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Narrative Ordering and Explanation in the Sciences: Historical Investigations and Perspectives

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - NARRATIVENSCIENCE (Narrative Ordering and Explanation in the Sciences: Historical Investigations and Perspectives)

Reporting period: 2018-04-01 to 2019-09-30

The Narrative Science project is dedicated to increasing historical, sociological, and philosophical understanding of the role of narrative in the modern sciences, more exclusively narrative’s role as an epistemic tool or way of knowing. Its two central objectives are 1) to find narrative at work in as wide a variety of sciences as possible, everything from economics to biology, chemistry to psychology; and 2) to provide a systematic analysis of the functions that narrative achieves in the sciences. Our approach integrates the history and philosophy of science with insights from literary theory.

There are a great many features of scientific life and practice that contain core narratives, or draw on some underlying narrative, or rely on narrative in order to present and develop understanding. Many such examples will be familiar, such as accounts of evolutionary descent, explanations of how geological formations come to be as we find them, or a doctor’s case history of their patient. In each of these sites, narrative is an indispensable part of thinking through the problem, assessing the most likely explanations, and producing knowledge. But narrative can be found in a great many more parts of a great many more sciences, doing work that is fundamental, surprising, and in need of exploration if we are properly to assess and understand science in our time. Narrative is not merely a tool for journalists, politicians, and public relations experts, or for poets, dramatists, and novelists, but is rather an essential feature of how scientists think, reason, and make sense of things.

It is unfortunate that we often associate narrative with fictions, and fictions with the untruthful. But narrative is a more specific feature of giving an account, one that scholars in literary fields, such as narratology, have made the primary focus of their investigation. They have given narrative a more formal shape, and developed tools for its analysis. Our project thrives on interdisciplinarity, for as we develop our own case narratives, we aim to take findings from literary theory and have them do work for the history and philosophy of science.

Our project matters for a range of different issues. Appreciating the historical role of narrative in the sciences means our results can be brought to bear on contemporary areas of concern where some notion of narrative is directly in play. In addition, our project brings to light a range of tools and strategies that have been available to scientific communities throughout history, which once revived and more thoroughly explored may act as inspiration for sciences in the present. Moreover, narrative science eschews distinctions between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, or those said to be ‘pure’ rather than ‘applied’, for narrative science can be found operating in all of those apparently distinct contexts. We are therefore deeply committed to thinking across erstwhile divisions between the humanities and subject fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

To these ends we are producing a suite of resources and case studies, to be published online, and which can be picked up and used by researchers, teachers, and broader groups interested in using the history and philosophy of science to understand science and its roles in society. Topics include the intersection of narrative and visual practices (making of maps, graphs, diagrams etc.), the intersection of narrative and the making of/organization of categories (different discursive categories can privilege different narratives over others), and professional or expert narratives (their work in law, engineering, medical and social care etc.)

To summarise the project’s aims and objectives:

1) Map the terrain of narrative knowing, using exemplary cases of narrative in the modern sciences (c1800-present), explaining the function that narrative plays in each site, so that a range of functions of narrative can be derived.

In the first phase of the project we appointed excellent candidates for the various postdoctoral positions. We have hired a Research Fellow and 5 Postdoctoral Research Officers who between them have interests covering engineering, psychology, chemistry, biology, economics, geology, pharmaceuticals, and anthropology.

The PI co-edited a special issue of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science dedicated to the theme ‘Narrative in Science’. This collection includes papers on the role of narrative in political science, palaeontology, biology, social science, natural history, the clinic, and chemistry, alongside an introduction to the idea of narrative science itself. The entire issue is Vol. 62 (2017) and the DOI of the introductory essay is

The PI and the postdocs are assembling a literature review of relevant publications in the history and philosophy of science, and literary theory, specifically identifying work that can illuminate their exploration of narrative in science. Some of these readings will inform their own publications, and responses to them are maintained on the dedicated project website in the form of an annotated bibliography. The website was launched in August 2018:
Beyond the literature review, the core project team have also engaged in archiving and oral history interviews for their respective areas of specialism. These activities help to identify and begin developing historical examples to create a case book of narrative science.

They have also begun the job of bringing the Narrative Science aims and research to the international scholarly community of historians and philosophers of science, technology, and medicine. This is being achieved through presentations at international workshops and conferences, and by organising panels, symposia, and roundtables for these events. The latter includes, for 2018 alone, dedicated sessions on narrative science at the meetings of the History of Science Society, the European Society for the History of Science, Society for the History of Technology, Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice, European Society for the History of the Human Sciences, and CHEIRON (the International Society for the History of Behavioral & Social Sciences). A record of all of these events, and the project outputs, is available on the dedicated project website.

The project has also hosted three workshops, featuring international speakers with a wide variety of expertise. The first, ‘Puzzles and Problems of Classifying and Categorizing’ took place in December 2017. This was an opportunity to consider some of the constraints that terms of analysis place on the frameworks that are built around objects in the world, and the categories of knowledge. Examples were taken from management studies, chemistry, archiving, corpus-linguistics, computing, and sociology. The second workshop, ‘Narrative Science and its Visual Practices’, took place in April 2018, and looked at the intersection between visual artefacts and the activities of visualisation and narrative making. The aim was to give explicit attention to the ways in which narratives can be made beyond prose and formal languages. Our international group of speakers again possessed a diverse range of expertise, and developed cases from phylogenetics, archeology, geology, network analysis, developmental biology, and biomedicine. The third took place in May 2018, in collaboration with the Science and Technology Department of University College London and the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences at LSE. This workshop built on a long-standing annual summer collaboration between these two departments, to pursue a collective reading group. For 2018 they selected the ‘Narrative in Science’ special issue, and each week a group of around 30-40 students and scholars met to discuss these publications in depth, including a ½ day workshop
We are moving beyond the state of the art in a number of ways. For starters, we are looking to uncover narrative operating in scientific spaces and places that have not previously been investigated on these terms. Mathematical equations, for example, seem the most unlikely partners to narrative, yet we find evidence of narrative either at work in them or enabling their function. Likewise cellular development in microbiology, reverse syntheses of organic chemicals, or processes of drug discovery: these kinds of phenomena have but rarely been understood on narrative terms. At the same time we are also expanding the range of objects and texts in which narrative can be found, well beyond the range usually attended to by literary theorists. Laboratory protocols, recipes, schema, maps, charts: narrative can be found at work in them all, demonstrating a far wider significance for results coming out of literary theory than had previously been appreciated. Using research in the humanities, in particular literary theory, in this way opens up the question of what narratives are, and what if anything is distinctive about scientific narrative in contrast to standard views and practices of fiction and history.

We are currently pursuing publication strategies for our ‘Library of Cases’ in narrative science. These are designed to show the wide range of functions achieved by narrative in science, across an equally wide range of sciences. While they will all appear on the website, we are also considering producing an innovative publication that would allow readers to mix and match cases of narrative science according to their own interests. These cases will also be suitable for purposes of teaching, and so our research is also innovative in terms of research-led teaching.

Before the end of the project we will continue filling the website with resources and the individual cases making up our library. Each member of the Narrative Science team is currently drafting materials that explore narrative science directly, or address some fundamental themes of narrative in science, written for scholars in the history and philosophy of science.
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