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Useful Portraits in the Mid-Century Social Sciences December 30, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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cwssMy meditation on whether there is a “whig” narrative permeating the historiography of the social sciences may give the impression that I have a fundamental objection to the Cold War Social Science (CWSS) volume. In fact, I like the book a great deal. Rather, as someone who is probably among the top 20 people worldwide with practical use for the book, thinking about a “whig” narrative helps me articulate what aspects of it are the most useful.

Having worked for some time in the history of the related subjects of operations research, systems analysis, and decision theory, I have become intimately familiar with the argumentative tropes that permeate their historiography, and which overlap with the ones surrounding the social sciences of the Cold War era. These include the supposed historical existence of: a faith in science, a particular authority attributed to formalized knowledge, and a systematic discounting of tradition and cultural peculiarity.

Even if I didn’t think these tropes were seriously misleading (though I do), the simple repetition of them in different contexts would not be very helpful to me. Locating the tropes within a general narrative allows me to identify what those tropes would look like in a different segment of the narrative (say, a post-1970 history, or the history of a different field), and thus what things I “already know,” even if the precise details are foreign to me. For example, I am not especially well versed in the history of psychology, but if the stories historians tell me about it conform to the general narrative I already know, then they are not really telling me much that is useful beyond making me aware of perhaps a new proper name or two, which I will probably promptly forget. By this criterion, a good portion of CWSS is not especially useful.

But much of it is. Here I will briefly discuss what I personally found to be the most useful pieces in the volume.


Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 3 November 17, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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In previous posts, I have noted characteristics historians attribute to Cold War-era social science, and have posited that the historiography of the social sciences often follows a “whig” structure. This narrative structure builds history around the social sciences’ move away from inappropriate frameworks. These frameworks privileged the sciences’ own cultural perspective, and projected it onto, and proselytized it to, other cultures by means of the sciences’ intellectual and political influence. The whig structure also (implicitly or explicitly) takes the trend of history to move toward a more passive or dialogical social scientific framework pioneered by cultural anthropologists.

The context of “Cold War America” is critical to this narrative, because it provides 1) a particular “liberal” or “modernist” cultural perspective that informed the work of the period, 2) the project of strengthening and defending liberal society at home and abroad—through a) the development of scientific theories of the nature of modern, liberal, and illiberal society, and b) the instrumental use of social science in augmenting military and diplomatic power—and, accordingly, 3) funding.

Lyndon Johnson and adviser (and modernization theorist) Walt Rostow discussing Vietnam

The trouble with this narrative structure is that it tends to constrain historical analysis so that it produces stories that conform to it. At the same time, it would be difficult to sustain such narratives if the record did not at least bear some resemblance to it. The place where the record most clearly resembles this narrative is in a branch of sociology and political science known as “modernization theory”.


Cold War Social Science and the Rubric of the “Cold War” September 6, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature. edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

I’d like to begin our look at this book with the question that Mark Solovey brings up in the title of his introductory piece, “Cold War Social Science: Specter, Reality, or Useful Concept?”  Basically, we now have a full-fledged professional historiography of “Cold War science and technology,” and a very large number of books and papers in the genre use the term “Cold War” as an adjective in their titles.  The idea, of course, is that the Cold War does not simply mark the period in which the events discussed take place, it is a (if not the) crucial context for understanding them.

As I understand the issue, we can divide up the way the Cold War matters into roughly three divisions:

  1. A lot of research was done directly in support of military and global political activities, most of it under contract with, and in some cases directly for, the military.
  2. Other research did not directly support Cold War activities, but it benefitted from state largess on the assumption that it might yield material benefit down the line, or the research was ancillary to category (1) research, and so funded as part of a broader package of work (say, theoretical mathematics related to cryptography).
  3. Other research had no relation to Cold War activities at all, but was nevertheless supported by rhetoric that linked it vaguely to the national interest, which was more apt to pique attention given Cold War anxieties.


Unfocused: Science, Technology, and the Cold War November 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Collectively, historians know a lot about science and technology during the Cold War.  A significant number of books and articles have been written about the ambitious technological systems developed during the era, the enormous scientific endeavors made possible by expanded state and military funding, the rise of new intellectual programs in fundamental physics and molecular biology, the expansion of geoscience and social science and the development of new methods in them, the global integration of scientific work, and the importance of digital computation, among other subjects.  Accordingly, the present is an excellent time to reflect on and consolidate what has been learned, render the history of the era more navigable, and to suggest forward-looking research programs.

Unfortunately, this past summer’s Isis Focus section, edited by David Kaiser and Hunter Heyck did not take the opportunity to do that.  The limit of the section’s synthesis essentially said what the paragraph above said at greater length, and left the rest of the space as a forum for the individual contributors to showcase their own research projects, which are taken to “exemplify” recent research trends.  In this way, this Focus section is little different from past sections, which position themselves as the beginnings of new conversation, present some new empirical work, but mainly simply recapitulate basic ideas that can be considered the agreed-upon points in an aging scholarship, while reciting the perpetual mantra that “more work is needed” for any real understanding to occur.  This blog typically does not take these sections up.  But, since Cold War-era science is my own specialty, I thought a (now rather belated) critique of this particular section might be in order.