jump to navigation

Pitirim Sorokin on Fitness and “War Waste” May 25, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

Pitirim Sorokin

Питири́м Алекса́ндрович Соро́кин (1889-1968) was considered in many ways to be the anti-Talcott Parsons due to their notorious disagreements over the merits of Parsons’s The Structure of Social Action (1937) as well as his rather tyrannical personality.  Both Sorokin and Parsons were philosophers of history (due to Parson’s late embrace, like Karl Popper, of evolutionary models of societal growth and development) and the separation of their intellectual projects is not as pronounced as is thought.  Sorokin was an evolutionist who was also an “old-school” sociologist insofar as he considered the social scientific heritage of the latter nineteenth century to be quite valuable.  His 1928 Contemporary Sociological Theories is a compendium of the mental furniture of social theory in the long nineteenth century.  Robert Merton, who was always careful to distance himself from Sorokin, betrays Sorokin’s influence in his citation methods and in his adherence to the “spirit” of the argument of his sources, rather than the letter.  Both Merton and Sorokin were lumpers (see Merton’s 1936 paper, “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”), but they lumped heuristically.

Sorokin’s Man and Society in Calamity: The Effects of War, Revolution, Famine, Pestilence Upon Human Mind, Behavior, Social Organization and Cultural Life (1946) immediately reminds one of R. A. Fisher’s work, or that of Alexander Carr-Saunders.  All three looked at rates of differential fertility and the impact of social forces (wars, revolution, migration) on the evolution of human civilization.  All considered human evolution to be determined by differing forces than those governing natural selection.  As importantly, Sorokin continued the “war and waste” debate, also referred to as the “military selection” debate, a controversy which marinated through much of the later nineteenth century, but which really had two great stimuli: the Boer War and the First World War. David Starr Jordan as well as Thorstein Veblen were two important interlocutors in this debate.


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.


Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 3 November 17, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

In previous posts, I have noted characteristics historians attribute to Cold War-era social science, and have posited that the historiography of the social sciences often follows a “whig” structure. This narrative structure builds history around the social sciences’ move away from inappropriate frameworks. These frameworks privileged the sciences’ own cultural perspective, and projected it onto, and proselytized it to, other cultures by means of the sciences’ intellectual and political influence. The whig structure also (implicitly or explicitly) takes the trend of history to move toward a more passive or dialogical social scientific framework pioneered by cultural anthropologists.

The context of “Cold War America” is critical to this narrative, because it provides 1) a particular “liberal” or “modernist” cultural perspective that informed the work of the period, 2) the project of strengthening and defending liberal society at home and abroad—through a) the development of scientific theories of the nature of modern, liberal, and illiberal society, and b) the instrumental use of social science in augmenting military and diplomatic power—and, accordingly, 3) funding.

Lyndon Johnson and adviser (and modernization theorist) Walt Rostow discussing Vietnam

The trouble with this narrative structure is that it tends to constrain historical analysis so that it produces stories that conform to it. At the same time, it would be difficult to sustain such narratives if the record did not at least bear some resemblance to it. The place where the record most clearly resembles this narrative is in a branch of sociology and political science known as “modernization theory”.


Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 2 October 21, 2012

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

This post is an interlude in my look at Cold War Social Science. It paves the way for further discussion of that book, but contains no reference to its contents.

A new whig historiography of the social sciences, which I began to describe in part 1, posits a crucial role for intellectual figures’ ideas in history. These ideas need not be the source of the broader (non-intellectualized) ideas that drive social and political trends. Intellectuals’ ideas do, however, at least have the power to reinforce such trends by helping to prevent alternative ideas from instigating change. Thus, in this historiography, past intellectuals’ ideas tend to be illiberal ideas.

The historiography is whiggish rather than anti-intellectual in that it is constructed from the narratives of intellectuals who purport to represent the advent of a genuinely liberating intellectual movement. To understand the narrative features of this historiography, it is important to understand how it retains elements of narratives generated by a long line of purportedly liberating intellectual movements, and how it claims to diverge from them.


