Steven Shapin

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Steven Shapin, 2015

Steven Shapin (born 11. September 1943 in New York City) is an American historian and sociologist of science. He is the Franklin L. Ford Research Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is considered one of the earliest scholars on the sociology of scientific knowledge, and is credited with creating new approaches.


  • In 1680, Robert Boyle published the Second Part of his Continuation of New Experiments Physico-mechanical, Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air. ...According to Boyle's preface, the experimental work... was mainly done by a remunerated technician... Denis Papin. The air-pump with which the experiments were performed was... of Papin's own design... At least some, and perhaps the greatest part, of the design of the experimental project was also owing to the technician. ...It seems also that the technician was partly, if not mainly, responsible for the composition of the experimental narratives.
    • Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (1994)
  • As I indicated, there is a very pronounced tendency to identify science with what’s done in academia—and especially in the great research universities. But the facts suggest otherwise. At least from early in the twentieth century, the majority of American scientists were employed not by institutions of higher education but by industry and government. And that remains true today. Yet much modern commentary, especially from academic social scientists, viewed industry as a problematic environment for science. I’m not at all sure that’s right. If we compare, so to speak, apples with apples, and look at the pure research done in industry and that done in academia, many of the most popular contrasts describe the situation rather poorly.
  • Business is business, and scientists who work in the commercial sector are expected to contribute to profits. Yet a strong contrast between the search for profits and the search for knowledge doesn’t describe industrial science very well in the early twentieth century and describes it less well today. For one thing, the distinction between knowledge and commercial goods makes less sense in the “knowledge economy” than it once may have done. We now understand that both knowledge and durable goods may each have monetary value. For another, to say that people working in industry are driven by money may miss as much as it gets right. Scientists who want “interesting work” and good conditions for doing it may find these in industry, while money may be as much a sign that one’s work has succeeded as it is a motive for doing it. Nor should one neglect aspects of altruism, even utopianism, that one can readily find among scientists and engineers working in industry, and, of course, expecting to be rewarded: some pioneers of the internet thought they might make societies more democratic and less authoritarian; many scientists working in biotech reckon their labors might cure dread diseases.
  • Entrepreneurs are often driven by vision and they embody that vision for those who choose to join and follow them. I spend some time in my book observing entrepreneurs “pitching” their companies to venture capitalists, and I note how often venture capitalists view the personal characteristics of the entrepreneur as about the most certain feature of an investable project. Technologies may change; markets may change; but the energies, vision, and commitment of the entrepreneur can be as durable, and as pertinent, as anything else in the scene.

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