Building Multidisciplinary Research Fields: The Cases of Materials Science, Nanotechnology and Synthetic Biology

  • Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent
Part of the Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook book series (SOSC, volume 29)


The paper questions both the disciplinary narrative and the interdisciplinary narrative through a re-examination of the status of disciplines in the actual practices of three different research fields: materials science and engineering which emerged in the USA in the 1960s, nanotechnology and synthetic biology, both of which became highly visible in the 2000s. Each of the cases under examination discloses a complex configuration of enabling conditions, more complex at any rate than any ‘master narrative’ of scientific change. While the master narratives suggest the existence of “a gravitational pull of disciplinary approaches and standards” followed by a kind of invisible hand that would gradually dissolve the boundaries between academic disciplines, I will argue that none of the opposite narratives – disciplinary and transdisciplinary – is adequate in light of the local configurations of these three new research fields. Despite the strong urge of science policy to create unstable research communities around specific research targets, a sense of disciplinary affiliation is still vivid and extremely resilient among, for instance, chemists.


Mode 1/Mode 2 Materials science Nanotechnology Synthetic biology Chemistry Science policy Disciplinary affiliation 


  1. Amos, M. 2006. Genesis machines: The new science of biocomputing. New York: Atlantic Books.Google Scholar
  2. Barry A., Born, G., and G. Weszkalnys. 2008. Logics of interdisciplinarity. Economy and Society 37: 20–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Benner, S.A. 2011. Synthetic biology: The organic chemistry perspective. Lecture at the conference SB 5.0, in the session Understanding the path of evolution. Accessed Feb 2014.
  4. Benner, S.A. 2012. Redesigning DNA: Fixing God’s mistakes. The Pittcon Program 2012 Conference, Capstone. Accessed Feb 2014.
  5. Bensaude Vincent, B. 2001. The construction of a discipline: Materials science in the U.S.A. Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 31: 223–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bensaude Vincent, B. 2009. Self-assembly, self-organisation: Nanotechnology and vitalism. NanoEthics 3(1): 31–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bensaude Vincent, B. 2010. Materials as machines. In Science in the context of application, ed. A. Nordmann and M. Carrier, 101–114. Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  8. Bensaude Vincent, B. 2011, A cultural perspective on biomimetics. In Advances in biomimetic, ed. A. George. InTech. Accessed Feb 2014.
  9. Bensaude Vincent, B. 2013. Discipline building in synthetic biology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44(2): 122–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bensaude Vincent, B., and I. Stengers. 1993. A history of chemistry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Bensaude Vincent, B., S. Loeve, A. Nordmann, and A. Schwarz. 2011. Matters of interest: The objects of research in science and technoscience. Journal for General Philosophy of Science 42(2): 365–383.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bertrand, E., and B. Bensaude Vincent. 2011. Materials research in France: A short-lived national initiative (1982-1994). Minerva 49: 191–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Brooks, H. 1971. Science, growth and society: A new perspective. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
  14. Bud, R., and K.G. Roberts. 1984. Science versus practice. Chemistry in Victorian Britain. Manchester: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Cademartiri, L., and G.A. Ozin. 2009. Concepts of nanochemistry. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH.Google Scholar
  16. Cahn, R.W. 2001. The coming of materials science. London: Pergamon.Google Scholar
  17. Campos, L. 2009. That was the synthetic biology that was. In Synthetic biology: The technoscience and its consequences, ed. M. Schmidt, A. Agomoni-Kelle, A. Ganguli-Mitra, and H. de Vriend, 5–21. Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Caracostas, P., and U. Muldur. 1997. Society, the endless frontier. European Commission/DG/XII R&D. Accessed Sept 2012.
  19. Drexler, E.K. 1986. Engines of creation. New York: Anchor Book.Google Scholar
