Research programme

We seek to go beyond the divisions between history, sociology and even philosophy of science, which are usually reinforced by “microhistorical” or “microsociological” approaches. The group of the Canada Research Chair in the History and Sociology of Science analyzes the long-term dynamics of scientific change within the framework of a sociological history of science that deals with the relevant conceptual, institutional and social factors associated with such change.In order to accomplish this, we focus on the dynamics of the formation and transformation of disciplines, and on the transformation of universities from 1700 to today. These are the strategic perspectives used to study scientific change, allowing us to connect themes which, until now, have been studied separately by historians and sociologists of science.

In order to understand the formation of disciplines, one must simultaneously take into account the impact of new concepts and new instruments on the development of a community of researchers, for which the university, in the 19th century, became the primary means of social reproduction. Conversely, the university has also needed to adapt itself to these changes by modifying its structures and often its purpose, as was the case in the early 19th century when university research emerged. Similar adaptations are taking place today, with universities under pressure to become not only places of education and research, but also of “innovation”. One also notes that scholarly societies, as “mouthpieces” of researchers, and academic journals, as the “diffusers” of knowledge, are also intimately linked to universities. Whereas historians and sociologists generally treat these questions in an independent manner, our approach renders them virtually inseparable.

This general framework, in addition to specific concepts (based Bourdieu’s sociology of “fields”, Bachelard’s philosophy of science and certain advances in constructivist sociology) that have been developed elsewhere1, orient our various research projects. These are chosen based on their ability to elucidate the various conceptual, material, social, economic and institutional factors that affect the dynamics of knowledge production.

The Chair’s research program, which spans the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, consists in analyzing the dynamics governing the transformation of knowledge at various critical moments in the history of disciplines and universities. These include, among others, the period when disciplines were formed and consolidated (between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries), the implementation and development of departmental structures within North American universities (between 1875 and 1945) and the recent period of transformation of disciplines and universities (during the last twenty years of the twentieth century). Our research strategy consists in identifying the key moments in the evolution of relationships between concepts, instruments (both conceptual and material) and institutions. The wide range of cases studied (in physics, economics, geography, chemistry and medicine) allows us to identify mechanisms which are shared by the (seemingly distinct) changes affecting disciplines and universities.

1- The formation and the transformation of disciplines

The purpose of this research axis is to understand the role of material, formal and institutional tools in the formation of specialized scientific fields, from which amateurs have been progressively excluded. The interest of this general problem lies in the fact that, far from being restricted to the case of physics, the approach can be applied to all disciplines, including those of the social sciences and the humanities. The interesting cases are thus selected based on their capacity to illustrate the full range of all possible means of development, as they arise from the relevant conceptual, material (instrumental), social and institutional variables. In this way, we are able to analyze the tools (in both a conceptual and material sense) that contribute to the development of disciplines. As a discipline, economics therefore constitutes an example (well beyond the case of physics) which can be used to analyze the impact of formal tools such as mathematics in the process of discipline-formation.

Scientific instruments as “material” tools also play a crucial role in the transformation of knowledge and of disciplines. From this perspective, a research project, showing how an instrument such as an X-ray machine was able to become the basis from which radiology – a new specialty in the field of medicine – was formed, is especially instructive with respect to the links between instruments, professions and universities (and perhaps even hospitals) as loci of new social groups. This is but one example which shows how the history of various disciplines, as approached using a sociological framework, can contribute to a clearer distinction between contingent and invariant characteristics of disciplinary dynamics. Despite spatial and temporal contingencies which explain the lags that exist between countries and disciplines, the form taken by the latter hardly varies.

2- The transformation of universities

Since disciplines are essentially developed within the confines of the university, one must reconsider their evolution in a wider (academic) context. When observing the dynamics of a given discipline, one cannot exclude the more global environment in which it evolves. One therefore needs to take into account the continuous exchange between the discipline itself and its position within the wider university sphere, which has its own dynamics, while at the same time being influenced by changing disciplines, as well as economic and social factors. Our analysis of universities covers the entire 19th and 20th centuries, but our primary focus lies in a comparison between two periods: 1900-1945 and 1970-2000. Our hypothesis is that a perceived major shift in the observed transformations of universities since 1980 is somewhat misleading. The uniqueness of the post-war years (« Trente glorieuses ») caused us to forget that, between the two World Wars, universities – who could not depend on funding from the State – had already adopted the practice of associating themselves with the private sector, and had institutional structures which developed accordingly.

When we reconsider questions related to university-industry ties over a longer time period, it becomes apparent that such questions are not entirely new and have long been debated. Nevertheless, it is true that these practices seem to have become more commonplace today. Public policies that have come to supporting such trends aim to once again transform the university by imposing a third obligation on this institution (in addition to teaching and research): innovation as determined by its economic value. Budget cutbacks have affected universities in many countries during the last two decades of the 20th century, and have forced researchers and administrators to recover this loss through private funding, particularly by allowing greater industry involvement. Industry-university partnerships thus flourished during this period. This is not to say that role of the state in these dynamics should be neglected. Even as they limited their financial contributions to universities between 1980 and 1995, governments nonetheless continued to exert influence on the goals of universities, making them more in tune with the market’s demands.

The subject of relations between universities and other sectors (businesses, governmental or non-governmental organizations, etc.) will thus be analyzed from different angles, including that of the impact on the education of students at the graduate level, especially those who are doing their research work outside the university. It is likely that a new means of production of knowledge necessarily entail a new means of producing graduates. However, these “external” perturbations, which must be carefully followed along a causal chain and not be taken for granted, cannot be solely responsible for the nature of the observed transformations. Indeed, one must be attentive to causes which are internal to the scientific realm and closely connected to the academic world, and which have played a key role in determining the precise form taken by these transformations. Various scientific discoveries of the 1970s and 1980s, especially in the fields of biotechnology, computer science and communications, have also given research an added economic value.

The development of research centres within universities also warrants particular attention, since there are, as of yet, no detailed studies of the processes which lead to the proliferation of these new structures. These research centres are, in themselves, an important organizational innovation within the university, since they provide researchers with an alternative “membership”, in addition to the (traditional) department. We therefore propose to study the evolution of these centres, as well as their institutional roles, within the confines of Canadian and Quebec universities over the past thirty years, paying close attention to issues of identity which arise: is a professor more attached to his department than his research centre? How do professors not affiliated with research centres perceive their colleagues who have such affiliations (and vice-versa)? It should be noted that, when retracing the history of research centres, the question of disciplines surfaces once again, since such centres are conceived as going beyond disciplinary boundaries. Given that our two main axes of research are virtually inseparable, we could have just as easily brought up the question of research centres using disciplines as a starting point. It is clear that research on these topics greatly benefit one another.

1See, respectively, Yves Gingras, « Following Scientists Through Society? -Yes, But at Arm's Length! » in Scientific Practice. Theories and Stories of Doing Physics, Jed Z. Buchwald (ed.), Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1995: 123-148 and Yves Gingras, « Mathématisation et exclusion : socio-analyse de la formation des cités savantes », in Gaston Bachelard et l’épistémologie française, J.J. Wunenburger (ed.), Paris, PUF, 2003: 115-152; Yves Gingras, Benoît Godin, «Expérimentation, instrumentation et argumentation », Didaskalia, 11 (décembre 1997): 149-160.