Justification for Case Histories March 5, 2008Posted 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.