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Galison’s Q’s #7: Locality and Microhistory June 3, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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If I’m not too keen on questions of science ethics and science politics (at least contemporary questions), in Problem 7, Galison touches on a question near and dear to my heart: case study history. Basically, Peter asks: “What’s the deal with all the case studies?” (which could also be this blog’s motto). He notes that microhistory case studies of individuals or laboratories or what-have-you, were once seen as a Baconian way of getting at an underlying philosophy of science. But that project’s long dead, as is the project to nail down a specific moment when some important thing was discovered or theorized. Case studies don’t seem to make a claim to “typicality”–if anything they argue for the uniqueness of moments in science.

My position on this blog has consistently been that the case study has basically just become a habit. This habit was originally grounded in the utility of the case study in demonstrating the intermingling of science and its context (as Galison points out), which itself stems from the sociology-philosophy feud. Rather than demonstrate a set ahistorical philosophy of scientific method, sociologists commandeered the case study approach as a way to build their own historicist theoretical vocabulary (historians: seek out some pure sociology of science some time; it’s basically the modus operandi). Historians–who, as I’ve pointed out, have only minimal use for this vocabulary–have basically taken away the core historicist sociological insight, that “science” follows no peculiar “high road” to knowledge (science is comprised of a series of unique practices), and beat that naive position straight into the ground.

To what end? The most charitable interpretation, I believe, is that the strategy is used to illustrate the interaction of science with certain defining epochal trends: Enlightenment, modernity, imperialism, Cold War, etc… I’ve been pretty critical of this, because I think we’ve said little interesting about the history of science, and we’ve said little that’s really very new about any of these historical epochs. If anything, we’ve simply validated (only to ourselves) some notion that these things are coherent historical entities that can be easily encapsulated in caricature. Our job seems to be to adorn these concepts in baroque detail with our case studies, to add to our “model” of modernity, imperialism, etc… (my use of the term “model” here echoes C. S. Lewis’ description of the medieval literary model of the universe–see my post on “Hobbit History“). I’m pretty sure we get this habit off the literary theorists and art historians, whose primary job seems to be to pick out and describe literary/artistic epochs.

Galison asks “if case studies are paving stones, where does that path lead?” I’m obviously pretty belligerent and grumpy on this issue, and would reply “nowhere fast”. If we’re going to continue using the approach, we need very badly to be more creative in our identification of scientific trends. We won’t do it by copying the arts and letters crowd so slavishly.

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1. The Explorer Type « Time to Eat the Dogs - July 13, 2008

[...] it’s also unsatisfying. As Peter Galison pointed out in the most recent issue of Isis (see Will Thomas’s post on this at Ether Wave Propaganda), there is a tension between the rigorous need for being true to [...]

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