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The Projects of Operations Research and the Ontology of Management June 16, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Commentary Track, Operations Research.
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I’d like to test drive my new critical tool (“discipline & ontology” vs. “projects”) on my new article, “Operations Research vis-à-vis Management”.  I think it’s a useful alternative analysis, which would never have made any final, published version of the article, but which nicely brings out the intricacy, subtlety, and importance of the issues at play.

I would argue that the historiography of OR has been dominated by the notion that OR was, essentially, an attempt (in the footsteps of Taylorism) to transform the ontology of military planning and industrial management from one of seasoned leadership into one of “science”.  This shows up in the historiography of wartime OR, but especially in treatments of OR’s postwar adoption of mathematical formalism as its intellectual core.  This last turn has been regarded as a clear departure from any sensible conception of management, and it can therefore only be explained as a kind of fetishization of science.

As I put it in my paper:

Prior accounts of OR’s turn to mathematical specialization have … assumed that the development of a mathematical canon represented a sort of pathology of professionalization, which detached it from the generalist investigations touted by its wartime practitioners. Andrew Abbott [The System of Professions (1988)] has suggested that ‘mathematical preeminence’ was a ‘professional regression’ resulting from a turn toward self-regarding academic virtuosity in OR. Thomas Hughes [Rescuing Prometheus (1998)] has grouped OR with systems engineering as a technical form of expertise that became subjected to typical criticisms of technocratic management and had to be supplemented by more humanistic and democratically inclusive ‘postmodern’ methods. Such accounts … suppose a chronological process of neglect or attainment of some general nontechnical conception of management, which might have granted OR wider and more legitimate authority.



The 20th-Century Problem: Krige and National Narrative November 8, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
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In my last discussion of the challenges involved in writing about the history of science in the 20th century, I noted that local narratives can be taken to be revealing of broader issues, but that such narratives can also simply reflect back some larger narrative already understood to exist.  In this post we take this consideration to the case of the national narrative.

John Krige’s 2006 book American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe is, I would say, an important step in the establishment of a historiography of post-1945 science on the European continent.  Until recently, the history of scientific Europe in this period has not been systematically explored.  1999’s Science under Socialism, edited by Dieter Hoffmann and Kristie Macrakis (who just joined Krige at Georgia Tech this year), etched out a picture of science in East Germany.  Cathryn Carson has written on science in West Germany (publications list here).  In 1998’s The Radiance of France (out in a new edition this year), Gabrielle Hecht wrote on the development of the unusually important nuclear power industry in that country.  The object here is not to put together a complete bibliography, but if anyone wants to add to the picture of this historiography, please do leave a comment.

Krige’s book covers a lot of important bases, looking at the Marshall Plan, NATO, the State Department and CIA, the activities of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and the establishment of CERN (on which he has written more extensively elsewhere) as institutions linking American and European science and politics.  (Here one should also make note of Ron Doel‘s ongoing project to study American science’s diplomatic uses.)  Similar to Needell’s book on Lloyd Berkner, the emphasis here is on individual cases.  In this case, different (more…)