Bernard Lightman and Aileen Fyfe (eds), Science in the Marketplace

Bernard Lightman and Aileen Fyfe (eds), Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). pp 432. hb £31. ISBN 0226276503.

The study of ‘popular science’, one of the biggest growth areas in the history of science, is fraught with definitional difficulties. As Jonathan Topham reminds us in his illuminating essay in Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman’s Science in the Marketplace, there has never been a ‘unified’ or ‘uncontested “popular science”’ (159) whose boundaries are clearly demarcated. Instead, in the nineteenth century, the word ‘popular’ began to be used to describe publications for those without specialist or expert knowledge and also to describe publications intended for a mass audience. These two different senses of the term ‘popular’ did not always coincide, and together with the emergence of ‘science’ as a specialist activity they reflected ‘a growing sense of the disintegration of a unitary bourgeois public … and of the diversification of reading audiences’ (136). The perceived disintegration and diversification of knowledge, skills, and potential markets for science is brought out with subtle and masterful skill across this excellent volume, which exuberantly emphasises the sheer multiplicity of kinds and forms of engagement with science that took place in the nineteenth century. What kinds of ‘science’ might be deemed ‘popular’? On what grounds might somebody be considered a ‘populariser’ rather than a man or woman of science, or a consumer of scientific entertainments rather than a student of science? And along just what lines – material, professional, or ideological – might ‘popular’ and ‘expert’ be divided? These questions run through the rich and varied set of essays on offer here. Multidisciplinary and ever-sensitive to the multisensory nature of scientific sites and experiences, this book never offers just one answer to these questions. Instead, it elucidates a whole range of different, sometimes competing, visions of nineteenth-century ‘popular science’.

The editors negotiate the problems of definition in their depiction of the marketplace as the primary stage on which scientific popularisation took place. Popular science is science produced for the market and consumed as a commercial product; the ‘marketplace’ is both a real entity and a metaphor for a place in which science happens, but in which new scientific knowledge cannot be said to be made. The editors therefore choose not to deal with ‘ethno-science’ or ‘low science’ on the grounds that such terms ‘imply an expectation of being involved in the creation of new knowledge’ (4), instead emphasising that ‘most of the audiences in this volume saw their role as consumers, whether of books, lectures, zoological gardens, or galleries of practical science’ (4). Reading science, hearing it, smelling it, touching it and walking through it, audiences did not, however, play an active role in producing it. At the same time, while such audiences may not have actively contributed to the making of new knowledge, neither were they merely passive recipients of fixed scientific ideas. They either ignored or only used selectively the labels, directions, guidebooks and exhortations to silence offered to them in museums, collections and exhibitions. As essays by Richard Bellon, Victoria Carroll and Samuel Alberti in particular make clear, such visitors made up their own itineraries, touched objects they were meant to leave alone, smelt smells they were not supposed to have been able to detect, and interpreted the displays they saw with imaginative, sometimes subversive, verve.

The authors here draw on a range of multidisciplinary frameworks to explicate this pattern. While Fyfe and Lightman cite reader response theory, with its ‘horizons of expectation’ and its ‘interpretative communities’, Carroll draws on the art historian Michael Baxandall’s influential notion of the ‘period eye’ to reconstruct visitor experiences of the country house natural history collection in all their complexity. The idea that encounters with art or science might have a history is dependent upon the notion that certain historical conditions may have conditioned responses to artistic and scientific objects. Here, generic conventions such as the picturesque, the blossoming of the daylong holiday for the working and middle classes at mid-century, and the class-specific conventions of the country house visit all determined the ways in which visitors responded to the infamous collection belonging to Charles Waterton. But consumer histories of this kind are only interesting insofar as they also acknowledge that visitors did not always respond as they were supposed to, or that in creative and idiosyncratic ways they adapted the range of available cultural resources for interpreting displays. So Carroll also mines an impressive range of ‘ephemeral’ sources, including memoirs, biographies, guidebooks and periodical articles, to draw attention to the independence and activity of particular visitors to Waterton’s house.

