This is the third in a series of three posts, which examine some current trends in science and technology studies, focusing especially on the latter.
In the last post, I described what I see as some of the key current trends in technology studies. These trends fit a general pattern I described in the first post, where younger scholars are moving away from a certain mode of theorizing focused on jargon-creation and moving both towards a different notion of theory, a more traditional one perhaps, and towards valuing deep empirical research. In this final post, I will do two things. First, I will show that shift I have described holds for other locales in science and technology studies as well and is not simply an idiosyncratic phenomenon in the study of technology. Second, I will conclude by suggesting both that we have to pitch a certain mental model of what constitutes exciting thought and that we must more actively foster the development of this new intellectual movement.
I should have said this earlier, but I want to emphasize that the views in these posts are solely my own and do not represent the thoughts of my blog teammates. In fact, if experience holds, Hank and Lukas will be swooping in at any moment to give me a good beating. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The general empirical turn that I have described in the last two blog posts holds for fields and sub-fields other than technology studies. I want to demonstrate this trend by highlighting what I see as excellent work that six scholars are doing today.
Jeremy Blatter, a history of science grad student at Harvard University. is one of the best empirical historians, nay, social scientists of our generation. I’ve heard of other technical wizards—Alex Czizsar, Bill Turke, and Alex Wellerstein come to mind—but I don’t know their systems and methods well, so I will talk about Blatter’s. (Anyone, though, who hasn’t played with Wellerstein’s Nukemap or read his blog Nuclear Secrecy should do so ASAP.
) Also, Blatter’s methodology excellently exemplifies how people are using new tools to conduct research, so I will go into some detail in discussing his work. Blatter’s dissertation is a kind of biography of Hugo Munsterberg, the founder of applied psychology, a Harvard Professor. It examines the development of applied and industrial psychology and the role of Psychotechnics in “solving” problems in industry and around public technologies. It sheds new light on several topics in the history of science and technology in the early 20th century. Yet, I don’t think Blatter has ever been to SHOT. His primary professional conference is HSS.
Blatter used the software Filemaker to build a database of what he found as he explored Munsterberg’s life. In some ways, the best Hugo Munsterberg archive in the world is the one that exists in Blatter’s database. He can use the system to answer all kinds of queries and to see previously unknown connections between people, institutions, and things. He’s not just a digital tech junkie, however; he’s an intrepid explorer. When he found out that Munsterberg’s book collection had been given to the Harvard library, he went and found them in the stacks. If Blatter can figure out how to learn something, he will.
Munsterberg and his students became involved in many different social spaces, which included pre-existing status systems, including schools, courts, engineering societies, and industries, like electric street railways. Blatter’s first move is to follow Munsterberg and his students as agents, to see how they got into these positions. But the secondary consequence of tracking these agents is just as important as the primary one because as Blatter follows these actors he ends up richly describing each one of these worlds in which they became ensconced. The total effect is an extremely interesting reconstruction of academia, industry, the professions, power, and science during the Progressive Era. Blatter explicitly both builds upon and revises previous accounts of this period, but sometimes it feels like you are looking at the world through a whole new set of glasses when you read his stuff.
Another person whose work I have been following closely is Margaret Curnutte, a postdoctoral fellow at the Baylor College of Medicine. Maggie wrote a very nice dissertation on the politics of the direct-to-consumer genetic testing industry. I think she has made big strides forward in the last few years, though, improving on an already good thing. In one of her projects, Maggie has theorized that different genetic testing labs are adopting different business models, partly in response to the regulatory environment. To track these changes, Maggie built a database of over 100 genetic testing companies, and she has arrived at some fascinating conclusions, which she and the team of researchers she’s working with will be unveiling to the world over the next few years. I hope that Maggie writes a book about genetic testing labs because it’s certain to be the best treatment of the topic.
Similarly, I like Arthur Daemmrich’s earlier book, Pharmacopolitics: Drug Regulation in the United States and Germany, but I’m aching with suspense to see his next book. Arthur, who is now at the University of Kansas Medical Center, spent several years as a professor at the Harvard Business School. While there, he learned some tricks of the trade that are mostly unknown in science and technology studies. Business analysts and theorists just use different databases and sources than most of us are familiar with. I like the cases Arthur wrote at HBS as well as his recent publications, and he has two neat projects underway—one a comparative study of the regulation of chemicals and one (I think I have this right) a comparative study of healthcare systems, including the adoption of medical records systems. I expect that, when Arthur’s next book comes out, its endnotes will be a virtual how-to manual on using different kinds of sources and databases to examine issues in science and technology studies. One weakness of some corners of science and technology studies is that they don’t know how to examine businesses and markets. I think work, like Arthur’s and Maggie’s, is going to open our eyes to a lot.
