In the spirit of New Year’s Day, as people are setting resolutions, pondering the fresh and the new, thinking about what this year will bring (and fighting off hangovers), I wanted to put up this series of posts, which consider some current trends in science and technology studies and even suggest some paths for the future. I will be publishing three posts over the next three days.
First, I should probably give some context for what I’ve written here. And I should also give a warning. The posts in this series are long, as my posts usually are, but in this case, I feel less ashamed. This series is really an essay on the state of a field, and its form fits that ambition. So, as for the context . . .
In late September 2013, a committee of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), known as the Ad Hoc Committee on Structure and Organization, released a report on the state of the field. The report was full of handwringing and what it described as “existential angst.” It worried about declining membership and meeting attendance, which it highlighted by comparing SHOT’s meeting attendance to that of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S). It also fretted about a supposed declining “intellectual vitality” in the field.
The report angered me, and I wasn’t alone. I thought it uncharitable and overly negative. The report especially and systematically neglected recent promising work by younger scholars, who, I imagine, would have benefited more from having their work fostered and encouraged than from being told that the history of technology—the young scholars’ work included—has a crisis of intellectual vitality. I immediately wrote an hostile retort, taking apart the report’s reasoning (why compare SHOT only to 4S instead of to other historical societies, when there are so many worries in academia about troubles and decline in history and the other humanities?) and criticizing its pessimistic outlook. I was minutes away from posting my retort here on American Science—friends had helped me edit the piece and file down its sharper edges—when I thought better of it. Why meet negativity with negativity? Let Karma do its work. So, I let it go and filed the thing in some Dropbox folder. I’m happy I made that decision.
Yet, in my effort to fight back the committee’s worries about “intellectual vitality,” part of what I had written was an assessment of some of the most promising trends in the study of technology today. What I then thought—and still now think—is saddest about the report is that its authors missed an opportunity. They failed to act as leaders because leaders build on strengths that exist, instead of sniping at weaknesses, or so says some cliche. It’s a cliche I believe in, though. I think others believe in it, too. I wish the committee had told us was what is good and how we can build upon that foundation.
So, I suppose that I set about to write what I wish the committee had written if its members had more charitable spirits when they began their work. While I am glad that I filed away my original post, which savaged the report’s reasoning and attitude, I think it would be a shame to leave unpublished my reflections about what is great in technology studies. These reflections are a celebration of work that I really love as well as of the scholars who have produced it. Nearly all academic fields could use a dose of positivity.
My assessment of current avenues of inquiry now makes up the second post of this series, which will go up tomorrow. That part is wholly focused on technology studies, which makes sense given its SHOT context. In this first post, I try to depict a more general shift that may hold for other corners of science and technology studies as well, including the history of science. I had this general shift in mind when I wrote about work being done today in technology studies, so it made sense to spell it out here. If I am right that there is a change occurring, than many of the people who instigated these debates at SHOT are looking to an outmoded way of doing technology studies, a mode that is on the eclipse with another rising to take its place. They have been looking for signs of heat in one direction, when the smoke is rising and the fires are burning behind them, over their shoulders. Finally, in the third post, I try to show that this broader shift holds not only just for technology studies, or even more narrowly just for the history of technology, but can be seen elsewhere. In that final post, I also offer some concluding remarks about what lessons we can draw from this series of posts, including some thoughts about how a certain mode of theorization is getting in our way and how we might foster what looks to be a new intellectual movement.
Before I describe promising areas of inquiry in the next post, I want first to try to characterize a general trend some people have noticed. The trend is more of a change in mindset and approach and also perhaps shift in the sociology of knowledge around science and technology studies than it is an explicit new “program,” though there is a chance such a program could emerge. To put things too simply at first, it appears that young scholars are suspicious of a certain kind of theorization that focuses on the coining of neologisms, or what will I call “What-I-Will-Call-ism” because the phrase “what I will call” is often used to introduce new terms. For various reasons, young people are turning away from this kind of theorizing and are instead emphasizing the depth of empirical inquiry in their assessment of others’ work.
It is probably not surprising that use of the phrase “what I will call” and the neologizing it often accompanies took off in the late 1970s.
That was the moment when “French Theory” arose in American academia, and a certain mode of theorization became de rigeur, a mode perhaps best characterized as concept-formation via jargon-origination. Many factors contributed to this trend. The first and most superficial was that postmodern “theory” was COOL, and “theory” was full of new words. And in some cases, it really was cool, but it was also certainly a fad, a social phenomenon to which academia is not immune.
