Deep thinking in shallow waters

The Mangle of Practice

June 21, 1996

Sociologists, as a race, have never impressed me. They seem forever engaged in making a living for themselves and their kind by inventing new expressions to describe what has already been achieved. I am reminded of the time in the 1950s when Gabriel Kron was persuading us that it could all be done by partitioning matrices. Liverpool University was a hotbed of tensor analysis at that time and one "engineer" in that campus was quoted as saying: "So I inverted the matrix and invented the communicator". Some sociologists write very meaningful books such as the recent Knowing Machines by Donald Mackenzie (1996), but I failed to find anything comparable in this book.

The author's career began as a theoretical physicist and he uses case studies to illustrate his theme, which include bubble chambers, the search for quarks and numerically controlled machine tools. In discussing "concepts" he uses as example the construction of quaternions in mathematics. After reading his section on complex numbers I could only breathe a sigh of relief that this man had not been my teacher at the time I was learning about complex numbers. One sentence reads: "The constitutive role of disciplinary ageing in conceptual practice is enough to guarantee that its end points are temporally emergent". One can take a sentence like this - full as it obviously is of great wisdom and importance - once in a while, but not several times in one paragraph.

The language of the book as a whole I would describe as "excessive". Using words like "exemplification" and "instantiating" instead of "for example", "assemblage" instead of "collection" and "histiographic" rather than "historical" do not make for easy reading. One might be forgiven for thinking that one of the author's objectives was to ensure that his book was not to be seen as easy reading, since it was written by such a learned man, in which case I wish he would not pretend that it "offers a sophisticated new understanding of the production of scientific knowledge and the nature of scientific, mathematical, and engineering practice".

Engineering practice is surely about using the materials we find on our earth to our advantage. So when he discovers that, "The world, I want to say, is continually doing things, things that bear upon us not as observation statements upon disembodied intellects but as forces upon material beings", why does he spend the rest of the book virtually ignoring what he has just said?

Some of his discourse reminds me of an art critic looking at the latest monstrosity in an art gallery - a plain sheet of black paper - and telling us what was in the mind of the artist when he created it. He remarks: "Even in an English summer one would die quickly of exposure to the elements in the absence of clothing, buildings, heating and whatever". The ancient Britons managed pretty well. He continues: "Much of everyday life, I would say, has this character of coping with material ageing, ageing that comes at us from outside the human realm and that cannot be reduced to anything within that realm".

It is as if he had just discovered what life is really like after being kept in a sheltered and secure environment for 30 years - which is perhaps what an engineer would expect from a theoretical physicist.

The index is not well done. With a view to finding some topic that I could hold on to so as not to sink into the belief that I was totally ignorant about science and engineering, I looked up "electric motor". It said "p42", yet page 42 has no reference to electric motors, nor does 41, 43, 32 or 52. It is not a misprint. Perhaps I was unlucky.

Of the 140 proper names in the index, less than 10 per cent were known to me. This book may be welcomed by other sociologists, perhaps even revered. It will not be a bestseller among engineers.

Eric Laithwaite is emeritus professor of engineering, Imperial College, London, and visiting professor, University of Sussex.

The Mangle of Practice

Author - Andrew Pickering
ISBN - 0 226 66802 9 and 66803 7
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £35.95 and £14.25
Pages - 281

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