I think the neo-empirical turn goes even further than science and technology studies. Over the next few weeks, I am hope to start reading Susie Pak’s Gentlemen Bankers: The World of J. P. Morgan, which was published in mid-2013. I heard Susie give a talk at the Harvard Business School on this research. The talk was smart as hell. Susie combines qualitative and quantitative methods in novel ways in her work. One of the tools she uses is geographical information systems. Some of her research, for instance, examines the relationship between networks of Jewish and Protestant businessmen in Manhattan. She uses maps to show that during one period the Jewish networks and Protestant networks lived in different neighborhoods in the city, but slowly, over the course of a few decades, their living places converged, as capitalism partly came to trump ethnicity and religion. She uses these tools to show many other things besides, and I am really looking forward to reading her book.
Many people have been keeping a close eye on the young career of Caitlin Rosenthal, who recently began a professorship at the University of California Berkeley. Like many of the best works in the new History of Capitalism, Caitlin’s research uses some traditional methods of examining quantitative records, like accounting books, to new ends. I’ll let Caitlin describe her project, the forthcoming book From Slavery to Scientific Management, in her own words. You’ll see how cool it is. “My interest in information technologies grew out of my recently completed doctoral dissertation, ‘From Memory to Mastery.’ Built on archival research at more than a dozen manuscript and rare books libraries—from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Oxford, England—the project charts the transformation of numerical reasoning in America between 1750 and 1880. I use a wide array of quantitative and partially quantitative records to show how accounting evolved from a system of recordkeeping into an instrument of control and analysis—from an aid to memory to an instrument of mastery. I also describe the sophisticated accounting practices that supported harsh labor regimes on slave plantations in the American South, a finding that provided the impetus for my first book project.”
Finally, my own work has been deeply influenced by the historian of science, Jessica Wang. Like most of the people I’ve discussed in the last two days, Jessica uses a mixture of traditional research methods, including a great deal of archival mining, and new research tools. Again, I’ll let Jessica describe one of her current research projects in her own words: “[My] current book project, ‘Mad Dogs and Other New Yorkers: Rabies, Medicine, and Public Health in an American Metropolis, 1840-1920,’ uses the social history of a dreaded disease to explore urban social geography, the place of domesticated animals in the nineteenth-century city, the nature of physicians’ self-fashioning and the place of pathological anatomy in the construction of medical identity, the institutional contexts of medicine, disease, and public health, and the ties between the public-private relationship, urban governance, and American state-building.” A glimpse of this research can be won by reading her essay “Dogs and the Making of the American State,” which was published in the Journal of American History
It was while sitting with Jessica at coffee shops in Cambridge, Massachusetts that I first falteringly began to articulate how my interests were shifting from a certain kind of theory to the possibilities of certain kinds of research. Jessica then talked about how her own methods and approaches were changing and how exciting it all was. It is through these kinds of human interactions, these moments of mutual recognition, that we begin to see that our senses of a changing world are more than mere constructions of our individual, isolated minds. All of the positive feedback I have been receiving via email, Facebook, Twitter, and phone calls since I started writing these posts makes me even more confident that at least some of what I have described is true.
When you become aware of the shift I have been trying to describe, this neo-empirical turn, you start to see it everywhere. It’s reach extends far beyond science and technology studies. You see it in what gets people’s hearts pounding; you hear it in what new work people choose to discuss when they get together for coffee or beer. A change is a’ comin’.
Over the last three days, in three blog posts, I have tried to characterize a fundamental shift occurring in science and technology studies. I have given examples of work, both from the narrower field of technology studies and from other locales, that fit this shift. But this question remains, “If this shift IS occurring, what should we do about it?” Two thing, I’d argue. First, we have to move aside outmoded notions of “intellectual vitality.”
A musical video of a song titled “Livin’ On A Prayer” by the musical recording artist “Bon Jovi.” The video was released in 1986, one year before the publication of the book, The Social Construction of Technological Systems.
Please Press Play!!
