Self-Fashioning Scientific Identities: A Conference Report and Outlook

The following post was kindly written by Lea Beiermann, a PhD student researching nineteenth-century microscopy at the University of Cologne. You can find her on Twitter here.

du bois-reymond

Antiqued portrait of Paul du Bois-Reymond in Emil du Bois-Reymond‘s Untersuchungen über thierische Elektricität, vol. II (Berlin: Reimer, 1884)

What did a nineteenth-century janitor have to do to become an acknowledged member of the scientific community? Could sailors publish their notes taken on maritime expeditions, and did that make them ethnologists? And how did women navigate a sea of male scientific identities? These are some of the questions that were discussed during the workshop “Self-Fashioning Scientific Identities in the Long Nineteenth Century” hosted at the University of Leicester on June 15th.

Research into scientific self-fashioning has long proven to be a useful tool for analysing both changes and continuities in scientific culture. Crafting a trustworthy persona for oneself is crucial when attempting to claim an authoritative position in scientific circles and beyond. Nineteenth-century self-fashioning in the sciences would often build on established personae – like the solitary genius – while reinterpreting them at the same time. As Steven Shapin (2012) has observed, “the late modern expert still retains some characteristics of the early modern virtuoso.”[1]

naden

Photographic portrait of Constance Naden c.1886. Further Reliques of Constance Naden (London: Bickers and Song, 1891), frontis.

The “SciSelf” workshop, which was accompanied by lively #sciself2018 Tweets, facilitated exchanges among researchers looking into the intricate relations between scientific, gender and class identities in the long nineteenth century. Papers presented at the workshop, which was funded by the Constructing Scientific Communities project, provided rich perspectives on the formation of scientific identities, questions of scientific authority, autobiographical writing and science popularisation.

The first panel, focusing on disciplinary identities, exposed nineteenth-century strategies of being recognised as an ethnologist, a physiologist, or forging a decidedly interdisciplinary identity. The second panel laid bare the difficulties experienced by scientists managing multiple scientific personae, while papers on the third panel presented both authorial and photographic ways of “writing” scientific identities. Strategies of popularising science were analysed in the final panel on science in public, followed by a keynote by Dr Patricia Fara (University of Cambridge) on female identities in early twentieth-century science.

The papers presented at the “SciSelf” workshop analysed nineteenth- and early twentieth-century science in Britain, America, the Netherlands, Romania and Germany, inviting us to look at national differences and parallels. The international scope of these papers both testified to the spread of the notion of self-fashioning as an analytical lens and suggested that it may be worthwhile to engage in further comparative or transnational studies of scientific identities. Likewise, it seemed that comparing the various personae underlying nineteenth-century self-fashioning may allow to better understand the development of amateur and professional scientific alliances, within and across disciplines.

ross

Portrait of Sir Ronald Ross, May 1898. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.

Finally, the “SciSelf” workshop also reminded us to reflect on our own self-fashioning as historians of science. Judging by the #sciself2018 Tweets, presenters were forced to leave their research “dungeons” to attend the conference or combine breakfast with preparatory paper reading. Although these Tweets painted endearing pictures of researchers absorbed in their work, they made me aware that our increasing self-presentation on digital (and non-digital) platforms comes with the obligation of considering the implications of our own self-fashioning – which identities are we crafting and who are we including in or excluding from our scientific communities?

[1] Shapin, S. (2008). The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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