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The New Internalism and the Organizational Synthesis May 30, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Louis Galambos

Louis Galambos

Many electrons have been spilled on this blog concerning the epistemic imperative in history of science writing, and the accordant organization of scholarship according to epistemological rather than chronological problematics.  Last year I spent some time arguing that this is unfortunate, since chronological problematics, broadly considered, consolidate historiographical gains and hold far more information than does the accumulation of what I like to call “galleries of practice”, which are dedicated to illustrating the variations on practices relating to “how we come to know”.

The epistemic imperative arises from a variety of locations: sociological “relativism” has used the problem to make deeper inquiries into how and why people agree; various lines of critique have sought to provide cogent reminders against the dangers of scientism; a few scholars have sought to chart the history of epistemological attitudes.  Ultimately, I am increasingly convinced, the intellectual roots of the epistemic imperative matter less than the overarching fact that this structure of argument has simply become the “house style” of the history of science profession.

The house style, characterized by its use of case study to focus on the material and contingent, and by its concern for epistemological issues broadly construed, accommodates a highly interdisciplinary form of inquiry, which is one of the most celebrated aspects of the profession.  The idea is that this is a place where science, art, literature, philosophy, history, and other areas can all come together in the study of cultures of inquiry and knowledge creation.  The assembly of interdisciplinary approaches to defined problems is one of the best available approaches of reacquiring the intellectual unity lost through disciplinary specialization.  Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that disciplinary specialization has its advantages, mainly the ability to construct advanced arguments concerning highly specialized questions.  This situation exists within localized historiographies, notably the “industries”.  Where industries do not exist, though, it has often been remarked that the history of science suffers from a fracturing of interests.

The interdisciplinary drive to answer broad epistemological questions has, I surmise, provided the intellectual glue keeping the topically fractured historiography together.  The difficulty is that once the question providing the impetus to interdisciplinarity has been solved, interdisciplinarity loses its cogency.  If I am correct in my belief that our understanding of epistemology and methodology has been quite good for about two decades, what has occurred is that everyone agrees there are general questions that need to be answered as an opportunity to continue to use the house style, without this necessarily being the case.

The house style’s support of the piecemeal research project and attendant publication, in my mind, represents a new form of internalism.  Traditionally, internalism has connoted a sort of rote concern for the internal structure of scientific arguments, without reference to the interaction with outside contexts.  Importantly, that style emphasized movement through history, but discounted interaction with non-scientific culture.  The new internalism is almost a complete inversion of the old internalism.  It has no interest in where the topic comes from or where it is going—the writing is free-standing, and is considered of  interest on account of its association with some more general epistemic context.  Nevertheless, these histories that embrace wider context, but cap off their beginning and their end, operate based on an internal logic independent of other histories that might problematize the contents.

The house style’s new internalism is concomitant with a rejection of the linear scientific narrative associated with the old internalism.  Because we are no longer so singularly interested in key contributions, what we study becomes of interest for its typicality—the way it is marked by the culture in which it exists, its strategies for coping with certain epistemological problems, its ability to reveal the place of science in society, or (paradoxically) its ability to demonstrate the disunity, atypicality, and historical contingency of scientific work.  Since none of these concerns revolves around the specific significance of this or that person or this or that event, since the historical changes of interest are taken to be discursive or structural rather than motivated, it seems unuseful to connect the study to others in a specific chronological way.  That would constitute a narrow antiquarian interest.

Attacking broad epistemological issues is one way of overcoming the amorphousness of nonlinear, unmotivated historical change.  However, other avenues have long been available.  I want to close by making a case for Louis Galambos’ “organizational synthesis”, first proposed in 1970*.  At that time Galambos argued that since the significance of individual actions was minor, and agreeing that social, political, and economic changes were the result of a great many actions, he suggested that accounts of historical change could be synthesized by paying attention to the organization of social and economic institutions that allowed certain forms of society and economy to exist.

Historians of technology such as Thomas Hughes embraced this approach, eager to show how the construction of specific technological systems was very much like construction of institutions.  Things like technologies and institutions, both in their general existence, and in their specific manifestations, made certain kinds of historical change possible, without any individual being responsible.  Galambos’ suggestion has had its adherents for the past forty years, but has never been terribly popular outside business and economic history, possibly because working in that style tends to shift attention onto highly powerful, but intellectually uninteresting institution-builders, and to take attention off the material, the contingent, and the marginal.  But I don’t think there’s anything specific to the style that says you can’t build a history showing the creative interaction between the individual and the organizational, or, for that matter, of the organization of the marginal.

In my own studies of twentieth century science, what has impressed me the most is how much more events make sense once you start to get a handle on the various institutions and you develop a very wide prosopographical knowledge of people.  Then you start to understand who the institution builders are, and who is good at working within those instutions.  You stop worrying about the fate of this or that event, and start to understand the importance of cumulative groups and projects, and the interactions between projects.  Understanding the organization of scientific institutions and projects and their evolution requires expanding one’s focus from the individual person or event.

Intriguingly, as I’ve pointed out before, in the 1970s, when linear histories came under sustained attack, the prosopographical and the organizational were seen as an important alternative.  I’m not certain just how this strand became professionally marginalized along the way.  But one might look to the simple fact that it is harder to take the time to assemble the data (and, often, the collaborative teams) necessary to undertake an organizational study than it is to undertake a case study, and, so long as case studies in the house style are still understood as making positive contributions to the scholarship, it’s only logical that they should continue to dominate the profession’s publications.

*Louis Galambos, “The Emerging Organizational Synthesis in Modern American History,” Business History Review 44 (1970): 279-290.

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