Seminar with Melinda Cooper


15 April, 2010


Bowland North Seminar Room 23, Lancaster University


Experiments and Accidents

Melinda Cooper


All welcome

The experimental method was born in the 17th century when scholars began looking for ways to derive universal truths from the methodological reproduction of unexpected events. Far from eliminating the accident from the realm of knowledge, Bacon sought to harness its powers by deliberately constraining or perverting the course of nature. The point of the experimental method was to provoke in a more methodical fashion the accidental discoveries that nature spontaneously generated of its own accord. The philosopher of science Ian Hacking (2006) has suggested that the modern experiment lies at the intersection of two modes of knowing - on the one hand, the legalistic tradition of proof and testimonial, and on the other, the probabilistic mathematics of chance. This paper investigates the historical relationship between the experiment, the accident and law by focusing upon the invention of a specific form of medical experiment in the mid 20th century – the clinical trial. I suggest that the rise of the mass, statistical methods of the clinical trial should be understood in the context of wider shifts in the law of accidents (torts) which took place during the same period, as industrial risk moved from the realm of private tort law to the social administration of risks under the welfare state. In many respects, the mass clinical trials of the mid 20th century were organized along the same lines as Fordist mass production. Yet the clinical trial was never included in the category of industrial labour or accorded the same rights to risk prevention that were part and parcel of the formal wage contract. Instead, the risks borne by clinical trial recruits have remained in the arena of the private law of accidents (tort law), to which the informed consent contract provides the exclusive response. This paper unfolds the history of the relationship between the law of accidents, the clinical trial and the informed consent contract, with the aim of proposing an alternative historiography of medical experimentation.

Melinda Cooper is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sydney, and the author of Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era (Washington University Press, 2008). She is speaking at Lancaster as part of Experimentality, the annual research programme of the Institute for Advanced Studies. For more information, contact Bronislaw Szerszynski (bron [at]