The Social Nature of Scientific Inquiry

I have a good friend who studied evolutionary ecology during our undergraduate years. He eats science for breakfast. The scientific method is his guiding principle. At our last get together, I began talking about science as a cultural phenomenon. This conversation graduated into an entire day’s debate about the cultural nature of the scientific method. How thrilling!

But of course anthropologists love to peruse the ways that science and culture are intertwined. Below is a glimpse of my side of the conversation, which explored how Western science is situated within a cultural context.

An Extremely Brief History of Western Science

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This 11th century image by scholar Ibn al-Biruni shows the phases of the moon. Muslim scholars developed a scientific method prior to Francis Bacon promoting his own versions. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I remember learning about the foundational movers and shakers of the scientific revolution in high school. Aristotle inspired scholars from the Golden Age of Arab Science between the 8th and 13th centuries, to Francis Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, and Newton. Due to the work of these well-known scholars, science became a matter of testing predictions and developing strong hypotheses into general theories.

While science continues to evolve, this quick treatment is a typical narrative about the genesis of the scientific method. Some scientists, like my college friend, believe that the scientific method helps to reveal the workings of underlying reality.

Western Science as a Situated Endeavor

I worked on botany and climate change projects until it came time for me to head to my current role as an anthropology graduate student. I held some of the same thoughts about objective science as my friend. However, in grad school I ran straight into Science and Technology Studies (STS).
STS is the social study of scientific endeavors, which reveals much about the underlying tenets of Western sciences. A premise of STS is that science is a social endeavor. In other words, cultural values shape the ways that we think about what constitutes knowledge. Even the idea that the workings of the material world are discoverable through the scientific method is an idea born from Enlightenment philosophies. Physics, anthropology, biology, astronomy: though they are different disciplines, they emerged from a particular time and place and continue to evolve together. I offer the idea that Western science is just one way of learning about the world around us, and that its tenets are deeply embedded in racist ideologies.

Science and Cultural Baggage

Western science is an integral part of societies in which it operates. Scientists inform legislation, education, economics, and other aspects of our lives on a regular basis. What is less obvious is how the history of Western scientific philosophy and practice is entangled with colonial expansion. Scientific disciplines as we now know them, including anthropology, are inextricable from a history of global exploration and genocide.  

The search for materials made from tropical plants is one example of scientific exploration with colonial and imperial roots. Access to colonial and imperial landscapes allowed for botanical explorations by Darwin and others, including students of Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomical classification. They used resources from multiple continents to forward their careers.

Scientists have continued to collect plant materials from areas that are occupied by descendants of colonial settlers. The Amazon forests are commonly touted as places where untold medicinal plants wait for scientific discovery. The narrative that Western science is objective and ultimately not tied to cultural agendas has contributed to the extraction of Amazonian plant materials, also known as bioprospecting or biopiracy, at the expense of residents. Those uneven power relationships are at the heart of scientific discovery.

Western sciences have also been used to erase others’ ways of knowing the world. When academic sciences are perceived as one of the only ways to arrive at truth about the underlying reality of the universe, others’ ways of knowing are prohibited from decision-making processes. As indigenous scholar Daniel Wildcat points out, “The treatment of Native peoples around the world is an ex post facto demonstration in the Western linear idea of history, where Western Europeans understood themselves to be at the cutting-edge of history with everyone else requiring instruction to be brought ‘up to speed.” Relying on Western science as a standard for knowledge creation has profound effects on human and environmental relationships.

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Rather than allowing indigenous North Americans to educate their own children, government officials forced and coerced parents to send them to boarding schools, where they were forbidden from practicing cultural traditions, abused, and forced into manual labor. Some boarding schools were operating into the 1980s. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This does not mean that Western sciences are useless.  What I do want to illustrate is that it is vitally important to know the history and applications of scientific inquiry, particularly on a continent like North America where Western philosophies have been intentionally applied towards erasing indigenous life styles. While a lot of scientists like my good friend see science as a method for engaging with truth, I see it as a cultural phenomenon complicit with a long history of colonial endeavors. It is useful as long as scientists acknowledge the implications of searching for truth with a cultural tool.

Want to know more about science studies and other ways of knowing the world? Below are a few great resources:

Native Science by Gregory Cajete

“Putting knowledge in its place” by Suman Seth

The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader edited by Sandra Harding

“Re/placing Native Science” by Jay Johnson and Brian Murton

About the Author

JenDeMossJennifer DeMoss is a doctoral candidate from the University of Georgia’s Anthropology and Integrative Conservation programs. She is currently in the field researching social relationships between people and landscapes within educational programs in the Nature Connection Movement. She uses tools such as GoPro cameras strapped onto her head to video social interactions as part of her research. When she’s not interviewing people, she loves to camp, practice primitive skills, carve spoons, and swim in spectacular northern lakes. You can contact Jen at jdemoss@uga.edu.