Category Archives: Dan

Down with epistemological rubrics!

I was struck by this passage in Erik Hmiel’s review of Joel Isaac’s new book, Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn:

And in seeking to combat their marginalization, they sought crucial points of commonality among the human sciences, the most crucial for Isaac being an epistemology grounded in research practices, pedagogy, and communities of inaugurated and qualified inquirers. In reconstructing this moment in the history of the American social sciences, we see how the “practical, ‘everyday’ aspects of  the theory of knowledge…in the Harvard complex present a salutary contrast to the inflated role often granted to epistemological rubrics like ‘positivism and ‘interpretivism’ in the formation of the human sciences,” aspects that cast the “revolutions” of late-twentieth century thought, most notably Kuhn’s Structure, in a new light, and beg further questions about idea of the social sciences itself.

I had a healthy skepticism for “isms” imparted to me in grad school, so this sounds promising. (Also, full disclosure: I have trouble telling some of the isms apart!)

Mapping Scientific Influence

Ben Schmidt at Sapping Attention has a beautiful post up (with many pretty pictures) and exactly the sort of smart analysis one expects from his blog. Among the most interesting—albeit very tentative— conclusions he comes to:

The ‘while/whilst’ result is suggestive, in that it indicates we can track cultural phenomena completely independent of science in the data. (India looks more like America, while Australia and South Africa look more like Britain: that’s interesting to me.)
The university and city stuff can be interesting as well if we look in the right places. Obviously no one cares that “Harvard” is used more than “Stanford” in Cambridge; but the higher results for Stanford near CERN, and for Harvard–to stretch–in Australia may be telling us interesting things about the way that a project like the SLAC can get international recognition.

In Schmidt’s hands, the ArXiv becomes a tool for seeing scientific connections inside and across national boundaries. It’s fascinating stuff that begs more attention and more research.

Schmidt’s work is a great example—on the more technically proficient side—of what James Grossman called for in his AHA executive director column in March 2012 Perspectives:

I am not suggesting that we all become statisticians. But data from the past—even the immediate past—are neither straightforward substance nor transparent material. Organizing piles of scraps of information into a coherent argument is no easy task. This is why it takes a long time to research and write a good history dissertation. Whether or not we have a facility with numbers, we are good at asking questions and analyzing evidence that by its nature generates many variables at once. And because we look for stories—for ways of synthesizing diverse strands into narrative themes—we usually look for interactions among variables that to other eyes might not seem related. By casting our insights into the form of narratives, we also make them more accessible than multivariate regression analyses could ever be—and arguably more amenable to uncertainty and ambiguity. I have little doubt that people asking big questions of Big Data would benefit from collaboration with the qualitative and interpretive perspectives historians bring to this kind of enterprise. It is our task to prepare our students for such options, and to convince those beyond the community of historians that we have something to contribute.

Poe, Leidy, Morton, and Some Skeletons

Now that’s a picture:

Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph Leidy, and Samuel George Morton at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences

Photo from A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American ScienceVia.

Also, did you know that “diddling” can be considered an exact science?  (This and other interesting tid-bits on Poe and early American science appear in Maurice Lee’s recent Uncertain Chances.)

Touring The Idea Factory….or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bell Labs

A Special Guest Post from Ben Gross, Research Fellow, Center for Contemporary History and Policy, at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (Thanks Ben!)


First off, I would like to thank Dan and the other members of the AmericanScience community for offering a forum to discuss a subject near and dear to my heart: the history of corporate science. Specifically, I would like to take a moment to reflect upon the significance of this place:

Bell Labs, courtesy of Wikipedia

Behold, Bell Labs! Located in Murray Hill, New Jersey, during the quarter century after World War II, this facility rose above all others to become synonymous with American innovation. Although a relative newcomer compared to research organizations at General Electric or Du Pont, the technologies developed within its walls—most notably, the transistor—prompted Fortune magazine to identify it in 1958 as “the world’s greatest industrial laboratory.” Further achievements over the coming decades, such as the launch of the first commercial telecommunications satellite (Happy 50th birthday, Telstar!) and pioneering work on solar panels, lasers, charge-coupled devices, and mobile telephony reinforced the Labs’ reputation.

