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The links between science studies and British “declinist” discourse April 22, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Rose and Rose

In trying to characterize the roots of contemporary history of science and science studies, one of the crucial features I have hit upon is their presentation of science, and particularly its place in society, as historically and continually beset by a widespread failure to understand the nature of science and the science-society relationship.*  This failure structures narratives which involve various tensions, confusions, and failures of policy and morality, all of which ultimately necessitate the latter-day formulation of an iconoclastic critique of science.  These narratives, in turn, have the effect of inflating the apparent present-day novelty and cogency of these professions’ central critical insights.

Now, this has long been an interesting issue for me, partially because it actually mirrors a major point in my work on the history of operations research, scientific advising, systems analysis, and related developments in World War II and after.  These developments were often cast as representing a realignment (or potential realignment) of the relationship between “science” and “the state”. As David Edgerton has pointed out, the purported need for such a realignment is a characteristic feature of narratives of British national “decline,” which explain that decline at least partially in terms of a national failure to appreciate and take proper advantage of science.  C. P. Snow’s 1959 book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution is a well-known manifestation of this narrative, but it was widespread before and after Snow’s contribution.

A big question that has weighed on me is whether that older discourse is directly related to the contemporary one.  Recently, while working on the conclusion of my book, I believe I found what may be a “golden spike” linking the two discourses buried in radical British science journalist J. G. Crowther’s (1899-1983) Science in Modern Society (1967, in which operational research features prominently) and Hilary Rose and Steven Rose’s Science and Society (1969).

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David Apter on Ideology, Economic Development, and Social Science (1964) January 9, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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David Apter in 1953 at University College of the Gold Coast, photo by Eleanor Apter.  Click for Apter Collection at Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

David Apter in 1953 at University College of the Gold Coast at Achimota. Photo by Eleanor Apter. Click for a larger version at the Apter Collection of photographs at Yale University Manuscripts and Archives

Clifford Geertz’s well-known 1964 essay, “Ideology as a Cultural System” appeared in a volume called Ideology and Discontent, which was edited by David Apter (1924-2010). Apter (you might recall from this post) was a modernization theorist.  His best-known work on the subject was The Politics of Modernization (1965).  The appearance of Geertz’s essay in Apter’s volume should be no surprise since Geertz was himself a scholar of modernization, and served with Apter as a member of the University of Chicago’s Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations.  (Relevant here is Geertz’s long discussion near the end of his 1964 essay on the political culture of newly independent Indonesia.)

Apter’s own introductory essay in the volume (titled “Ideology and Discontent,” pp. 15-46) is a discussion of the relationship between economic development, political ideology, and social science, and is very much in the tradition of the intellectual liberalism of that era.  But it also zigs in certain places where you might expect it to zag, and, though it is not as lucid or valuable as Geertz’s essay, it is very much worth a read to try and get a beat on some of the contours of the kind of critical-interpretive social science in which Apter was engaged.  Additionally, it is the earliest reference I have so-far come across to the “ideology of science,” which is a concept I have been tracking off and on through this blog (though Google Books informs me there are a number of earlier precedents).

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Clifford Geertz on “Ideology” as an Analytical Term, Pt. 2 April 11, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences, Ideology of Science.
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This post continues Pt. 1 of a look at Clifford Geertz’s “Ideology as a Cultural System,” first published in Ideology and Its Discontents, ed. David E. Apter (Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), pp. 47-76.

But, before returning to Geertz, I’d like to detour for a quick look at Erik Erikson (1902-1994).  In addition to being a psychologist, Erikson was part of an illustrious club of postwar intellectuals.  His Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958) was cited in a particularly broad literature in the ’60s and ’70s (here’s the Google ngram for “Young Man Luther”), and he was particularly important in establishing “identity” as a term of analysis.  Here’s his take on “ideology” and its relationship to “identity” from the introduction to that book (22):

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Clifford Geertz on “Ideology” as an Analytical Term, Pt. 1 April 1, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences, Ideology of Science.
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Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

I suspect most historians, including myself, could not say much about the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s work and ideas beyond the two-word phrase “thick description”.  Yet, almost all historians will know at least that much.  Further, although he borrowed the phrase from Gilbert Ryle, these historians will likely associate the phrase with Geertz, probably because at some point they have read his 1972 essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”.  As an undergraduate history major, I was assigned it as part of my senior year methods course.

I would argue that most historians know about thick description, as exemplified in “Deep Play”, because it has become integral to our sense of professional identity.  It articulates what we have the ability and freedom to do, which others cannot (or, for ideological reasons, do not) do.   This identity identifies historians as reliable experts at getting beyond the surface features of a culture and teasing out the hidden values and presuppositions lurking within its more visible elements: its texts, its propaganda, its day-to-day practices, its objects, and so forth.

