Trading is one of the oldest human activities, and a zone is where trades are most likely to occur, especially among different cultures who do not share a common language or culture. Trading posts are examples of zones, as are ports.

Peter Galison proposed that trading zones also occur among scientists, engineers and policy-makers working on projects like the development of radar, on giant telescopes, on nuclear particle detectors, etc. Galison focused mostly on the scientists, but these zones include other stakeholders.

In order to trade over an extended period of time, participants in a zone have to develop a common language. Galison says this process begins with a shared jargon. It is often true that even closely related scientific communities attach different meanings to the same term, and this has to be sorted out before they can exchange knowledge and work effectively to build systems together. If the trading zone continues, participants will develop a kind of pidgin and eventually, a creole--which is the start of a new language, because creoles can be taught to a new generation (eg, graduate students). For example, the dominant language in Haiti is a creole, and languages like English evolved from creoles.

Galison emphasizes that trading zones are most necessary when disciplines/ expertises try to exchange knowledge and methods across apparently incommensurable divides.

When humanists and social scientists collaborate with scientists and engineers, as I have done for years, there is an initial apparently incommensurable divide. Work may begin as a division of labor--I do the societal dimensions part on a grant, the scientists do their parts, we only have the simplest understanding of what each other are doing--we may share a bit of jargon, but mainly sharing time and money is our trade.

But on deeper collaborations like STIR and like a new nanotechology major I am creating--that puts societal dimensions at the center--the knowledge exchanges have to involve assumptions also (as the Toolbox emphasizes). I have to gain what Collins calls interactional expertise in the domains of my fellow nanoscientists, and they gain interactional expertise on ethical and policy dimensions. Here instead of a creole, we try to understand enough of each others language and epistemology to communicate.

One end result of a successful trading zone may be a new disciplinary community--like service science.

For more on trading zones, see
Gorman, M. E. (Ed.). (2010). Trading zones and interactional expertise: Creating new kinds of collaboration. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


(With thanks to Michael Gorman for this contribution)