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…