Towards a new big picture of the history of science and technology 


The aim of this essay is to suggest the realization of a new big picture for the understanding of the historical process. In order to do so, the thesis of this work is that to have a new big picture historians have to focus on the material reality, tracking the geographies and the histories of technologies and their material elements. In favor of this thesis, the essay first presents a comparison between the “old” and “new” big picture, describing the issues related to it. From this, in section two, it is argued that four main points must be questioned with a focus on the material reality. In section three, conclusions are given. 

Old vs new big picture 

Stories are always related to a context, a bigger place in which the narration takes part. In this essay, this context is called big picture, and this is true for fiction as well as for history. The elements of this context are the values, the norms, and the concepts, in which a certain story takes place. History is a strange discipline, because even if it studies the past, something that cannot be changed, the way that it is analyzed is influenced by the present. We look to the past with the eyes of the present Benedetto Croce would say. Societies constantly change, and similarly also the elements of the context in which they take place. Big pictures are important because they shape the narratives which society uses, influencing the values, beliefs, and morality of the communities in which they are applied. It is exactly for this reason that today a new big picture of history is needed, in order to have a clearer understanding of the present and build a better future.

The classical old picture is usually built with a strong focus on the importance of the scientific progress and that science is something universal that must be achieved for all humans. This is strictly related to the economic aspects as the idea of liberal market and how this can stimulate the innovation process. The geographies and spaces of this old view are focused on the West and, it is the West that drives progress in the world, if other countries and communities want to be successful, they should follow the same paths. This gives a linear understanding of temporality. From this, four main points can be seen: geography and time, ontology, agency, and ideal. And these are exactly the four elements that the new picture must question. 

The four elements: a new interpretation 

Geographies and times: 

In the old picture, geography and times follow a fixed interpretation, in the new one a dynamic perspective must be adopted. A clear example of this is possible to find in Roberts’s paper. The author in her work tracks a story in which she analyses the history of chemistry. According to the scholar, this is important because history is made by material components, and it is by tracking and understanding the history of those elements that a better historical picture is made. Her understanding of geography is based on networks of material, and how this material evolves every time it changes locations. She tries to connect the local to the global, questioning the connections of certain places compared to others. Under this view, also temporality changes. Time is usually understood as straightforward, this is because of the observation of our everyday experience. But looking at history, time must be questioned, and different understanding can be made. Roberts sees temporality from two perspectives. The first is a temporality that each culture has. In fact, looking at different cultures and geographies from an outside perspective it could be argued that different cultures live under different temporalities. The second is the temporality of material interpretation. Geographies are linked together by networks of material elements connecting the local to the global. Inside the big global perspective, the different cultural temporalities, are unified in one temporality, connecting the material reality to a material temporality. In favor of this Roberts makes the case of aluminum and the 1930s. In analyzing the geographies and histories of these elements, it is possible to derive a better understanding of the historical process. 


The second element to question is the ontology of the material world. With this is meant the “when” and from “who” started the realization of the material elements. Looking at the old picture, Basalla describes an ontology in which Europe is the ontological starting of today’s world. The author builds a history of diffusion and phases, in which it is the western model to be taken as reference. Inside a new picture, this ontology must be questioned. What is important is to create a story of material interpretation, in which every single culture and temporality creates its own application of technology, with overlapping of different material realities coexisting in the same place at the same time. In support of this view Edgerton’s work is important. What the author does is to make the point of a history that focuses on the practice and not on the development of technology. The reasons for these are two. First, focusing on development means analyzing innovation. Innovation is not about understanding technology, it is about understanding the economy. If you want to understand how a certain material artifact influences society, you must analyze the practice of it, not its development. Second, by focusing only on the innovation side you create a history in which new technology replaces the old one without overlaps. In the new picture, this is not the case, technologies overlap each other. In favor of this view, Edgerton makes the case with horses and motor vehicles during the two world wars. Following the practice aspects of technology, it is possible to de-centralize the material ontology. The development of most technologies can be tracked in countries with a higher degree of industrial and technological progress, but how these technologies are applied in different places can change. At the core, there is the concept that technology is a matter of interpretation. With this in mind, Edgerton develops the concept of creole technology. With this concept is meant a technology that finds a distinctive use outside the time and place where it was first used on a significant scale. The reason for different applications are several, but what is important is how these different applications change the social sphere, and furthermore, the social identity of the individuals. An example that Edgerton gives is the application of a motor. Depending if you apply the motor to a car or a boat, changes your daily practice and so your identity. 


