When talking about the history of science and technology here on American Science, I’ve referred to it as HOST. This is nice. HOST has overtones of hospitality, gift-giving, amiability, and helpfulness, but maybe it’s a bit too cozy. On the other hand, it could also be read as a parasitic host, which is more thrilling. Yet, it might be better for marketing purposes to call it HOTS, as in “I have the HOTS for research on paleontology and capitalism.” Perhaps, it is even more advisable to talk about the history of technology, environment, and science, or HOTeES. Because, let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be one of the HOTeES? The things we think about on planes.
I returned a few weeks ago from the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians. This year’s theme was “Frontiers of Capitalism and Democracy.” I’d like to share some various and scattered thoughts on the conference’s theme, with an eye as always towards (implications for) the HOTeES.
On Friday, April 20, Sven Beckert, Jefferson Cowie, and Kim Phillips-Fein took part in a panel titled “The Return of the Political Economy?” The panel was clearly a cornerstone of the conference’s focus on capitalism. As a sub-field, the History of Capitalism (HOC) has been gaining a great deal of traction in recent years, with centers dedicated to the topic opening at Harvard and Georgia. Many practitioners apply the sensibilities and approaches of cultural history to their object, examining how the economy, class, and “markets” are (socially) constructed. Beckert, Cowie, and Phillips-Fein all agreed that a focus on political economy in history is returning—or, indeed, has already come. Beckert outlined his vision of HOC, including his belief that it draws together various disparate trends in historiography. Cowie expressed his discomfort with the HOC label, preferring the older term, political economy. I’ve heard several reasons why people prefer this older word, but at least one person told me that he is also interested in non-capitalist economies and, thus, finds political economy more broadly applicable.
HOC has tended to focus on labor (Jefferson Cowie, Shane Hamilton, Bethany Moreton), finance (Stephen Mihm, Julia Ott, Louis Hyman), and elite politics (Sven Beckert, Kim Philips-Fein, Ben Waterhouse). Many of these historians ‘slip the surly bonds’ of these artificial categories I’ve tossed up. Other works that fit the HOC bill don’t fall neatly in these boxes at all. One example is Elizabeth Shermer’s forthcoming book, which is based on her dissertation “Creating the Sunbelt: The Political and Economic Transformation of Phoenix, Arizona.”
Still, questions remain: what place do HOTeES have in this mix of historiography? Inversely, what does the (ad) HOC have to teach HOTeES? And I know that the answer to both of these questions is “a lot,” but I’m interested in hearing what people see as productive places of tension and overlap. I should also say that these questions remain unanswered for me and perhaps only me. Some people already play at this boundary between HOTeES and HOCs, like Courtney Fullilove & Emily Pawley (both of whom were on an great panel together at OAH) and American Science’s very own Lukas.
Beckert explicitly casts HOC as providing a grand synthesis for a profession that was earlier riven by division, especially by a heavy focus on identity—what, in That Noble Dream, Peter Novick hauntingly called “Every group its own historian.” Many HOTeES are probably sympathetic to Beckert’s drift here. We might consider how this synthesis relates to the another potential synthesis we’ve seen amongst HOTEeS (as previously discussed on American Science, in the comments).
Of course, protests of “old wine, new bottles” can be heard near and far, particularly among established business historians. (I’ve heard several people say that their HOC courses were once business history classes.) Along this line, an interesting game might be to consider older works by HOTeES (or their paramours) and judge whether we could now re-describe them as HOC. What about studies of corporate R&D labs and other examples where money shaped science? We could also consider older works that address Frederick Winslow Taylor and Scientific Management. Historians, like Daniel Nelson, Daniel Rodgers, Hugh Aitken, and David Hounshell have examined how Taylorism did (and did not) shape industrial practices in the United States. Would these works need some kind of extra, special sauce to become HOC?
Moreover, many historians of science still see the shadow of Boris Hessen’s flat-footed Marxist interpretation of Newton and the scientific revolution. They may be hesitant to engage with this return to political economy. But is there some more subtle way to bring science, economics, and Hessen’s concern with the rise of practical “problems” together? Probably yes. I thought, for instance, of Jeremy Blatter’s doctoral work at Harvard on applied psychology, and how businesses of the day created “problems”that begged for work by scientists.
Another place of potential overlap, of which Taylorism is a part, is the development of abstract “tools” that affect our actions. HOCs have done great work examining how financial instruments have shaped politics, “markets,” and people’s choices. And we can also think of many places where scientific notions (e.g., efficiency, race) have come to influence behavior. This notional space between economics, finance, science, and engineering as fields might be the richest vein of future exploration.
Finally, when I listen to Beckert and others who discuss HOC, I often agree with a) their description of the problem (fragmentation), b) their hope for synthesis, and c) their instinct that the (socially constructed) economy is the place to turn to draw things together. And, yet, their words lack some theoretical—and perhaps more programmatic—je ne sais quoi that would make it all gel for me.
In what other ways should HOTeES participate in this trend called the history of capitalism?