The study of work is flourishing in a corner of our discipline where few readers of Labor tread. In recent years, historians of science have begun to think about “science in action”: that is, science as constituted by, and constituent of, work. Much of this work is situated in sites that aren't conventionally identified as “scientific” and carried out by actors who are not conventionally viewed as “scientists.” Historians of science have turned their attention, for example, to the infrastructural labor that supports research, asking who carried the intrepid geologist's suitcases, washed the chemist's glassware, or watched the kids so that someone else could have an “aha” moment at the microscope. So too have they trained their focus on the scientific work done by distillers to develop product substitutions that evaded excise duties, by shipyard managers who introduced new standards to compartmentalize “mental” and “manual” labor, and by miners at Potosi who developed new ways to extract silver from ores. Historians of science have credited artisanal and agricultural laborers with investigative/ constructive practices and forms of knowledge about the natural world that are more typically remembered as belonging to famous scientists and their “discoveries.” They have embedded Taylorist fantasies of workplace discipline in the broader evolution of the human sciences and created deep intellectual genealogies for the “scientific racism” that has historically structured who does a society's most backbreaking labor.1

Historians of science have done all these things quite effectively, albeit with only the loosest engagement with the prevailing scholarship in the field of labor history. Citations to Labor, International Labor and Working-Class History, and Labour/Le Travail are few and far between on the pages of Isis, History of Science, and other history of science journals. But of course, the conversational gap runs in both directions, and labor historians have generally steered clear of sites that are conventionally identified with science as locales for investigating worker resistance, class formation, and labor conflicts. With the exception of recent attention to the neoliberal university as fertile terrain for unionization, our field has not spent much time thinking about research as a job; about laboratories as workspaces; about the invisibilization of certain kinds of labor in the pursuit of particle physics, astronomy, or medicine; or about the deeply entangled presence of scientific work in networked sites of material production, ranging from plantations to factories, data centers, and power plants.2 The creation of the “worker” as an object of scientific inquiry has been a long-standing concern for labor historians studying the factory shop floor and the plantation, but labor historians have been slower to mobilize the insights of STS (Science and Technology Studies) scholarship to analyze regimes of workplace surveillance and regimentation.3 Similarly, labor historians have been less inclined to adopt the experiential research methodologies that have impelled historians of science to reconstruct laboratory instruments or get their hands dirty in pursuit of the tacit knowledge circulating in dyehouses, fields, and kitchens.4

In terms of instinct and sensibility, the two fields share a great deal. Each has vastly expanded its field of inquiry, such that the range of activities now understood as work or as science are numerous and capacious. Both fields recognize that “what counts” as work and science has always functioned both to reflect and produce power; in turn, contesting those definitions—historically and historiographically—is invariably political. Recent scholarship recognizes labor (in one case) and science (in the other) as performed, produced, and governed in a variety of settings by various practitioners across a spectrum of terms, and embedded within multiple political economies and ecological relationships. Scholars in both fields have explored the long process by which knowledge originating with artisans and laborers—embodied understandings of the natural world derived from toiling in a mine, tending to an orchard, or working at a kiln—came to be appropriated, codified, and claimed by gentlemen natural philosophers, statesmen, projectors, and, of course, managers.5 The two fields have common preoccupations around topics like automation and concepts like extraction, while the concurrent and contingent histories of the plantation, the factory, and the laboratory provide both with a shared terrain for ongoing research.6

Hoping to accelerate scholarly cross-fertilization between labor history and the history of science, this special issue of Labor stands alongside a special issue of History of Science and a dedicated “Focus” section in the journal Isis. These three coordinated publications emerged from a 2022 conference titled “Let's Get to Work: Bringing Labor History and the History of Science Together,” generously hosted by Philadelphia's Science History Institute. The robust response to the call for papers confirmed our sense of this conversation's potential, even as (sorry to say) self-identified labor historians responded in far smaller numbers than did historians of science. The three postconference publications have sought to channel scholarly energy in several directions. The Isis issue contains something of a manifesto for a “labor history of science,” urging historians of science to embrace the political dimensions of a project connecting the recovery of histories often labeled “hidden” to self-reflexive practices of community and care within the profession.7 The History of Science issue begins with a substantial historiographical survey, noting the deliberate marginalization of labor questions from twentieth-century scholarship on scientific activity and then plotting out present and future research pathways; the issue also contains research articles that run from the early modern period to the present and explore worksites ranging from colonial New England apothecaries to British munitions factories and Burmese oilfields.8

