Review: American Social Sciences Roundtable

Last week, Princeton's Modern America Workshop hosted a round-table on the history of the social sciences in America (co-sponsored by the Center of the Humanities and the Program in American Studies). A link to the line-up is here.

Our four panelists - Chas Camic, Sarah Igo, Andy Jewett, and Mary Morgan - drew an audience of over thirty faculty members and students from a range of departments and interdepartmental programs.
Reflexivity was in the air, if not always explicitly on the table.

We tried out a semi-unconventional format for the event. Three panelists circulated ten-page "micro-essays," bound as one text on the state of the field in the history of the social sciences. As a format - with 5m remarks from authors and a 10m comment - it worked pretty well.

Though initially halting (perhaps because so many things were on the table), the
conversation did get going, ranging from nomenclature to methods to case-studies. The stuff of the session (disciplines, actors, &c.) remained a blooming, buzzing confusion throughout.

There were, in spite of that, at least a few take-away points worth noting for others working in the area. For now, here's one:

Mary Morgan opened her comment with the crucial question of what is so American about these sorts of stories. While some people tried to answer her (the bureaucracy! the $$$!), the best response was already there, in Chas Camic's portion of the pre-circulated materials:

In criticizing rote disciplinary history, Chas showed what's wrong with rote national history by extension: in both, "the more-or-less self-contained academic discipline [read: nation-state] is the default option for the historical narrative."

An echo of Pierre Bourdieu, this idea of "closed vessels" sometimes has its strengths. Often, however, it's too limiting, especially when "disciplinary business-as-usual gives way to the emergence in a discipline of new ideas, theories, concepts, or methods."

The degree to which you hold anything constant (nation, discipline, or otherwise) depends, for its success, on the problem you've chosen. You can tell a story within the American frame, to be sure, but you've got to be sure to stay conscious of what's left out in the process.

This may sound a bit dopey, but it's a check on doing a transnational (or trans-disciplinary) story "just because." As Chas pointed out, his recent work on Thorstein Veblen has revealed a profoundly disciplinary thinker where others have seen a self-fashioned transgressor.

While we may not have resolved the "state of the field," this boundary question did remind us that problem-choice, like theory-choice, emerges neither from the evidence itself nor from pure rational thought, but through what James called consciousness's "continuous transitions."

Maybe (and this is a self-interested stretch - but then again, what stretches aren't self-interested?) more attention to those connections - and more reading in James' "Philosophy of Co-'s" - can help bring some clarity to the issues we discussed last week. We'll see...


Okay, I'll bite: did the conversation bring out any particular research questions or topics that called most clearly for a national framing?

Not really -- though one thing Andy Jewett took care to emphasize was that, even in the case of people, and especially ideas, whose provenance and/or influence had to be traced outside the American frame, many figures from the early-twentieth-century period we were focusing on (as well as many before and after) were obsessed with the idea that theirs was a specifically American project.

So: international tools, American "vision." I add the quote marks because this quickly gets into the murky hinterland between actors' and analytical categories. Suffice it to say, though, that one still needs to grapple with why and to what degree these folks did see their work as American -- as furthering American ends or as distinctly, democratically American.

One framework that is currently being discussed in the historiography of psychology is the concept of "indigenization." First proposed by Kurt Danziger, others folks (especially Wade Pickren) have adopted it. It is a way of framing on how American scientists at the end of the nineteenth-century adapted aspects of German, French, and British psychology to meet local concerns. It also leads to the study of how different nations adapted aspects of "American" psychology post-WWII. I am still have reservations about the terminology, but it definitely gets at aspects of the historical process.

Mike! Good to hear from you. Anthropology will never be free from our poaching, eh? It's worked well for us so far, anyway..

Let me ask you, as an historian of psychology, something in return: as I've been wading into that literature, I've found my thoughts hinging around the question of vocabularies and a search for a "new structuralism," for lack of a better term.

That is: we've gotten pretty good at how individual actors utilize/accommodate/indigenize ideas and cultural resources as they grapple with the world - but how do we deal with the structures determining both those usages and what's available to use in the first place?

My sense is that tools in the digital humanities (text-minding, things like Dan Cohen and might help us access the structures of words and concepts out of which actors did all this crafting, but I'm not sure. Does that make sense? Any thoughts?

I too sense a renewed interest in structures. I think historians are still grappling with how to best use the mass amount of digitized sources. I know a number of my colleagues are starting to pursue these approaches. Speaking for myself, this was happening as I was researching and writing my dissertation. I tended to use these new resources much like the archives and microfilm of old. On the long "to do list" is organizing a symposium/workshop on digital humanities and the history of the human sciences.

Ooh. I would like to attend this symposium.

Well, let's plan it then. Princeton, Spring 2012?

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