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Good Work and Good History February 21, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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All of the methodological introspection that takes place on this site is done with an eye toward arriving at a sympathetic, charitable, and critical understanding of the way today’s history of science profession works, and to figure out what it does well and also what it does less well.

To this point, much of this introspection has involved intuiting a professional mentality—an understanding of what individual scholars feel they are contributing to the profession as a whole.  I have noted that the way scholars frame and justify their work seems to operate according to an “epistemic imperative”, the idea that what we are saying contributes to a sociological and philosophical understanding of the nature of both elite and public knowledge (thus, the “epistemological problematic“).  Exactly how work is supposed to add up into this understanding is rarely (if ever) made clear (a point also made by Peter Galison in his 10 Questions—I’m not just making this stuff up!).

Lately on this site, we have been exploring other aspects of this mentality, assuming an individualistic rather than a communitarian sensibility.  Here “the “epistemic imperative” becomes less of a serious suggestion for application of the work, and more of a way to identify oneself as a serious scholar and get past referees and publishers demanding to know how the work is relevant to broader concerns.  In the “Rashomon posture”, I supposed that scholars leave it to others to imagine how the “perspective” they provide layers with others’ perspectives to create some indeterminately “useful” subjective synthesis.  In “localized historiography”, I supposed that progress at the local level is imagined to have an additive property across localized historiographies so as to effect progress at the professional level.

Going further in this direction, today I would like to bring up a point Christopher made to me the other day, which has perhaps gotten lost in all this emphasis on historiography: in an individualist scholarly mentality, the primary emphasis is simply on the production of “works”, totally separate from any notions about their place in historiography.  In this framework, the history of science profession becomes a sort of collective of writers, some of whom work in areas close to our own, some not so much, but all trying to produce “good work” and all helping others to produce “good work”, but not necessarily in the pursuit of a common understanding.

The “goodness” of work is measured in terms of its ability to address key themes (thus creating the appearance of the epistemological problematic), but mostly it is measured in terms of its ability to avoid faux pas and to avoid presenting an obviously false picture.  The work may contribute to historical understanding, particularly locally, but the main point is for the work to be “good”.  We are rewarded by academic departments for producing a certain volume of good work, and we cite each other whenever the opportunity arises—whether the citation is functional, or, perhaps more likely, inspirational.  By these means a community of scholars—but not necessarily a “court of understanding”—is maintained.

Now, I know it is the case that many scholars have a personal familiarity and understanding of history that allows them to perform very good work, but that is rarely an obvious feature of the work itself.  These scholars have excellent knowledge of the historical terrain, excellent opinions about how works fit together to form a more complete picture, but, bizarrely, this is the sort of thing that only tends to get aired in private conversation (probably over drinks), or maybe it shows up too briefly in the Isis Focus section or some such venue.  Similarly, I know that the Niels Bohr Library and Archives (in the building where I work) houses mountains of raw data produced by prior history research projects, some of them very ambitious and successful.  This data informs—but is not presented systematically in—the good works that result from those projects.  The implication seems to be that good work is the public face of the profession, while “good history” is the private face, or the mere scaffolding behind good work.

This is not to say that good work is never the same as good history.  When we’re not methodologically introspecting on this site, much of our effort is directed toward feeding off of, bringing attention to, analyzing, and synthesizing the good history that’s out there.  Still, what is the virtue of “good work” that it seems to take precedence over “good history”?

Here are a couple of notional theories.  First, good work is a purely collaborative enterprise, where good history demands the reconciliation of perspectives, which can be a combative process.  Thus, an emphasis on good work helps maintain the professional peace.   Second, good work can be entertaining and thus can attract the interest of other scholars more easily; it can be marketed to publishers and to the public, and consequently, it can help justify scholarship as a corrective to the “bad work” that floods the market and (apparently) creates bad ideas about how science works.

I would like to end with one question: do certain kinds of “good work” erode historiography?  On this blog, we’ve suggested repeatedly that this is the case, insofar as good work does not imply explicit reconciliation of separate accounts. Concentrating on history as good work also leads to another answer, though, which is that the concern for the “goodness” of work creates an inclination (or perhaps an excuse) to avoid engaging with old historiography.  Since old historiography almost certainly fails to live up to the standards of “good” history, since it was not privy to the historiographical innovations of more recent years, to engage directly with its concerns would be dangerous for scholars wishing to create their own good work.

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