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The Organizational Synthesis and Periodization June 1, 2009

Posted 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.



1. Thony C. - June 2, 2009

Whilst I am fundamentally ant-Kuhnian as I don’t think that his ‘scientific revolutions’ ever took place there is a concept of Kuhn’s that I find very important and that, I think, goes in the same direction as your organizational synthesis and prosopographical research and that is his concept of the scientific community.

If one studies the intercommunication of whole groups of activists within a given field over a longer period of time then a very different picture of their scientific activity emerges than that produced by studying their individual scientific achievements. One of the problems of this type of research is that one doesn’t study the correspondence of a single scholar but that one should as far as possible study the correspondence of a relatively large group of scholars all engaged within a particular field over a substantial period of time (twenty, thirty or more years). This entails an incredible amount of work and the ability to follow a research project for many years without necessarily producing any major interim results (difficult in a publish or perish academic culture).

Such an approach does however, in my opinion, produce a much truer picture of the evolution of a scientific discipline than insular case studies.

2. Will Thomas - June 2, 2009

I agree. It’s probably not coincidental that the organizational synthesis, Kuhn’s historiography, and the push for prosopography (such as Thackray and Shapin), all initially congealed in the same 1970s period. As a regular reader, Thony, you’ll know or at least suspect that all I’ve really been doing with these methodology entries is trying on different conceptual guises for the same general idea, which is more of a methodological revivalism than a fresh idea. What’s so odd to me is how the whole idea got dropped, with a few striking exceptions.

Don’t know if you’ve seen Westfall’s early modern prosopography, but he gets going on this not too long after the first prosopography drive. His Thoughts on the Catalogue are also fun to read, because it shows how much even an old-school master like him learns by just figuring out who everyone is and what they’re up to. I might post about this at some point in the future, but thought I’d throw it out there now.

Anyway, work proceeds on my own prosopography project of contemporary American physics. Going alphabetically I’m up to Glenn Seaborg (chemist, I know, but in his case close enough…), so, repetitive methodology entries aside, I am trying to walk the walk, but, as you point out, it takes a lot of work, most of which happens behind the scenes!

3. Thony C. - June 3, 2009

Westfall’s catalogue is also available at Albert Van Helden’s Galileo Project website. Interestingly he uses the Kuhn concept “scientific community”. On the subject of prosopographical catalogues do you know Eva G. Taylor books The mathematical practitioners of Tudor and Stuart England and The mathematical practitioners of Hanoverian England. I can highly recommend the first but haven’t read the second.

4. Will Thomas - June 3, 2009

Good recommendations! I’ve been to the Galileo Project on a number of occasions, but never noticed Westfall’s “catalogue” tucked way back in the “Library”—very user friendly interface. I like that you can browse Hatch’s version, though (unless there’s some functionality on the Galileo Project version I don’t know).

Unfortunately I haven’t met up with the prosopographical catalogues you mention. I keep meaning to do a post on John Lankford’s book on 19th and early 20th-century American Astronomy, which is more of an analysis of a private catalogue he collected, but he did the project early enough that his database isn’t broadly available (as far as I know). These are potentially great times for this kind of thing if it catches on—I reiterate my hope that Harkness finds a way to get her private database of scientific Elizabethan Londoners online.

5. Thony C. - June 3, 2009

If you go to the E.G.R.Taylor page at Wikipedia and download the PDF by Peter de Clercq you can read all about her and her Mathematical Practitioner books. Interestingly de Clercq also lists all of the people who have modernised and extended her work in prosopography (stuff that’s also new to me), well worth a look.

On the whole I have problems with the monumental architecture of Hatch’s web site but having the entries in Westfall’s catalogue to browse has its attractions. At the Galileo Project there is a super search engine that enables one to construct lists from Westfall’s catalogue according to all possible categories; also very useful.

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