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Merton, the DSB, and the Failed Digital Humanities of the 1960s April 15, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Following up on a reference in Gieryn 1982, I’ve been reading over Robert K. Merton’s long essay, “The Sociology of Science: An Episodic Memoir,” in The Sociology of Science in Europe (1977), pp. 3-141.  I’ll post more on it soon in the context of other recent posts on this blog.  For the moment, I’ll just say that the essay is thin on “norms”, “counter-norms”, “ambivalence”, etc.  It is mainly about the intellectual influences on the sociology of science that developed in the 1960s and ’70s.  It is also about the methods, ambitions, and projects of what Merton still regarded as a nascent discipline. It turns out these projects are well worth a tangential post, or two.

In this post, I want to focus on Merton’s account of his involvement with the planning of the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (DSB), and the computerized “data bank” that didn’t accompany it.

The DSB was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), and edited by historian of science Charles Gillispie.  It appeared between 1970 and 1976, with two supplemental volumes appearing by 1980.  Gillispie envisioned the dictionary as primarily a historical, indeed, a scientific resource on the work of past figures.  However, in the planning stages, he also consulted Merton about what information sociologists might find useful:

I should be glad of your special attention to page 3 [of the instructions given to contributors], where we set down the items of personal information we want to include in every article.  What else should we ask for?  How else should we ask for it? — so that our DSB would give you the kind of information you wish you had had in the DNB [Dictionary of National Biography], or that future sociologists will seek in our work.

(p. 40, Gillispie to Merton, 27 April 1965)

In his essay, Merton traced efforts to undertake prosopographical analysis of scientists’ career information to Swiss botanist Alphonse de Candolle’s (1806-1893) and Francis Galton’s (1822-1911) efforts to compile biographical information on scientists.*  However, later efforts to undertake such analyses were stymied by a lack of proper data.  The available data in the major biographical resource for British subjects, the DNB, were incomplete and of variable quality.  In their 1974 article, “Prosopography as a Research Tool in History of Science: The British Scientific Community 1700–1900,” (History of Science 12, 321-349) Steven Shapin and Arnold Thackray argued that a proper study of scientific communities would require the inclusion of more individuals than those discussed in the DNB.  Despite his fondness for that resource, Merton agreed.

Thus the DSB represented a “wholly new opportunity to arrange for abundant comparable data needed for the historical sociology of science on a scale inconceivable before” (41).  Merton and Gillispie hoped to computerize more data than actually appeared in the printed dictionary in order to make it available for systematic study by the growing community of sociologists of science.  This effort was supported by Thomas Kuhn, Derek de Solla Price (a major proponent of the quantitative analysis of science), and his student at Yale, Donald Beaver, who was at work on his dissertation, “The American Scientific Community, 1800–1860: An Historical and Statistical Study” (subsequently published rather cheaply).

Merton had expected the integration of biographical research and data entry to be a heuristic experience (41–42):

Within the limits of available information, precisely the same kinds of data for each scientist would be recorded on computer tape…  Periodically, as the data were assembled for successive volumes of the DSB and the extended version of the sociological schedule was coded onto tape, trial quantitative analyses of the materials in hand could be conducted.  Unanticipated flaws and gaps in the data could thus be detected in process and, while a standardized core of information would be retained for all biographies, appropriate changes could be periodically introduced to provide for increasingly adequate information about successive samples.

The project became the subject of graduate seminars at Columbia University, which Merton ran with research associate Harriet Zuckerman (whom he would marry in 1993), where, Merton attests, further difficulties in integrating data from a diverse historical terrain were ironed out.

Gillispie, who was also serving as president of the History of Science Society, championed the project, but met resistance with the ACLS committee overseeing the project.  According to him, their “reactions drastically divided between enthusiasm and hostility.”  According to Merton, “Most historians of science at the time were not inclined to take kindly to the quantitative study of any aspect of their subject (nor, perhaps, are they now).  They were not apt to be kindly disposed toward having the president of their learned Society advocate a research program of that kind” (43).