The third element is agency. What a new big picture must do is to focus on the material agency of technology with a  zoom on the infrastructure, and analyze how ideas and political views are related and manifest in the material world. The old picture focuses on the originality and creativity of scientists, inventors, and engineers. In a new interpretation what is required is to consider those activities not as independent and original, but as derivative from political and environmental contexts. According to this view, Mitchell’s work can be used. In his work, it is argued that the material technological infrastructure is embodied in the political context. This embodiment gives the infrastructure a degree of agency, that enables, in a given territory, a certain political view compared to another. To demonstrate this, Mitchell makes the case by confronting political labor movements by comparing two types of energy infrastructure: coal, and oil. As a result, according to Mitchell’s work, the coal infrastructure enables more a democratic system and labor organization, compared to the oil infrastructure. The relations that a material infrastructure creates are important, and by analyzing the stories of these relations, a better understanding of history is given. Different infrastructure has different needs and enables different relations. Infrastructure shapes the individual in his material choices. Education and work possibilities but also behaviors, dreams, and decisions are all factors shaped by this element, and for this, they give a social-material identity to the people living within it. These elements together with the local environment of each place, have an impact on people and societies. Depending on the jobs that people do, their identities change, as well as their relations with the world. Jobs are directly linked to the infrastructure present in a given time and place. This can be understood for each historical period. In this process of change, it is possible to see how material infrastructure and technology have agency that shapes society.  

The ideal:

The fourth element is the ideal, and to this, the concept of standards and techno-politics can be related. With ideal, the value that an entity pursues is meant. In the old picture, science is seen as a human project in search of universality. Science is the ultimate end as a research project, and for this, the colonization of the rest of the world from the West is understood as colonization of progress. This view can be seen in Basalla’swork. What the new picture must do is to question this project of universality, analyzing it from a material perspective. In order to do this, the history of standards and the relations of the geographies involved is a starting point. O’Connell in his work describes the history of measurement and standards arguing that the universality of science does not come from an intrinsic property of science itself as argued by Basalla, but from the power of the collective. O’Connell uses the concept of material collective, referring to communities of persons or institutions that mutually exchange the same material representation for abstract scientific entities. These entities create networks, and it is by analyzing this network that the historical process can be understood. The process created inside these entities is, according to O’Connell, of two types of different negotiation, one social and one practical. With this, it is possible to argue that measurements and standards are not a representation of nature that have some meaningful correspondence to the natural world, but it is a social construction. The importance of questioning this attempt to reach a material universality is important in relation to the concept of technopolitics. 

What is meant by technopolitics is politics that shape technology and technology that shapes politics. To understand better this relation, Hecht starts to question social universality by building a case using the history and geographies of uranium. What the author finds is that workers doing the same job in uranium mines are considered different depending on their geographies. In his empirical work, Hecht proves that even if regarding measurements and technical level it could be argued that there are some universalities, when looking at social categories this is not the case. With this, the author proves that social categories do not apply on a universal level, and in writing a new picture the reason for this must be questioned. According to Hecht, the importance of this is that categories inscribe and enact politics of inclusion or exclusion. This process is directly linked to the material reality of technopolitics, the governance, and the development of infrastructure, but furthermore to geographies and narratives that the big picture creates. 


The aim of this essay was to discuss the importance that big picture has in the understanding of the historical process, and from here to track the standpoints for the creation of a new one. At first the description of what is a big picture was given, and the issues of the old one were described arguing for the need of a new one. Four main elements where presented as starting points to build it. In part two, these elements were analyzed giving a new interpretation. The conclusion that can be drawn from this essay is that to develop a new picture the material reality should be questioned. Science and technology are part of what is around us, they co-evolve with the materiality of the environment, shaping social identities and influencing the historical process. How we analyze the past is how we build the future, in this, big picture plays a central role, and for this reason, it must be questioned. 


  • Basalla, G. (1967). The Spread of Western Science. Science156(3775), 611-622. doi: 10.1126/science.156.3775.61
  • Cannadine, D. (1984). THE PRESENT AND THE PAST IN THE ENGLISH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION 1880–1980. Past And Present103(1), 131-172. doi: 10.1093/past/103.1.131
  • Cunningham A., and Williams P., (1993). De-centring the “big picture”: The Origins of Modern Science and the modern origins of science. British Journal for the History of Science 26 (1993): 407-432.
  • Hecht, G. (2009). Africa and the Nuclear World: Labor, Occupational Health, and the Transnational Production of Uranium. Comparative Studies In Society And History51(4), 896-926. doi: 10.1017/s001041750999017x
  • Mitchell, T. (2009). Carbon democracy. Economy And Society38(3), 399-432. doi: 10.1080/03085140903020598
  • O’Connell, J. (1993). Metrology: The Creation of Universality by the Circulation of Particulars. Social Studies Of Science23(1), 129-173. doi: 10.1177/030631293023001005
  • Roberts, L. (2016). Exploring global history through the lens of history of Chemistry: Materials, identities and governance. History Of Science54(4), 335-361. doi: 10.1177/0073275316681805

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