Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Science in Context (IL920)


The module asks questions like: What does it mean to ‘see’ evidence? What effects does visualising or counting data have on the kind of research questions asked – and the kinds of questions omitted in science and medicine? How does awareness of the limits or limitations of specific research methodologies determine research questions and objectives (for example, seeing plaques in the microscope determined dementia research for a century, leading to delusional symptomatology being neglected for many decades)? How do culture and society inform research priorities? How does the general public receive and deal with data, or concepts like evidence or truth? Finally, how are science and scientific methods represented in society – and why should scientists care about this?

The module attends to research areas, interests and methodologies across the natural, life and medical sciences, and will include four sessions featuring presentations from, e.g. analytical scientists, astronomers, scientists in engineering and statisticians. In addition, three sessions will explore cultural texts, including accessible life-writing and prominent documentary. Examples will be taken from, but do not remain exclusive to, research and research tools related to Alzheimer’s disease as a case study to explore the power, remit and limitations of specific methodologies. The module’s organising principle is historical, as it introduces methodologies chronologically, spanning the period from when first microscopic and visualisation methodologies became available, to the present day, when we see a strong fascination with big machine science.

Module Aims

The aim of the module is to sharpen awareness of how scientific research questions are embedded within and dynamically interact with a wider cultural context; it will broaden contextual knowledge of the long twentieth century in terms of the interplay between basic scientific, applied medical and wider cultural discourses.

Week 1: Paradigm shifts in scientific thinking

This week offers an introduction to the module. In group activities which foster appreciation of seminar teaching to those from degree backgrounds where this style is less familiar, the session will explore challenges to teaching across disciplines. It will explore what is to be gained from thinking more critically about the use, availability and limitations of specific research methodologies but not others. The session will also explore how paradigm shifts in scientific thinking happen, adducing Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to explore the role of textbooks and availability of equipment. Theoretical physicist P. W. Anderson’s landmark publication will help think through the relationship between disciplines.

Reading extracts from:

Anderson, P. W. ‘More is Different. Broken Symmetry and the Nature of the Hierarchical Structure of Science’. Science 177 (1972): 393–396.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Week 2: Platforms make science

This week explores the importance and power of platforms for communicating and sharing scientific ideas, including the role of journals and scientific societies and conferences. It will do this by closely reading Ian Hacking’s Rewriting the Soul: to explore the specific example of how the creation and build-up of the memory sciences changed how culture conceptualised a particular condition.

Reading extracts from:

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Clinic. An Archaeology of Medical Perception. 1973. Translated by A. M. Sheridan. London: Routledge, 2005. First published in French in 1963.

Hacking, Ian. Rewriting the Soul. Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Week 3: Visual evidence (1). The microscope and the telescope

With week 3, the module delves into methodological considerations, presentations by an electron microscopist and an astronomer challenging students to reflect on what is taken as data where a methodology ‘visualises’. The session will, inter alia, explore the role of artefacts and serendipity in microscopic studies. Following on from week 2, this session will reflect on the rapidly expanding array of visualising techniques available to the memory sciences during the 1880s (microscopy 1872, staining 1880, fixation 1897) and think through how their availability determined research questions. The session will rely on a key publication by Michael Lynch on the role of artifacts in visualising techniques.


Lynch, Michael. ‘Discipline and the Material Form of Images: an Analysis of Scientific Visibility’. Social Studies of Science 15 (1985): 37–66.

Berrios, G. E. ‘Alzheimer’s Disease: a Conceptual History’. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 5 (1990): 355–365.

Week 4: Science in the making. Shifting goals and interest groups.

Science does also happen in response to finances being made available for specific research themes. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, increasing societal and political awareness of demographic changes pushed for funding for research into diseases typical in old age during the mid-1970s. This session will rely on Bruno Latour’s Science in Action, to heighten awareness of how scientific activity can only fruitfully develop in a marketplace of ideas where ‘believers’ and ‘dissenters’ compete, and in negotiation with forces outside the laboratory. The session will also address the role of shifting goals and interest groups in scientific research.

Reading extracts from:

Katzman, Robert, ‘Editorial. The prevalence and malignancy of Alzheimer disease: a major killer’, Archives of Neurology, 33 (1976), pp. 217-218

Latour, Bruno. Science in Action. How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Week 5: Visual evidence (2). Message in a test tube

Week 5 attends to the rise of biochemistry in the 1960s. It takes assay chemistry as an example for how data processing is firm part of a creative process in scientific research; the so obtained outputs, for the scientist, remain for Latour and Woolgar, in direct relationship to ‘the original substance’. The session places these anthropological insights in the context of a prominently critiqued, accessible piece of life-writing, Jonathan Franzen’s essay ‘My Father’s Brain’. This will challenge students to think about how biochemical and pathological data acquisition and use can be seen as inflicting on identity and personhood.

