The Organizational Synthesis and Periodization June 1, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
In my last post on the organizational synthesis, I suggested that it was one possible alternative to a house style of history of science that emphasizes the use of case study to illuminate one sort of epistemological problem or another, without explicitly tying the subject of study to other related subjects. This stand-alone quality of scholarship is a situation we might think of as a “new internalism”. While the new internalism recognizes a certain old internalist or antiquarian frustration or futility in building linear histories of the progress of knowledge, it also fractures knowledge into islands of scholarship that do not cohere with each other in any obvious way, and thus are “internalist” in their own right.
By looking at the organization of scientific institutions and scientific projects (attacks on specific problems, traditions in experimentation or theorization, etc…), it is possible to transcend the inadequacies of strictly linear histories. I might also have added that an organizational approach would also be useful in tracking and characterizing overlaps or connections between institutions and projects in histories of science and histories of technology, business, politics, law, and culture.
Today I would like to suggest that studying the organization of science would also allow for more satisfactory periodizations. It can do so by helping to solve the “constituency” problem and the “scale” problem.
When we make a general statement about the past, we often do not specify exactly to whom the statement applies. We might say that precision becomes an important ideal in 19th-century science, which is true, but not among all constituencies. We might say that Aristotelian philosophy wanes in the 17th-century, which is true, but it is still part of a standard education for centuries afterward, with important consequences. We might study the atomic bomb in the 1940s and ’50s, but cede the ground to the political historians in the 1970s, even though nuclear weaponry was more significant part of scientists’ activities than ever, because by this period biology is the “hot news”.
The point is not to encourage us to come up with contradictory counterexamples: “The historiography says that precision was big in 19th-century science, so here’s a case where precision was unimportant or was specifically seen as a disadvantage!” (That would be a classic address of the epistemic imperative). The point is to redefine the question by locating it within a clearer time frame, and by constraining its importance to a specific constituency, and then charting different constituencies and their relationship to each other. If we all agree that “science” has never been a unified endeavor, it would be an odd move to make a point of pointing out its self-contradictory qualities, rather than just studying the concerns of narrower constituencies.
By embracing an organizational view of history, it becomes easier to discuss the significance of simultaneous, and even seemingly contradictory, sets of historical trends. For historians, studying “emergence” is important, because it is when something first appears that the terms of debate are most up-in-the-air. Contrary to games and sports, it is more fun to watch the pieces being put on the board than to watch the game play out.
Organizational history helps us avoid misleading periodizations, and helps us moderate the tone of the significance and scale of events. It is important to understand the difference between the initial emergence of federal funding of university research projects after World War II, and, say, a 10% downward shift in university funding in 1980, and its partial replacement with corporate funding. (I’m making the numbers up here—don’t hold me to them!) It would be misleading to characterize the second as an equally epochal event. It would be an important trend, the consequences of which need to be discussed, but as proportional and constrained phenomena, not wholesale paradigmatic shifts. As petty as it may seem, doing things as simple as using the proper adjectives become an important part of historiography.
(To constrain one’s argument to the non-epochal and non-epistemic by using less ambitious characterizations might make it seem less worthy of academic study or create the presumption that its consequences are unimportant, but it’s really a choice of whether one wants to be a scholar or a commentator. The latter path will lead one to do things like characterize downward ticks in funding, or the rejection of this or that project, as representative of a “war on science”, a longstanding trend in public discourse much reviled, and rightly so, by the Prometheus Science Policy Blog).
Historians, of course, have long been aware of the dangers of Zeitgeist-mongering, believing the insults that have been hurled in history, and following journalists’ understanding of what is significant at any given point in time by following the controversies and ignoring the commonplace. Nevertheless, the only worthwhile test of whether the lesson has really been learned well enough is if a coherent historiography emerges dedicated to getting beyond the agendas set by others for what should be studied (and how) in certain times and places. Paying attention to organization rather than epistemic concerns will help this happen.