Unity & disunity of theory and practice in research on economically significant species


Anastasia Fedotova, St. Petersburg Branch of the Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Russian Academy of Science
Staffan Mueller-Wille, University of Exeter
Marina Loskutova, National Research University Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg campus


The panel will be devoted to economically significant species as research objects and their impact on research agendas, methods, strategies, and institutional frameworks in natural history and biology. The topic is deliberately conceived as a very broad one that could potentially encompass a vast array of disciplinary fields within the life sciences. The panellists will consider research on such objects as crops, officinal plants, domesticated animals, fish and wildlife game species, insect pests, and species transmitting contagious diseases.
It makes sense that economically significant species have always enjoyed better chances to become privileged research objects; however, there are numerous examples also when some of these species remained under-researched for a long time. The economic, ecological or medical significance of a given species may considerably vary from one national or regional context to another and from one point of time to a different century or decade. Technological changes, in particular, would inevitably lead to enhancing the importance of some species that previously never attracted focussed attention, while other species would cease to be treated as a valuable resource or commodity deserving such attention. Geographic location and economic conditions exercise a powerful influence upon what counts as a biological resource, and thus might affect the making of specific institutional, regional or national traditions and ‘schools’ within specific fields of study. The focus on economically significant species may have provided a convenient strategy to legitimise and enhance the credibility of a particular research agenda in the eyes of academic administrations and private and public sponsors. But even if the choice of some of these species as principal research objects was thus often pragmatically motivated, it could still lead to substantial changes in the institutional and methodological landscapes of science. In earlier periods in the history of life sciences, for example, local agents – farmers, craftsmen and entrepreneurs, hunters and healers, etc. – would usually have had vastly more substantial experience in dealing and working with a specific species than travelling naturalists who produced first scientific accounts of these species. Growing awareness of the economic importance of such species by the state would thus have pressured metropolitan scholars into changing social and institutional arrangements to tap into these knowledge sources at the periphery, forcing them to leave their familiar environment and relocate to new, often challenging and potentially dangerous milieus. At the same time, knowledge gathered in this way needed to be reported back and systematized, often causing major changes in the material culture and publication regimes of science. By looking at the history of research on economically significant species, we hope to arrive at a better understanding of the entangled histories of supposedly ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research in different regions of the globe and what unites and separates different national and regional traditions in the history of the life sciences from the early modern period to the present.

Contact email

Anastasia Fedotova

Deadline for paper submission

December 01, 2017