Indeed, by almost every measure—the size of its technical staff, the number of patents it generated, total Nobel Prizes won—Bell Labs eclipsed all rivals. Industrialists and policymakers scrutinized the work underway at Murray Hill, eager to replicate its scientific and commercial accomplishments. Corporations like Allied Chemical and Standard Oil, attributing Bell Labs’ success to its campus-like atmosphere, went so far as to construct their own research centers in suburban New Jersey. These firms, and many others, also broadened their investments in fundamental research, due to shifts in Cold War funding policies formulated in consultation with Bell research managers like Mervin Kelly and William Baker.

Given this prominence, it is unsurprising that Bell Labs has secured a central position in the historiography of corporate science. Leonard Reich’s comparative analysis of G.E. and Bell, for example, was among the first books challenging historians to treat research conducted in for-profit settings on equal terms with academic laboratories. Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life echoes Reich’s argument and cites the behavior of Bell Labs’ managers both to call attention to the artificiality of the sociological distinction between not-for-profit and industrial science and to promote increased discussion of the latter. (Though as Will Thomas recently observed, the scope and objectives of such a research agenda remains a matter for debate among scholars like David Edgerton and Philip Mirowski.) Whether compiling surveys of 20th century “big science” or focused case studies of the constituent technologies of the digital age, a mention of Bell Labs is almost inevitable.

Which is why my immediate reaction to the news that journalist Jon Gertner had published another volume on the subject was a combination of curiosity and frustration. For although I am always pleased to see the history of industrial science receive greater public attention, I worried that this new book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, would merely rehash the earlier literature and reinforce the notion that Bell Labs was the be-all and end-all of corporate R&D. “Thank goodness,” I joked. “Bell Labs hasn’t received enough attention over the years. Finally, someonewill take a  momentto recount the originsof the transistor!”

Sarcasm aside, I was excited to read Gertner’s account, particularly after learning he would be dropping by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), where I am currently working as a postdoctoral researcher, for a public conversation with fellow electronics historian David Brock. The event was held last Wednesday and on the whole I was pleasantly surprised, both with the book and Gertner’s willingness to acknowledge the challenges associated with compressing nearly a century of complex scientific and political history into a relatively brief 350 pages.

The sheer scale of the Bell Labs organization forced Gertner to confront a question familiar to historians of collaborative research: how to winnow down an otherwise overwhelming array of actors into a coherent cast of characters. In the CHF discussion, Gertner acknowledged that his initial approach utilized technologies as an organizing framework (one chapter on the transistor, one on satellites, etc.), but that he ultimately discarded that scheme to concentrate on a handful of key figures ranging from managers like Kelly and Baker to scientists like William Shockley and Claude Shannon. While his choice of actors was not arbitrary—nearly all self-identified as members of a prominent group of researchers nicknamed the “Young Turks”—Gertner’s final chapter hints at a persistent tension between “the individual versus the institution.” (358) To what extent, he asks, can the efforts of a select handful shed light on the dynamic realities of the corporate research enterprise? Gertner never provides a decisive answer, either in his book or his CHF visit, preferring to concentrate on his chosen few while occasionally gesturing towards the otherwise unrecognized masses of technicians and development engineers working behind the scenes.

Similarly, while Gertner sometimes called attention to the fact that Bell Labs was not the only industrial research laboratory exploring solid-state phenomena, he was less interested in highlighting interactions between Murray Hill and other firms. Indeed, Bell Labs scientists in Gertner’s account might as well have been working in a bubble, isolated from counterparts at GE, IBM, RCA, and other companies sharing an interest in electronically active materials. Situating Bell Labs as one research center among many, however, would have strengthened his case that its accomplishments were only possible due to its unique status as the research arm of a government-sponsored monopoly. So long as AT&T retained its position as the sole caretaker of America’s telephone network, it could pursue a wide range of research projects without worrying about time pressures associated with competition. Once the government forced AT&T to divest of its local affiliates, the so-called Baby Bells, in 1984, the Labs found itself under the gun as money was diverted towards short-term projects. Having never needed to worry about market research in the past made the successful commercialization of such work all the more challenging.

