Reconfiguring the centre: The structure of scientific exchanges between colonial India and Europe

Minerva 34 (2):161-176 (1996)

The “centre-periphery” relationship historically structured scientific exchanges between metropolis and province, between the fount of empire and its outposts. But the exchange, if regarded merely as a one-way flow of scientific information, ignores both the politics of knowledge and the nature of its appropriation. Arguably, imperial structures do not entirely determine scientific practices and the exchange of knowledge. Several factors neutralise the over-determining influence of politics—and possibly also the normative values of science—on scientific practice.In examining these four examples of Indian scientists in encounters with their peers at the centre, exceptional scientists are seen in a social context where the epistemology of science supposedly describes its practice. Imperialism imposes practices and patronage, which moderate the exchange of scientific knowledge. But, at Level Two, the politics of knowledge and the patterns of patronage within it mediate exchanges between the centre and the periphery.The first step in reconfiguring exchanges between centre and periphery —in this case, between Europe and India during the period 1850 to 1930— is to recognise the relation between the acquisition of resources and the maintenance of legitimacy and identity.67 Political life is not confined to the core of political institutions.68 Second, in examining science as practised in the colonies, it is necessary to see stages of scientific institutions, whose development structures the exchange.From the encounter of Ramchandra and De Morgan, it is evident that the centre-periphery framework should be separated from the models of transmission embedded within it. The notion of “translation” helps to suggest that scientists bring personal motives and meanings to each encounter. Ramchandra, for example, sought a novel method of teaching Indians calculus, while De Morgan's interest lay in finding a place for algebra in a liberal education.The hierarchy inherent in the centre-periphery framework compels the conclusion that, at Level Two, the autodidact outside the institutions of science must have his work presented to scientists at the centre by authoritative figures from the centre. This is not mainly a question of imperialism, but rather of patronage. The peripheral scientist could not be granted direct entry into the collegial circle until his efforts at the periphery could be translated into the language and concerns of the central community. Ramanujan's enigmatic formulas were translated into the language of analysis by Hardy, which enabled the creation of a field to which Hardy was committed. Scientists from the periphery who were already part of the circle by virtue of their training, were not necessarily subject to the same degree of attestation as other scientists from the periphery. P.C. Ray, with his DSc from Edinburgh, and his position at Calcutta University, had less difficulty in winning the trust of colleagues at the centre, even when he returned to India. On the contrary, remaining at the periphery, he moved from a context of patronage to a sphere of competition. In addition, Ray's collegiality, even at Level Two, was more comprehensive, and connected him with Level One.Eventually, the professional Indian science graduate found collegiality within the international community of scientists. Saha's self-imposed progressive nationalism constrained his identification with the centre and made him a potential competitor instead. Once having achieved eminence in the world of science, C.V. Raman and Saha shifted their work to journals of physics published in India in order to further the cause of physics research in their own country.69To go beyond the limitations of the centre-periphery model, it is necessary not merely to examine exchanges between scientists functioning in a “shared epistemological universe”,70 but also to recognise the part played by institutions, the experience of colonialism, and the forms of patronage characterising both colonialism and science. Put another way, although there is relative epistemological autonomy within the disciplinary research communities of science, the interplay between knowledge and power structures this exchange.The scientific links between colonial India and Britain at the turn of the century were mediated by structures which prefigured change. Does structure determine all? If it does, we are left with an Orientalist reconstruction of the docile native, and a passive cultural medium into which science percolates. But this neglects the role of scientists in creating new structures within which they worked. A middle position—one more sensitive to the exigencies of colonial scientific life—would be one where the participants are seen not as the dupes of “structure nor the potentates of action”, but as occupying a ground between the two.71.
Keywords history of science  Ramchandra  algebra  India  scientific institutions  historiography
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DOI 10.1007/BF00122899
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Augustus De Morgan's Algebraic Work: The Three Stages.Helena Pycior - 1983 - Isis: A Journal of the History of Science 74:211-226.

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