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.
Group Conveners
Eun-Joo Ahn
Joshua McGuffie
Lee Vinsel
Claire Votava

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Upcoming Meetings

There are no currently scheduled upcoming events.

Past Meetings

  • May 29, 2024

    Lee Vinsel, Virginia Tech

    The Social Aesthetics of Problem-Selection in Science and Technology
    I dedicate this talk to the late historian and philosopher Ann Johnson, who I conversed deeply and imagined doing a collaborative project with about these themes and who I and many others miss dearly. The question of how scientists, engineers, and others choose the topics they do is one that runs throughout the history, sociology, and economics of science and technology, including classic works by Boris Hessen, Robert Merton, Thomas Kuhn, Thomas Hughes, and Ann Johnson. In this talk, I want to explore how problem-selection can be brought into a more recent literature on social aesthetics, primarily put forward by the sociologist John Levi Martin. Social aesthetics, which builds on lines of thinking from gestalt psychology, American pragmatism, Russian activity theory, and field theory, particularly Pierre Bourdieu’s book, Distinction, examines how and why objects become attractive or magnetic to individuals. It can also be thought of as a sociology of attention and judgment - including how problems and other social objects are judged to be sexy, hawt, bodacious, and so on. After thinking through the intellectual background and theoretical picture of the social aesthetics of problem-selection, I will, first, turn to examples including technology bubbles, independent inventors, and corporate R&D labs. And, second, I will bring the state in and make explicit a picture more implicit in my book, Moving Violations, about how governments shape fields and attention to problems through a variety of mechanisms, ranging from conferences to funding research, from procurement to technology-forcing regulations. I will end by outlining a project that Ann Johnson and I imagined together: Using the conference proceedings of the Society of Automotive Engineers to examine how technical-problems from “riding comfort” to horsepower wars to catalytic converters to computerization became attractive to the society’s members over time.


  • April 24, 2024


  • March 27, 2024


  • February 28, 2024

    Ann Daly, Mississippi State University. Slavery, Dispossession, and Hard Money in the Southern Gold Rush, 1828-1860
    In the 1830s United States, hard money Democrats tried to remake money by waging a war against the national bank, the Second Bank of the United States. Georgia and the US Army dispossessed the Cherokee Nation of their lands east of the Mississippi River. And, the country’s first gold rush began in the Appalachian South. This paper argues for the convergence of these events, claiming that groups of highly skilled enslaved men and women mined gold in North Carolina and the Cherokee Nation. Domestic gold production by enslaved miners on indigenous land made it possible for hard money Democrats to imagine a new gold and silver-based federal currency system that would liberate the country from its dependence on banks and paper money. As such, federal officials and politicians brought material support to the mining industry in the name of economic reform. The result was a new financial system in which the federal government made money, in part, from southern gold.

  • January 23, 2024

    Sajdeep Soomal, Doctoral Candidate, University of Toronto, Alles ist Chemie: Lyon Playfair and the Chemicalization of Economy

