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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.

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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.

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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.

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Claims, Authority, and Spheres of Practice, Pt. 2 April 20, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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On initially looking at the articles on sciences in North America that BJHS has made available for free, one possible exercise that occurred to me was to draw some links between the pieces.  Perrin Selcer’s piece on “standardizing wounds” in World War I (“the scientific management of life in the First World War”), my piece on World War II operations research, Jeff Hughes’  review of recent a-bomb literature, and Jamie Cohen-Cole’s piece on Harvard’s Center for Cognitive Studies could conceivably be linked fairly easily.

On a closer look, this exercise seemed to be less potentially useful than I initially imagined.  While it might conceivably be possible to connect World War I-era wound treatment standardization to OR’s contributions to military planning, or OR to cognitive science (via decision theory), or, to go down another branch, to connect the treatment standardization issue to Christer Nordlund’s piece on hormone therapies creating improved people, it might not be wise.  It would be easy to wave one’s hands around about standardization, flexibility, knowledge, and large-scale practice, but the historical picture produced would, it seems to me, be more misleading than helpful.

Though these papers might all work their way into an edited volume with a sufficiently vague theme, none of them were written with the others in mind (for obvious reasons).  Importantly, though, even if the papers were more closely related, it would still be difficult to forge connections between them, because (more…)