Gertner’s success in driving home the point that Bell Labs was the exception rather than the rule so far as industrial research was concerned is, I believe, his most lasting contribution to the historiography of corporate science. One could see hints of this in the questions following his CHF talk, where several audience members asked him to speculate about what would have happened if AT&T had retained its monopoly beyond the 1980s. Rather than delve too deeply into the counterfactual, Gertner responded by noting the contrasting attitudes of Bell Labs personnel and modern venture capitalists concerning competition. While contemporary firms tend to frame competition as a driver of innovation, Bell Labs provides a powerful counterexample, suggesting that the absence of rival firms can facilitate the maturation of technological projects that might otherwise be canceled due to concerns with short-term profit margins.

Regardless of the merits of either position, Gertner emphasized that the economic and legal frameworks associated with Bell Labs’ successes were historically contingent. One could not simply transplant their research model to another firm or industry and recreate the atmosphere of Murray Hill. This willingness to treat Bell Labs not as some idealized endpoint that other research organizations failed to reach but as the beneficiary of a unique set of economic and legal circumstances, is the most compelling aspect of Gertner’s book. It is certainly enough to differentiate it from the vast majority of writing on the subject and persuade even the most jaded historian of corporate science to give Bell Labs another look.

Brooke Hindle on Early American Science

This retrospective look (from the 1980s, it seems, by Brooke Hindle) at the mid-twentieth-century origins of the history of science in early America deserves a quick read. The piece covers quite a bit of ground (including history of technology and material culture), but I found most interesting its discussion of the influence on the history of science of the tide toward “social and intellectual history,” alongside the rise of institutions that I would affiliate with the American studies movement like the [now Omohundro] Institute of Early American History and Culture.

On the history of American studies generally, my first stop for an actor’s account is still Leo Marx’s 2004 essay, “Believing in America.”

Toward an Environmental History of Psychology: A Conversation with Michael Pettit

The Inspiration: A Toronto Raccoon, photo by Michael Pettit

The Forum for the History of Science in America’s newsletter regularly prints conversations between accomplished scholars in the history of American science and younger historians. In the most recent number, (PDF available here) FHSA editor, Dan Bouk (Me!), claimed the privilege to speak with 2011 FHSA Article Prize winner, Michael Pettit.

We enjoyed ourselves and hope you’ll enjoy listening in, so to speak. There is something for everyone: Raccoons (so cute!);  history of psychology and the human sciences (so cerebral!); Canadian institutions for HOS (so interdisciplinary!); and even a few musings on the intersection of HOS with environmental science (so relevant to the discussion Lukas introduced here!)


Bouk: Mike, I can see why the committee awarded you the FHSA article prize for 2011. Yours is a fascinating article (download here). One thing that struck me was that it lives in liminal spaces in a variety of ways: you talk about comparative psychologists on the edge of a behavioral revolution, about semi-domesticated raccoons that were not pets and yet not quite wild, about an animal (the raccoon) that thrives on the edges of human society, and about studies that get caught between an ascendant lab culture on one side and “nature faker” controversies among naturalists on the other. Did you go into this paper expecting to tell story about psychology at the margins?

Pettit: Thanks for the kind words about my article. As a historian, I do tend towards studying the margins of scientific fields and telling stories of failure. This has been a common feature of a number of pieces I have written over the years. I don’t think I have ever directly written about anyone who is typically considered a canonical figure in the history of science. I seem to write screwball comedies rather than epics or tragedies.

Michael Pettit

The immediate impetus for the article comes from living in Toronto, a city with a particularly dense raccoon population. The city-issued compost bins have a lock on them to make them raccoon proof. This strategy worked for a week or two. People have devised all kinds of alternative means of securing their garbage. Thinking about these locks, I wondered why no one had ever used the raccoon in a puzzle box experiment, the foundational experiment in comparative psychology. After doing a little searching in databases, I soon found out that they had and I knew I had a story I wanted to tell.

Bouk: Raccoons are really quite remarkable animals! Changing direction a bit, I was interested throughout the paper in the relative invisibility of rabies. Raccoons in your presentation seemed less threatening than we often fear them to be these days. Those pictures of experimenters “playing” with raccoons strike us today as particularly odd for this reason. It led me to wonder when the fear of rabies came to dominate Americans’ perceptions of raccoons.

