2022 Gordon Cain Conference

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Let’s Get to Work: Bringing Labor History and the History of Science Together

Thursday, June 2, 2022–Saturday, June 4, 2022
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

From the labor in the laboratory to the science in scientific management, the histories of labor and science are marked by intimate connections—many of which still await reflection and historical analysis. To provide a forum for productive conversation between labor historians and historians of science and to help address the pressing scholarly and political questions they share, the Science History Institute’s 2022 Gordon Cain Conference explored the entanglements of science and labor as they have emerged around the globe between the 16th century and today.


Thursday, June 2, 2022

2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. | Opening Remarks

Alexandra Hui (Mississippi State University), Lissa Roberts (University of Twente), and Seth Rockman (Brown University)


3:15 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. | (Un)making Labor Invisible

Patrick Anthony (Cambridge University), Juliana Broad (Independent Scholar), Xan Chacko (Wellesley College), Zachary Dorner (University of Maryland), Judith Kaplan (University of Pennsylvania), Omar Nasim (University of Regensburg), and Duygu Yildirim (University of Tennessee)

Applying the “labor question” to history of science in earnest expands our understanding of work and workers as scientific practice and scientific practitioners. It also underscores commonalities between structures of imperialist, capitalist industries and scientific institutions. Both are subject to the same political economies that, through surveillance, systematization, and an imperative of productivity, render people and tasks invisible. How might the mechanisms mobilized by historical actors in standardizing, maintaining, or destroying definitions of work inform our own efforts as historians? Where else in the record should we be looking to think more broadly about how we define work? If it’s always by actors’ categories, what then do we do with invisibility? The new narratives offered by a labor perspective on invisible practices and practitioners of science raise the prospect of new, deliberate alienations, not just from one’s products or one’s labor/self but one’s world. And here science and the history of it potentially become complicit.


4:45 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. | Science History Institute Othmer Library Tour

6:00 p.m. | Reception


Friday, June 3, 2022

9:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. | Reconsidering Material and Knowledge Production

Salem Elzway (University of Michigan), Sebastian Felten (University of Vienna), Karl Hall (Central European University), and Nicholas Miller (Flagler College)


Material and knowledge production always entail each other. Scientific knowledge, for example, rests on productively engaging with material substances, specimens, lab equipment, the generation of computer printouts, or simply making notes on paper. The production of material goods is similarly unthinkable without the simultaneous generation and application of knowledge, as likely related to impromptu shopfloor maintenance and repair as to the management of efficiency and R&D activities. This practical hybridity has both important historical and historiographical consequences for our exploration of the relations between labor history and the history of science. Historically, it was too often accompanied by power-grabbing claims of their essential distinction and hierarchical social distribution. Both free and unfree laborers saw their status fixed by the denigration of their efforts as “manual,” “mechanical,” or “domestic,” in need of guidance by those capable of reason. Such dichotomizing claims, of course, didn’t go unchallenged The history of responses, ranging from unionism and programmes for workers’ education to abolitionism and revolution, further evidence the intertwined character of knowledge production and the material conditions of labor.


11:15 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. | Labor: What Counts and What can be Counted?

Jyoti Bhosale (Nehru University), Hailian Chen (University of Leipzig), Yang Li (Princeton University), Sibylle Marti (University of Bern), and Jason Resnikoff (Columbia University)


The definition of labor has never been straightforward, assuring that the questions of what counts as labor? and what can be counted as labor? are always contested sites of claim-making and political struggle. The papers in this session recognize the many different guises under which labor has been categorized, measured, and surveilled, as well as valorized and devalued. Likewise, these papers historicize forms of knowledge production about labor processes and laborers themselves, with an awareness that discursive assertions of “scientific” authority have shaped the very terrain on which work itself takes place. The capacity to define certain labor as skilled, as meriting remuneration or social approbation, or even as work itself has functioned to uphold broader structures of racial, gendered, imperial, and class power; while at the same time, working people have constructed alternative hierarchies and competing systems of value for understanding what counts as labor and who deserves recognition for doing it.


