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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.


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.


The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 3 April 21, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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This post continues Pt. 2.  (Or, return to Pt. 1)

At the beginning of his preface to his book on the early years of the Royal Institution, Morris Berman explicitly states that his aim is to use history “to ask … significant questions regarding the nature and function of science in industrial society” (xi).  At the end of Pt. 2, I wrote that I believe we are secure insofar as we say that “science” and “reason” were “important cultural touchstones” in 19th-century Britain.

What I meant by a touchstone is that claiming that an explanation of something was “scientific” or that a proposed plan of action was “reasonable” would have been a means of associating the explanation or plan with a high status.  (These are of course still touchstones, although my impression is their present use in public discourse carries less of a sense of general virtue.)  However, given the number of such touchstones any society has — many of them contradictory — and given the lack of any control over the use of such touchstones, to say that some concept was a touchstone is not to say much at all.  Could, for example, an explanation deemed “scientific” trump an assessment of a plan as “unfair”?  It is not clear to me that we can say anything about the interplay of these concepts that would consistently describe social and political action, or even rhetoric in 19th-century Britain.


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…)

The Post-Marxist Social History of Science of Morris Berman, Pt. 1 April 12, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, Ideology of Science.
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The main source for my last post, Morris Berman’s Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 (1978), is a very good example of a post-Marxist social history of science.  The historiographical tradition of the social history of science will benefit from some reflection, because it has been eclipsed for a quarter century, though some of its basic strategies remain phenomenally influential.  The key component, now largely missing, is the sustained analysis of how the direction of scientific research programs align with their social and economic milieu (though, of course, sources of patronage remain a subject of interest).

Unsurprisingly, Marxism is a key methodological source for the social history of science.  Traditionally, Marxist history of science maintained a narrow conceptual gap between general scientific inquiry and research related to technological development and industrial production.  Marxist analysts — the crystallographer and intellectual J. D. Bernal (1901-1971) being a prime example — usually emphasized the historical connection between scientific research and capitalist and militaristic interests.  Generally, they would not deny the importance of research pursued for intellectual interest, but they would view a self-imposed isolation of this research to be a bourgeois conceit.  Eager to point out that fundamental advances and practical problems often feed off each other, Marxists urged that scientists should take an active, conscious interest in social and political problems.

In his analysis of the history of the RI, Berman retains the Marxist emphasis in class interest, using a prosopographical analysis of the RI’s proprietors to convincingly chart a shift from an early dominance by the agenda of landed interests to a post-1815 dominance by a reform-minded class of business, legal, and medical professionals.  (more…)

Primer: Agriculture, the Royal Institution, and the Spirit of Improvement April 7, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Since my interest in agricultural research focuses on the activities of the 20th-century British state, I didn’t really expect to return to Britain’s original Board of Agriculture (1793-1820).  But then the head of our Centre here at Imperial, Andy Mendelsohn, showed up in my office a couple of weeks ago with Morris Berman’s Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 (1978), which he thought might interest me.  Not only is there some good agriculture-related material, but it intersects a number of different interests on this blog.  The book is actually in itself an interesting case to study from a historiographical point of view, which will be the subject of a separate post.

In his 1803 will, Edward Goat referred to the Royal Institution as the “New Society of Husbandry &c lately established in Albermarle Street”

Berman shows quite nicely that the foundation of the Royal Institution (RI) in 1799 was part and parcel of the late 18th-century enthusiasm for estate improvement and philanthropy.  As he argues, “It is not customary to see the RI, the SBCP [Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, est. 1796], and the Board of Agriculture as a triad, but it was the same set of social and economic developments that brought them into being and gave them a similar, if not common agenda; and it was roughly the same group of men who sat on their governing boards” (2).