by Laura Briggs

About Laura Briggs

Laura Briggs is Professor and Chair of the Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her most recent book is Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption.


To speak of science is to deploy a deceptively simple word whose use confers the mantle of authority. As Raymond Williams (1976/1983, 276–80) and the Oxford English Dictionary tell us, the word came into English from the Latin scientia, meaning simply “knowledge.” In the fourteenth century, it was distinguished from conscience, with “science” signifying theoretical knowledge, as opposed to knowing something with conviction and passion. In the seventeenth century, it began to denote that which was learned through theoretical—as opposed to practical—knowledge: philosophy, in short. Already, then, the term “science” was making hierarchical distinctions in kinds of learning, favoring the abstract and the dispassionate. In the nineteenth century, “science” came to distinguish the experimental from the metaphysical, that which was known as truth as opposed to asserted. In its current configurations, this struggle over which kinds of knowledge should be accorded the higher status of being known as “science” is carried out through adjectives; the word, with no modifier, most often refers to the “natural sciences” or “hard sciences,” and less often the “medical sciences,” but seldom the “social sciences” and never to work in the arts and humanities. Science is not a knowledge, in this usage, but the knowledge, that which can speak truthfully about the real.