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Are the social sciences concerned with the definition of social and political ontologies? December 1, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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cwssIt is consistent with a new whig history of the social sciences to suppose that, in a former era, these sciences attempted to define the ontologies of aspects of society through the application of scientific method. For example, theories of modernization defined the nature of the modern liberal society, as well as the path that “traditional” society (another ontology) would need to take to transition to a state of modernity. Such acts of definition, in turn, had the capacity to affect politics and social relations, because, historically, the act of scientific definition could privilege and reify ontologies on account of the cultural authority attributed to science at that time.

Now, however (according to this narrative), we have come to see the futility of such efforts. Instead, the object is not to define ontology, but to ascertain how ontologies are defined from culture to culture, including in the scientific culture of our social scientific ancestors. Accordingly, Cold War Social Science is divided into three sections, labeled “Knowledge Production”, “Liberal Democracy”, and “Human Nature”. The last two sections revolve around two categories of ontologies seen as being at play. The first section revolves arund the means that the social sciences used to define these ontologies, i.e., to produce “knowledge” about them.

Of course, these section headers seem mainly to be descriptors of convenience. Individual authors have different takes on the relations between social science and ontology. Edward Jones-Imhotep frames his chapter, “Maintaining Humans,” as a concept history of the ontology of human reliability. He wants “to explore how, where, and why these seemingly distinct spheres of distrust—the human and the technological—came together and defined one another during the Cold War” (175). This itself is part of a larger history of the Cold War ontology of the “technological self” (176). We are eight pages into the article before we learn that the chapter is really about the fields of engineering psychology and human factors engineering, and even further before we learn that, more specifically, it’s about the Electronics Personnel Research Group at the University of Southern California and Philco’s Human Factors Engineering Department, and their efforts to simultaneously design technological systems so that they can be easily repaired and maintained, as well as training regimens for maintenance technicians. Personally, I would have found it much more useful to learn more about this work and its more immediate contexts, than to reflect on the conception of the technician within it.

Hunter Heyck uses a similar strategy in his chapter, “Producing Reason,” in which he looks at “a perspective on humans and their behaviors that was quite new to and startingly widespread in post-war social science,” in which “we humans are, fundamentally, choosers” (99). He specifically charts “a subtle, but significant, shift in the basic unit of study” from “the chooser” to “the choice” (104). This shift occurred in view of the failure of models or rational behavior (such as homo economicus) to describe the behavior of actual humans, auguring a “crisis of democratic theory” (102, quoting the title of Edward A. Purcell, Jr.’s 1973 book). By shifting the ontology from humans to their choices, it became possible to preserve an ontology of the rational society by making it an unconscious attribute of social behavior, as well by reconfiguring interpretations of observed choices not as rational or irrational according to some predefined criterion, but as “revealing” individual “preferences” (109)—to use economist Paul Samuelson’s (1915-2009) terminology—by seeing what goals individuals seem to rationally pursue.

Heyck is certainly correct to point to the centrality of choice to a number of social sciences in this period, and to portray the emphasis on choice as (at least partially) a response to the problem of the inscrutability of psychology in social scientific observation. Further, he fully recognizes that there were “very real differences” among the “sciences of choice” (108). That said, my own sense is that his chapter shows little interest in what these sciences were actually trying to accomplish, since (I think he would agree) members of these sciences were not constantly, or even mostly (or perhaps even, I would suggest, ever) occupied by “their attempts to produce reason, and, as they saw it, save democracy” (111). But the overall impression is that these sciences’ conceived of choice as less a promising object of inquiry, and more a uniquely proper metaphysics of social scientific knowledge.

An interesting point for me here is that Heyck’s 2006 biography of Herbert Simon (1916-2001) rather strongly influenced my own understanding of these genres of social science, and in particular their aversion to ontological commitment. Historians have sometimes marked the importance of the term “behavioral science” in this period, but have rarely clarified what it meant. For me, Heyck’s book remains the best articulation. In it, he clearly distinguishes B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism—briefly, a sort of ceteris paribus stimulus-response approach to observation in psychology—from Simon’s (and many others’) behavioralism, which is more of an attempt to describe, classify, and conceptually interrelate behaviors.

