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  • Writer's pictureLu Xu

What is“RRR”: “Reconstruction” as a Research Method in the History of Science

The University of Amsterdam Press published a heavyweight new book, Reconstruction, Replication and Re-enactment in the Humanities and Social Sciences, in November 2020. This book brings together important scholars using "Reconstruction, Replication, Re-enactment" (after this referred to as RRR). The editor-in-chief and the author in charge of each chapter come from different disciplines, including the history of science, archaeology, art history, anthropology, musicology, and so on. They all regard "reconstruction, reproduction, and replay" as an essential method of historical research.

This post introduces "reconstruction" as a research method in the history of science.


All links in this post can be found in 1.7.8 Making and Knowing.



What is RRR?


"Reconstruction" can be traced back to the restoration research of artists or craftsmen in the 18th century. In recent years, archaeology has often used 3D modeling, VR, AR, and other digital technologies to reconstruct and simulate ancient buildings' material and cultural heritage. In 1979, John Coles published Experimental Archaeology and founded the discipline of the same name.


Replication is closely related to the study of the history of science. The study of the history of science was controversial in the 1970s about whether Galileo had done experiments. Finally, Tom Settle and James MacLachlan verified that Galileo's experiment was not an ideological experiment by reproducing. Therefore, opening the black box of technical knowledge has become a critical problem in the study of the history of science. h. Inspired by experimental archaeology in the 1990s, Otto Sibum also created a "history of scientific experiments."


However, "replication" has been less used in the study of the history of science, and the concept of "reconstruction" is preferred. "Reconstruction" refers not only to laboratory experiments but also to the exposition and extraction of historical texts, including how historical figures conceive materials and write, a critical reading method of historical manuscripts. The importance of reconstruction lies in the search for new historical information.


"Re-enactment" is a common way for musicology and anthropology to explore the relationship between authenticity, skill, and representation. For example, Mendelssohn's revival of Bach's music promoted the development of classical music in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the same time, visual anthropology used photography equipment such as cameras to return to and explore the fieldwork of people with national aspirations and the relationship between material, memory places, and images by "repetition."


The understanding of "repetition" can also draw lessons from William Dorey's explanation of Collingwood's "replay History in the chest of historians" (re-enactment of past experiences): "re-enactment" is a process of "seeing through," that is, the process of "understand," which can explain Corinwudd's "re-enactment."




Four Research topics of RRR

  1. Authenticity and accuracy: in the view of RRR practitioners, history researchers cannot fully reproduce the possibility of past and repair time. Still, they can be as close to accuracy as possible. The important thing is process Reconstruction (process reconstruction).

  2. "re" term: process or product ('Re-'terminology: process or product): "process" is the core keyword of RRR practice, but the reconstruction of the process is not simply to re-express the history of the process, but more importantly, the reconstruction of the material object, such as the repetition of musical instruments, needs to take into account the sound link. The process reconstruction of different disciplines will have other names, such as repetition, reprocessing, reconstruction, rewriting, etc.

  3. Communication and the public: RRR is not only a research method of various disciplines but also a way for them to contact the vast audience in classrooms, museums, or other public places, such as the digital reconstruction of museums in recent years, the publication of databases, and online exhibitions.

  4. Record the experimental process and challenges of RRR: RRR advocates the way of recording researchers' ideological geography by writing ethnography, and scholars find their inspiration by exchanging knowledge and experience of different disciplines.



The relationship between RRR and the History of Science


Hjalmar Fors, Lawrence M. Principe, and H. Otto Sibum, in their 2016 paper From the Library to the Laboratory and Back Again: Experiment as a Tool for Historians of Science, are vital for studying the history of science to reconstruct the historical environment and reproduce the experiment. They also point out the ambiguity and trouble of the concept of "replication" and advocate the use of "reconstruction" or "repetition" as the core concept. On the one hand, this aspect has been affected by the material turn since the end of the 20th century; on the other hand, it is also because "reconstruction" has been closely related to the history of science and technology research since the early alchemy.


Taking Lawrence M. Principe as an example, he is the authority to study the history of alchemy and the history of science. He introduced and translated his book Alchemy's Secret in China.


In the Secret of Alchemy, Lawrence M. Principe repeats the alchemy process in much of 17th-century literature through modern laboratories, observing and operating like early alchemists. The test proves that some experimental results can be realized even if they are incredible at first glance. Through the reconstruction experiment, Lawrence M. Principe refutes the claim that alchemy is only a product of imagination or is only a traditional circulation of literature at that time and uncovers the secret knowledge of alchemy (the study of alchemy and covert expertise can be viewed as "2.1.5 Secrets" in the Library of History of Science).


However, as a research method in the history of science, "reconstruction" has not been recognized and welcomed from the beginning. According to scientific knowledge (SSK), there are social, political, and other driving factors behind the seemingly objective idea of scientific experiments. If the scientists' experimental results are socially constructed, the same is true of historians' experiments. However, Hjalmar Fors, Lawrence M. Principe, and H. Otto Sibum still emphasize reconstruction as an important method in the study of the history of science. There are three main reasons.


One reason is that the process of "reconstruction" is an opportunity for historians to acquire perceptual knowledge and access various perceptual experiences, some of which will enhance, clarify or provide new insights into traditional texts and their meanings. Whether it is vision, color, breath, sound, feeling, or taste, it plays a significant role in chemistry and other scientific fields. However, these experiences are recorded because they are difficult to transmit by words or are not realized by the original experimenters and become a part of "tacit knowledge" (Tacit Knowledge). In addition to "tacit knowledge," "explicit knowledge" (Explicit Knowledge), which is recorded in words and images, may also be very different from the life experience of scientists, resulting in disconnection. Reconstruction, as a research method, is a better way to solve this problem.


