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Justification for Case Histories March 5, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

I like to think that every time we sit down to write we have some implicit or explicit justification for what we are about to write. That there is some sort of economic reasoning as to why we choose to write about one topic rather than another. Now, in almost every single history of science seminar I’ve ever been to, more than 3/4 of HSS presentations, and almost every single article in our flagship journals deals with a narrowly focused case study on a topic of no obvious general interest. Aside from the fact that this style of history is an established tradition, what is the justification? Why is case history supposed to be so compelling? What are we supposed to get out of these presentations that connects up with our larger knowledge?

One argument is that it’s Baconian empirical study. Eventually, we’ll be able to make some bigger claim once we’ve been through enough microscopic study. I think empirical study of areas we know little about is tremendously important to the production of good, new scholarship. But, in terms of presentation style, this defies any efficient economy of writing–if you’re going to present to a broad audience (in a department seminar or in a journal), why bother everyone with the petty details?

My more cynical theory is that these studies are self-justified because they address naive positions that for some reason we think need to be addressed, that is, there’s a notion that because “people” think “science” proceeds independent of context or that it proceeds in a progressive fashion, it is therefore worthwhile to present a study showing how, to pick one of my favorite targets, some obscure 19th century natural history served the agenda of British imperialism. But, by “people” I think we mean Robert Merton or somebody nobody ever reads anymore, who supposedly represents some sort of default way that people think about science.

Is “everyone” supposed to have read Merton? Or did Merton (or maybe those pesky textbook history boxes) penetrate the “public” imagination in a way that newer science studies people have yet to do, but if we only present enough department seminars we are sure to?

I don’t buy it. Nobody in the intended audience ever has any such notion of a context-independent or purely progressive science. So why undertake the study? To further reinforce what we already know about “how science works”? To make ourselves feel good by intellectually combating the evils produced by the alliance between science and 19th century imperialism (or the Cold War, or the evils of technocratic thinking, or whatever)? I can see how such things were refreshing given the state of the historiography 20-30 years ago, but why today?

I’m totally open to a good answer to this question. It’s pretty rude to ask it in seminars, so hopefully this is a good forum. I’m not against the obscure case study in principle, but I think we ought to be explicit about why our case studies matter, and what they tell us that we don’t already know. I’ll leave a comment justifying one of my forthcoming case studies.



1. Will Thomas - March 5, 2008

OK, so I have an upcoming case study of Jay Forrester, a prominent mid-20th century computer modeler. I don’t make much of a case as to why he’s important–i.e., influential–so I mostly justify myself in terms of his iconic status. OK, so why another study of an icon? Well, I claim that the epistemology of his modeling method has been misunderstood. I would further claim (although I don’t delve into this in an already fairly long paper) that this misunderstanding is part and parcel of an epistemological misunderstanding of the “policy sciences” in general, which are usually seen as revolving around the notion that “science” was supposed to provide “objective” (i.e. impersonal, appealing to universal truth) solutions to policy problems. I see much of my work as a systematic attack on the idea that policy scientists ever harbored any such idea. So, my study of a particular exemplar of this idea is a facet of that attack.

2. Will Thomas - March 5, 2008

One other point. John Pickstone’s recent Isis article addresses this question from the perspective of the idea that it is empirical history, and he attempts to induct conclusions about “science” from case study trends. Was he successful? Sounds like another potential discussion we could have here in the future.

3. Jenny Ferng - March 6, 2008

I like your term “context independent” and I agree with you that case studies without the broader picture in mind are eternally present at historical conferences and job talks. Someone inevitably asks the question, “So why does this matter and how does it fit with everything else?”

4. Jenny Ferng - March 6, 2008

I thought there were a lot of studies written about Jay Forrester from all sides of the modeling debate? Not sure but since Will, you are the OR guy, what is the answer? Didn’t you interview him at MIT? Or am I remembering incorrectly? Forrester is quite the figure for people in architectural history studying computers/simulations in the 20th century.

5. Will Thomas - March 6, 2008

Really? See, in my experience, no one ever asks the question “why does this matter?” We might get a bit of criticism on this or that point, but no one seems to ask what we learn. It’s always seemed to me that so long as someone connects this or that artifact to its cultural context, the study is deemed sufficiently fascinating, even though no claims to the actual significance of the artifact in question have been made.

Re: Forrester. I’m not sure what you have in mind about the modeling debate. Basically, I see the position “modeling is good” versus the “modeling is limited” camps. The modeling is limited camp (largely the historians: Hughes, Pickering, Edwards) find it sufficient to point out the controversial nature of modeling. Whereas I would tend to argue that of course models are controversial if considered as objects of public advocacy, but that Forrester intended modeling as a private tool. Essentially, explaining why the “modeling is good” people believe modeling is good–because they have a specific use context in mind.

6. Will Thomas - March 6, 2008

Also, I highlight and criticize Forrester’s criticisms of OR, instead of seeing OR and Forrester as being essentially in the same “modeling” camp. Forrester is not doing OR. And his reasons for dividing himself from it also have to do with the use context question.

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