Science, Capitalism, and Knowledge Commodities

This working group invites scholars to think about knowledge creation through the analytical lens of capitalist extraction. Why capitalist extraction in particular? Because scientific extraction often occurs on account of the logic of the market and then yields materials refined according to that same logic. This market can be economic, in the case of bio-pirated pharmaceuticals, or intellectual, in the case of the search for dark matter. Historians and sociologists of science have in recent decades insisted on the materiality of scientific knowledge. An emphasis on practices, places, and material cultures have brought knowledge out of the aether and into the hands of laborers, technicians, scientists, and lay practitioners carrying out their actions in concrete settings. Thinking of knowledge in terms of resources or raw materials refined into commodities takes a further step in this direction. Resource extraction opens up questions about the means and social conditions, sometimes in a colonial context, of knowledge production. Refinement sheds light on continuums between the land and the lab, and on the technological systems required to process observations into a final product.

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Participants at Consortium activities will treat each other with respect and consideration to create a collegial, inclusive, and professional environment that is free from any form of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

Participants will avoid any inappropriate actions or statements based on individual characteristics such as age, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, nationality, political affiliation, ability status, educational background, or any other characteristic protected by law. Disruptive or harassing behavior of any kind will not be tolerated. Harassment includes but is not limited to inappropriate or intimidating behavior and language, unwelcome jokes or comments, unwanted touching or attention, offensive images, photography without permission, and stalking.

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Upcoming Meetings

  • Tuesday, October 24, 2023 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EDT

    Claire Votava - Doctoral Candidate, UCLA - in conversation on radicalism in 20th century science.

  • Tuesday, November 28, 2023 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EST


  • Tuesday, January 23, 2024 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EST


  • Tuesday, February 27, 2024 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EST


  • Tuesday, March 26, 2024 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EDT


  • Tuesday, April 23, 2024 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EDT


  • Tuesday, May 28, 2024 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EDT


Past Meetings

  • September 26, 2023

    "The American Tractor Unit and Agricultural Reconstruction of Soviet Russia, 1921-23."
    Maria Fedorova, Macalester College
    The October Revolution inspired a wave of foreign migration to Soviet Russia. In the early 1920s, some Americans immigrated to Soviet Russia in search of an ideological refuge, better pay, and out of solidarity with its revolutionary ideals. Among this number, some answered the call of the Soviet authorities to help the newly formed state in its quest for industrial and agricultural reconstruction.  Inspired by the rhetoric of the October Revolution and the new opportunities for agricultural experiments offered by the Soviet state, these Americans traveled to aid the Bolsheviks in reforming the Soviet countryside. In turn, the Soviet state, beset with a farm crisis, peasant resistance, and the Volga famine in the early 1920s, accepted this help and encouraged the influx of foreign specialists, hoping that foreigners would provide valuable expertise in modern agriculture and technological assistance. Among these ventures was that of Harold Ware, whose spring 1922 initiative sought to bring a tractor unit to Soviet Russia in order to assist agricultural reconstruction.

  • May 23, 2023

    Anna Graber (Assistant Professor, Program in History of Science and Technology, University of Minnesota) will share her recent publication “Depicting Expertise and Managing Diversity in the Urals Mining Industry (1773-1818)," introduce her book project, “Tsardom of Rock: The Earth and Its Meanings in Enlightenment Russia,” and lead the group in a discussion of additional readings on knowledges of extraction in eighteenth-century Russia.

    The following two papers are attached in a zip file:
    1. Anna Graber, “Depicting Expertise and Managing Diversity in the Urals Mining Industry (1773-1819),” in Picturing Russian Empire, ed. Valerie Kivelson, Sergei Kozlov, and Joan Neuberger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2024), 156-163.

    2. Ryan Jones, “Promyshlenniki, Siberians, Alaskans, and Catastrophic Change in an Island Ecosystem,” in Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741-1867 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 60-101.  


  • April 25, 2023


  • March 28, 2023

    Kelley Wilder (Professor of Photographic History, Director of the Photographic History Research Centre, and Director of the Institute of Art and Design at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK) will share her paper titled "Photographic Commerce and the Venus Transits in Britain" on March 28th. Here is the abstract:

    In 1874 and to a lesser extent 1882, photography entered into the heart of preparations and execution of the Venus Transits. For the British Transits, this meant engagement with the nascent photographic industry to procure and produce sufficient photographs, of sufficient quality. At the heart of the British photographic attempts was William de Wiveleslie Abney, an author and chemist at the very heart of British photography. This paper investigates the networks of commerce linked through Abney and his colleagues, showing how British Astronomical endeavours were patterned by the emerging economy of photography.