But what I really want to ask you about are two other aspects of your response: puzzle boxes and Toronto. Let’s start with puzzle boxes. I thought I saw you making an implicit argument about a transition from standardized experiments (puzzle boxes) in the comparative framework, to standardized animal subjects in the behaviorist model. Is that right? Did Thorndike think his puzzle box would yield different results for different species? If so, was the point of the comparative psychology project largely one of ranking species within some linear hierarchy based on competence with a puzzle box? Or is it more complicated than that?

Pettit: I too was struck by the absence of discussions of rabies in my sources. Jessica Wang recently published a fascinating article dealing with the intertwined histories of rabies, dogs, and animal control policy in New York City. I was surprised that raccoons do not appear in her story.

The comparative psychology of this era was definitely grounded in scala naturae type arguments. This is particularly apparent in the 1935 Handbook of Social Psychology edited by Carl Murchison, which presents a picture of social psychology that is totally unrecognizable today. It consisted of chapters on various racial groups and chapters on the social behaviour of various species written by both psychologists and zoologists.

I am not sure if the transition is one of exchanging standardization in apparatus for standardization of organisms. Behaviorism was predicated on the importance of control and was famous for its apparatus (e.g. Skinner box). The European ethologists repeatedly attacked American behaviorism for studying animals under artificial conditions. What interests me more is how model organisms function differently in the behavioral sciences. What happens when standardized organisms start behaving in unstandardized, unexpected ways? How do different scientists view and theorize such behaviors differently?

Bouk: So we’re back to an interest in the margins, to the uncontrollable, to the screwball comedies. Now I would like to move on to the topic of Toronto. How much does it matter, do you think, that you’re doing history of the United States from the outside? Does your Canadian position impact your scholarship in any particular way? Do you think you get a different sense of what the “history of science in America” looks like because, unlike most FHSA members (who hail from all over the world, but are very heavily concentrated in US institutions) you work in Toronto?

Pettit: I find that in many US history graduate programs in history there is a pretty firm line between those who study the United States and those that didn’t. One of the things I liked most about my graduate cohort was that no one region dominated as we spent a lot of time together talking about history. I think this instilled an implicit comparative perspective even when I wasn’t doing explicit comparative history. I think one disadvantage is that I may be more likely to speak of a singular American culture than I think most Americanists would. They tend to see it as quite fragmented along lines of identity, politics, and region.

Toronto is a great place to do history of science these days. There are about ten faculty members in the region who work on some aspect of the history of psychology. At York, the new STS graduate program and research institute underscore the wonderful relationships which exist among historians, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists studying science. Finally, there has been more regional integration with workshops and conferences among universities in Southern Ontario. All these relations shape my thinking for the better.

Bouk: Speaking of shaping your thinking, where is your thinking taking you next? That is, what are you working on now?

Pettit: The raccoon article was a bit of a transition piece for me. I had just finished the writing of my first book, The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America (forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press at the end of this year). Like the book, the raccoon article is interested in how psychology as a discipline was carved out of a series encounters with various trickster figures. My current project examines how various scientists and social reformers have grappled with and represented animal sexual behavior from the 1920s to 1970s. It focuses on the question: under what historical conditions and to whom do queer forms of life and behaviors become legible and for whom are they ignored and marginalized? Somewhat implicit in the raccoon article is the idea that one can write an ecocritical or environmental history of psychology. This is a perspective that is becoming more prominent in the current project. Recently, I have been spending a fair bit of time tracing the history of tilapia as different species of the fish move out of African lakes and rivers into American animal behavior labs and simultaneously become a central feature Pacific Rim aquaculture. These interests are also reflected in a new course I am currently designing at York on global health histories designed for health majors.

How are History of Sci/Med/Tech and History of Capitalism Teaching One Another?

