Reproduction and the health of a new generation of Americans became a matter of interest in every family and for the nation as a whole, and this concern manifested itself in the squabbling over abortion law and through the many pamphlets and distributable information and advice so popular in the period (mid-twentieth century America).

Francesca Bray (in Technology and Gender) and Leslie Reagan’s approaches are similar in that both work within the realm of gender history. The authors attempt to understand the ways in which women were expected to act within and contribute to their societies, who their authorities were, and the many ways in which women worked within the frameworks they were forced into. The differences in technique lie in what instrument the historians use to tell their story. Reagan analyzes a single event, or entity, the German measles epidemics. She describes the way in which this specific happening affected women’s political and moral control over their own bodies and those of their unborn children. Bray, in a disparate approach, evaluates the “technologies” of homebuilding, weaving, and reproduction, and the way that these instruments of social control created the societal structure in which women lived and worked. While Reagan’s is a history of change, Bray’s is one of relative stability. Reagan’s work focuses primarily on changing women’s health in twentieth century America, while Bray’s broader study of women’s experience in Imperial China highlights many different aspects of the women’s roles, as defined by neo-Confusion dogma concerning the proper hierarchy of the home (and state). Both approaches have their merit, and both emphasize different, but arguably equally important aspects of the historical female experience.

I have read very few historical works that address disability, and I was fascinated by the eugenicist rhetoric coating many responses, from the medical establishment and the media, to the rubella epidemics and their ramifications. Rubella provided an impetus for a national discussion about the criminality abortion, which was quite progressive, but it did so by bringing attention to the undesirability and embarrassment associated with disabled persons and the right for parents to eradicate these “catastrophes” from their families. Additionally, by framing these individuals as pathetic, in need of assistance, and even rendering them useful in the form of test subjects, reformers were able to draw enough attention to CRS victims’ plight to enact major changes in disability aid and education from the state. Like the doctor who made a circus show of premature infants in order to pay for their care, proponents of CRS victims used the perception of the disabled body as horrible and unfortunate to garner support for the very individuals they objectified. This is a frightening trend that I think says a lot about human nature, especially as pertains to the abnormal.

Technology and Gender

Summaries & Reviews

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.