Second, the period also witnessed the rise of the “studies” movement, which included Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, Cultural Studies, AND science and technology studies, among others. These new fields of inquiry lacked disciplinary traditions, including core methodologies. Jargon-coining became an almost scientistic act, meant, in part, to validate the existence of the fields as real research endeavors. The neologisms and specialized language gave the various fields of “studies” a patina of credibility.
Third, the sociology of knowledge in many academic fields shifted during this period so that people were rewarded for coining terms that other people used. Some people became successful serial neologizers, while most others probably coined terms that had a publication n of 1. That is, the term only occurred in the piece that announced it and traveled nowhere. One negative outcome of this incentive structure was that fields of interest sometimes fractured into gangs of jargon users formed around individual, charismatic neologizer gurus, who heavily pressured their underlings to use their words—and sometimes also to use no one else’s, unless it was to show the inadequacy of those competing terms.
A fourth factor was a change in the notion of theory itself. A postmodern doubt in the validity of large-scale, comprehensive theories that offered fairly general pictures of society led to renewed interest in the tool metaphor of theorization. Instead of having general pictures of regular social structures, we would have individual concepts that could be applied to different situations. This shift is tied in deep ways to the changes that Daniel Rodgers examines in his most recent book, The Age of Fracture, which Hank discussed in a recent post. Rodgers holds that academic thought beginning in the 1970s moved away from accounts that focused on social structures towards those that emphasized the power of the individuals. Academic concentration on “agency” and “users” are two good examples of the trend.
But the connection to Rodgers is deeper still: with the tool metaphor’s rise to dominance, it is as if the structures of academic thought—those social structures that the social sciences had aspired to describe since the late 19th century—burst, leaving only the building blocks, bare concepts. Just as social structure gave way to agency, general pictures of social structure gave way to freely floating concepts that could be applied here and there, willy nilly. It is the kind of thing that the sociologist, John Levi Martin, criticizes in his recent book, The Explanation of Social Action, when he writes, “Even as we implicitly evaluate theories . . . we do not discuss which theory is correct, but we rather deal with some general problems that, we hold, must apply to all theoretical constructs. And this is because although we agree that theories can be better or worse, we also agree that theories are merely more or less useful (and not ‘really’ true or false), so it is possible for more than one theory to be true. I will argue that this theory of theories—that they are not true but only useful—is neither useful nor true, but even if it were true, it would hardly explain the absolute passion for theoretical tolerance that now characterizes the social sciences. To some degree, this love of tolerance arises because we recognize that many theories are theories ‘of’ something or other and thus have a limited scope.” (3; italics Martin’s)
What-I-Will-Call-ism is, in part, a symptom of the picture Martin outlines, including the idea that theories are just theories ‘of’ something, rather than being a general picture that might conflict with other pictures. It then becomes the scholar’s prerogative to name some limited phenomenon, in hopes that others will parrot that word in later works.
Martin is not the only one calling for a return to traditional notions of social science and to synthetic, rather than fractious, work, the kind of calls which we can see in his book Social Structures as well as in the one I already cited. In sociology, the same spirit can be seen in Andrew Abbott’s work from the last few decades and in Neil Fligstein’s and Doug McAdam’s recent book, A Theory of Fields. We see calls for synthesis elsewhere, too. When Sven Beckert explains the emergent “history of capitalism,” he explains it as an attempt to pull together the field of history, which has fallen apart into a series of sub-disciplines, with, as Peter Novick once put it, “every group its own historian.” (If if isn’t completely obvious, I am suggesting that we need synthetic work in science and technology studies as well.) Perhaps we are witnessing a revitalized faith in the power of social scientific explanations, which is why Martin dedicates The Explanation of Social Action “to Karl Marx and to all good children everywhere who believe in the possibility of social science.”
In the face of all of this, it appears that younger scholars are turning away from the mode of theorization that dominated the period from 1980 to the 2000s and, in some spaces, is still dominant. They have entered What-I-Will-Call-ics Anonymous. And although they relapse now and then, they are taking things one day at a time and hoping that, Higher Power be-willing, they are heading down the long road of recovery. Going hand-in-hand with this turn away from neologism creation has been something like a neo-empirical turn.
