Carnegie Mellon University

The Publics of Science: Periodicals and the Making of British Science, 1820-1860

Author: Michael Rectenwald
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2004

This dissertation examines what I call the “publics of science,” from early to mid-nineteenth-century Britain. It is an account of new and emerging sites for the production, dissemination, negotiation, and appropriation of knowledge amongst various participants—authors, publishers, editors, reviewers, critics, readers, and others—as they vied for (and against) cultural authority on the basis of beliefs claimed as “scientific.” 

Drawing on methods and theoretical frameworks from the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), actor-network theory, social history, periodical studies, the history of the book—and operating under the broad tent of cultural studies—this study intervenes in the cultural history of science by introducing the kind of revisionism that has been directed at the Habermasian “public sphere” in social and cultural history. I argue that during the period that I consider—roughly 1820 to 1860—the landscape of science in culture should be revised to account for multiple, distinct, yet overlapping publics of science. Locating and examining publics through periodical studies, this dissertation provides accounts of several science publics, while pointing to the contributions that these publics made—collectively and somewhat unwittingly—to the “invention” of the late nineteenth-century hegemonic constellation known as “science.”

In the first two chapters, I consider how a scientific culture spread vis-à-vis radical science, gentlemanly education reform, and the new “useful knowledge” industry that they helped to spawn. In chapters three and four, I apply the methods of book history to Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33). Chapter three examines the context of production—the new “democratic” knowledge industry, the gentlemanly knowledge project initiated by Charles Lyell, and the aims of the Murray publishing house. Drawing on Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, chapter four examines the early periodical reception of volume one to see how periodical reviewers from various publics helped to shape the meaning of the text for their readers. Together, these chapters demonstrate the extent to which an elite public of science, and science itself, was impacted by social factors and other publics.

In chapter five, I trace the development of Secularism from 1840s artisan freethought, showing that Secularism advanced a viable materialist methodology for science, and a morality based on materialist principles, well in advance of the new naturalism or scientific agnosticism proposed by T.H. Huxley. In the conclusion, I consider causes for the “disappearance” of such subaltern or alternative science publics as radical science, the Mechanics’ Institutes and Secularism from the makeup and history of science, suggesting how cultural studies of discourse can aid in their recuperation and point to possibilities for contemporary interventions in science and technology.