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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Upcoming Meetings

There are no currently scheduled upcoming events.

Past Meetings

  • 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

  • March 22, 2022

    Cyrus Mody, Maastricht University, will share his paper "Oil Spillovers and the Ambiguities of Scarcity in the Long 1970s"on Tuesday 22 March at 2pm Eastern. Here is the abstract:

    "The 1970s saw an intense global debate about resource scarcity and related issues: consumption, conservation, pollution, overpopulation. This debate was propelled by events such as publication of the Limits to Growth report and the UN Stockholm Conference of 1972, and especially the OAPEC oil embargo of 1973. From 1973 to 1979, the experience of car-free Sundays and long lines for petrol (temporarily) persuaded global publics that oil was a finite and scarce resource.
    There are many conspiracy theories - some of them plausible - about the oil industry's role in the embargo and in the scarcity debate more generally. What is certain is that people associated with the oil industry fostered that debate - from both the "cornucopian" and "neo-Malthusian" camps. Oil actors and oil firms were also surprisingly active in alternative energy in this period: most of the major companies and many of the minors had in-house programs and/or partnerships in nuclear energy (both fission and fusion), solar, geothermal, the hydrogen economy (batteries, fuel cells, and electric cars), biomass, etc. The windfall profits and political pressures arising from the oil crises of '73 and '79 also led oil firms to invest massively in non-oil technologies: biotech, artificial intelligence, semiconductor manufacturing, and even advanced golf club technology! Yet when the price of oil declined in the 1970s oil companies retreated from those investments and slowly turned to climate denialism as an alternative strategy.
    This talk surveys the oil industry's complex role in all kinds of technological activities (or "oil spillovers") throughout the 20th century, and the intensification of those spillovers in connection with the scarcity debate of the 1970s. I will further attempt to draw out some insights relevant to sustainability transition and innovation studies and to current debates about the oil industry's culpability for climate change."




    You can find Mody's webpage here:
    ...and more on his oil research here:

Group Conveners

  • eunjooahn's picture

    Eun-Joo Ahn

    Eun-Joo Ahn is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at University of California Santa Barbara. She researches on how astronomers in Southern California interacted with their physical and socio-economic environment at the turn of the twentieth century. Previously, she received her PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Chicago.


  • joshnickmc's picture

    Joshua McGuffie

    Joshua McGuffie is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of History at UC Los Angeles. He researches the doctors and biologists of the Manhattan Projects’s Medical Section. In this project, he focuses especially on the values and practices they developed to count and quantify radiation and its biological effects. His project analyzes how techniques and judgments worked out in the field unfolded socially, politically, and environmentally.For his MA at Oregon State University, he studied ecologists at Hanford. This research has taken him to nuclear installations across the western United States. He was once questioned by sheriff's deputies who were concerned that he had trespassed while taking photographs on the edge of the Nevada Test Site.


  • 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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