Reading extracts from:

Franzen, Jonathan, ‘My Father’s Brain’. 2001. In How to Be Alone, 7–38. London: Fourth Estate, 2010.

Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life. The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Week 6: The taming of chance. Statistics and epidemiology.

This session explores the powers of and beliefs in statistics. It starts with a presentation by a statistician to explore the implications of ‘probability’ in big sets of data. The reading takes one of the most influential epidemiological studies undertaken in relation to Alzheimer’s disease (the Nun study) to think about the meaning of classification according to statistical evidence. The discussion will also include implications for future research of defining research problems based on statistical evidence.

Reading extracts from:

David A. Snowdon et al., ‘Linguistic ability in early life and cognitive function and Alzheimer’s disease in late life. Findings from the Nun Study’, Journal of the American Medical Association, 275 (1996), pp. 528-532.

Hacking, Ian. Rewriting the Soul. Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Peter J. Whitehouse with Daniel George, The Myth of Alzheimer’s. What You Aren’t Being Told about Today’s Most Dreaded Diagnosis (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008).

Week 7: Genes and genealogy.

This week attends to genetics research as an example of life and medical sciences that hold enormous truth value in culture and society. At the same time, this session takes, building on strategies learned in week 5, a more literary approach, looking at the impact of genetic testing (and the availability of genetic tests as such) on personhood and freedom, preparing the ground for a fuller reflection on how scientific research can influence the position of the individual in society.

Reading extracts from:

Pierce, Charles P. Hard to Forget. An Alzheimer’s Story. New York: Random House, 2000.

Rose, Nikolas. The Politics of Life Itself. Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Van Dijck, José. Imagenation. Popular Images of Genetics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998.

Zimmermann, Martina. The Poetics and Politics of Alzheimer’s Disease Life-Writing. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. (Wellcome Trust-funded open access).

Week 8: Big pharma, science and politics.

Following on from week 7 on the dilemma of genetics research outstripping the availability of pharmacological tools, this session looks at the close connection between science and politics, in particular questions of how pharmaceutical research (as representing one of the key collaborators outside the academy of natural, life and medical scientists) negotiates with hypes for cure and the need for long-term financing of high-risk projects. The session will look at sociologist John Abraham’s influential work on corporate bias, while considering from an industry perspective (including presentation) the challenges faced by pharmaceutical research in the tension between political, economic and societal expectations.

Reading extracts from:

Abraham, John. Science, Politics and the Pharmaceutical Industry. Controversy and Bias in Drug Regulation. London: University College London Press Ltd., 1995.

Week 9: Big-machine science.

Presentation by expert in high resolution imaging from a (medical) engineering perspective. This session will attend to the growing reliance on big machine science. It will explore the powers of such scientific approaches, but it will also attend to the phenomenon of how scientists themselves (as well as the wider public) believe in the ‘certainty’ conveyed in visible findings – related to the status attributed to large, expensive, complex technologies. It will explore the truth status assigned to data collected with such equipment.

Reading extracts from:

Joyce, Kelly A. Magnetic Appeal. MRI and the Myth of Transparency. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.

Van Dijck, José. The Transparent Body. A Cultural Analysis of Medical Imaging. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005.

Week 10: Visual evidence (3). Cognitive images in science and culture.

Expanding on weeks 7 and 9, this session explores the wider cultural repercussions of big science. It takes anthropologist Joseph Dumit’s influential text on imaging and personhood to study the effects on questions of personhood of PET or MRI imaging. It will look at how data is ‘created’ and made available for collection. The session will also attend to the filmic representation of big data and big science, in Terry Pratchett’s Living with Alzheimer’s, particularly the role of imaging science in such a cultural text. This session will close the module by reflecting more broadly on the truth value assigned to science, especially big-machine or nano-scale science.

Reading/Screening extracts from:

Dumit, Joseph. Picturing Personhood. Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Russell, Charlie, dir. Terry Pratchett. Living with Alzheimer’s. Aired 4 February 2009, on BBC Two. IWC Media, 2009. DVD. Available on youtube: and

Module Convenors

Dr Martina Zimmermann

When & Where

Tuesday 3.00 to 5.00 pm (term 2) SH2.05 (Senate House, 2nd Floor)


For 10 CATS

30% critical survey and annotation of materials that may form part of the final essay’s archive (700 words)


70% essay, i.e. critical review or reflection (1,500 words)

For 15 CATS

30% critical survey and annotation of materials that may form part of the final essay’s archive (700 words)

70% essay, i.e. critical review or reflection (2,500 words)

For 20 CATS

30% critical survey and annotation of materials that may form part of the final essay’s archive (700 words)

70% essay, i.e. critical review or reflection (3,500 words)