Unfortunately, this skill is often treated as a kind of secret, to which historians simply gain access upon induction into the historians’ guild by reading works like “Deep Play”.  Once in, you need not worry too much about what actually constitutes legitimate and valuable interpretations of past cultures.  (My bête noire is historians’ continued belief that “scientism” and “technological enthusiasm” constitute legitimate characterizations of the rationales in certain technical and political cultures.)

We could doubtless benefit from reading more of Geertz on the proper interpretation of culture.  This post is about his essay, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” first published in Ideology and Discontent, ed. David E. Apter (Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), pp. 47-76, which still bears sober reading a half-century later.

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Harry Collins, Methodological Relativism, and Sociological Explanation, Pt. 1 July 19, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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When I was at SEESHOP5 in Cardiff last month, I had an opportunity to talk a little with Harry Collins about the history of his work, its relationship to the history of science, relativism, radicalism, and STS.

People involved in Collins’ “Sociology of Expertise and Experience” (SEE) project would like their work to inform future STS scholarship.  However, by their estimate, STS has been reluctant to take up SEE.  This has led the SEE crowd to chart their own course, distinguishing their work as committed to a constructive deliberation about the nature and social operation of expertise, which they would contrast to an argumentation-averse, and ultimately nonconstructive critical orthodoxy prevailing in STS.

Now, STS distinguishes itself by a sort of ambivalently* radical relativist intellectual position, descending from the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) project of the late-1970s and 1980s.  By attempting to define the bounds of expert authority, the SEE project is often taken to be a retreat from STS-brand radicalism to a more traditional set of ideas about expertise.  It has sometimes been paired with Bruno Latour’s own apparent retreat (pdf) around the same time as the SEE project got started, in the early 2000s.

Collins denies that SEE represents any shift in his critical position: for him it is just a shift to a different methodology and a different sort of problem.  (more…)

Cultural History of Knowledge and Post-Marxist Social History of Science April 30, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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The Edinburgh Science Studies Unit in the early 1980s; Steven Shapin is second from the left in the back row; David Bloor is first on the left and Barry Barnes is second from the right in the front row

Circa 1980, “social” historians who explored the connections between scientific work and its political, social, and economic milieus showed an interest in how scientists selected their objects of inquiry, in the allocation of scientific research effort, and in the social function of scientific work.  Unlike many historians of science, they showed comparatively little interest in the development of scientific knowledge itself.  In 1982 Steven Shapin wrote that he saw “no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but,” he observed, “much literature in the social history of science has less of a connection with the sociology of knowledge than many apparently traditional exercises in the history of ideas” (my emphasis).

At that time, Shapin was a key figure in a movement that was opposed to a traditional philosophy-inspired history of science, which sifted “science” out of history and narrated its progress; to a Mertonian sociology of science, which delineated the conditions in which “science” takes place; and indeed to the social history of science, which linked lines of research to social interests, but which often took research results for granted.

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The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 2 April 19, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility, EWP Book Club.
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This post continues Pt. 1 without re-introduction

What I like to call the “cult of invisibility” was a staple of Marxist analysis, with its constraining socio-economic structures and its psychology of false consciousness.  Invisible constraints of this sort are taken to render certain classes of actors in some sense powerless and ineffectual — their invisibility or silence or inability to articulate or perhaps even feel their own plight explains a failure of something to happen, such as the ascendancy of the working class.

In addition, historians often connect such invisible constraints to a historiographical prejudice, whereby the persistence of psychological and intellectual constraints through history restricts present ideas about what sorts of things constitute proper history, which renders certain aspects of the past systematically invisible to historical memory.   This second, historiographical form of invisibility establishes a social need for the services of the critically trained historian who can identify invisible prejudices, recover systematically concealed aspects of history, and make them more generally known, possibly helping to overcome the forces of invisibility in our own time.  E. P. Thompson’s (1924-1993) The Making of the English Working Class (1963) is probably the key work in this tradition.

The cult of invisibility not only survives, but thrives in the transition to post-Marxist historiographical analysis — a transition in which Thompson’s work was arguably instrumental.  In Morris Berman’s book on the Royal Institution (RI), the role of science as a cultural force that creates invisibility is emphasized. His major demonstration of this point comes in his extended analysis of Michael Faraday’s (and, incidentally, Charles Lyell‘s) role in the investigation verdict that there was no fault in the 1844 Haswell coal mine explosion, which had killed 94 mine workers including young boys (pp. 179-180): (more…)