Laboratoire Communication, culture & Société


Sunday 8 July 2007

Nova Atlantis

Manifesto for a Baconian Utopia in the Social Sciences

Babou, Igor, and Joëlle Le Marec. 2001. Nova Atlantis - Manifeste pour une utopie baconienne en sciences humaines et sociales. Alliage 47: 3-10. [1]

Can we still believe in the possibility of collective work in the social sciences? Although new research networks, thematic groupings and research centres are continually being created, most of the time, researchers are forced to join under pressure from conditions on research grants, or from the administrative and financial rationales governing team composition. The process merely aligns “forces and influential networks, or promises an interdisciplinarity envisioned only under a perceived need to synthesise the heterogeneity of individual projects. In spite of this, is it possible to establish research groups based on truly shared scientific projects?

Do we still believe in the conception of science as collective, empirical and public work? One of the characteristics of scientific practice is the author’s disappearance behind what is termed a “rational discourse, which avoids the subjective “I and assumption of authority. Science attempts to counter the power of opinion or authoritative discourse by confronting its hypotheses with “portions of reality which are conceptually defined and empirically probed. At the same time, however, do not the metaphor of the scientific “field , the existence of editorial structures and the organisation of research presuppose a topology, with territorial conflicts and systems of exclusion, which demonstrate that subjects assert themselves and construct their identity as an author? We therefore pose the following question: do we still believe in a Baconian Utopia of the collective organisation of knowledge production?

BaconEngland, 1627: Francis Bacon’s chaplain and secretary publishes posthumously his master’s magnum opus, The New Atlantis. In the form of an account of an imaginary voyage, it is a plea for the collective and public organisation of scientific research, within which the exercise of Reason overrides the identity of individual researchers. Salomon’s House, an institution on an imaginary island in the South Seas, organises tasks under its auspices which foreshadow the current operation of all scientific institutions: field trips, bibliographic inventories, the planning and validation of experiments, the interpretation and generalisation of results, the development of applications, and finally research training and public presentations. Shortly afterwards (between 1650 and 1660), Robert Boyle publicly performs a series of experiments on pneumatics, invoking legal tradition to decree that scientific fact is constructed collectively, insofar as the validity of an experiment depends on a multiplicity of witnesses being able to attest to its success (Shapin, 1990). In 1660, the Royal Society is founded in London; it will be regarded as the embodiment of Salomon’s House (Dœuff and Llasera, 1995). Science was first theorised as collective organisation and public practice based on legal principles, and later institutionalised by the State: England of the 17th century saw the establishment of those values and mechanisms which still guide us today in our daily work.

Of course, the process was not as linear and assured as this rapid historical review would have us believe. Descartes’s understanding was illuminated as he tarried, solitary, one winter beside a wood stove on the banks of the Danube; he would affirm in his Discourse on Method (1637) that collective work is less apt to approach the truth than a lone individual’s reasoning. It is clear, however, that on this point, Bacon, and not Descartes, was in the right.

The social sciences still have, today, a role to play in reflecting on their collective and public aspects. This is not because they should mimic the practices of scientists in lab coats hunched over their experiments, but because they, too, derive part of their legitimacy from producing discourse that is not referable to the subjectivity or opinion of one individual. Far from being only a question of style, the disappearance of the discourse’s subject, in fact, has the effect of facilitating comprehension by other researchers, and even of aiding whoever replicates the experiment conditions identically to verify results and conclusions. This conception postulates scientific research as the result of a process transcending the individual scale: on the temporal plane (the cumulative character of results), but also on the organisational plane (the construction of knowledge necessarily occurs through politically and technically organised systems). Without a real awakening on these issues, are not the social sciences at risk of being reduced to an exercise with merely literary significance?

What is scientific production?

Scientific production is not concretely defined by consensus within the scientific community in the broader sense (natural and social sciences). In particular, what establishes links today within this wider community is as much of a cognitive (in the acceptance of knowledge construction as resulting from traditional epistemology), as of an institutional nature: The unified status of researchers and lecturers as government employees recruited through procedures common to all (thesis, qualification, competitive exam, specialist commissions [specific to the French academic system]) forms the mode of framing for the action occurring in teaching and research units; such units being created and evaluated according to the same criteria throughout the country [2].

