What is cosmopolitanism? Why is it important to science?

In short, “Cosmopolitics” (Stengers 2009, 2011, Cheah and Robbins 1998) is the study of the meaning and methods of science in circulation – historically, philosophically and politically. Science’s very cosmopolitanism is its way of being local while always reaching beyond borders.

Science, and its associated technologies, we are assured, are by their very nature “universal” (e.g. Pyenson 1993). Yet, as it is also been claimed, modern science traces its origins to Europe during a period of Europe arising as an intellectual and imperial global force. Science retains signs of supposed “Western” values and birthmarks, and also claims related birthrights (Basalla 1967; Nandy 1988; Huntington 1996). It is, then, at once “parochial”. We find both critics (Nandy) and supporters (Huntington) of science and “modernity” sharing this same dual-faced perception of science, a perception around which many of the major conflicts and grinding issues of modernity and “globalization” turn. Critics of “globalization” have long noted the inequity of power relationships in the movement and transference of knowledge: a disproportionate “centre” dominating and eclipsing a marginalised periphery, or “subaltern” (Spivak 1999, Nandy 1988, Goonitalake 1984, cf. Mukerji 1989, Harrison and Johnson 2009, Anderson 2002, McNeil 2005, Alvarez 2011). Yet, even this impassioned critique rehearses the “received” view of a European origin of science that disseminates knowledge, especially natural knowledge, unidirectionally from centre to periphery.

This idea of a unilinear centre/periphery model of culture and political engagement is now being radically challenged within sociology, political theory, history, and literature. Europe is being “provincialised”, and the unilinear is being replaced by a more nuanced idea of continuous cultural “exchange” and “contact”, at least within culture and politics (see Rose 1999, Rajan 2006, Reardon 2011, Hayden 2011, Hoppers 2011. Ghosh 2010, Chakrabarty 2000, Sen 2005). The same needs to be done for science, the very hard core of the centre/periphery model.

Recent research and scholarly sentiments in STS/HPS have prepared the way to re-evaluating this received imperial view of science – on the one hand, by rescuing the crucial importance of the so-called periphery’s own achievements in science (Bala 2013; Needham 1954-2005, Arnold 2000, Chattopadhyaya and Kumar, eds 1985-2010), and on the other hand, by envisioning science in its structural growth and proliferation as a much more multifaceted, multicultural network of exchange and negotiation between locals, regions, cultures and practices (e.g. Raj 2006, Günergun and Raina 2011). Recently these two hands have come together by rescuing notions of the importance of the local and “local knowledge” within multiple exchanges. These exchanges are utterly crucial to non-European engagements with science and also the so-called “Western” engagement with the non-European. The landscape of exchange and the openness to the unfamiliar represent a “cosmopolitan” view of science that mitigates both our primae facie received notions of univocal universalism plus our deeply held epistemological and socio-political models of centre/periphery dissemination and hegemony. In this view, science and technology are a long product of exchange, translation and circulation, locally and globally (Raina 2012e). They have always been “cosmopolitan” and worldly, even while deeply linked to the local (Schaffer et al 2009) and lacking one absolute centre or god’s-eye “View from Nowhere” (Rouse 202, Golinsky 2005, c.f. Nagel 1989). The history of science is going global in remarkable and “circular” ways (e.g., Nappi 2013, special “Focus” section on “global history of science, ISIS (March 2013)).

Scholarship in STS/HPS is now examining what has been called the “circulation of scientific knowledge” – the movement of knowledge between multiple engaged centres (Secord 2004). In “circulation”, the accumulation of knowledge occurs through continued exchange and translation, rather than through supplanting and supplication. Science moves along both intellectual and actual trade routes, meeting and collaborating in what has been called “trading zones” (Galison 1997), and fostering multiple engagements with multiple enterprises. Every encounter is, significantly, a “translation” (Sarukkai 2012, 2013) within a “cosmopolitical” landscape. The term “cosmopolitics” is borrowed from Kant’s hopeful modernist notion of perpetual peace and modern civil society (Kant 1784), imagining shared political, moral and economic spaces within which trade, politics and reason get conducted, albeit fostered in uneven landscapes of power and colonialism (Beck 2006; cf. Himmelfarb 1996, Latour 2004). Social theorists and especially STS/HPS scholars have recently refashioned the term to introduce the possibility of a science that, like cultural cosmopolitanism, transcends borders, reductions and untranslatability of meanings (what we used to call “incommensurability” (Kuhn 1996)), and that especially transcends old centre/periphery dichotomies. It imagines entangled non-hierarchical modes of co-existence (Stengers 2009, 2011), albeit within landscapes of uneven power. The results have significant implications for the way we understand science, both its methodologies and its social place.