jump to navigation

Joel Isaac at Imperial College CHoSTM Seminar Tomorrow [Canceled] March 13, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: ,
add a comment

Update: I’ve just learned that Joel has had to cancel.  Alas.

I’ve been extraordinarily busy lately, so I haven’t been able to spare time for a post.  Maybe in a week or so I’ll be back up and running.  But, for any Londoners out there, I wanted to plug Imperial College London’s CHoSTM seminar for tomorrow, 14 March 2013, since it’s being given by Joel Isaac of the Cambridge History Faculty.  If you’ve been reading my recent posts on 20th-century social science, you’ll know I’m a big fan.  As usual, it will be in the Seminar and Learning Centre (SALC) on the 5th floor of the Sherfield Building of the South Kensington campus, at 4:00 PM.

Philosophy as a Behavioural Science: Donald Davidson and the Analytic Revolution in Postwar American Philosophy

Abstract below the fold


Useful Portraits in the Mid-Century Social Sciences December 30, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

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.


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.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

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.


Cold War Social Science and the Rubric of the “Cold War” September 6, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
Tags: , , ,

Cold War Social Science: Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature. edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

I’d like to begin our look at this book with the question that Mark Solovey brings up in the title of his introductory piece, “Cold War Social Science: Specter, Reality, or Useful Concept?”  Basically, we now have a full-fledged professional historiography of “Cold War science and technology,” and a very large number of books and papers in the genre use the term “Cold War” as an adjective in their titles.  The idea, of course, is that the Cold War does not simply mark the period in which the events discussed take place, it is a (if not the) crucial context for understanding them.

As I understand the issue, we can divide up the way the Cold War matters into roughly three divisions:

  1. A lot of research was done directly in support of military and global political activities, most of it under contract with, and in some cases directly for, the military.
  2. Other research did not directly support Cold War activities, but it benefitted from state largess on the assumption that it might yield material benefit down the line, or the research was ancillary to category (1) research, and so funded as part of a broader package of work (say, theoretical mathematics related to cryptography).
  3. Other research had no relation to Cold War activities at all, but was nevertheless supported by rhetoric that linked it vaguely to the national interest, which was more apt to pique attention given Cold War anxieties.


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.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

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.


Unfocused: Science, Technology, and the Cold War November 28, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

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.