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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. 2 October 21, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post is an interlude in my look at Cold War Social Science. It paves the way for further discussion of that book, but contains no reference to its contents.

A new whig historiography of the social sciences, which I began to describe in part 1, posits a crucial role for intellectual figures’ ideas in history. These ideas need not be the source of the broader (non-intellectualized) ideas that drive social and political trends. Intellectuals’ ideas do, however, at least have the power to reinforce such trends by helping to prevent alternative ideas from instigating change. Thus, in this historiography, past intellectuals’ ideas tend to be illiberal ideas.

The historiography is whiggish rather than anti-intellectual in that it is constructed from the narratives of intellectuals who purport to represent the advent of a genuinely liberating intellectual movement. To understand the narrative features of this historiography, it is important to understand how it retains elements of narratives generated by a long line of purportedly liberating intellectual movements, and how it claims to diverge from them.


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…)