The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

What happened in the sixties?


a1 Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS), University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, UK. Email:


In general history and popular culture, the long 1960s, a period roughly beginning in the mid-1950s and ending in the mid-1970s, has been held to be a period of change. This paper offers a model which captures something of the long 1960s as a period of ‘sea change’ resulting from the interference of three waves. Wave One was an institutional dynamic that drew out experts from closed and hidden disagreement into situations where expert disagreement was open to public scrutiny. Wave One also accounts for the multiplication of experts. Wave Two consisted of social movements, institutions and audiences that could carry public scrutiny and provide a home for sea-change cultures. In particular, Wave Two provided the stage, audience and agents to orchestrate a play of disagreeing experts. Wave Three was marked by an orientation towards the self, in diverse ways. Modern science studies is a phenomenon of Wave Three. All three waves must be understood in the context of the unfolding Cold War.

(Online publication July 15 2008)


Thanks to John Krige, Stève Bernardin, Matt Wisnioski, Peder Ankar, David Hollinger, Jerry Ravetz, Peter Galison, Charles Rosenberg, Kathryn Packer and Simon Schaffer; to colleagues in Manchester, Cambridge, Harvard and University College London; and to the anonymous reviewers.