CE27 - Culture, créations, patrimoine

Amateurs in Science (France, 1850-1950). A History from Below – AmateurS


Amateurs in Science (France, 1850–1950): A History from Below

A transdisciplinary history of amateurs in science

This project aims at the collective writing of a history of amateurs in science connected with the present, echoing the questions that have emerged around participatory or citizen science and science in the digital age. This history takes into account the developments brought about by science studies and by the social and cultural history of science. This project is based on two hypotheses.<br />1 - A historical look at scientific amateurism allows us to enrich the reflection on the present, by highlighting continuities as much as the ruptures that are accentuated by studies centered on the 20th century and the present. <br />2 - The question of amateurs in science is clarified when considered within a transdisciplinary framework. This project thus associates historians from three fields: two are classical in historiography (astronomy, archaeology), one (medical sciences) is more original although it is central in present-day participatory sciences.

With the aim of writing a history from below, the research is organized in three axes, and a transversal theme.
Axis 1 - Figures of the amateur.
Axis 1 is based on the creation of a database listing all publications bearing the keywords amateur.s, amateurism and amatrice.s in their title in France over the period under consideration (1850-1950), taken from the BNF catalog supplemented by the General Catalogue of the French Publishers From this database two corpuses will be extracted (one of texts, the other of images). The database and the corpus will feed a collective exploitation by the team, will allow to isolate characterizations of amateurism that are more subtle and complex than those revealed by dictionary definitions. It will help to evaluate the share of science in amateur practices and to identify the most concerned scientific fields.
Axis 2 - A subjective history of amateur worlds.
Axis 2 deals with the question of identities and definitions from a bottom-up perspective that allows to refine the typology elaborated in axis 1. It aims at restoring the point of view of amateurs on the science they do, the social worlds they inhabit, their identity as scientists, their skills, their relationships with those they define as professionals and with those they consider not to be legitimate amateurs.
Axis 3: Gestures and practices
This axis of the project favours a non overhanging approach to the scholarly work of amateurs by focusing on their material productions: instruments, experimental devices, collections, models, images, etc. In this axis, two entries have been privileged: the first goes back to the amateur's work (practices, gestures, know-how), the second focuses on these productions themselves and on their cognitive and social uses.
Transversal theme «Amateurs? Women in science«.

The activities carried out within the AmateurS project are listed on the project website.
Workshops are organized on a regular basis (programs and video recordings on the project website).
A seminar open to researchers, «histories of amateurs« is organized at Le Mans University (programs and video recordings on the project website).
The team organized a session, «Visual Culture of Amateurs in Science (1850-1950)«, L. Guignard (dir.), at the 9th ESHS Conference, Bologna (01/09/2020, online).

The database developed within the AmateurS project will be open in free access at the end of the project. It will be hosted by the TGIR Huma-Num.

Several publications reflect the individual and collective research carried out in the project, for example, Nathalie Richard (dir.), Amateurs, Romantisme, 2020/4 (December).

The aim of the AmateurS project is to write collectively a history of amateurs in science echoing the questions raised by contemporary participatory and citizen science and by sciences in the digital era. This history will take into account new perspectives formulated within the Science Studies and within social and cultural history. Our research is based on two hypotheses: 1° Looking at the past enriches our understanding of the present, by bringing continuities to light as much as by revealing the discontinuities emphasized in most surveys focusing on the 20th Century and on the present. 2° A transdisciplinary approach enhances our understanding of amateur activities in science. This project brings together historians of three scientific fields: two (astronomy and archaeology) are taken into account in many classical historical studies, one (medical sciences) is more original in this perspective, even though it is central in contemporary participatory and citizen science.
The project is organized according to 3 research lines (WP) and one transversal theme.

WP 1 - Figures of the amateur
This WP relies on the production and the interpretation of a database collecting all the French publications (books and periodicals) displaying the word "amateur" in their title, between 1850 and 1950. Two sets (corpus) of sources (texts and images) will be extracted from the database, allowing the team to analyse the whole range amateur practices, the place of scientific activities among these practices, and the scientific fields favored by amateurs. Free access to the database will be granted to scholars and the general public at the end of the project, through a specifically designed digital platform.

WP 2 - A subjective history of the amateur's worlds
Identities and self definitions will be studied from a perspective "from below". The aim of this WP is to capture the amateurs' point of view on the science they practice, on their own identity as scientists, on their relations with the "professionals" and with other practioners they consider illegitimate. In this WP we will focus on two topics studied at a micro-historical scale: 1° conflicts shifting the boundaries between "amateurs" and "professionals", as well as instances of consolidation of these boundaries; 2° the social worlds and the personal networks of the amateurs.

WP 3 - Practices and know-how
This WP focuses on the material productions of the amateurs (instruments, experimental devices, scale models, images, etc.). In this WP we focus on the practical gestures and on the know-how which are mobililized by amateurs in the production of material devices, on the uses of these devices and on their circulation among a broader public.

Transversal theme : Women as amateurs
We will confront the results of our history of amateurs in science with the perspectives developed in the historiography of women in science.

Project coordination

Nathalie RICHARD (Temps, Mondes, Sociétés)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


TEMOS Temps, Mondes, Sociétés

Help of the ANR 203,796 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: February 2019 - 36 Months

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