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Abstracts for Twentieth Century Think Tank

The Twentieth Century Think Tank offers broad coverage of 20th- and 21st-century topics in the history, philosophy and sociology of science, technology and medicine. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place on Thursdays over lunch.

Think Tank meetings are held fortnightly on Thursdays, 1–2pm in Seminar Room 2. All welcome!

Organised by Mary Brazelton, Joseph Martin and Richard Staley.

Lent Term 2019

Show overview

17 January Mary Brazelton, Simon Schaffer, Charu Singh and Richard Staley (University of Cambridge)
Decolonising the history of science curriculum
Together with a notorious #ScienceMustFall video circulating on social media, #RhodesMustFall and Fees Must Fall protests in the University of Cape Town of 2015–16 have helped inspire a widespread movement calling for the decolonisation of education. What does this mean for science and the history of science? What should it mean for the curriculum and our courses? Here we discuss questions raised by the colonial history of science and the possibility of decolonisation, considering aims, strategies and experiences gained in teaching the history of science in Cambridge and elsewhere.
31 January Freddy Foks (History, Cambridge)
Constructing the field: power, persona and paper tools
How did inter-war social anthropologists go about trying to understand a 'whole society'? This paper draws on archival sources to reveal the research methods, political contexts and inter-personal relations that contributed to the construction of 'the field' in East and Central Africa during the 1930s. By doing so, the paper contributes to a long-running discussion carried on by historians, philosophers and anthropologists about the nature of observation and understanding in the modern social sciences. The paper argues that knowledge produced 'in the field' led to the formation of a distinctive and authoritative scholarly persona in the British social sciences (the figure of the 'social anthropologist'). This persona was constituted by extending the lessons learnt at Bronislaw Malinowski's seminar at the LSE into the politically and socially uneven terrain of Britain's African colonies.
14 February Audra J. Wolfe (Independent Scholar)
A political history of apolitical science
The Cold War ended long ago, but the language of science and freedom continues to shape public debates over the relationship between science and politics in the United States. From the late 1940s through the late 1960s, the US foreign policy establishment saw a particularly American way of thinking about 'scientific freedom' as essential to winning the Cold War. In this presentation drawn from her new book, Freedom's Laboratory, historian Audra J. Wolfe will focus on a crucial moment of this story, the late 1950s, when US policymakers explicitly articulated what it meant to describe science as apolitical, objective and international, all in the name of the intensely political goal of Cold War supremacy. A particularly troubling part of this story involves the government's decision to funnel its propaganda efforts, whenever possible, through nongovernmental organizations of scientists. How should historians understand groups of non-state actors doing the state's work? Does the concept of 'transnational science' even make sense for the Cold War?
28 February Paolo Heywood (Social Anthropology, Cambridge)
Making difference: queer activism and anthropological theory
This paper examines two paradoxes. The first is ethnographic: queer activists in Bologna, Italy are concerned with defining themselves in opposition to fixed categories of identity and forms of politics based on them. In so doing however, they must engage with the risk that this endeavour of difference-making itself becomes as fixed and uniform as the identities to which it is opposed. The second paradox is theoretical: a range of anthropologists have recently argued that the relationship between theoretical and ethnographic material should be one of identity or correspondence. Yet such arguments, though highly conceptually stimulating, often reproduce in form what they refute in content: abstraction and metaphysical speculation, thus re-inscribing the difference between our concepts and our data. This paper simultaneously connects these respectively ethnographic and theoretical questions, whilst also deliberately holding them apart. The beginnings of an answer to both, it suggests, lie in an explicit attention to the boundaries and differences, rather than simply the isomorphisms, between theory and ethnography.