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8.4 Social Sciences Applied Outside of Their Contexts: Migration and Translation

Science is believed to provide us with explanations of “things” that occur in the universe. Historically, science has evolved as a movement, independent from any religious or political authority, to explain things that are exclusively based on experience. Therefore, scientific laws and theories, particularly those relating to the natural sciences, are supposed to be universal. In other words, they must hold under the same environments and conditions. Their truth can be tested and confirmed through experiments. Scientists have been creating ideal sites for experiments such that “…the modern invention of the laboratory can be interpreted as a conscious effort to create a 'placeless' place to do science, a universal site where the influence of locality is eliminated.” [1] Not only laboratory inventions but also standardization of experimental instruments accelerates this placelessness. Such efforts by scientists lead to unified (or identical) understanding of scientific laws and theories.

Livingstone (2003) has proposed a view of the geography of science that raises questions about the universality of science. He states:

…Scientific theory evidently does not disperse evenly across the globe from its point of origin. As it moves it is modified; as it travels it is transformed. All this demonstrates that the meaning of scientific theories is not stable; rather, it is mobile and varies from place to place…[2]

From this perspective, “the appearance of universality that science enjoys, and its capacity of travel with remarkable efficiency across the surface of the earth, do not dissolve its local character.” [3] This perspective also questions the traditional view that science is an entity that is free of ideology and culture.

If we uphold the view that science is culture dependent, a framework based on globalization studies could be applied for understanding science. When a certain science is brought to a place outside of its original context, we can treat this as a migration. When a science migrates, or is imported, its carriers and users outside of its disciplinary context should translate and/or transpose it to match their natural and cultural environments. This then raises the question of what problems would accompany these translations. There are three possible problems that can occur. The first problem entails modification of meanings—sometimes taking the form of intentional mistranslation—to obtain functional equivalence. The second problem concerns alteration of an original concept when its corresponding concept does not exist and has to be approximated. The third problem relates to a mixing up of concepts with words derived from daily life.

Even in the social sciences, laws and theories have been supposed to be universal. However, there is a difference between the natural and social sciences. This relates to the procedures for testing and confirming the truth of laws and theories.

While the natural sciences apply experiments for such purposes, the social sciences use observations instead. By standardizing laboratory and experimental instruments, variations in experimental results can be reduced to some extent. Conversely, observed results are highly dependent upon the time, place, and the observer. Therefore, we have to examine whether or not the meanings of laws and theories of the migrated social science are the same as those of social science in its original context. Just as globalization does not directly imply standardization, being scientific does not imply analysis based on a value-free framework.

This situation parallels the controversy about the theory-ladenness of observation, which was first raised by Hanson (1958) in the context of the philosophy of science. Theory-ladenness of observation conceptually relates to a situation in which “Observation of x is shaped by prior knowledge of x.” [4] Applying this meaning, a migrated social science has the following feature: social science in y is shaped by the culture of its original context surrounding y. I denote this situation as the culture-ladenness of science.

As in globalization studies, an anthropological method such as ethnography is an effective method for checking whether or not a science is culture laden. This is because “the entities that social theories seek to explain are constituted by the analytical categories the field investigator imposes on local data.” [5]

  • [1] Livingstone (2003), p. 3.
  • [2] Livingstone (2003), p. 4.
  • [3] Livingstone (2003), p. 14.
  • [4] Hanson (1958), p. 19.
  • [5] Livingstone (2003), p. 48.
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