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.
|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?