Perhaps most strikingly, John van Wyhe argues forcefully for the use of ‘diffusion studies’ in the history of science, arguing that the term ‘diffusion’ does not imply the inevitable or passive acceptance of fixed ideas by those receiving them. Indeed, the take-up of phrenology in England between 1814 and the 1840s is shown here to have followed one of the standard patterns elaborated by diffusion scholars, an S-shaped curve of a slow initial spread among a group of similar individuals with personal links, followed by a takeoff phase, and then a slow decrease as saturation is approached (87). This may seem to undercut the volume’s overall insistence on the resistant, interpretative, adaptive nature of audience responses to popular scientific experiences, suggesting that instead they conform to normative and predictable patterns of reception. But van Wyhe also argues that, in the case of phrenology, this pattern explicitly depended upon the activity of audiences of phrenological lectures in England, who frequently went off and set up their own phrenological societies and lecture series, further diffusing the ideas of the new science and often transforming it in the process.

In some cases this consumer agency is shown to have had a perceptible effect on the history of ‘popular science’. Lightman’s essay describes how the lectures of Frank Buckland and John Pepper ‘refashioned the sites at which they lectured by bringing in elements drawn from cultural spaces associated with the world of entertainment’ (125), Buckland incorporating features from freak shows, zoos and museums, and Pepper’s Polytechnic rolling the exhibition hall, the museum, the laboratory, the lecture hall and the theatre all into one. The relationship between lecture halls and other commercially-viable sites is revealed in dynamic equilibrium. Going one step further than Lightman, Alberti argues that by the end of the century those displays that did not conform to the ordered arrangements of public museums, such as the taxidermist’s shop or the anatomy show, ‘were deprived of credibility’ (393). Here scientific authority is the outcome of an ongoing dialogue between the producers and consumers of scientific knowledge and scientific spectacles, and the process of defining differences between all these groups is in active contest.

Graeme Gooday’s fascinating essay on the expert-consumer relationship in the advent of domestic electricity is particularly strong on this theme because, as he puts it, ‘those aspiring to public authority on electric matters were not unequivocally or consensually granted recognition as “experts” by their audiences’. In Alberti’s cases the curators of public museums achieved scientific authority by banishing the smells, sounds and experiences of other kinds of scientific experience from their institutions, actively creating and manipulating the line between ‘scientific’ and ‘popular’. In Gooday’s example, expert status depended wholly upon popular acceptance and thus upon the ability to write about or demonstrate electrical beauty and safety for wide audiences. Expertise was granted by the ‘laity’, and the laity itself operated ‘as a tribunal of allegedly “expert” judgments’, taking on some of the roles of the expert for itself (232).

This last essay effectively compromises the editors’ deployment of the marketplace metaphor to distinguish between the active creation of new knowledge and the production and consumption of ‘popular science’, because it suggests that new knowledge could be created in response to, or even be dependent upon, market demands. But it is James A. Secord’s ‘How Scientific Conversation Became Shop Talk’, the first essay of the collection, which challenges this metaphor most vividly. Secord not only argues that in the early part of the century oral performance was often more important than print publication for communicating scientific ideas and for establishing scientific reputation and expertise. He also charts a history of scientific conversation in which, as polite society experienced an influx of professionals, businessmen and industrialists, science was increasingly labelled ‘shop talk’ and became confined to the field and the laboratory. The twist in Secord’s tail is that serious scientific talk continued to operate according to the conventions of the older polite society: in the 1880s the Cavendish’s introduced afternoon tea, a ritual of the London aristocracy since the 1840s, into the laboratory, enabling conversation to retain ‘the openness considered essential to innovation’ (50). The conventions of the dinner table or the tea room had as much of a place in creating scientific knowledge as in popularising it. Here the editors’ distinction between ‘science’ and ‘popular science’, between the producers and the consumers of knowledge, breaks down.

