Thursday, May 3, 2012

Beyond Theory & Method: Sociology, Anyone?

In the wake of yesterday's guest-post, I've been thinking about our ontology discussion (here and here) through a new lens. It's a dual one, framed around the sorts of questions we historians (of science) ask and how we go about answering them – motivations and methods, if you will. 

A (somewhat relevant) snippet from the archive

Don't worry: I'm not diving (all the way) down the rabbit hole again. But I wanted to link this up with a post from long ago on "the science (studies) wars" and specifically to Daston's now-famous question ("Philosophy, anyone?"). Specifically, I wanted to see if I could ground the ontology/epistemology dyad in the issue of reflexivity.

In my dissertation, I examine the ill-defined "field" of American debates over scientific methods between philosophers, psychologists, and scientists at the turn of the twentieth century. And in pursuit of both theory and procrastination, I've also been sifting through subsequent developments in these conversations, principally in sociology and philosophy.

Sociology's Three Wise Men

Now, in terms of methods, the way we historians work isn't much like philosophy or sociology as they're practiced today. But at least anecdotally (my favorite flavor of empiricism!), historians do tend to justify their work in terms that strike me as sociological and, to a lesser extent, philosophical. 

While smoking guns and "the Faustian magic of high scholarship"are still thrilling (and caked in the rest dust of the archives), historians (of science) often frame their work with sociological or philosophical questions rather than what-happened-when. The cash value of the "elevator pitch" is attention; its currency is its interest to non-specialists, often expressed as evidence of general social processes.

So what's the point? Things I've been reading in sociology (e.g. here and here and, though a classic, here) suggest that the very divide with which I began – methods and motives, means and ends – is a problem. Why? For Bourdieu, cleaving "theory" from "method" just disguises a labor hierarchy; for Levi Martin, it fails to explain social action.

For historians, the division works in a particular way. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that what you should really do is head to the archive, see what you find, write it up, and then, near the end, and only if you want, turn to "theory" as you start to frame what it's really been about all along. 

There...and back again

But is that how it should be? How might it be different? What if we paid more attention to our theoretical framing from the start, and/or did so in innovative ways? 

The historical analogue to Bourdieu and Wacquant's "reflexive sociology" might be to recognize that past and present, like theory and method or dinosaur-feathers and ideas-of-dinosaur-feathers, are co-produced, and to recognize it in more than our introductions. Another might be to find ways to take theoretical cues from our actors themselves. Both are radically reflexive, and (to me) exciting. 

Think of it as ratcheting Lukas's conclusion up a notch, not from "practice" to "theory" but from actors's practices to our own. We all agreed that "what's in your mind when you prepare a fossil for study and display may well have a significant impact on the material constitution of dinosaur bones." But how does "what's in your  when you [visit an archive]" impact history's objects? 

Might the lesson be that if we recognize the interplay of past and present – of the historian and her objects – we can take steps to shape that relationship, much as scholars in other fields are already attempting. Sociology (again!), anyone?

1 comment:

  1. Hank, thanks for this post. Philosophy? Sociology? Give me more helpings of both!

    I agree that historians mostly don't talk about these issues directly. I think that one problem is that, since at least the 1980s, theory has become equated with "concepts," like discipline, identity, memory, the bricoleur, etc. These are a set of tools that we can use to paint various pictures, but they largely don't call into question the picture's frame itself, which I take philosophy and sociology to be doing more fundamentally. Also, the theoretical heyday of the 80s-00s included a lot of people coining neologisms and then trying to colonize young scholars with them. This left a bad taste in people's mouths, but again this kind of theory isn't questioning our very thoughts and actions in the way that the people you mentioned do.

    If anything has framed history for the last 30 years (or longer according to Daniel Rodgers' essay on historians of republicanism), it has been anthropology. Cultural history is the thing, as many have discussed, including Daston, Paul Forman, and people here on American Science. We've learned a lot from anthropology. I don't want to throw that out. But we should move on; things are getting a bit stale. I also think that cultural history might be blinding us to new questions and new answers to old questions. So with a Hegelian air, I say let's retain what we've learned and keep moving. On to more learning!

    I would like to see us bring our philosophical (Putnam, Quine, Kuhn, Errol Morris et al) and sociological (John Levi Martin, Neil Gross) considerations together with older and more mainstream discussions in history. This could take a couple forms, either philosophy of history (Ranke, R. G. Collingwood, William Dray, and their descendants) or historiography (Novick's _That Noble Dream_ or Ernst Breisach's _Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern_).

    For instance, in _The Explanation of Social Action_, John Levi Martin spends a great deal of time criticizing the Emile Durkheim and his legacy in social science. To what degree have Durkheim's ideas--which if JLM is right are extremely problematic--influenced how historians think of their work?

    Put differently, do you know many young, hip historians who could take a stance one way or the other regarding Collingwood and Dray? I don't, but I might be sheltered. It seems to me that such reconsiderations should fit within any discussion of revision.

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