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Understanding Scientific Communities April 13, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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To elaborate a bit on Friday’s post, this chart

represents a fairly wide study of a lot of different communities–understanding their official organizational relationships, understanding who the players are, what their backgrounds are, who they talked with, and understanding what they thought the purpose of their work was. It is impossible to simply take a text produced by one part of this chart and understand its historical significance, without understanding what the other people on this chart were doing. In other words, it would be almost impossible to really understand the historical development of a field like operations research (OR) if presented in a case study format. This is why I think it’s so important that journal articles do as much work as possible to guide the audience around a historical milieu.

Understanding a community and its culture is really a challenge, and I’d love to see some intriguing new ways of writing about it. On the subject of OR, Paul Ceruzzi was just telling me about his new book on the development of military contractors (OR, R&D, etc…) in the Tyson’s Corner area of the DC suburbs, which I think is a pretty illuminating approach to studying a poorly-defined community. Dave Kaiser’s new book on the postwar physics bubble looks at shifts in physics pedagogy reflecting a shifting physics demography. David Edgerton’s Warfare State comes off as a bit clunky, but it’s an important new perspective on the British state-sponsored scientific community (and others). Several months ago, I mentioned an internet project we’re hoping to get some funding for here at the AIP to try and create an internet guide to the postwar American physics elite. But this is an old question–back in the ’70s, for example, Steve Shapin and Arnold Thackray were pushing prosopography as an important method of studying what we mean by a scientific community–but prosopography has had only a few champions since. Are there any other exemplars out there?


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