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The Scientific Life

A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation

Who are scientists? What kind of people are they? What capacities and virtues are thought to stand behind their considerable authority? They are experts—indeed, highly respected experts—authorized to describe and interpret the natural world and widely trusted to help transform knowledge into power and profit. But are they morally different from other people? The Scientific Life is historian Steven Shapin’s story about who scientists are, who we think they are, and why our sensibilities about such things matter.
            Conventional wisdom has long held that scientists are neither better nor worse than anyone else, that personal virtue does not necessarily accompany technical expertise, and that scientific practice is profoundly impersonal. Shapin, however, here shows how the uncertainties attending scientific research make the virtues of individual researchers intrinsic to scientific work. From the early twentieth-century origins of corporate research laboratories to the high-flying scientific entrepreneurship of the present, Shapin argues that the radical uncertainties of much contemporary science have made personal virtues more central to its practice than ever before, and he also reveals how radically novel aspects of late modern science have unexpectedly deep historical roots. His elegantly conceived history of the scientific career and character ultimately encourages us to reconsider the very nature of the technical and moral worlds in which we now live.
            Building on the insights of Shapin’s last three influential books, featuring an utterly fascinating cast of characters, and brimming with bold and original claims, The Scientific Life is essential reading for anyone wanting to reflect on late modern American culture and how it has been shaped.

Read an interview with the author. Listen to an audio interview.

488 pages | 16 halftones, 2 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Education: Higher Education

History: History of Ideas

History of Science


“In The Scientific Life, Steven Shapin writes masterfully about the evolution of what he calls ‘the world of making the worlds to come.’ Broadly historic, yet deftly nuanced, Shapin constructs a journey that begins with the lone investigators and solitary altruists of lore, through the mutually disdainful academic purists and Organization Men of the mid-twentieth century, to today’s technoscientific movers and shakers, who roam an ambiguous moral cosmos of university classrooms, high-tech boardrooms, research hospitals, and Wall Street. He illuminates at each step along the way how men and women of science, who more than any other vocation present us with flashes of the future, have come to regard their pursuits, their times, and, most intriguingly, themselves. I greatly admire the learnedness and dexterity with which Shapin has pulled this off. A forceful, revealing, vital work.”

Barry Werth, author of The Billion-Dollar Molecule

“Shapin’s The Scientific Life glitters with deep knowledge of the realities of contemporary science as practiced in academe, industry, and government. Lucidly written, it upsets much conventional thinking about the ways and workings of science. It is a terrific book, a welcome addition to a crowded genre, and adds greatly to Shapin’s formidable reputation as a leading historian of science.”

Daniel S. Greenberg, author of Science for Sale

“Shapin is at his most insightfully mature in this magisterial book. He leads us through a century long tour of the changing figure of the scientist in a remarkably clear and deeply learned manner. The result adroitly bypasses innumerable sterile debates by showing through scholarship and thoughtfulness the place of the scientists in the ‘way we live now.’ A tour de force!”

Paul Rabinow, author of French DNA

“In this brilliant book Shapin takes us from celebration and criticism to description and understanding of one of the most important phenomena of the twentieth century—the creation of technical novelties. Richly paradoxical and entertaining, The Scientific Life contrasts the evidence-free moralizing of the cultural critics and early sociologists of science with the often insightful analyses of the despised industrial researchers. He shows that when adequately described the worlds of technoscientific research and venture capital are not the soulless, routinized, bureaucratic antithesis of the academic ideal, but ones where the necessary uncertainties of innovation are dealt with using face-time, trust, charisma, and even proverbs, things our narratives mistakenly consign to a pre-modern era. This is a book where the doers get their due and the contemplators their comeuppance; where the quotidian is richer than the transcendent.”

David Edgerton, author of The Shock of the Old

"Shapin here examines science as a vocation. The practice of science, once a calling from God or, perhaps, a mere amateur’s hobby, has come into its own as a profession, particularly following World War II. Shapin’s sociological history documents this vocational evolution as he raises the following questions: How does the practice and authority of science relate to the virtues of its practitioners? Is academic science superior to the commercialization of science? How does industry compete for the best minds in science? Can the practice of scientific research be organized, team driven, and accountable to investors? Shapin addresses all these questions without weighing in with his personal opinions on the topic. The result is a thought-provoking challenge to the assumptions of scientific objectivity by science’s practitioners and an acknowledgment of just how important the morality of scientists may be in the advancement and authority of knowledge."

Library Journal   Best of 2008 Sci-Tech Books

"The Scientific Life provokes us to discard worn-out understandings that science outside universities is necessarily aberrant and that the credibility of scientific knowledge no longer depends upon moral judgments about the experts who make reality claims. In that task, the book succeeds masterfully."

Thomas F. Gieryn | Science

"A stunning antidote to the naive portraits of how science is or should be done."


"Shapin has produced a work of exceptional originality, power and significance. He has also given readers much to chew over in regard to contemporary developments and perennial issues. . . . Shapin tells this story exceedingly well, framing its episodes richly and developing them through vivid depictions of representative figures, texts, incidents and anecdotes."

Barbara Herrnstein Smith | London Review of Books

"Remarkably rich in detail and revelation. . . . Shapin may not be doing a conventional history of the ’scientific life,’ but what he has done is both novel and provocative."

H. Allen Orr | New York Review of Books

"An evocative look at both the history of sociology of science and of lives in science."

Sally Gregory Kohlstedt | Journal of American History

"Shapin and his colleagues have ably shown that scientific knowledge does not speak for itself. Scientific communities, and the knowledge they produce, depend on personal values, relationships, and trust...Shapin’s book benefits from the bringing together of a vast wealth of history and insight around a simple question: who are scientists? Shapin has always been more willing than most historians to draw his analysis to the present. The picture that he paints of the contemporary scientist is a necessary reality check."

Jack Stilgoe | The Lancet

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 Knowledge and Virtue
The Way We Live Now
2 From Calling to Job
Nature, Truth, Method, and Vocation from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Centuries
3 The Moral Equivalence of the Scientist
A History of the Very Idea
4 Who Is the Industrial Scientist?
The View from the Tower
5 Who Is the Industrial Scientist?
The View from the Managers
6 The Scientist and the Civic Virtues
The Moral Life of Organized Science
7 The Scientific Entrepreneur
Money, Motives, and the Place of Virtue
8 Visions of the Future
Uncertainty and Virtue in the World of High-Tech and Venture Capital
The Way We Live Now

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