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Otis T. Mason on Technology and the Progress of Civilization May 14, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Otis Mason (April 10, 1838 – November 5, 1908) was at the turn of the century one of the premier theorists  of primitive evolution.  He was a curator at the Smithsonian Institution for much of his career. Anthropologists remember him chiefly for his use of the “culture area concept” and for his contribution to “diffusionist studies.”   A “culture area” is a “region of relative environmental and cultural uniformity, characterized by societies with significant similarities in mode of adaptation and social structure.”

Diffusionism, as argued by the American anthropologist Clark Wissler, contended that cultural traits (gift-giving, technology, language, etc) moved from a given center, which implied that the “center of the trait distribution is also its earliest occurrence.” Wissler contended that cultural areas and geographic traits were “broadly congruent, implying a mild environmental determinism” (Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, ed. Alan J. Barnard, Jonathan Spencer, 61-62.)*


Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 1 August 24, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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This post looks at two works from the oeuvre of Simon Schaffer:

1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century” in Realism and Representation: Essays on the Problem of Realism in Relation to Science, Literature, and Culture, ed. George Levin, 1993, pp. 128-157.

2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain” in Rethinking Social History: English Society 1570-1920 and its interpretation, ed. Adrian Wilson, 1993, pp. 279-318.

Both papers find Schaffer on the hustings.  As historian of medicine Adrian Wilson puts it in the introduction to the Rethinking Social History volume, “Simon Schaffer’s chapter … can be read as a plea to social historians to concern themselves with the history of science.”  This appeal is made by identifying certain misconceptions about the role of science in history prevalent in a broader historiography.  According to Schaffer:

Received history has it that the eighteenth century was a crucial period for the establishment of [realist] regimes.  The novel and the experimental report appeared as legitimate means of representing the moral and the natural order….  Somehow or other, older, courtly forms of making knowledge failed or were thrust aside. (1; 283/5)


The social history of [stories about claims about things like humans giving birth to animals, perpetual motion, and the inverse square law of gravity] has typically been described in terms of the ‘decline of magic’ and the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ (2; 128) (more…)