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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.


OR, Management, and Economics: Historiographical Gains, Context, and Questions June 2, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought, Operations Research.
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A recent picture of Jay Forrester at the MIT Sloan Building (from his MIT web page)

This post continues my provision of supplementary commentary for my Business History Review article, “Operations Research vis-à-vis Management at Arthur D. Little and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s(Thomas 2012). In it, I look at a history split between this article and my 2009 article with Lambert Williams, “Epistemologies of Non-Forecasting Simulations, Part I: Industrial Dynamics and Management Pedagogy at MIT” (Thomas and Williams 2009).

When MIT established its new School of Industrial Management (SIM) in the early 1950s, the institute’s administrators sought a signature approach to the subject reflecting its strengths in science and engineering.  This search moved from operations research (OR) to Jay Forrester’s “industrial dynamics”.  In the end, neither approach became the distinguished approach to management that MIT sought, though SIM and OR would both become individually successful within the Institute.

The last part of this post puts this story in the context of the more successful effort of the Carnegie Institute of Technology to develop a high-profile program for its Graduate School of Industrial Administration, which was established around the same time.  Carnegie Tech’s approach to management had strong intellectual connections with academic economics — an intellectual model that soon attracted the field of OR into its orbit.  The equivalent intellectual and institutional movement at MIT was to be found in the ascendancy of its economics department.


SEE Q&A (8): Expertise as a “Classic Problem” November 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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As we conclude our 8-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans concerning their Sociology of Expertise and Experience project, I would like to thank them for taking the time to answer the questions and for participating in the blog format.  As we continue to toss around and develop ideas on this site, I imagine we will have many opportunities to refer back to this series.  Please note that Collins and Evans crafted their responses jointly.

Will Thomas: You mentioned back in your foundational paper in SSS (cited here) that the establishment of levels of expertise “has the feel of a classic problem”.  I would tend to agree, finding in my own work on operations research that creating social arrangements where “policy science” can contribute to rather than dictate decision making was a central concern in the postwar evolution of the various policy sciences.  In reading your work I am reminded of Herb Simon’s work Administrative Behavior, or even Robert Merton’s “The Role of Applied Social Science in the Formation of Policy: A Research Memorandum” Philosophy of Science 16 (1949) 161-181.  Have you been finding over the last several years that SEE has had resonance in other fields?

Harry Collins and Rob Evans: It does not surprise us to find that SEE resonates with post-war work because of the fact that both maintain a divide between the technical and the political.  Thus we find 1950s debates in the British Civil Service about the role of technical experts in respect of generalists and the continuing question of whether scientists should be ‘on tap or on top.’  We are undoubtedly going over much of the ground that was first traversed in Wave 1 but we are not going back to same way of thinking.  The differences between Wave 3 and Wave 1, as have been remarked above, concern the nature (more…)

Wave Three in the Sociological SEE March 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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By far the most interesting thing cropping up in my semi-annual journal review will not be featured in the History Center newsletter, because it is not directly concerned with physics. It is the recent Studies in History and Philosophy of Science dedicated to Harry Collins, Robert Evans, and Mike Gorman’s attempt to create “Wave Three” in the sociology of science, which Collins calls Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEE) (originally outlined in a 2002 article by Collins and Evans in Social Studies of Science). To recap, Wave One is the “science is a special form of knowledge” associated with Merton et al.; Wave Two is the “no it isn’t” SSK trend that I’ve been rambling about here as a central motivator of the case study literature found in the history journals.

Wave Three is designed to correct the obvious and longstanding shortcomings in Wave Two by focusing on the social dynamics of “expertise” rather than “truth-production”–that is, roughly, trying to explain not only how knowledge is validated by society, but the mechanisms by which it actually becomes useful. Before descending into the usual sociological hell of illustrative case examples, labyrinthine jargon, and funny diagrams (here, things like the “Periodic Table of Expertises”), the three of them come up with some useful ideas, particularly one about “interactional expertise”, which they seem to view as a generalization of the Galisonian “trading zone”.

Effectively, interactional expertise deals with knowledge exchange between groups who overlap, whose knowledge is relevant to each other’s activities, but who are not part of the same expert community. It also puts knowledge in the framework of decision-making rather than knowledge-production, which has some interesting possibilities I could talk about later. (It also suggests they may simply be covering ground that Herbert Simon covered in Administrative Behavior 60 years ago during the supposed heyday of Wave One).

I think the Wave Three’ers are a little hamstrung by their seeming unwillingness to discuss epistemology (a remnant of the old antagonisms with the philosophers?), but it still strikes me as salubrious given the historiographical trends produced by Wave Two. (Conveniently, it also meshes quite well with some ideas appearing in my dissertation and forthcoming book, but that’s a topic for a time when the book is much nearer to the printing press!)