Of course, the marketplace is not merely a metaphor for this book, and the essays include a welcome emphasis on the economics determining scientific productions of various kinds. Jonathan Topham reminds us of the role of publishers, trade and economics in the history of popular science instead of treating it, as others have done, ‘as a purely intellectual or ideological production’ (137). His essay reveals that developments in cheap publishing in the 1810s and 1820s, particularly in the fields of cheap magazines and didactic children’s publishing, were often important platforms on which publishers could establish their trade. Developing the vocabulary of ‘popular science’, these innovations in publishing were as much responsible for the success of the SDUK as its ideological commitments. Fyfe’s contribution also emphasises the ways in which the need to create good commercial products informs the history of popular science. Deftly analysing the complex interweaving of text and experience in the museum space, Fyfe also argues that publications that offered their readers museums-in-print such as The Pictorial Museum of Animated Nature (1848-49) were not necessarily secondary substitutes for the authentic museum experience. Instead, the Pictorial Museum was in many ways a more sophisticated commercial product than the British Museum, offering a connecting and interpretative narrative between its ‘exhibits’ and making more sense of them than the minimal and largely scholarly museum labels gave. Its wood engravings of animals could be drawn at a scale that would enable more ready perusal of tiny molluscs, or could render the difficult-to-preserve jellyfish in complete and accurate detail. Considered as a commercial product, the Pictorial Museum had distinct advantages over the British Museum. And in turn, Fyfe’s essay shows us that the marketplace model’s emphasis on the material experiences of science as well as the ideological frameworks underpinning its production can recover the historical value of texts or objects whose significance is invisible within the traditional institutional or professional models of looking at science.

Focusing on ‘sites’ and ‘experiences’ rather than individual historical actors, the volume’s greatest strength is its ability to give a broad sense of the multi-sensory and multimedia nature of scientific engagement across the nineteenth century, replacing long-problematised narratives of the ‘professionalization’ of science with a model of proliferation. Each of the proliferating sites and experiences offered a bewildering array of temptations to the increasingly-diverse audiences of the nineteenth century. Spanning the lecture hall, the theatre, the museum, the private collection, the dinner table, the tea room, the hospital demonstration and the publishing house, these sites (and many more not analysed here) operated according to unique structures of performance and display, unique modes of visitor interaction, different prices and offers of viewer reward, and carried different kinds of attractiveness for different social groups. One particular strength of the method on offer here is that it provides a real way of registering female, working-class and non-expert participation in science without considering them as subordinates to the male heroes of the ‘gentlemanly’ and ‘professional’ stories we have all learned (and learned to challenge). To take women as an example, here we see just how important women were in scientific conversation throughout the nineteenth century. We discover the literary strategies of female science writers in Anne Shteir’s eloquent essay on botanical writing, and learn of the important collaborations of electrical engineers Edward Lancaster and J.E.H. Gordon with their wives Maud and Elizabeth as they sought the approval of middle-class housewives for domestic electric lighting.

The potential downside of editors’ approach, however, is the definitional problem I alluded to at the beginning of this review. In making a rigid distinction between ‘science’ and ‘popular science’, this collection’s otherwise laudatory efforts to open up the history of popular science to a more diverse range of approaches might threaten to relegate many of its historical actors (including women) to the status of mere audience-members in the history of science, however resistant they may have been to the show. Several essays in the collection problematise the idea that ‘popular science’ did not contribute to the making of new knowledge, and problematise the very use of the epithet ‘popular’ to imply something different from ‘science’. On the logic of the editors’ own insistence on multiplicity, it seems clear that in some cases this distinction might hold truer than others. Still, though many readers might disagree with the collection’s overarching definition of ‘popular science’, the power of an experiential approach to the history of science, and of the proliferation model for recuperating those experiences, is compellingly demonstrated within this unerringly excellent range of essays. This lively and readable collection represents a fascinating step forward in the history of popular science, and should be found on the reading lists of all undergraduate and graduate courses on science, popular culture, and the nineteenth century more generally.

Adelene Buckland, University of East Anglia