Are We Ready to Recast the History of Science? Towards a Global Narrative

20 May 2009, 09:45 - 17:00


Convenor: Dr Sujit Sivasundaram  

There has been a growing body of work in the history of science which seeks to reposition ideas, knowledge and science in world history. Scholars are stressing a range of scales: the global, the regional, the local, as useful ones in making sense of the circulation, utilisation and reception of science. Non-European peoples are being brought into the narrative even as the world outside Europe is placed in sharper focus, in order to challenge the standard narrative of the European history of science. Yet this newly energised enterprise is being tempered with some serious methodological questions:

1. How do we widen the sources for the history of science and how do we deal with the scarcity of sources from a non-European perspective, for some periods and topics in particular?
2. How do we come to terms with the practical challenges of translation and contextualisation? Or in other words, how to do we communicate the findings of a less Euro-centric history of science to the wider field?
3. What do we make of the old strategy of 'reading-between-the-lines' of the colonial archive in order to recover indigenous voices? Should a less Euro-centric history of science use the colonial archive as its main source of evidence?
4. What is the most effective scale at which to write an account that takes account of the agency of non-European peoples in the history of science: the region, the continent, the ocean; the globe?
5. Is 'indigenous knowledge' a helpful label or not? How do we come to terms with its emergence and how do we periodise it? Is there anything that distinguishes different genres of scientific knowledge?

The five scholars who will present papers at this conference are new entrants into the discipline and have recently published or are working on their first books. Between them they cover South America, the Middle East, the Pacific, Africa and Asia from the early modern period to the twentieth century. Their papers will concentrate on methodology, and will be ‘think pieces’. The papers will be published in history of science’s research journal, Isis.

Speakers are: Marwa Elshakry (Harvard); Helen Tilley (Princeton); Shruti Kapila (Cambridge); Neil Safier (University of British Columbia); and Sujit Sivasundaram (London School of Economics).


Please address  administrative enquiries to

Are we Ready to Recast the History of Science? Programme

Location : CRASSH Date : 20 May 2009

Wednesday 20 May



Registration and coffee


Welcome and Introduction



Commentary by Simon Schaffer (University of Cambridge)

Neil Safier (University of British Columbia)
Forms of Mobile Knowledge: Itineraries and Epistemologies in the South American Context

Chair: Simon Werrett (Visiting Fellow, Washington University)


Shruti Kapila (University of Cambridge)
The Enchantment of Science in India

Chair: Pratik Chakrabartyi(University of Kent) 




Sujit Sivasundaram (London School of Economics)
Pluralising the History of Science

Chair: Tim Hochstrasser (LSE)


Marwa Elshakry (Harvard University)
Globalising the History of Science: Rethinking the History and Historiography of
Modern Science

Chair: Sadiah Qureshi (HPS, University of Cambridge)



Tea/coffee break 


Helen Tilley (Birkbeck College)
Global Histories, African Geneologies, and Vernacular Science, or, Is the History of Science Ready for the World?


Commentary by Jim Secord (University of Cambridge) followed by a discussion.