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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”.

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