Now hold on for a second. I want to make this much very clear. I am not anti-theory, nor are the others who have consciously or unconsciously made this turn. (I can’t wait for the first person to lob the accusation of “positivism” this way. I’m waiting for it, waiting for it.) I am not making some goofy Wired Magazine-esque claim that “Big Data” means the end of theory or something stupid like that. I don’t know anyone who would try to refute the “theory-ladenness of observation” and such ideas. For sure, you don’t put your daughter in a onesie like this if you are anti-theory:
Indeed, there are discussions afoot of dropping older works, like Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, from science and technology studies syllabi because they no longer reflect what people in the field do. A likely result is that works from the What-I-Will-Call-ic Era will dominate science and technology studies pedagogy for sometime, and that is precisely how it should be. We have learned an awful lot from the work of that period, and it would be ridiculous to throw those lessons away.
At the same time, it seems as if there are shifts happening wherein young scholars are valuing the depth of other’s empirical research over jargon-formation. Just as multiple forces influenced the rise of What-I-Will-Call-ism, several factors are driving this empirical turn. I’ll note four of them.
I’ll first discuss the one that will likely be on everyone’s minds, namely the ongoing technological changes in and around academic research. Younger scholars see the power in digital technologies and are embracing them, and one possible result of their use of these tools is deeper empirical research. Of course, the opposite is also true. If people become overly fixated on digital tools and neglect archives and other kinds of sources, research will become more superficial. On the most shallow level, I mean that people are using Google Books and other such ubiquitous tools. They are hitting the “search” button like junkies looking to score. But some people are going deeper still, using software, like Filemaker, to build rich personal databases and employing data mining algorithms to see things in bodies of texts that we couldn’t see with the naked eye. (On the use of these latter methods, the most famous work currently is Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading.)
Please note that I am not making a technological determinist argument. People are using these tools, seeing new possibilities, and reshaping their ideals of what constitutes good thought. The deeper they go down the halls of research, aided by new technologies, the better they see how they can offer finer and stronger explanations of social phenomena.
Even if we only focus on tools as easily useable as Google Books, the times are a-changin’. Let me give an example from my own work. I’m writing a book, tentatively titled Taming the American Idol: Cars, Risks, and Regulations, which examines the history of auto regulation from about 1893 to the present. In my effort to expand the coverage of my book manuscript, I have been studying the role of the US federal government in shaping the world of the automobile in the 1920s and 1930s. This research forms the basis of the book’s second chapter. As part of this research, I have been examining Herbert Hoover’s National Conference on Street and Highway Safety, which took place several times beginning in 1924. It was the first executive branch inquiry into auto safety at the federal level in the United States. In my efforts to learn about this event, I have, of course, been reading other people’s work.
Two scholars who have had a profound influence on how I think about auto safety are Peter Norton and Arwen Mohun. Norton’s book, Fighting Traffic, and his essay on the history of the notion of the “jaywalker” changed the way I approached my work. And I adore Mohun’s book, Risk, portions of which I have used and will continue to use in the classes I teach. Of the Hoover Conferences, Mohun writes, “Hoover . . . advocated a form of business progressivism called ‘associationalism,’ which emphasized using the power of the state to help business interests self-regulate. Hoover’s political philosophy made him a kindred ideological spirit with the National Safety Council Members, insurance executives, and auto club leaders to whom he delegated setting the conferences’ agendas.” (168) In a similar vein, Norton writes, “The conference reflected Hoover’s associational tenets and the National Chamber [of Commerce]’s related principle of business self-government.” (181) To make her argument, Mohun relied on published sources and on previous historical accounts, including Norton’s and David Blanke’s. Norton based his reflections on published sources as well as correspondence from the archives at the Hoover Library, which scholars have been able to order from online for several years.
I knew that Mohun’s and Norton’s accounts of the Hoover Conferences were inaccurate after doing an hour of searches on Google Books. Part of the problem was that both scholars were combining Ellis Hawley’s account of associationalism, which focused on business leaders and trade associations, with an interpretation of auto safety, ultimately going back to Ralph Nader, which argues that federal government failed to regulate the auto industry during this period. My Google Books searches showed me that there was simply a lot more going on at the Hoover Conference’s than these accounts allowed for, and it was not the case that business executives were always in the driver’s seat, as Hawleyian associationalism usually assumes.
My next step was to build a spread sheet, listing every committee member of the Hoover Conferences of 1924, 1926, and 1930. I first used Google Books to search every name in the database, and then I used it to track the career trajectories of select individuals more deeply, which taught me many things. There were a rich variety of people at the conference, some of whom had been involved in auto safety and safety more generally since about 1905. Some of the people ended up in different careers after participation in the conference, which at least suggests that the conferences influenced a field of inquiry and organizational changes. Moreover, by tracing multiple individual trajectories, you can see how radical it was for Hoover and his people to get all of these varied people together. They created a new, big “table,” which brought together a diversity of actors, problems, and solutions.