Concerning the nature of the activities of knowledge production performed within these relatively consensual institutional frameworks, debate is intense, complex, and often polemic, involving occasionally surprising confrontational strategies, as in the Sokal Affair [3]. Part of the controversy, arising in the sociology of science, treats the social dimension of this activity of knowledge production, which can no longer be referred exclusively to philosophical and cognitive norms defined out of context. We realise today that “social logics —a vague and neutral term denoting social relations without neglecting the idea of buried determinisms—constitute a crucial dimension in knowledge construction and circulation, including in the scientist’s social sphere. The advocates of this representation, however, often see it as a means of teaching scientists a lesson, showing them that behind the explicit reasons they invoke to justify and rationalise their modes of doing, there are always other causes masked from perception, that only another specialist in social operation would recognise behind appearances.

Such a perspective, however, does not regulate one of the fundamental determiners of action, which is its political dimension: not only do implicit “logics of action underlie the action, but so do explicit intentions, assumed collectively and institutionally. In the final analysis, researchers in the field of social sciences are perfectly entitled to claim that they are social actors “like the others , constructing practices which are explicitly self-asserting, like political practices. Isabelle Stengers detailed the symmetry in modes of acting of researchers interested in given practices and of the people they study, all parties being actors “who ceaselessly invent the way in which references to legitimacy and authority are discussed and decided, among them, the distribution of rights and duties, and the distinction between those having the right to speak and the others (Stengers, 1993, p. 71, our translation).

As we have seen, by the 1600s, Bacon had already clarified perfectly the political aims of a science conceived as a social activity, producing a certain type of knowledge by means of an institutionalisation which ensures its perpetuity: Engagement in a collective whose temporality exceeds the individual scale necessarily rests upon a common belief, that is, upon an assumed Utopia, which is necessary to collective action in the long term.

Viewing scientific activity through a sociological mode is very widespread in the social sciences, which includes the actors themselves, taking a reflexive point of view: Perceptions of the modes of organisation, strategies, pragmatic context of the action, situations, power relationships and of competition or co-operation become central to the critical self-awareness of research. These elements allow researchers to situate themselves permanently in those social issues which are precisely the object of their problematics. Thus the construction of a critically “differentiated position becomes an epistemological issue, claimed as such by sociologists, in the same way that approaches to understanding are theorised as such in anthropology. This is sometimes a means for researchers to avoid assuming too overtly Bachelard’s “epistemological cut : “look, I myself am also inscribed in society! In the end, however, one returns to almost exactly the same point of difficulty in characterising scientific activity. Whether epistemological principles are proposed as the basis on which scientific knowledge is constructed, or whether “social logics are advanced as more or less implicit determiners of the activity of social knowledge production, the political intentions of researchers as social actors are removed from the equation: “epistemologised and disposed of in one case, “sociologised and denounced, in the other.

The singularity of science, which also makes it a collective project, cannot solely be analysed in epistemological terms, or denounced in sociological terms. We think that this collective project must be a matter of intentions, of belief in a utopian horizon, and that the question, now and always, is to construct it as a set of ethics guiding our action: we should want science to be truly collective, without which attribute no construction of scientific knowledge is justifiable. Critics may denounce the collective Utopia that we assert here as an alibi or illusion masking the omnipotence of ordinary social logics. But in fact, is not conceiving all the workings of science on the basis of “ordinary social logics the symptom of a refusal to believe in this Utopia, without which modern science would never have existed?

Today, it is necessary to point out this dimension of scientific activity in order to prevent arguments on the nature of scientific production from being dependent exclusively on disillusioned accounts of what is actually done, in the name of kind of a falsely modest and pragmatic modernism. Science would not have to be anything other than what one could see here and now, and what has the merit of really existing, in contrast to Utopias, which, as far as they are concerned, are cultural fictions.