While this special issue of Labor invites a broad range of readers, it especially seeks to guide labor historians in three specific directions: to bring more of their scholarly attention to sites of scientific work, both traditionally and nontraditionally defined; to borrow more productively from the analytical frames and methodologies that inform recent work in the history of science; and to recognize scientific work as integrated with other forms of work and practiced by a broad range of actors almost everywhere that labor takes place. On the first matter, the classic “labor question” of who works for whom, on what terms, and to whose benefit applies to science as readily as to any other arena in which markets and states allocate resources and set the rules under which capital and labor interact. Scientific work has consistently reflected the global division of labor and its attendant political economies, whether we are speaking of the enslaved Ibo man collecting botanical samples under violent compulsion for a European naturalist in Suriname or the Pakistani chemist working for a US corporation on a special visa that might be eliminated in the next Congress. Labor history's recent attention to capital flight, labor migration, and regimes of border policing has an immediate applicability to the organization of scientific labor, its embeddedness in regimes of racial difference, and the larger question of whose knowledge and labor is “cheap” and whose is not. Similarly, labor history's older investments in the history of “deskilling” remain relevant for grasping the changing—and always overlapping—boundaries of mental and menial labor, especially in light of advances in computing, artificial intelligence, and robotics. As labor historians continue to explore class reproduction, economic stratification, and the struggle for workplace control, sites of science have a great deal to offer.

Three contributions to this issue highlight sites of scientific labor as fruitful spaces to explore major themes of labor history. A moderated conversation among five scholars whose research areas span trans-Siberian Russia, British New England and Jamaica, French colonial Senegal, and Hawaii considers the varieties of labor coercion operative in producing new botanical, medical, and geological knowledge in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Patrick Anthony, Jody Benjamin, Zachary Dorner, Nicholas Miller, and Kate Mulry shed new light on the interlocking dependencies and categories of difference that structured unfree labor more generally under imperialism, racial slavery, and state penal regimes. Their discussion also suggests the value of an earlier chronology to understandings of the more recent intersections of labor and science.

Later in the issue, Jonathan Victor Baldoza brings readers to Manila's Bureau of Science, where the hierarchical administration of scientific labor contributed to US imperial governance in the early twentieth-century Philippines. Science and the state both gravitated toward bureaucracies that shaped the nature and organization of research as well as working people's experiences under the conditions of empire. Baldoza's attention to “science as routine” is a powerful reminder that the mundane labor of preserving samples, maintaining equipment, and filing data constitutes an essential, if inglorious, dimension of knowledge production.

Marta Macedo situates the laboratory and the plantation in the same frame as she explores the transformation of São Tomé cocoa beans into Cadbury chocolates in the early twentieth century. The exploited labor of Angolan laborers made São Tomé into the world's foremost cocoa producer, but not without creating difficulties for English firms that prided themselves on their moral commitments. Cadbury's scientists provided a technical solution significantly less burdensome than policing labor recruitment in a Portuguese colony: new industrial food processing techniques that allowed Cadbury to source lower-quality beans from elsewhere without jeopardizing the confections that consumers found on store shelves. In this sense, a remote labor problem mobilized scientific activity thousands of miles away, the result of which was the further reconfiguration of global labor as cocoa farming took hold in Ghana. Macedo's essay also seeks to elaborate the “commodity history” genre with greater attention to the relationship of crop materiality to the organization of both labor and science.

