Malacology and its social context (1)

Coan & Kabat (2016) have listed an enormous amount of people who were (are) involved with the study of shells. Even if we take a partial view and focus e.g., on the 19th and early 20th centuries, the number of persons involved is still large. From a viewpoint of malacology the emphasis is often on the species, their systematic position and their nomenclature. In other words, the emphasis is usually on taxonomy. But no taxonomy without people, and when speaking about people it is naturally to look at interactions between them. So here comes the social context in play.

Even when malacologists [1] are working in splendid isolation, there are always people in the background. Apart from family and friends, relations with other malacologists are needed to be productive. And some may have been friends indeed, as is sometimes testified in malacological literature (e.g., Morelet 1848: 352).

Schermafbeelding 2016-08-31 om 15.44.56

It is here that some concepts from the social sciences may be useful to introduce. At the individual level people are more likely to have an association, connection or friendship if they share the same interests. This is called homophily, and connected people tend to have an effect on one another (called influence). These are two of the major propositions used in the study of social networks (Kadushin 2012: 9). So perhaps it’s interesting to look to the history of malacology from the perspective of social networks. Once we adopt a network perspective, we may suppose that individuals are connected and individual outcomes are related (Robins 2015: 4). In the history of malacology this may not always have been true to its full extent in all cases, but certainly it helps to look and try to uncover hidden links and relations.

Let’s first look at the different roles that people can play if we take a network perspective. In order to avoid a too detailed approach, we will recognise the following three: 1) the field collector is the person who is out in the field and picks up shells; 2) the cabinet collector works at home, sorting the shells and trying to give them a proper name; 3) the malacological author goes one step further and write up his findings in order to publish them. For the sake of simplicity we will leave it with these three, but other roles might be useful to recognise in a later stage.

Kadushin C. 2012. Understanding social networks. Theories, concepts and findings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, i–xii, 1–252.
Morelet PAM. 1848. Testacea quaedam Africae occidentalis terrestria et fluviatilia. Revue zoologique par la Société Cuvierienne 11:351–355.
Robins G. 2015. Doing social network research. Network-based research design for social scientists. Los Angeles: Sage, i–xiv, 1–261.

[1] Malacologists is used throughout this text in its broadest sense, i.e. amateurs and professionals, field collectors and cabinet collectors, and people producing scientific works or those merely interested in the beauty of shells. Several of these categories may overlap in practice.


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