Interestingly, debates about neologizing, theory, and empiricism are happening not just in science and technology studies but have also moved into the mainstream history. In the December 2013 issue of the American Historical Review, the South African environmental historian, Lance Van Sittert, has written a critical and controversial review of Gabrielle Hecht’s recent book, Being Nuclear. Some people feel that the review is unfair and unprofessional. This group includes Hecht who left a comment on the webpage of the American Historical Review and who took to Twitter to plead her case.
Others believe that the review is a penetrating and devastatingly accurate critique of a problematic work. I sincerely hope that this controversy has its day in court and that it is resolved fairly, whether that means the case is decided for Hecht or for Van Sittert.
My point in bringing it up, however, is that one thing Van Sittert criticizes Hecht for is her use of neologisms. In a send up What-I-Will-Call-ism, he coins the term “scholarity,” a parody of Hecht’s concept of “nuclearity,” which means that “nuclear” means different things to different people at different times. As Van Sittert writes, “Comparing The Radiance of France to Being Nuclear, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, like “nuclearity,” “scholarity” is an acquired rather than an inherent quality of any history, one that takes an enormous amount of labor to establish, and that the non-scholarity of African histories, like the non-nuclearity of its yellowcake, has now become established in the global academic marketplace.” So, perhaps, “scholarity” changes over time, though I’m pretty sure that’s not Van Sittert’s point.
If what I have argued over the last three days is true, then there is a shift in our notion of scholarity now underway. An older mode of thought favored the novelty of a certain kind of theory—part of which focused on jargon-creation—over the novelty of empirical evidence and older social scientific notions of social structure. (The criticism that SCOT led to light-weight research was so recurrent that Wiebe Bijker felt he had to address it in his Da Vinci Prize speech.) Now, it seems as if younger people are turning against this older mode and forming their own, which I have called “What-I-Will-Call-ics Anonymous.” The older mode persists in the mind of older, established scholars, however, and this could lead to a number of problems. Reportedly, at one of the panel discussions of these matters at SHOT last year, one scholar said that they were stirring the pot because they were “bored.” As I have tried to show over the last three days, if you are bored, you are asleep.
After SHOT’s Ad Hoc Committee on Structure and Organization published its report, where it worried about this decline in vitality, scholars chatted on SHOT-Talk.org about their understandings of the field and what they thought needed to be improved. Some people furthered the notion that there was a problem; others fought it.
In a comment on that page, Paul Edwards wrote, “I’m one of the people who rather often chooses to go to 4S rather than SHOT . . . . I value them both, and I have learned a great deal from SHOT. But I generally find that I get much more that I can use in my own work from 4S. The principal reason for this is not unique to SHOT, but is a problem that afflicts history as a discipline. The standard SHOT presentation is a narrowly defined study of a brief historical episode. In general, there is very little theory; there is often no consideration at all of larger lessons these episodes might hold; there is too much detail.”
I don’t know any historians of technology who use “very little theory.” The work I described yesterday is chockablock with it it. Nor do I know scholars who fail to address larger issues in technology studies. Each of the works I have described deals with large-scale historiographical and theoretical issues that should be of interest to anyone interested in the social scientific study of technology. (But “lessons”? Part of the disagreement on SHOT-Talk seemed to arise from people who only focus on presentist issues.) If what if I have argued in these last three posts is accurate, however, then our present mode of theorization and even the theories we are interested in look different and our methodological pursuits have shifted.
Edwards goes on and writes of SHOT, “But the general sense of a collective enterprise is missing. And there is a great deal of theory available. LTS theory [that’s large technical systems theory, for the uninitiated]; infrastructure studies; sociology of technology; innovation theory; cosmopolitan commons theory.” I have tried to show in these last three posts that there are collective enterprises underway, and that there are opportunities to tighten these enterprises into a more coherent project. In general, however, I think that Edwards is talking about the kinds of theories that are not of central interest to most members of What-I-Will-Call-ics Anonymous, which is not to say that they haven’t read and been influenced by these works. Members are just now more interested in other things. (Notice, too, how the theories that Edwards lists fit the quotation from John Levi Martin in the first post, wherein theories are theories “of” something, not general pictures.)