The second important reason lies in the acquisition of "gestural knowledge": as a kind of practice and participation, the establishment of gestural knowledge is established by practitioners . This concept comes from H. Published in 2005 by Otto Sibum, who studied Victorian scientific reform in the UK. This paper emphasizes "first-hand knowledge" and "Les Gestes" in scientific experiments. What is "gestural knowledge"? Gestural knowledge includes tacit knowledge or personal knowledge, which can not be recorded and expressed by language.


Still, it is vital to the formation of empirical knowledge, but it also includes the conceptual understanding generated by cognitive activities. Sibum emphasizes that epistemology should not be separated from practice; knowledge should be physical and demonstrates the cognitive role played by the body of scientists in scientific activities. This knowledge enriches the transcendental cognition of historians, that is, historians' observation and thinking of text, so that historians can "see" in a way that is more in line with the original experimenters, reveal the source of text more deeply and accurately, and obtain the relationship between texts more sensitively.



The third importance of "reconstruction" is that it can attract public attention to the related research of the history of science through the interest in experiments and experiments. Historical repetition can enhance the image of the subject of the history of science in a larger population.


In 1999, Latour made an exhibition called "Laboratorium" for Hans Ulrich O'Brister. A series of lectures on "proof Theater." Proof Theater combines the theatrical nature of the theater with laboratory verification. Many science historians and scientists are invited to face the public in the room for a scientific demonstration to reconstruct the scientific experiment so that the public can move from unilateral acceptance of the experimental results to a closer approach to the investigation itself, a better understanding of the inherent functions of the laboratory and the process of producing the experimental results. The purpose of the reconstruction experiment is not to popularize science, nor to let the speaker publicize his latest developments, but to present to the public the difficulties faced by classical experiments in different disciplines in different periods and their impact on the results. The idea of "proof theater" was later used by Latour in his "Making Things Public" exhibition. Latour and Woolgar's "Laboratory Life: the Construction process of Scientific Facts" was translated and published in China. For more information, refer to the "2.4.1Laboratories" of the History of Science Library, which contains "Theatre of Proof" related materials.



Of course, many researchers in the history of science think it is impossible to reconstruct experience and reveal the tacit knowledge of the practitioners in the past. Even if people can go back to the past and rebuild historical experiments, the subtleties of the past have been lost forever. In response to this rebuttal, H. Otto Sibum argues that this research method tends to nihilism and that historians have neither the ability nor the obligation to replicate a historical experimental process fully.


As Hjalmar Fors, Lawrence M. Principe, and H. Otto Sibum emphasize "refactoring" or "replay" rather than "replication." What matters is the prefix "re-," that is, the process of doing it, not the result. Therefore, in addition to repetition and reconstruction, we can also consider "reconstruction," "reloading," "reprocessing," and other research methods. However, as a research method of the history of science, they have in common the tracking of the processes that lead to the generation of specific materials or specific knowledge demands. The ideal result is that reconstruction allows researchers to understand better the gaps in laboratory records, conscious concealment or unconscious omissions of the original experimenters, hidden knowledge, missing archival texts or objects, and so on.


RRR practice: the M &K project

What must be mentioned and recommended is the making and knowing project hosted by Pamela Smith, a famous historian of science. With the help of reconstruction experiments and collation of archival manuscripts, the M / K project has bridged the gap between science and humanities and explored the relationship between today's science laboratory and the past handicraft studio. There was originally an intersection of artistic production and scientific knowledge, but most of these fields are considered independent today. At that time, "manufacturing" was "understanding."


In February 2020, M ü K released the first edition of a digital academic school based around Ms. Fr. This unique manuscript, created in the 1580 French Renaissance, provides much first-hand information on the creative process of artists and scientists, including drawing instructions, pigment production, production of counterfeit gemstones, metal casting, animal and plant specimens, plaster and pulp preparation. Fax images, French transcripts, and English translations of the original manuscripts are available to the public through the website.




RRR practice II: instrument Research

Whether it is reconstruction, replication, or repetition, it is a research method that needs people to carry out specific operations. But another main line of RRR is the collection and reproduction of devices such as machines or instruments, including the collection history of objects.


P. Heering's paper Analysing unsuccessful experiments and instruments with the replication discusses experiments and instruments that were neither mass-produced nor accepted in the historical context at that time. They discuss two experimental cases related to the history of science that has not attracted much attention and success. It is worth mentioning that the "2.1.2 Failures failure" of the History of Science Library includes the study of the theme of failure and innovation in the narrative of the history of science.


The specific research method proposed by Heering can be divided into three steps: instrument reconstruction, experimental redo, and rethinking of how the experience of the first two stages is a background and placed in a broader social, cultural, political, or technical context. Hearing emphasizes that the first two stages are to describe the difference between the two stages more accurately and the traditional conclusion, while the third stage is to look at the original material from a different point of view which is also the advantage and significance of using the reconstruction method in the study of the history of science.



Related resource recommendation


In addition to the initial collection update 1.7.8, references can be made to 2.4.1Laboratories and 2.4.2 Sites of Collection.

In particular, the four topics of "Becoming Laboratory," "Theatre of Proof," "Domestic Laboratories," and "Laboratories of Art and Science" are distinguished in 2.4.1Laboratories.


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