Knowledge stakes for the social sciences

Now the notion of this utopian horizon has been advanced, it is advisable to examine opposition to research’s progression towards functioning in a truly collective way, assumed to have an ethical basis. The social sciences encounter difficulties today in finding a consensus on their epistemological stakes. A double system of values is possible: the heuristic value, and the value of the result. The nature of the knowledge produced is not the same in both cases. The debate is legitimate; it more or less structures the humanities/social sciences divide, and it is acute in the case of young disciplines. It seems, however, that in many cases, the problem arises less from the absence of consensus on the question, than from two phenomena which prevent a scientific debate from developing fairly: on one hand, the competition between the production of inquiry and the production of results, and on the other hand, the value placed on production in the area of publications. In disciplines such as anthropology and the science of communication, the two tendencies co-exist, which constitutes a real richness.

The creed of happy interdisciplinarity, of interbreeding of all types of approaches, is, however, at best, illusory, at worst, hypocritical. These two conceptions of scientific production refuse to recognise their necessary antagonism on the theoretical plane and the ensuing divisions in relation to the modalities of the construction and recognition/validation of research. On the theoretical plane, one researcher’s hypothesis is another’s result. More precisely, one researcher’s hypothesis intended for the construction of a protocol of verification is, for another, the conceptual material which must be re-worked in order to develop an interpretation or produce new questions (which we, of course, distinguish from verification). It is obvious that the two conceptions cannot co-exist without denying their nature, and in every researcher’s career, they reflect founding experiences: the feeling of discovery stemming from the treatment of a corpus or terrain for one, pleasure in the coherence resulting from argumentation, for the other. Empiricists’ belief in the ability of the facts to astonish them justifies the austerity of their practices: fastidious construction of a corpus, time spent on the ground, data processing operations. This is opposed to the hermeneutist’s belief in the sufficiency of philosophy’s “bag of questions to account for everything interesting that could have been conceived since antiquity, Greek if possible.

We return, here, to science’s political dimension, insofar as an individual’s mode of training constructs these founding experiences which organise adherence to the collective. Completing a PhD thesis is unquestionably one of these experiences. In terms of the construction of research, the respective temporalities brought into play are not comparable. Research centred on the production of results requires long time-scales for the construction of protocols, data collection and data processing; it is not guaranteed in advance that the results will be as elegant as the hypotheses. Research based on a questioning process, on the other hand, prizes an activity of writing which “seeks to construct ideas from the starting-point of intuition, an activity which very often dispenses with the empirical verification step. A further stumbling block to a conception of scientific production is then encountered: the social operativity of the social sciences. In the interpretation process, one passes smoothly from the position of scientist to that of interpreter, even to that of advocate for the actors, that is, to the intellectual’s relationship to his/her subject. A denunciatory stance and the apologetic attitude of prophecy replace a critical perspective and predictive ambitions, which are, in effect, the reference horizons of the scientific field.

It is in this interplay, sometimes involving direct combination, between taking a critical distance and taking a methodological distance that empirical approaches may be considered positivist, or at least, always too accommodating, by the fact of being noncritical (in the moral sense of the term). In the same way, in anthropology, claiming a comprehensive approach becomes a methodological position, which is advanced in reaction to the success of the critical stance taken by the moralistic intellectual or social actor. The blurring of intellectual and scientific positions is presented in methodological terms, while it, in fact, reflects the problems in positioning science as a mode of knowledge construction having the value of truth on action- and time-scales other than those of debates in the immediate time of the seminar, conference or public discussion. Clearly, that does not mean that researchers can neither express opinions nor take stances, including based on their own practices: there is a great distance between principles and actual practices, which are manifested in living social realities, and so much the better.

Antagonisms are mainly translated, in a concrete manner, into unequal competition on the level of the recognition given to research: the notion that the mere production of ideas or commentary is truly scientific is insufficiently questioned. This becomes problematic when, for example, commentaries and essays are considered to have appreciably greater worth than research reports or articles presenting empirical results. The academic press is organised in line with its literary counterpart: valuing authors, giving prestige to canonical publishers, having “seasonal effects in certain cases, notably in the context of a significant topicality (the Internet, the banlieues, the social bond, etc.). This type of issue very largely contradicts the logic of academic writing. The diffusion and organisation of debate within the academic community has certainly given rise to specific types of publications, such as online pre-print databases allowing for discussion; however, these are very rare and they scarcely stimulate researchers, who have little interest in devoting time to this type of poorly valued production.