    This essay looks at how the emergence of synthetic chemistry in the mid 19th century changed the way that economy was conceptualized and governed. No longer would the “economy of nature” be conceptualized as a closed system comprised of natural forces living in perfect harmony and balance, but rather be understood as an open-ended and unbalanced economy brimming with wayward, unstable and dangerous chemical processes that desperately needed to be scientifically governed for the sake of protecting and securing human life. To save European civilization from the perils of chemicalized nature, a new economic agent emerged in the nineteenth century to provide vital aid: the deliberative chemist. To unfurl this story about chemistry and economics, I follow the life, activities and deliberations of the organic chemist Lyon Playfair from the 1830s to the 1850s, starting with the time of his budding interest in chemical philosophies of nature at the Medical College in Calcutta and its subsequent development in the modern chemical laboratories of Justus von Liebig before moving to his time as chief chemist of the Geological Survey of Great Britain and crowning appointment as Special Commissioner of the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. 
    Following Playfair helps to reveal how synthetic chemistry proffered a new way of looking at nature that prioritized studying the chemical processes of organic substance (de)formation, rather than focusing too heavily on the chemical constituents of substance. This shift from chemical ontological study to chemical phenomenology lent itself well to thinking about all kinds of production (from agricultural to industrial production) in terms of chemical principles. Playfair and other synthetic chemists actively worked to unify all economic production under the umbrella of chemistry, identifying its key components – time, labour and substance – as chemical, rather than mechanical, processes. More than physics and mechanics; it was the abstract principles of chemistry that promised to reveal how nature worked and equip civilized, European man (who alone had evolutionarily developed the requisite mental facilities to understand chemical principles according to Playfair) all the necessary material-semiotic tools to render the earth more economically productive. Chemistry played a foundational role in the denaturalization of the economy, rendering “economy of nature” in abstract terms and governing it according to speculative chemical principles rather than empirically observable facts. I argue that this functioned as a pre-cursor to the development of neoclassical economics in the 1870s, where Playfair’s intellectual progeny such as William Stanley Jevons would attempt to govern “the economy” based on the abstract principles of mathematical physics (that were built off the insights of physical chemistry). In that way, returning to Lyon Playfair helps to reveal the entwined birth of synthetic chemistry and neoclassical economics, historicizing a critical node in the development of science and capitalism in the 19th century. 

    Sajdeep Soomal is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on science and technology studies, histories of colonialism, empire and liberalism, and contemporary art practice. He is currently writing about the history and philosophy of chemistry in Canada and working with artists to re-imagine, play with and alter our synthetic surround. He is affiliated with the Technoscience Research Unit at the University of Toronto. 
    Personal Website:

  • November 28, 2023

    Tiago Saraiva, Drexel University, will lead a discussion on a chapter in his upcoming book: Decaying Oranges and the Reconstruction of American Democracy. You can find the abstract below and we will post the chapter here on the group page before the meeting at 1pm Eastern on Tuesday the 28th of November.
    (Chapter two of The Orchard in the Ruins: Cloning and Racial Capitalism in America and the Global South)
    This chapter explores agricultural surveys as experiments in scientific democracy in the United States during the early twentieth century. Surveys were designed to sustain communities of fruit growers celebrated across the country as exemplars of reconstructed democratic life after the Great Depression of the 1890s. Scientists like Liberty Hyde Baily and G. Harold Powell did not take Americans as objects of social scientific inquiry to be uplifted by progressive policies. Instead, working with the growers they surveyed, Powell and Bailey made them part of the process of scientific truth making; they made them into scientific democrats. The study undertaken here of the Southern California citrus cooperative demonstrates that science produced more than American citizens well adapted to reconstructed capitalism; It produced white scientific democrats and workers of color, the constitutive elements of a new form of racial capitalism.
    You can find a copy of the chapter, please do not quote or circulate it.

  • October 24, 2023

    Claire Votava - Doctoral Candidate, UCLA - Science and Work: British Radicalism and Social Responsibility in Science
    In the late 1960s, prominent British scientists and activists formed the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. The BSSRS was part of a growing radical movement in science, with roots in the ideologies and practices of radical science in the 1930s. Initially led by Nobel Prize winner Maurice Wilkins, the BSSRS included numerous other distinguished scientists, such as J.D. Bernal, Sir William Lawrence Bragg, and Dorothy Hodgkins, among its members. In particular, the group engaged with a wide range of topics, including a critique of the role of science and technology in contemporary capitalism, informing workers of environmental hazards in the workplace, and the democratization of science. As the years went on, factions began to emerge within the BSSRS—some seeing the group as too radical, others seeing establishment members as evidence of overly-conservative elements. As a result, other groups developed beyond the BSSRS, establishing a broad and varied radical science community in the United Kingdom. The Women and Work Hazards subgroup of the BSSRS, active between 1977 and 1990, sat at the intersection between gender and class in the British radical science movement—providing a space for female workers to express their fears about workplace hazards and experiences with infertility. By honing in on the WWHG, we can better understand the radical critique of science and capital, the experience of anxiety in the midst of technological and scientific change, and imagined alternatives.

  • 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