Editors’ note: This essay was first published in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, Vol. 42, No. 5 (November 2012), 496-499. Special Issue “50 Years of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” edited by Michael Gordin and Erika Lorraine Milam. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author and HSNS editors.

“Structure” was a word to conjure with in 1962. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology had appeared in 1958 (translated into English in 1963); Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures was first published in 1957 and had reached its fifth printing by 1965.[1] Even if they didn’t brandish the word “structure” in their titles, a cluster of influential books in the humanities and social sciences published circa 1960 raised hopes that the complexities of, say, the plays of Racine or cultural taboos or bargaining might reveal simpler basic structures the way an X-ray revealed skeletons.[2] The runaway success of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions did its part to glamorize an already up-and-coming word. Even scholars more resistant to the lure of structuralism than linguists and anthropologists, for example historians and philosophers but also psychologists and psychoanalysts, fell under the spell of Kuhn’s structures of scientific development.[3]

Yet probably no word strikes historians of science nowadays reading Kuhn (if they do) as more dusty and dated than the once glittering “structure.” This is not because the whole book is a fossil from a bygone era. Even if it is no longer assigned in courses across the university, much of Kuhn’s analysis still seems fresh and even avant garde: the close studies of scientific pedagogy that he flagged as crucial to understanding the cognitive and social cohesion of research communities are still a desideratum; much work in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science still focuses on the resolution of controversies as the moment when researchers’ most fundamental assumptions are laid bare; topics such as the know-how implicit in mastering scientific paradigms have been revived by the history of the body and other explorations of what is often called, not always accurately, tacit knowledge. Even though many of the polestar words that do now guide the history of science—“context,” “controversy,” “consensus”—were first made luminous in Kuhn’s Structure, “structure” itself has lost its shine.

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Special Focus: Structures

In the course of the twentieth century, structure became a central category of thought across a wide array of sciences. From linguistics to anthropology, psychoanalysis and history, the epistemic aim of analyzing structures guided a diverse range of research programs. And yet, the quest for immaterial or timeless structures that might underlie, order, organize—let alone determine—more readily perceptible domains of reality today appears strange, even suspicious, to most cultural anthropologists and historians of science. To grapple with these changes in the epistemic virtues guiding the work of anthropologists and their historians, as well as structures’ many afterlives outside of the academy, this Special Focus Section aims to adopt a broader historical view of the phenomenon by shifting analytic attention away from specific structuralist texts, intellectuals, and institutions toward structures as epistemic things in the history of anthropology and adjacent domains of inquiry.

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