To go one step further, theories of this sort lead to at least two problems. First, they typically flatten rather than enrich our accounts. If you choose to front-end your paper with a theory, you will necessarily, even if only implicitly, highlight the factors that the theory emphasizes. Such an approach almost always has a narrowing effect on explanation. Of course, you always have to simplify things to some degree; you can’t deal with every single factor. Yet, once we have defined a question, plain spoken narrative allows us to explore the complex intertwining of cause and effect that is reality. Second, these theories often blind us to actors’ categories. As Carlo Ginzburg has elegantly described in his lecture, “Our Words, and Theirs: A Reflection on the Historian’s Craft Today
,” anachronisms, including the kinds of theories I’m discussing, are necessary and helpful tools. They can help us ask questions and identify sources. But we must set them aside as quickly as possible. Since the 1980s, cultural history has taught us to emphasize the emergence, change, and spread of actors’ own notions. Ideas structure the world in which actors act, including how the actors act. (The debate between Paul Forman and Norton Wise is over whether it is better to say that ideas structure the world for actors, Forman’s position, or that actors with agency use ideas to structure the world, Wise’s position.) The problem with academic concepts, even one’s as simple as ‘system,’ is that they lead us away from the actor’s thoughts. Historical actors who advocated for and built things that now look like systems to us often had very different notions of what they were doing. Our goal should be, as much as possible, to reconstruct the actors’ notions and see how those notions structured their actions, rather than to import our own ideas about what is going on.
Put another way, scholars today may be less focused on spending the opening of their papers and talks spinning out some new theoretical notions, creating what some of my friends call “exportable analytics,” and more focused on giving nuanced social scientific explanations of the topic at hand. The beauty of nuanced social scientific explanations is that encountering them, either through written texts or through spoken talks, inspires one to create more nuanced social scientific explanations. That’s the export.
People who are worried about “intellectual vitality” are looking in the wrong place for new developments. To some degree, this misdirection of perception is totally understandable. The people who are worried about “intellectual vitality,” most of whom are in their 40s and 50s, are gazing nostalgically towards the place from which thrilling developments emerged during their youth. They are looking towards the “sociology of technology,” the birthplace of SCOT, remembering its heyday. And just as we might throw a playlist of 80’s slow jams and Power Ballads on Spotify when we want to remember the glory days, we can replay SCOT now and again. We can even fall off the wagon for a moment and have a brief relapse of What-I-Will-Call-ism. But those days are gone. The world is moving on.
I will return to where these people are standing now and then and peer over their shoulders towards the “sociology of technology,” both because I have my own nostalgia for SCOT and because I would love to see a resurgence from those quarters. But I will not return there with any great expectations. I try to keep abreast of goings on, and I just don’t see it. If these people so worried about “intellectual vitality” do see some exciting new developments in the sociology of technology and related spaces, I hope that they will report those developments (in detail) to the rest of us. That would be much more helpful than a flat report of preferences for one space over another.
The mode of scholarity that I have called What-I-Will-Call-ism has become a mental model for some. The mode has set a number of criteria that do not fit the best work being done today by young scholars. The issue, however, and the reason we must remove this model from our minds is because if we hold this model against younger scholars, we will harm them. I would argue that the report of SHOT’s Ad Hoc Committee on Structure and Organization and some of the banter on SHOT-Talk already constitute instances of harm, though they are very minor ones. After I put up the first post of this series, the historian, Finn Arne Jorgensen, responded on Twitter, “Interesting thoughts here – I’ve observed the same move away from heavy theory. Becomes a problem when older theory scholars evaluate our work – easy to write off as light weight and unreflected. Happened to me and many others! Which I think is bollocks!” Indeed.
On top of removing the mote of What-I-Will-Call-ism from our eyes, I would argue that we should work to foster the emerging intellectual movement I have described (if it is real).
First of all, I believe that the three professional societies—SHOT, BHC, and HSS—should put up funds to foster this intellectual turn by holding get togethers as well as through other mechanisms. A modest proposal for sure. These professional societies should foster this movement together. There are likely other professional societies that should be involved as well, such as the American Society of Environmental History, the Organization of American Historians, and others. We might be able to find funding from other sources as well. At the very least, the societies can help coordinate online meet ups, on systems like Google Hangout.
For example, I would love to sit in on a workshop, virtual or real, led by Jeremy Blatter, Alex Csiszar, Caitlin Rosenthal, Bill Turkle, Jessica Wang, and Alex Wellerstein. And perhaps Yulia Frumer could talk about the system she’s built to look at a very different kinds of sources. I know that she has chosen not to adopt some tools because they don’t work with the kind of sources she uses (which are in Japanese).