I do not blame Mohun or Norton in the slightest for missing these truths; you could not see and track these actors’s lives through far flung, unrelated publications without the aid of Google Books and other similar tools (unless perhaps you dedicated your life to little more than describing the Hoover conferences, which, why in God’s name would you do that?). Put simply, the way we are using our tools is leading us to new and different insights.
I didn’t rest content with Google Books, however, and this is an important point: these tools are not enough on their own. My Google searches led me to believe that I might find rich veins of materials in the archival records of the National Bureau of Standards and the National Research Council’s Division of Anthropology and Psychology, which had a “Committee on the Psychology of the Highway” during this period. I looked at both archives last summer. I could go on and on about what these records taught me, but I will limit myself to two points. First, it was professional psychologists and not business leaders or insurance executives who set the agenda of the Committee on the Causes of Accidents, one of the most important committees in the history of the Hoover Conferences. The psychologists, no surprises, found that drivers were the primary causes of accidents. Second, the National Bureau of Standards was much more active in attempting to shape markets and technological change than traditional Hawleyian associationalism would allow for. The head of the NBS, George Burgess, gave a talk during this period on the “clever” methods that the agency was using to force desirable technological change on the automakers and other producers.
All combined this research has led me to revisit, add to, and in some cases revise interpretations about the role of engineering societies in choosing technological problems, the process of how regulations shape technological change and give birth to new markets, the role that professional psychologists played in setting technical agendas before WWII, the professionalization of risk as well as several other topics. I argue in a paper that I’m delivering at the Business History Conference this spring, for instance, that we must significantly revise the notion of “associationalism,” at least when it comes to some fields, like auto safety. On a more abstract level, I argue that we have to reassess the multiple social and organizational functions of committees and explore how the idea of the “committee” arose and came to dominance as an abstract tool of governance in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. If you are an ardent presentist and can only see value in inquiries that connect to contemporary debates, then you could use this research to revisit how we can use committees to re-structure and shape current regulatory practices.
I could have created a dozen neologisms to name phenomena that I explore in this research. But why do it? The existent English tongue will suffice. My theory of the Hoover Conference and associationalism and the functions of committees are in the pictures I paint of them, using new tools and old ones. No new word would likely enrich the details of my portraits.
The second factor driving the neo-empirical turn is that some forms of What-I-Will-Call-ism failed to deliver. The failure to deliver a long-term, comprehensive project is famously true of the Social Construction of Technology. I will consider this issue more tomorrow, so I will leave it hanging here for now.
The third factor, which I have already mentioned, is that there is a renewed call for synthesis and more general social scientific pictures from several quarters.
Finally, scholars are increasingly desiring to write crossover works that can be read profitably by other academics and enjoyably by the general public. Therefore, they attempt to write in an approachable and accessible voice. What-I-Will-Call-ism is a serious impediment to any such attempt. Steven Shapin has most beautifully examined this issue in his article, “Hyperprofessionalism and the Crisis of Readership in the History of Science.” There, Shapin discusses hyperprofessionalism as a “disease whose symptoms include self-referentiality, self-absorption, and a narrowing of intellectual focus.” Jargon has all three of these symptoms. Today, many people no longer see the need to muck up their manuscripts with made up words that, like, ordinary civilians won’t understand or identify with. It’s just unnecessary. Furthermore, there is an argument to be made that ordinary language is almost always more powerful than neologisms.
I don’t think that we will see an abrupt end to What-I-Will-Call-ism. My guess is that we will see a slow shift in the sociology of knowledge in our field. People will stop rewarding neologizing and will instead reward other kinds of behavior. On the one hand, already when scholars over the age of 40 use a paper or talk to introduce some new term, it’s a bit like when your uncle tries to talk to you about how terrific Bon Jovi is. The occasion creates a slight tinge of an embarrassed flush in the listener. On the other hand, I have heard people gasp and seen people wince when younger people create new words, which suggests that repercussions might be more severe for the youthful.
I have heard legends about young scholars who are fond of contemporary jargon, like “thing” or “materiality” or “infrastructure,” but I don’t know any, so they are a bit like unicorns to me. What I mean is that what I have written here may simply be a reflection of my small social world, but then again, that is always the risk of writing a piece like this. Sometimes, such risks are worth taking.
In this post, I have suggested that we are witnessing a changed conception of the role of theory in our scholarship, perhaps even a shift in the idea of what theory is, and that younger scholars are making an empirical turn. In the next post, I will explore some of the most promising trends in technology studies, which fit this shift.