Modernity, the Cold War, and New Whig Histories of Ideas, Pt. 1 September 22, 2012

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

This post continues our examination of Cold War Social Science, edited by Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens.

One issue to look out for when addressing the history of the social sciences — and intellectual history more generally — is that scholars are apt to see themselves as in dialogue with the events about which they are writing.  As with scientists writing about their own disciplinary past, there is a felt need either to credit the past as prologue, or to distance oneself from the folly of one’s predecessors.  Such, of course, are the roots of whig history.

The implicit aim of a new whig history, which shapes much intellectual and social science historiography is, in broad strokes, to explain how anthropologists and their intellectual allies bested academic competitors, and can now lead society away from a myopic modernism toward a more harmonious, genuinely cosmopolitan future.

This narrative is fairly similar to the original Whig narrative diagnosed by Herbert Butterfield, which took history to progress away from authoritarianism to political, economic, and religious liberalism. However, the whiggishness of the present narrative can be difficult to acknowledge, because the phenomenon of whig history is actually incorporated within the narrative as an intellectual pathology arising from the same teleological modernism being cast as outdated.  It is counterintuitive that the narrative could be whiggish, because whiggism is a declared enemy of the narrative.


Book Club: Renwick on British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots July 2, 2012

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

This blog has previously spotlighted one of Chris Renwick’s articles, and he has written a couple of guest posts* for us.  With those interests declared, I’m happy to say that EWP has received a review copy of his new book, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Macmillan: 2012).

A good way of thinking about this book is in terms of what Chris Donohue has referred to as the “nineteenth-century problem” in intellectual-scientific history.  The nineteenth-century problem is partly interpretive, in that it deals with the practical problem of sorting out the undisciplinary tangle of intellectual projects and issues and notions to be found in works of that era.

However, the problem is also historiographical, in that it is a struggle against a tide of scholarship fixated on a few select questions (the reception of natural selection, the intellectual validation of racial hierarchies and imperialism, the ascendancy of liberalism and social reformism, etc…), and a few seemingly key thinkers.  The scholarship also tends to divvy up the intellectual history arbitrarily, with historians of political philosophy studying certain thinkers, historians of economic thought others, and historians of science still others, even though a thorough and sensitive reading of texts — not to mention widely accepted historiographical wisdom — would indicate the folly in doing so.

By highlighting important historical relations between the projects of political economy, eugenics-biometrics, botany and zoology, Herbert Spencer’s social philosophy, social reformism and journalism, and the longstanding search for a science of sociology, Renwick’s book makes an important contribution to the interpretive aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.  It does, perhaps, get somewhat hung up in the historiographical aspect of the nineteenth-century problem.


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

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.


The Weirdest Guest — William Z. Ripley: Economist, Financial Historian, and Racial Theorist September 26, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

William Ripley’s (October 13, 1867 – August 16, 1941) long career as a writer, public servant, and academician presents nightmarish problems of reconstruction for the historian.  Ripley, at one time vice president of the  American Economic Association, was an expert on railroads and trusts, a competent historian of the financial history of colonial Virginia, an astute observer on the labor problem in both Europe and America, and, with the publication of the Races of Europe (1899), one of the preeminent sociologists of his day.

William Z. Ripley's Races of Europe

The longevity of Ripley’s influence poses problems for the scope of the academical truism of the “revolution” brought about by Boas’ cultural relativism, as well as the intriguing connections between the Oxford School of Anthropology and American racial theory.  Such was the enduring reputation of Ripley’s work that it was revised in 1946 by Carlton Coon, an important twentieth century physical anthropologist who taught at Harvard.  Coon’s mentor, Earnest Albert Hooton, a student of R. R. Marett, was a nasty piece of work, producing works in the same mental universe as Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920). (more…)