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Grounding Knowledge in Place: Earth Scientists and Surveyors, Fieldwork, and the Geography of Power

Fri, March 16, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Riverside Convention Center, MR 10

Session Submission Type: Panel


These papers, which span the intersection of environmental history and the history of science, deal with scientific fieldwork and the particularity of places. The authors explore the understanding of places through fieldwork versus other ways of knowing, how insiders and outsiders know places and environments, the interaction of grand scales of space and time with work that must be done here-and-now, and the understanding of some particular places in the context of other places that the observer knows.

Claire Cookson-Hills considers tensions between the power of the colonial state and of scientific and historical ways of knowing. Cookson-Hills examines a late-nineteenth-century scheme to recreate a Saharan reservoir, the archival work of Cope Whitehouse, a US scholar who argued for the project on the grounds that ancient Egyptian records proved it viable, and the fieldwork by engineers and surveyors that convinced the Egyptian government not to develop the reservoir. Andrew Marcille focuses on Reginald Daly, a geologist surveying the Canadian Cordillera along the southern border with the International Boundary Commission. Marcille uses the work of one scientist, repeated at a local scale over several field seasons and hundreds of kilometres, to focus on the particular rather than universal nature of much scientific work and knowledge. Jeremy Vetter engages the issue of local versus universal knowledge with a study of Harold Cook, a palaeontologist who grew up on a Nebraska ranch near the Agate Fossil Beds. Vetter shows the coexistence of multiple scales of knowledge in Cook’s science, both near his childhood home and farther afield, comparing the practices of place in Cook’s interpretations with those of his peers based in distant cities.

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