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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 30-31, July 22 & July 29 2023

Chatterjee on Creativity from the Periphery by Deepanwita Dasgupta

Saturday 22 July 2023



Reviewed by Animesh Chatterjee (Greenhouse Centre for Environmental Humanities at the University of Stavanger)

Creativity from the Periphery: Trading Zones of Scientific Exchange in Colonial India

by Deepanwita Dasgupta

University of Pittsburgh Press
2021. 312 pp.
(e-book), ISBN 978-0-8229-8802-1
(cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4656-4.

Outlining her arguments, Deepanwita Dasgupta writes that the purpose of Creativity from the Periphery: Trading Zones of Scientific Exchange in Colonial India is to examine and understand “creativity in science when it operates under various hard and marginal conditions involving challenges of resources, training, and the overall lack of a home community” (p. 7). In doing so, the author seeks to upend those historiographical and philosophical formulations that have so far remained strongly focused on, as she writes, “a set of events gathered mainly from the various locations of Euro-America, thus keeping most of our philosophical energies focused upon a few centres of science, and generally neglecting everything else that falls outside of it” (p. 17). Until recently, this meant that the attention of philosophers of science was myopically directed to what Dasgupta terms “resource-rich communities” that produce scientific knowledge while situated within the cognitive, physical, and historical location of the “centre” or “metropole” (pp. 5-6). Dasgupta’s Creativity from the Periphery is a book about the scientific practices and contributions of well-known yet peripheral individuals in early twentieth-century colonial India—Satyendra Nath (S. N.) Bose, C. V. Raman, Meghnad Saha, and G. N. Ramachandran—who functioned within “resource poor” systems and societies, and produced scientific knowledge despite sometimes also lying outside the categorical definition of “scientist” (p. 5).

The book is made up of two parts of four chapters each, a brief introduction, and a concise summary for conclusion. In the first part of the book, aptly titled “The Theoretical Framework,” Dasgupta builds a broadly cognitive-theoretical model to capture the complex embodied practices and mental models of scientists in the periphery. She is especially interested in how they created new conceptual shifts in existing scientific practices and knowledge and, consequently, put themselves on a path to trading their knowledge and skills with their counterparts in the Western “metropolitan” (p. 85). As the author herself admits on page 16, she is not the first person to write on the theme of scientific knowledge in the context of the center and periphery. Many of the broader themes and outlines of the book will be known to those familiar with the extant historiography on science in South Asia, especially the works of Kapil Raj, who has shown how the epistemic contributions of the non-Western periphery went way beyond simply providing raw data for research in the “center”; knowledge produced in the periphery was also important to the formation of new scientific knowledge and systems (Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900, 2007).

In the first chapter, the author aims criticisms at the field of philosophy of science and “philosophical models of science” which have, for years, only focused on well-developed centers of science and scientific protagonists (p. 17). The absence of scientific actors and knowledge from the peripheries presents significant consequences for our philosophical and psychological understandings of science. First, a lack of representation of the peripheries undermines some of the criticisms of scientific knowledge that arise from such parts of the world, especially as they question the use and benefits of such knowledge. Second, such absences also reveal silences about the new kinds of knowledge and ideas produced in the periphery and how these come to be organized and presented within the complex and shifting mainstream structures of scientific practice. A focus on peripheral actors, especially as they gradually emerge from a state of isolation and seek to make scientific knowledge, opens up avenues to studying the hierarchies and differential levels of authority and trust that exist in scientific practice.

Introducing a fresh perspective on peripheral protagonists, Dasgupta presents a “cognitive-philosophical-historical (CPH)” framework that brings our attention to the minds and cognitive processes of these protagonists in order to showcase, as the book’s title says, “creativity from the periphery” (p. 14). The second, third, and fourth chapters help answer some of the questions that Dasgupta’s CPH model raises within philosophy of science. In chapter 2, she makes a forceful argument against the idea of the scientific “community” studied by philosophers of science as idyllic, with its considerable resources and well-defined social processes and practices. The social structure of science, as studied by philosophers from Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed., 1970) to Miriam Solomon (Social Empiricism, 2007) and Helen Longino (Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry, 1990), while highlighting the ways cognitive and social interactions between scientific communities influence the making of epistemologically reliable scientific knowledge, tacitly assumes that all scientific communities generally stand on a common, level ground with respect to authority and agency. There are almost no contexts within which two unequal communities with asymmetric power dynamics or biases interact with each other, and criticisms and critical engagements, which Longino considers to be transformative to science, often become dismissive in these cases. Dasgupta makes a case here for introducing her peripheral protagonists and unequal epistemic engagements to gain new insights about how scientific practices also involve peripheral scientific communities negotiating and striving for recognition and consensus for their work. She studies her peripheral protagonists on the same plane as “scientists” in the metropole by, firstly, defining “science” as a cognitive ability to solve problems through systematic and replicable frameworks and, secondly, highlighting the ability of her protagonists to build communities around these frameworks and practices, thereby opening avenues for new frameworks, practices, solutions, and communities in the future.

In the third chapter, Dasgupta uses the concept of “trading zone” to capture both these points and present her protagonists and, their approaches, practices, and communities as contributors to larger structures of knowledge and systems of science. She considers the scientific contributions of peripheral scientists as outcomes of trading zones that these actors build in order to transcend their peripheral status. The first part of the book concludes in chapter 4, which introduces the various stages through which trading zones evolve and how such processes enable peripheral researchers to build their expertise, community, and research programs that they then use to start exchanging knowledge with other communities both inside and outside their peripheral situation. These processes, the author argues, are far from straightforward, with peripheral researchers attempting to traverse the asymmetrical and epistemologically impaired landscape often being forced to alter and entirely refashion their mental models, thereby allowing for unexpected directions of creativity.

