Dissertation

Scientific Knowledge, Expertise, and Social Fields

What are the consequences of the growing use of scientific knowledge in new social contexts? My dissertation explores this question through a comparative analysis of science in finance and the culinary arts. Scholars of the professions have long observed the role of specialized knowledge in various fields. But beyond the research on professions, scientific expertise in particular presents new and unique sociological puzzles. How does applying a scientific approach to traditionally nonscientific domains influence the “human element” of these contexts? What role do intuition and creativity play in fields dominated by precise measurement and empirical evidence? Have the collaborative norms of academic science influenced the dynamics of competition and cooperation in fields where scientists are increasingly prevalent? How do existing organizations change to accommodate these new kinds of knowledge? And finally, what are the perceived strengths and limitations of scientific knowledge, and how are these perceptions shaping action and changing fields?

The answers to these questions have broad social implications. In an age of “big data” and rapid technological advance, previously esoteric forms of knowledge have been adapted for use in a wide range of contexts—from medicine, law, and public policy, to music production, baseball scouting, and art authentication. Finance and the culinary arts are two such fields. In the culinary arts, a movement known as “modernist cuisine” has adapted materials and equipment from the biological and chemical sciences for use in a fine dining context. While this movement has generated a host of radical innovations, a new focus on the physiochemical properties of food has also led chefs to eschew traditional culinary principles in favor of a more scientific approach to the creative process. In finance, so-called “quants” with academic training in disciplines such as physics, engineering, and mathematics employ sophisticated quantitative methods and vast data sets to value assets, forecast prices, and assess risk. Today, exotic assets require that even conventional traders have a working knowledge of sophisticated models, while new algorithmic routines effectively translate the trader’s intuition and judgment into measurable parameters to conduct trades at lightning-fast speeds. In both of these fields, there is no doubt that adopting scientific knowledge has enhanced technical capacities. But in the process, there is reason to believe that these shifts also upend longstanding institutions and challenge existing status orders.

Through a comparative study of modernist cuisine and algorithmic trading in finance, my dissertation explores three main themes. First, I examine how organizations have adapted to the increased presence of scientific professionals, knowledge, and technology. As earlier research has suggested, newly forged ties between previously unrelated fields often produces novel organizational forms and practices. How have the newly strengthened ties with the scientific community influenced finance and the culinary arts? Second, I consider the relationship between local and global communities of expertise. Finance and fine dining both contain critical locals sites, while also being strongly interconnected with actors all around the world. How are knowledge and practices at the local level influenced by, and diffused across, global networks? Finally, I explore the relationship between scientific methods and creativity. Too often, the “scientific” and “creative” are treated as characteristics occupying opposite ends of the spectrum. This project seeks a more nuanced understanding of the roles of individual judgment and creativity in social fields increasingly dominated by precision instruments and data-driven algorithms.