As I understand it, the objective of behavioral research is to build up a lexicon for comparative description and functional analysis. For example, in zoological studies, animals can be compared according to what sorts of behaviors (mating, grooming, etc…) they do and do not exhibit, and in what circumstances, without ever having to commit to their ontological roots (in physiology, neurology, or conscious cognition, for example). And you can do similar things in the analysis of human decision-making (Simon’s main area of attention), or in the functioning of bureaucratic organizations. By studying behaviors, it is also possible to draw analogies and comparisons across subject matters that are ontologically very different. For example, you can apply similar dynamical descriptions in the study of fluctuating animal populations (a history examined by Sharon Kingsland) or in economic markets. Defending the legitimacy of such an anti-ontological approach was the explicit burden of Simon’s 1969 book, The Sciences of the Artificial (now in its third edition).

Crucially, the objective of behavioral analysis was not to produce intellectually authoritative descriptions of ontologies like “human nature” or “democratic society”, and, despite some of its branches’ use of formalism, it had virtually no intellectual relationship with physics, as is often claimed. At its core, it was about intellectual clarity, that is, having clear definitions for analytical concepts, clearly stated—and thus more easily criticizable—hypotheses about the functional relations between concepts, as well as a well-developed language for relating observations to descriptions.

Among the authors in this volume, Joel Isaac takes this point the most seriously in his chapter, “Epistemic Design: Theory and Data in Harvard’s Department of Social Relations”. It was certainly the case that twentieth-century social scientists at Harvard and other elite institutions hoped to develop general “laws” of human behavior (81), but they had no illusions about the difficulty and long-term nature of the task. Isaac convincingly argues that, aside from that project, they were also deeply concerned with the perniciousness of implicit assumptions informing social scientific observations and interpretations.* For this reason, they developed explicit theoretical structures as part of a “self-conscious” (80) effort to bring order to the design of studies, and to make cross-cultural comparisons more meaningful.** In doing so, they understood themselves to be “operating at the boundaries of possible knowledge in the social sciences (sometimes, in the case of [Talcott] Parsons, beyond the horizons of intelligibility)” (92).

Isaac’s attention to self-consciousness is important here, because it is precisely this quality that historians often prove eager to deny historical actors whom they regard as flush with Cold War support, and accordingly overconfident in the scientific qualities of their methods and metaphysics. I would say that this same sensitivity that Isaac exhibits toward the particular projects of historical social scientists (as opposed to the perception of a need to reveal their underlying ontological commitments) also informs two other very useful chapters in this volume, Janet Martin-Nielsen’s “‘It Was All Connected’: Computers and Linguistics in Early Cold War America,” and Michael Bycroft’s “Psychology, Psychologists, and the Creativity Movement: The Lives of Method Inside and Outside the Cold War”.***

In my next post, I would like to compare and contrast Martin-Nielsen’s and Bycroft’s chapters with Nadine Weidman’s and Marga Vicedo’s pieces on social scientists who specifically conceived of themselves as operating in the sphere of public ideas. Both Weidman’s and Vicedo’s chapters are concerned with ontology, but I found both convincing and useful. I would like to speculate about whether ontologies have been historically perceived to play an important role in public discourse, as distinct from projects of academic and practical inquiry.

*If this sounds familiar, Isaac’s book, Working Knowledge (2012), clearly places Quine’s development of his philosophical ideas within this same intellectual milieu.

**This issue sounds a lot like Tjalling Koopmans’s 1947 “Measurement without Theory” critique, which sparked a long-remembered debate in postwar economics. I would be interested to know if there are common roots at work.

***David Engerman’s chapter on Soviet Studies and the Harvard Refugee Interview Project is also very useful and project sensitive. However, since he puts somewhat less emphasis on intellectual framework than Martin-Nielsen, Isaac, and Bycroft, I will bypass it in this discussion.


1. Shaky Foundations | The Bubble Chamber - January 6, 2013

[…] Thomas of Etherwave Propaganda has a good review as well as some interesting thoughts on the “definition of social and political ontologies” in relation to the […]

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