2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. | Laboring Bodies, Embodied Labor

Yulia Frumer (Johns Hopkins University), Leslie-William Robinson (Brown University), and Victor Seow (Harvard University)


Able bodies, differently-abled bodies, automated bodies, throw into relief the socio-political values at work at sites of production and the science-ing of labor. That is, in addition to applying a technoscientific framework, the trappings and authority of science were mobilized to improve some aspect of labor. Depending on historical and geographical context, labor or laborers were systematically measured, analyzed, and optimized for productivity, morale, or interchangeability. The Taylorist impulses of the historical actors are clear. We might consider, though, how pushing past a narrative of the scientific management of labor could offer new analytical insights. First, we should consider whether certain concepts better serve the project of jostling expected narratives of automation and alienation. When is the science of labor also the science of laborers and when is it not? Further, how might active, earnest engagement between the fields of labor history and history of science additionally upend these narratives?


3:45 to p.m. to 5:15 p.m. | Labor Takes Place: Workscapes, Topography, and Infrastructure

Jonathan Baldoza (Princeton University), Tamara Fernando (University of Cambridge), Trish Kahle (Georgetown University), Julia Menzel (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Colette Perold (University of Colorado), Renée Raphael (University of California, Irvine), and Robin Wolfe Scheffler (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

What might greater attention to space and place reveal about scientific practice as entailing various sorts of labor? Even the most abstract ideas are produced in specific locations whose mundane characteristics structure how scientific work unfolds. Consider a typical corporate research campus, for example: bucolic landscaping can promote collaborative interactions or facilitate quiet thinking in isolation, while ample parking or proximity to “good” public schools might determine who is (or isn’t) present to work on a project. But it might also matter whether this campus is located under a political regime that provides universal healthcare or recognizes the right to collective bargaining. What if, however, the scientific work is unfolding under conditions of violent coercion, colonial exploitation, and racial subordination? Or what if instead of corporate research park, the site of knowledge production is a subterranean mine or the seafloor? Or in a space defined less organically as a “service area,” “market sector,” or “opportunity zone”? The papers in this session are all poised to think critically about space and place, recognizing that location—from small elements of laboratory design to broader structures of political economy—shapes the contours of scientific labor and establishes the terms of scientific authority and expertise.


7:00 p.m. | Conference Dinner

Saturday, June 4, 2022

9:15 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. | Materials, Non-humans, and the Turn Toward Global History

Jody Benjamin (University of California, Riverside), Marta Macedo (University of Lisbon), Kate Mulry (California State University, Bakersfield), Silvia Pérez-Criado (University of Valencia), Vyta Pivo (University of Michigan), and Chao Ren (University of Michigan)

Considering commodities, objects, and the materials of labor in a colonial framework brings two important historiographical turns together: the turn toward global history and a focus on materials and non-humans. Each, on their own, raises numerous methodological and historical questions. Brought together, they not only promise stimulating insights in labor history, the history of science, and their interactions. They also point to important links between these historical sub-fields and both environmental history and political economy. Finding our way into this theme rests on considering a few fundamental issues and their relations with each other, most especially geographical orientation, material agency, and infrastructure.


11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. | Bringing the Conference Themes Together

Gadi Algazi (Tel Aviv University), Lydia Barnett (Northwestern University), Harun Küçük (University of Pennsylvania), Jahnavi Phalkey (Science Gallery Bengaluru), Gabriela Soto-Laveaga (Harvard University), and Laura Stark (Vanderbilt University)


12:30 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. | What’s Next?

Alexandra Hui (Mississippi State University), Lissa Roberts (University of Twente), and Seth Rockman (Brown University)

Whose Work Matters?

Saturday, June 4 at 3:30 p.m.

Any scientific innovation takes a village, whether it’s testing ideas, building on past theories, or literally building the equipment. And yet, we often focus on the achievement of one brilliant individual who receives the rewards, accolades, and compensation. So whose work matters? Why do some kinds of scientific labor get more value? And has it always been this way?

A lively roundtable discussion about these ideas was hosted by the Institute’s Jesse Smith.

Conference Organizers

Alexandra (Alix) Hui is a historian of science specializing in the history and psychophysics of sound, and especially of sound studies in 19th- and 20th-century Germany. Among her publications are The Psychophysical Ear: Musical Experiments, Experimental Sounds, 1840–1910 and the coedited volume, Testing Hearing: The Making of Modern Aurality. She is an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University and coeditor in chief of Isis.