Macedo's essay also points to a second goal of this special issue: to guide labor historians toward the analytical tools informing dynamic scholarship in the history of science and often embedded in the related field of STS. Macedo, for example, draws on the broader constellation of more-than-human frameworks that have proliferated in the wake of Bruno Latour's Actor-Network Theory several decades ago. Labor historians have encountered comparable moves in Thomas Andrews's Killing for Coal (2008) and other scholarship that sees history unfolding at (and through) the interaction of human and nonhuman agencies. Still, the insights of an expanded materiality remain to be fully explored with the field of labor history, especially relative to a materialist turn in the history of science that positions human, objects, instruments, and specimens in an epistemological feedback loop.9 Similarly, the theorization of maintenance and repair within the history of science and technology aligns with labor historians’ attention to reproductive labor but provides still-unfulfilled opportunities to think more critically at the intersection of work and sustainability.10 And insofar as the history of science provides a basis for historicizing work as an object of inquiry within the behavioral and social sciences, labor historians can better connect the institutionalization of new academic disciplines to the emergence of metrics that would transform skill, strength, and expertise into “human resources” and “human capital.”11

In their contribution to this issue, Salem Elzway and Jason Resnikoff revisit one of labor history's perennial topics: automation. Recognizing the idea of “automation” as a political claim rather than an objective description of reality (especially in light of the extent to which automation has not meaningfully diminished the amount of human work required for survival), they explore the ideological shield that “science” has provided to the claim that automation is inevitable. The article leans on the concept of technopolitics, an STS framework for understanding processes that mask political contingency vis-à-vis the presumptive irresistibility of “progress.”

Similar STS-informed understandings of systems and infrastructure inform Trish Kahle's article on the electrical grid in the 1970s United States. Kahle's conceptualization of “energy work” offers a mechanism for writing women's unwaged domestic labor into accounts of how (to put it colloquially) the lights stay on. Looking closely at the service area of the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company during the energy crisis, Kahle notes that the imperative of conservation fell heavily on housewives whose baking, vacuuming, and washing—that is, their labor of (re)production—were reimagined merely as consumption. As such, women's labor was not merely devalued but also subject to an indirect form of labor discipline in the service of the overall health of the power grid.

Finally, Sibylle Marti asks readers to think critically about the political possibilities of statistics in the context of labor activism. The transformation of labor into a statistically knowable entity has its own particular history over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, one entangled with the contested histories of statistics themselves. Some decades ago, Joan Scott alerted labor historians to the rhetorical character of statistical reports, and historians of science have devoted substantial attention to quantification as a mode of power.12 As Marti shows, efforts to measure the informal sector undergirded the efforts of the ILO to promote “decent work” globally. However, the definitions and metrics for capturing the scope of informality changed as such work became increasingly prevalent in industrialized nations. By tracing debates over national accounting standards, Marti reveals that the production of informal sector statistics was just as fundamentally political as it was technical, opening space for “statactivism” among advocacy organizations eager to expand or contract the boundaries of informality in the service of transforming public policy.

Finally, the six contributions reflect science's omnipresence, integrated with virtually every other form of work and workplace in highly consequential ways. In an influential recent essay, the historian of science Steven Shapin encourages us to look for the “embedded science” that, for example, “saturate[s]” almost every aspect of a fast-food restaurant, from the laboratory-derived chemicals that flavor the food to the HVAC system, the vandalism-resistant design of the seating, and the biodegradability of the packaging. Any local McDonald's, explains Shapin, “sucks in huge amounts of scientific and technical expertise.”13 This expertise is overwhelmingly produced in the business sector: twice as many scientific researchers, technicians, and engineers are employed in private enterprise as in education (including universities) and government. In this sense, while labor historians should most definitely bring their analytical insights to the kinds of academic research so readily understood as science (a labor history of oceanography, anyone?), they must also recognize that “science-ing” is unfolding in almost every place where people labor and, accordingly, must read working people's experiences and political possibilities more generally as infused with and shaped by science in all its many instantiations.

Notes

7.

Hui, Roberts, and Rockman, “Let's Get to Work,” with contributions from Gabriela Soto Laveaga, Harun Küçük, and Laura Stark.

8.

Roberts, Rockman, and Hui, “Science and/as Work,” with contributions from Zachary Dorner, Duygu Yildirim, Patricia Fara, Gadi Algazi, Chao Ren, Juyoung Lee, Patrick Anthony, Juliana Broad, Xan Chacko, and Judith Kaplan.

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