The second part of the book, titled “Four Case Studies in Peripheral Science,” details the scientific pursuits of the book’s four main protagonists along CPH lines that Dasgupta builds in the first part. The story of Bose’s interactions with the works of Albert Einstein and other European physicists and his formulation of quantum statistics for indistinguishable particles gives the reader a sense of the gradual transformations in Bose’s cognitive processes as he worked at the periphery of resource-rich metropolitan scientific programs. Bose also had to overcome the persistent inequalities in epistemic authority as a consequence of his peripherality. However, as the author shows in intricate detail in chapter 5, Bose’s mathematical and statistical reasoning, which was different from established bodies of knowledge research programs, enabled him to provide new conceptual solutions to epistemological issues that scientists in the metropole struggled with, resulting in an acceptance of his works alongside Einstein’s as what came to be known as Bose-Einstein statistics.

Bose’s contemporary, Raman, also used the constraints placed on his cognitive processes by his peripherality to engage with the metropolitan scientific community. Dasgupta shows in chapter 7 how, in contrast to Bose’s rather sporadic and chaotic yet personal contacts with metropolitan peers, Raman adopted an institutional approach that involved building a research program in the periphery framed around research questions from an existing metropolitan research program. Nevertheless, through his research program, especially by offering solutions to research questions that perplexed several metropolitan scientific communities, Raman not only overcame limited agency and epistemological asymmetries with relation to the metropole, but also laid the foundations of a professional scientific community in India.

In chapter 6, Dasgupta tells the story of Saha, who developed a new theory of stellar spectra by combining his readings of German scientific journals and his engagement with Einstein’s quantum theory of light. Through a detailed examination of Saha’s crucial contributions to the emerging discipline of astrophysics that combined insights from quantum theory and physical chemistry, the author extends our gaze from science as the domain of a few specialized experts to scientific thinking and practices of diverse people. Saha, who initially worked closely with Bose, established a trading zone with the European scientific community by devising and using radically new theoretical concepts, hypotheses, equations, and scientific practices that many of his European peers were still hesitant to accept. In the process, Saha provided his European peers a core set of theoretical and analytical concepts in modern astrophysics to develop their own research questions while also making himself a part of a resource-rich community.

Finally, in chapter 8, Dasgupta takes us to postindependence India and the story of Ramachandran and his process of discovering the structure of collagen. In contrast to Bose or Raman, who began their scientific careers by building research programs based on critical readings of European scientific journals, Ramachandran was mentored, first in Bangalore and then in Cambridge, by recognized scientists. Ramachandran’s initial interactions with the metropole were also adversarial, involving conflicts in structural biology with the findings of Alexander Rich and Francis Crick. However, his discovery of the triple-helix structure of collagen, the author argues, was a case of a peripheral scientist establishing himself as an expert against his metropolitan peers, which eventually set the foundations for future studies on nuclear magnetic resonance in India.

Overall, in looking at the scientific practices and innovations of peripheral protagonists through the cognitive-philosophical-historical analytical framework, Dasgupta shows us how the peripheries were often productive places of scientific inquiry and produced new ideas and knowledge not just for the metropolitan centers of scientific practice, but also for their own pursuits of building scientific networks and institutions. Dasgupta very skillfully goes into great detail and places the reader in the same physical and mental spaces as Bose, Raman, Saha, and Ramachandran as they work through some of the most complex scientific problems of their time. The only complaint I had with the book, however, was with the editorial choice of splitting the book into two sections. The first section and its four chapters occasionally become quite repetitive in making similar arguments for Dasgupta’s CPH model of analysis. Merging the four chapters would have ameliorated some of these repetitions and allowed the reader to quickly traverse the dense theoretical frameworks to the chapters in the second section that form the core substance of the book. Similarly, given how crucial the scientific protagonists discussed in the latter chapters were to peripheral science, they are portrayed almost as lone geniuses, without much attention to the networks within the periphery through which they attained the knowledge and skills required to solve the scientific issues at hand. The very fact that Dasgupta tells her protagonists’ stories primarily on the basis of their cognitive processes means that, in spite of some personal and institutional contexts, the book inevitably misses out on placing the peripheral scientists within the larger social, cultural, and political environments where they lived and worked. Such an approach might have enriched and complicated not just the CPH framework, but also our understanding of the ideas, institutions, practices, networks, and individuals central to the very definition of scientific “creativity from the periphery.”

Creativity from the Periphery is, nevertheless, a valuable addition to the history and philosophy of science. While it focuses solely on individuals from colonial and postcolonial India, Dasgupta’s novel approach can be adopted and extended to case studies on creativity from other peripheral contexts. Towards the end of the introduction, Dasgupta writes about the intended audience of the book. The book is written with philosophers and historians of science in mind, but it will be useful to more than just scholars and academics. Dasgupta hopes that it will also interest both the general reader and, she adds, “the generations of creative young researchers who are now at work in various emerging contexts of science” (p. 10). I, too, hope that wider audiences read this excellent book, and believe it will greatly benefit those working in the development and administration of science policies not just in what the book terms as “the periphery,” but also globally.

[The above from H-Net is reproduced here under a Creative Commons License]

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