What a Life Means: The Uses of Biography in the History of Science

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Abstract Summary
Biography appeals to historians of science again, but perhaps not in a form that most biographers would recognize. There are now biographies of animals, of inanimate objects and of concepts, of institutions, of landscapes. This flourishing of biographies in recent decades can be seen as our discipline's reinvention of a genre that has been critiqued as naively theory-resistant, conservative, and useful at best as a pretext for contextualisation of scientific work. But this reinvention demands methodological reflection: does biography survive only as metaphorical shorthand, or does it serve historiographical purposes of its own? This panel offers four perspectives on the historiographical functions of the genre, both in its new incarnations and in its more traditional form of the story of a life told by someone else. Joan Richards and Daniela Helbig foreground biography's potential for understanding science as part of the meaning of a lived life, as long argued for by our commentator Ted Porter. In contrast, Roberto Lalli and Lily Huang investigate the historiographical implications of studying other entities in biographical terms: institutions and metaphors. Our shared aim is to examine the different functions of biography as an analytic lens, and to question when and why the framing of a narrative as a life can produce a distinctive historical insight.
Abstract ID :
HSS108
Submission Type
Chronological Classification :
Cultural and cross-cultural contexts, including colonialism in general

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