Finn Arne Jorgenson is considering holding a THATCamp
at SHOT’s 2014 meeting in Dearborn, Michigan. I would joyfully sign on to any such event. (Sadly, the powers that be scheduled SHOT and HSS for the same weekend this year, which is creating problems for several people who work at that intersection. So, that weekend will not be an ideal time to hold the first meeting of What-I-Will-Call-ics Anonymous. I hope these meeting conflicts can be resolved because I plan to start attending HSS almost every year as I have done with SHOT for sometime and will continue to do.)
Additionally, at conferences, instead of a jazz band, let’s get a DJ, one on the technological cutting-edge of mixing beats, computer samples, and old records. Let’s make sure the DJ plays good dance music and not stuff that’ll get people talking about what “art” is.
Perhaps we could also play the Synthesis Drinking Game. The players in this game all read a short-ish, recent piece of general social theory, say the paper in which Fligstein and McAdam outline their synthesis of field theory. The players then get together and take turns using the theory to talk about their work. A player, Person A, loses a point (aka takes a drink) if a) someone, Person B, uses the theory everyone has read to make a better observation about some aspect of Person A’s work than Person A has or b) Person A complains that “synthesis is stupid.” We’ll even let sociologists of technology play.
I would love to have structured rap sessions (not panels, not really rap either, though we might insist that people have to talk over the beat of a drum machine) on ideas for alternative forms for publicizing our ideas and getting them out to a wider public. There’s no reason our friends and families can’t share in the joy of the ideas we are creating. In this vein, I’ve decided to write a graphic novel, which I hope will come out around the same time as my academic history of auto regulation. (The academic book covers the period from 1893 or so to the present). The graphic novel is called “The Graphic History of Automotive Emissions Control, Big Bang to 2020.” You can guess where it begins. With the origins of the universe, the formation of Earth, the creation of atmosphere out of chemical reactions, the emergence of life. Then it skips a bit and examines the origins of modern humans, their toolmaking and use of fire, and how they eventually harnessed combustion to create energy. This took a lot of knowledge and toolmaking skills, as you can imagine.The book really takes off in the late-1940s, when a chemist in California identified cars as the cause of the terrible smog that was affecting Los Angeles. (It’s important to note, however, that the LA Valley had been known to capture smoke when Native Americans lived there.) The chemist broke down smog into its constituents parts using equipment that he usually used to do things like discover the flavor of pineapple so that it could be recreated chemically. The graphic novel shows how regulation has shaped a machine, and it explains where we are today, especially with auto generated air pollution. In the end, I want people, including policymakers, to have a more complex understanding of the relationship between public policy, engineering, technological change, public health, and the environment, and I think there are other ways of achieving this end than traditional academic texts.
I’m sure there are other people with cool ideas, too, if what I described sounds cool. I’ll bring the drum machine.
A thought for a few years down the road is that we might do a small collaborative project, such as a coffee table book. One possibility I’ve thought of is a transnational history of steam power, which would pull together scholars who specialize in different regions. We could trace the steam engine’s move around the world and see how it was adopted in different locales, how it fit into all kinds of different cultures. The end product—say, the coffee table book—wouldn’t even be the main point of getting together. Rather, we would talk about what sources exist in which countries and what methods we would use to study the topic. The goal would not be to overburden people’s time, so each person would be responsible for very little. I have talked to Yulia Frumer about this idea. She has cool stuff for Japan and China and knows of at least one dope image
. Imagine the possibilities. I think we could easily find a publisher. We’ll tell the publisher, “Shoot the book at the steampunks. Sell it at science fiction and comic conventions.”
I’m not a natural born leader. I have no faith in my suggestions for how to foster this nascent intellectual movement, if there is such a movement. I have no idea if my ideas for fostering this imaginary movement are compelling or interesting or even if they make sense. No, if one thing sticks from what I have written in these posts, I hope it is the list of works that I have praised for doing great, cutting-edge work. Everything I’ve written in these last three days could be wrong. I might be wrong. I’m probably wrong. I have no problem being wrong. Much more threatening and nauseating to me than the thought of being wrong is the thought of NOT celebrating these works, works I so, so, so adore. I can’t thank the scholars I have discussed enough for their beautiful creations.
Worries about intellectual vitality be damned.
What-I-Will-Call-ics Anonymous for life! (Higher Power be-willing).
Or in other words,