Lissa L. Roberts is editor in chief of History of Science and emeritus professor of history of science and technology in global context at University of Twente. Her many publications include Compound Histories: Materials, Governance and Production, 1760–1840 (with Simon Werrett); Centers and Cycles of Accumulation in and around the Netherlands; The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770–1820 (with Simon Schaffer, Kapil Raj, and James Delbourgo); and The Mindful Hand: Inquiry and Invention from the Late Renaissance to Early Industrialization (with Simon Schaffer and Peter Dear).

Seth Rockman is an associate professor of history at Brown University. His book Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore won multiple prizes including the Philip Taft Labor History Book Award. Rockman also coedited (with Sven Beckert) Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development. Rockman has been a fellow at re:work, a global labor history research institute in Berlin, and currently serves on the editorial committee of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History.

More Information

Please send all inquiries to [email protected].

About the Gordon Cain Conference

The Gordon Cain Conference is a gathering of scholars in the history of science and related fields. Each conference is organized by an eminent scholar who worked with staff to develop a theme of broad contemporary relevance. Centered on a topic chosen by the conference organizer, the conference consists of an evening public lecture, a symposium, and a collected volume. It is hosted by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry and supported by a generous gift from Gordon Cain.

Image: Call to Revolution and Table of Universal Brotherhood (Science, Labor and Art) by José Clemente Orozco (1930–1931)
Past Conferences, 1998−2022


Let’s Get to Work: Bringing Labor History and the History of Science Together
Organized by Alexandra (Alix) Hui, Mississippi State University; Lissa L. Roberts, University of Twente; and Seth Rockman, Brown University


Diplomatic Studies of Science: The Interplay of Science, Technology, and International Affairs after the Second World War
Organized by Maria Rentetzi, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg


Where to Put It All? Some Thoughts about Collections, Museums, and History
Organized by Steven Conn, Miami University


Chemistry in the Americas, 1500–1800
Organized by John Christie, University of Oxford, and Carin Berkowitz, Science History Institute

My Data, My Self: A Century of Self-Tracking Health Technologies
Organized by Deanna Day, Amanda L. Mahoney, and Ramya M. Rajagopalan, Science History Institute


Life in the Universe: Past and Present
Organized by David DeVorkin, National Air and Space Museum


Curators, Popularizers, and Showmen: Science in Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Exhibitions and Museums
Organized by Bernard Lightman, York University


Chemical Reactions: Chemistry and Global History
Organized by Lissa L. Roberts, University of Twente


Sensing Change: Environmental Issues in Art and Science
Organized by Dehlia Hannah, Arizona State University


E pluribus unum: Bringing Biological Parts and Wholes into Philosophical Perspective
Organized by Lynn Nyhart, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Scott Lidgard, Field Museum of Natural History


Chemical Weather and Chemical Climate: Body, Place, Planet in Historical Perspective
Organized by Jim Fleming, Colby College
Request the collected volume.


Personalizing Medicine Here and Now: Empirical Studies of Post-Genomic Medicine
Organized by Alberto Cambrosio, McGill University


Technology Transfer and Diffusion in Comparative Perspective
Organized by Bruce Seely, Michigan Technological University


The Dilemma of Dual Use
Organized by Roy MacLeod, University of Sydney


New Chemical Bodies
Organized by Jody A. Roberts, Science History Institute
Request the whitepaper.


Towards a History and Philosophy of Expertise
Organized by Christopher Hamlin, University of Notre Dame


Nano before There Was Nano: Historical Perspectives on the Constituent Communities of Nanotechnology
Organized by Cyrus C. M. Mody, Cornell University


City, Industry, and Environment in Transatlantic Perspective
Organized by Donna Rilling, State University of New York at Stony Brook


Risk and Safety in Medical Innovation
Organized by Arthur Daemmrich, Cornell University


Industry and Governance: Changing Relations among Science-Based Corporations, Government, and the Public
Organized by Arthur Daemmrich, Cornell University


The Chemical Industry and the Environment
Organized by Christian W. Simon, University of Basel, Switzerland


Pharmaceutical Innovation: Revolutionizing Human Health
Organized by David B. Sicilia, University of Maryland


The Twentieth-Century American Chemical Industry
Organized by Stephen B. Adams, Lucent Technologies