Examples showing the colonisation of the academic press by issues of prestige are innumerable. Thus, a paper in a peer-reviewed journal is a normalised scientific production, but would never have the impact, even in the relevant scientific institution itself, of a work written by a “personality and published by a prestigious publisher. Even in academic journals, “the gathering of signatures is a major factor in the journal’s reputation, far more than the standards which it applies to evaluating papers submitted for publication. The personality of a star author legitimates a publication much more surely than do the composition and organisation of those collectivities which guarantee its operation. Recently, the pressure to publish one’s thesis has generated some surprising debates: a good thesis would immediately make a good book, that is, a production adapted to the market! It is astonishing that academic institutions could delegate the social, as well as professional, recognition of their production in the traditional academic press to such a point. Perhaps it is precisely because the press makes it possible to kill two birds with one stone, namely, social and professional recognition, that the need for publicity meeting the criteria for a collective scientific production has not been strong enough to generate an original type of publication. Thus, social acknowledgement is too often a criterion for professional recognition in the humanities. The increasingly frequent idea of proceeding directly from the thesis to the book has a part in this ‘logic of the short cut’.

Still believing

The thesis appears in the form of a promise: a promise that the effort of knowledge construction made over a period of years will thereafter be prolonged, developed and improved under identically exacting conditions; a promise that one’s relationship to the academic community will be regulated by the exercise of reason, and not of power; a promise to integrate collectivities at the foundations of coherent scientific projects and not to manage positions and publications on a financial and additive basis. Faced with this situation, anonymity in academic productions could be a way of testing the ability of the academic press in the social sciences to assume, be it only hic et nunc, the values which founded scientific activity. Are we still ready to believe that a text can serve solely for collective debate in a community of peers? Of course, this is only one of the multiple issues on which to act to reconstruct social science’s lost Utopias. Of course, the contemporary context of a bureaucratic and triumphant scientometry hardly lends itself to such action. It is on all levels that it would be necessary to act: in the selection committees for journals and conferences, in the specialist commissions who choose the future enseignants-chercheurs [researchers/lecturers in France], in the laboratories, in the ministries concerned, within the universities and their concrete operating modalities, etc. What must necessarily be enacted for the notion of collectivity to emerge is tantamount to a political ambition. No political action of scale, however, can grow without being guided by a strong belief, without a founding Utopia. This founding Utopia does not even need to be invented: it already exists, and it founded the institutions which house us today. What we have to do, is to believe in it, once more.


Bacon, Francis. 1983 [The New Atlantis, 1627; La nouvelle Atlantide, 1631]. La nouvelle Atlantide - suivi de Voyage dans la pensée baroque par Michèle Le Doeuff et Margaret Llasera. Ed. and trans. Michèle Le Doeuff and Margaret Llasera. Paris: Payot.

Bacon, Francis. 1991 [1605]. Du progrès et de la promotion des savoirs. Ed. and trans. Michele Le Dœuff. Paris: Gallimard. 1991.

Descartes, René. 1992 [1637]. Discours de la méthode. Paris: Vrin.

Shapin, Steven. 1991. Une pompe de circonstance : la technologie littéraire de Boyle. In La science telle qu’elle se fait, ed. Bruno Latour and Michel Callon, 37-86. Paris: La Découverte.

Stengers, Isabelle. 1993. L’invention des sciences. Paris: La Découverte.

[1] Translation: Kim Hajek, CEREL, ENS LSH.

[2] On the other hand, on a detailed level, structures having the same status can differ considerably in their form and operation. For example, a physics laboratory and a sociology research centre do not seem to have a great deal in common: buildings full of researchers on a daily basis, in one case, an office equipped with a table and telephone where the team meets every month, in the other, the research itself taking place elsewhere.

[3] Jeanneret, Yves. 1998. L’affaire Sokal ou la querelle des impostures. Paris: PUF; Jurdant, Baudouin. 1998. Impostures scientifiques. Paris: La Découverte/Alliage.

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