Brooke Hindle on Early American Science

This retrospective look (from the 1980s, it seems, by Brooke Hindle) at the mid-twentieth-century origins of the history of science in early America deserves a quick read. The piece covers quite a bit of ground (including history of technology and material culture), but I found most interesting its discussion of the influence on the history of science of the tide toward "social and intellectual history," alongside the rise of institutions that I would affiliate with the American studies movement like the [now Omohundro] Institute of Early American History and Culture.

On the history of American studies generally, my first stop for an actor's account is still Leo Marx's 2004 essay, "Believing in America."


Thanks for sharing this, Dan.

Hindle's piece--and your priming of it--got me thinking about something I have heard snippets about over the last year (which could as well say, "since I started hanging out with historians of science").

Many people point to the role social history played in shaping HOST during the 1960s and 70s. Equal numbers or more claim that cultural history has been the primary mover in HOS since 1980 or so. (I would say that this claim about cultural history is less true of the history of technology, but HOT became focused on social construction in a different way.) Here, cultural history refers not only to a focus on discourse, sign systems, etc., but also relates to emphasis on special topics--experiments, trust, instruments, objectivity, you name it.

What interests me is that social history and cultural history may lead to different kinds of theoretical and archival labor.

Perhaps the history of capitalism and other recent gestures towards synthesis give some relief. Sven Beckert's _Monied Metropolis_ offers an illuminating social historical perspective onto late-nineteenth century NY elites. But I can just as easily point to works in the history of capitalism that have their own special, boutique topics, that don't depict a general social picture.

Current book production standards also influence these things. It's hard to produce a general picture when you have 250 pages or less.

Yet, all of this raises the question of whether these fields of history could do with rebirth of social history. By this, I mean a return to methods that emphasize spelling out who actors were, who they were connected to, and what kind of world they lived in, rather focusing on philosophical or theoretical issues. That probably sounds hopelessly naive and also too general.

Still, this has been on my mind recently (and I thank J.B. for helping me think through it).

I think the best discussion of the differences between social and cultural history (which are often blurry in the minds of historians themselves) is William H. Sewell, Jr., "The political unconscious of social and cultural history, or, confessions of a former quantitative historian" in his _Logics of History: social theory and social transformation_. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

He participated in both the social and cultural turns in history. As the title suggests, Sewell does indeed advocate a return to a kind of social history focused on structures while still recognizing the insights of the cultural turn. I suspect that current calls to "dig into the data" will facilitate and encourage of a renewed and changed social history.

For an excellent discussion of social and cultural history, their distinct

Hey. Thanks, Mike. That's helpful.

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