Merton recalled (46):

In retrospect, it seems to me that the conception was chancier than I was prepared to believe.  No doubt, many contributors would have balked at doing the hard work to dig up obscure data which limitations of space would not allow them to record in print.  Perhaps the anonymity of these contributions to the archive would have sapped motivation as well.  Perhaps, more than I realized, historians of science would look askance at some of the wide array of questions incorporated in the schedule, see small point in them or find them altogether absurd from the perspective of their own specialized competence, and refuse to take any further part in the DSB itself, let alone in contributing to the suspect archive.

In light of resistance, and the prospect that the effort threatened the DSB itself, Gillispie decided in 1966 to abandon the idea.  Gillispie subsequently received word from Roy MacLeod at Sussex (who had learned of the DSB effort from Bob Young at Cambridge) that he, too, was interested in computerizing DSB data, but this also came to naught.

Merton reflected that he was “saddened by what still appears to have been a missed opportunity,” and that he hoped “that the scholars who put their controlling stamp of disapproval upon the idea would now prefer, as occasionally is the case with other august courts of final judgment, to reverse their earlier decision” (46–47).

Now, personally, I am not much of an enthusiast for statistical or otherwise demographic analyses of scientific figures and their work, though I do think there is a regrettable lack of quantitative evidence in historical research (how many articles were published on subject X, and in comparison to other subjects, how many people worked on it….).

I am enthusiastic that computerizing information can help to make the historical record much more navigable (thus my “Array of Contemporary American Physicists” web project, which I will continue to tout, though its “topics” section remains underdeveloped).  So I find it pretty embarrassing that nothing like this 1960s-era project has been accomplished almost fifty years later, despite the fact that computer technology has become much more accessible, powerful, and user-friendly in the intervening decades.

We should feel proud of the digitization of catalogs, article databases, and increasingly archives, but I don’t think we should feel too proud.  If we view ourselves as being decades rather than years into this conversation, these accomplishments seem rather mundane.  In fact, there is still too much hand-wringing over the validity of the “digital humanities” rather than recognition of the clear potential of these tools, and progressive conversations over how they can and cannot be used constructively, and on a regular basis.

Yes, it can be tedious work, but there are risks in letting the world pass us by.  As we will see in the sequel to this post, Merton and his contemporaries interested in “citation analysis” were in tangential contact with the creation of the Science Citation Index, and thence the development of “scientometrics”.  Needless to say, we are scarcely on the same planet as these things today.  We (and many others) justly complain about their superficiality, but realistically we are presently in no position to contribute to their improvement and sensible use.

*The key works are Galton’s Hereditary Genius (1869) and English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (1874), and Condolle’s Histoire des sciences et des savants depuis deux siècles (1872).  Galton’s work was, of course, part of his efforts to develop eugenic doctrines using statistics.  Merton notes, “Galton concluded broadly and most egregiously that, with some differences among spheres of activity, heredity largely accounted for genius or great talent while environment had somewhat more to do with the sphere in which the talent found expression” (29).


1. Rebekah Higgitt - April 15, 2012

Fascinating – I knew nothing about this possible project. It interests, and worries, me that in history of science important digital projects seen to have done too much to tell us *even more* about Newton, Darwin, Tyndall or Einstein and not enough to help reveal the less well-known figures and activities. We do, indeed, need an ambitious project to help redress the balance.

2. Gustav Holmberg - April 16, 2012

Yes, fascinating. And, indeed, lots more to be done in this field. Good post!

3. William Burns - April 18, 2012

Hi Will and Rebekah, Hopefully we will see a growing community in this field that will give us the data to re-address our understanding beyond a few ‘famous’ individuals.

4. Chris Williams - May 17, 2012
Will Thomas - May 18, 2012

Thanks! — I wasn’t aware of this, and it looks like a great resource, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be working at the moment.

Chris Williams - July 2, 2012

Nice to meet you last week, Will, and nicer yet to learn that my late-night drive-by comments are getting attention that they really don’t deserve.

5. The Giant’s Shoulders Blog Carnival Is Here! – My New WordPress Site - April 8, 2016

[…] Will Thomas of Ether Wave Propaganda discusses Robert K. Merton and the Dictionary of Scientific Biography in Merton, the DSB, and the Failed Digital Humanities of the 1960s. […]

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