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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.

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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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