  20. Duncan, R., and B. Gaspar. 2011. Nanomedicine(s) under the microscope. Molecular Pharmaceutics 8: 2101–2141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Elzinga, A., and A. Jamison. 1995. Changing policy agendas in science and technology. In Handbook of science and technology studies, ed. S. Jasanoff, G.E. Markle, J.C. Petersen, and T. Pinch, 572–597. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  22. Etzkowitz, H. 2008. The triple helix: University-industry-government innovation in action. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Frodeman, R., J. Thompson Klein, and C. Mitcham. 2010. Oxford handbook of interdisciplinarity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Funtowicz, S., and J. Ravetz. 1997. Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25(7): 739–755.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gibbons, M., C. Limoges, H. Nowotny, S. Schwartzman, P. Scott, and P. Trow. 1994. The new production of knowledge. The dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  26. Godin, B. 1998. Writing performative history: The new New Atlantis? Social Studies of Science 28(3): 465–483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kevles, D. 1990. Principles and politics in Federal R&D Policy, 1945-1990 – An appreciation of the Bush report. In Science – The endless frontier – A report to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific Research, ed. V. Bush, ix–xxxiii. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation.Google Scholar
  28. Kline, R. 1995. Constructing “technology” as “applied science” – Public rhetoric of scientists and engineers in the United States, 1880-1945. Isis 86: 194–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Krige, J. 2006. American hegemony and the postwar reconstruction of science in Europe. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  30. Latour, B. 1987. Science in action. Milton Keynes: Open University.Google Scholar
  31. Lenoir, T. 1993. The discipline of nature and the nature of disciplines. In Knowledges: Historical and critical studies in disciplinarity, ed. Davidow Messer-E:, D.R. Shumway, and D. Sylvan, 70–102. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.Google Scholar
  32. Leslie, S.W. 1993. The cold war and American science. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Leydesdorff, L., and P. Zhou. 2007. Nanotechnology as a field of science: Its delineation in terms of journals and patents. Scientometrics 70(3): 693–713.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Luisi, P.L., and C. Charabelli (eds.). 2011. Chemical synthetic biology. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  35. Marcovitch, A., and T. Shinn. 2012. Where is disciplinarity going? Meeting on the borderland. Social Science Information 50(3-4): 1–25.Google Scholar
  36. Meyer, M., and O. Persson. 1998. Nanotechnology – Interdisciplinarity, patterns of collaboration and differences in application. Scientometrics 42(2): 195–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Mody, C., and D. Kaiser. 2008. Scientific training and the creation of scientific knowledge. In The handbook of science and technology studies, 3rd ed, ed. E.J. Hackett, O. Amsterdamska, M. Lynch, and J. Wajcman, 377–402. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  38. NATO. 1963. Advances in materials research in the North Atlantic Treatise Organization. Oxford/London: Pergamon Press.Google Scholar
  39. Nowotny, H., M. Gibbons, and P. Scott. 2001. Re-thinking science. Knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  40. Pestre, D. 2003. Science, argent et politique. Paris: INRA éditions.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Psaras, P.A., and H.D. Langford (eds.). 1987. Advancing materials science. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Science.Google Scholar
  42. Rafols, I. 2007. Strategies for knowledge acquisition in bio-nanotechnology: Why are interdisciplinary practices less widespread than expected? Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research 20(4): 395–412.Google Scholar
  43. Roco, M.C., and W.S. Bainbridge. 2002. Converging technologies for improving human performances. NSF sponsored report. Accessed Sept 2012.
  44. Schaffer, S. 2009. Indiscipline and interdiscipline: Some exotic genealogies of modern knowledge. Journal of the History of Astronomy 40: 275–380.Google Scholar
  45. Schummer, J., B. Bensaude Vincent, and B. van Tiggelen (eds.). 2007. The public image of chemistry. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Ltd.Google Scholar
  46. Teissier, P. 2010. Solid-state chemistry in France: Structure and dynamics of a scientific community since World War II. Historical Studies in Natural Sciences 40(2): 225–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Weingart, P. 1997. From “finalization” to “Mode 2”: old wine in new bottles? Social Science Information 36: 591–613.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Yeh, B.J., and W.A. Lim. 2007. Synthetic biology: Lessons from the history of synthetic organic chemistry. Nature Chemical Biology 3: 521–525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CETCOPRA, UFR de philosophieUniversité Paris 1 Panthéon-SorbonneParis Cedex 05France

Personalised recommendations