    Kelley's paper (working version) is now available.
    You can learn more about Kelley's work at:

  • February 28, 2023

    On Tuesday, February 28 at 2pm Eastern, Albert Park, who is the Bank of America Associate Professor of Pacific Basin Studies at Claremont McKenna College will share his paper "Extracting Nature in Colonial Korea: Integrative Mapping through Agricultural Science." Here is the abstract:
    How was human authority over the non-human world emphasized and strengthened during the Japanese occupation of Korea through agricultural science? What scientific mechanisms of mediation emerged and altered the rhythms and patterns of nature, especially in conditioning the potential energy of nonhuman life? What is the relationship between science and imperialism in the modern world? This presentation examines the intersection between the capitalist modernization of agriculture in colonial Korea, the pathways of science to extract and reconfigure colonial bodies and landscapes as a way to align them with new systems, and the meaning of destruction on the Korean peninsula. It looks at these themes through a reading of The Suwŏn Agricultural Experiment Station, which was one of the largest agricultural stations in Imperial Japan. In so doing, this presentation explores the relationship between science, authority, and systems in the modern world.
    You can learn more about Albert's work here:
    You'll find the paper and a set of questions for your reading from Albert attached in a .zip file

  • January 24, 2023

    Lukas Rieppel, who is David and Michelle Ebersman Assistant Professor of History - Brown University, will lead the group in a discussion that looks at the development of the field since the publication, back in 2018, of Osiris Volume 33, "Science and Capitalism: Entangled Histories."
    To look at the state of things in the present, Lukas has shared this piece that he's working on, "Earth Science and Extractive Capitalism in the Age of Empire." This will be our primary reading for the discussion. Those who'd like to reacquaint themselves with the introductory essay from Osiris 33 certainly may do so as well.  You can find both the recent piece as well as the introductory essay in Osiris 33 attached in a zip file.
    For more on Lukas's work, see:

  • November 22, 2022

    Anthony Greco (Doctoral Candidate - University of California, Santa Barbara) will lead our November discussion. His talk is titled "Engineering on Trial: The 1920 Nile Projects Controversy and the Flow and Friction of Scientific Data."
    Abstract: A question of circulation has long structured approaches to the history of science across diverse world regions. Scientific knowledge production facilitated both exchange and opposition between cultural barriers. In 1920, the Nile Valley was the scene of a debate between Egyptian and British engineers over competing systems of hydraulic measurement. The controversy offers a fresh perspective on flows and frictions of scientific knowledge. Experts on all sides proffered evidence from a variety of sources, from current meters, gauge-flow charts, and sluice gate readings to interviews with peasants and even medieval Arabic chronicles. This paper explores the controversy though technical reports, political speeches, journalistic articles, public lectures, correspondence, and exhibitions in Arabic and English. By putting hydraulic engineering on trial, the controversy offers a view of “science in action” revealing how the flow of hydraulic measurements from the river bank to the Public Works Ministry encountered the friction labor, language, and the limitations of British imperialism.  


    You can learn more about Anthony's research here:

  • September 27, 2022

    Christopher Jones (Arizona State Unversity) will lead the group in a discussion of the introduction to his upcoming work. The chapter, titled "The Invention of Infinite Growth," considers how the concept of infinite economic growth has shaped political thinking in the US and how it has exacerbated some of the most daunting ecological challenges associated with the anthropocene. We look forward to a lively conversation on this timely matter!
    For more of Christopher's research, you can check out his webpage:
    or his page at ASU's Global Institute of Sustainablity and Innovation:
    Please direct any questions about the meeting to:
    Joshua McGuffie:
    Eun-Joo Ahn:
    Lee Vinsel:

  • May 24, 2022

    24 May 2022
    2pm to 3:30pm Eastern
    Robin Scheffler, MIT, will present an exciting essay titled "Biotechnology and the Urban Geography of Knowledge Production." This piece grows out of research for Robin's forthcoming book, Genetown: The Greater Boston Area and the Rise of American Biotechnology.
    You can check out Robin's work here:

  • April 26, 2022

    Hello all!
    Due to circumstances outside of their control, our April presenter will not be able to share a paper. Since we still have the meeting time alotted, we conveners are hoping to have a group discussion with everyone who's interested in the future direction of the reading group.
    We might talk future directions, interesting topics, and what's next. Are there any speakers who it would be good to invite to the group? Any focused historiographi conversations that could be fruitful? Any timely topics?
    We'll meet over zoom at 2pm EDT on Tuesday 26 April.
    All the best,
    Eun-Joo Ahn, Josh McGuffie, and Lee Vinsel

Group Conveners

  • eunjooahn's picture

    Eun-Joo Ahn

    Eun-Joo Ahn is a postdoctoral associate at the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. She is interested in mid-twentieth century transnational science from the sociocultural perspective of Korean American scientists. Her dissertation examined the founding and development of Mount Wilson Observatory, an astronomical observatory located near Pasadena, in relation to Southern California's sociocultural and natural environment during the early twentieth century. She holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of California Santa Barbara and a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Chicago.


  • joshnickmc's picture

    Joshua McGuffie

    Joshua McGuffie earned his PhD from UCLA in 2023. He is an adjunct professor at Occidental College in the Urban and Environmental Policy Department and at Moorpark College in the History Department. His research focuses on environmental health and state projects, particularly looking at the work of the Manhattan Project's Medical Section during World War II and the high modernist Cold War. Joshua also serves as a parish pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, currently at the Church of Hope in Santa Clarita, CA.


  • leevinsel's picture

    Lee Vinsel

    Lee Vinsel studies human life with technology, with particular focus on the relationship between government, business, and technological change. His first book, Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in July 2019. Since 2015, with his collaborator Andy Russell, Vinsel has organized and led The Maintainers, a global interdisciplinary research network that examines maintenance, repair, and mundane work with technology. Vinsel’s work has been published in several major history journals and has appeared in or been covered by Aeon, the New York Times, The Atlantic, Guardian, Le Monde, and other popular outlets.



  • Claire Votava


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