Continuing our ruminations on the history of capitalism and its relationship to the history of science/med/tech or to STS (here) (here) (and here), I think we might find some useful categories of analysis in Jeffrey Sklansky’s recent historiographical essay from Modern Intellectual History (Vol. 9, no. 1, 2012). Sklansky’s piece, “The Elusive Sovereign: New Intellectual and Social Histories of Capitalism,” (requires subscription) does what great historiographical works should do: it covers and categorizes a wide literature using analytical categories that shed new light on the assembled works; it reads recent scholarly trends perceptively; and it points the way toward fruitful new avenues of research and analysis. I’ll summarize Sklansky’s approach to each of these aspects, but for our purposes, I will note this first: Sklansky’s analysis suggests to me that the history of capitalism as currently practiced already shares deep affinities with our own dominant historical and methodological approaches.

Framing his essay, Sklansky explains the difference between the “old” and “new” histories of capitalism, being very careful throughout to avoid any claim that the new is better or smarter, or anything of the sort: it is simply a new avenue of investigation that raises interesting research questions and speaks to our contemporary sensibilities and concerns. The old history of capitalism, dominant only a few decades ago, focused on “proletarianization,” on the process of making wage laborers. The new history of capitalism, Sklansky argues, shifts its emphasis toward “commodification”:

The ceaseless process of churning work and wealth into prices and profits effectively converts qualities into quantities, rendering all things countable and commensurable by subjecting them to a single standard of pecuniary value. Joining material life to the abstract power of capital, commodification requires for its comprehension a more capacious kind of historical inquiry, transcending the old division of labor between intellectual and social history. (234)

He goes on to explain attention to commodification forces historians to think about “implicit notions and norms” alongside “formal intellectual systems such as Newtonian mechanics and neoclassical economics.”(234)

Why make this shift? For one, it allows for some productive synthesis. Take for example, the idea of commodified labor. Unlike proletarianization, which assumed a move toward wage labor, applying commodification as a lens for thinking about labor allows for narratives of capitalism that include non-wage labor, including chattel slaves, as well as “paupers, prisoners, ‘coolies,’ peons, sailors, servants, contract laborers, sharecroppers….”(237) Given the significance of slavery historiography over the last generation, it makes sense that any history of capitalism should be capable of thinking about slavery as part of the system, rather than as something exceptional.

A more important reason for the shift may have to do with our prevailing political economies. The story of proletarianization meant more to historians bringing to the past questions raised by their own experience of post-WWII industrial unionism. In our own financialized times, as industrial corporations increasingly and worryingly recede into the past, historians have begun to ask more about the importance of finance, and really of money, over the last few hundred years.

Sklansky divides the existing scholarship into three categories: works “conceiving capitalism” as a:

  1. “form of selfhood or way of being,”
  2. “a system of representation or way of seeing, and”
  3. “a framework of trust or way of believing.” (234)

Number 2 should strike a particular chord with us. Sklansky points to (among others) Lorraine Daston, Ted Porter, Mary Poovey, and John Carson as examples of people who demonstrate the power of new conceptual apparatuses, often constructed with the sciences, to facilitate the reduction of a complex material world into something that can be bought, sold, and traded in markets, to allow “economic actors and activities in all their irreducible particularity [to be] broken down and reconstituted in terms of commensurable units of quantitative value.”(243) Number 1 should sound familiar too, since our field has been paying more heed to scientific selves as of late. And while Sklansky draws few parallels from number 3 to any literature from the history of SciMedTech, I can’t help but think that the movement Sklansky sees to “blur the boundary between selling and speculating, finance and fraud” is related to our own commitments to treat “pseudoscience” as a suspect label, which dates back at least to Shapin’s decision to take phrenology seriously in the 1970s.

Sklansky closes the essay with a call for increased attention to capitalism as a “way of ruling, of establishing and exercising social power.”(246) His idea here is not so much that we should imagine William Graham Sumner’s “captains of industry” to be in charge of everything as it is that we should recognize the way that capitalism created new social and cultural forms that mediate power relations, for everyone from the wealthiest financier to the poorest whaleman. This looks to me like a Foucauldian approach, with the “microphysics of power” originating and evolving in shifting political economies. More specifically, Sklansky points to Ken Alder’s Engineering the Revolution to suggest the ways that states shape industries, markets, and ideology all at once; he points as well to work that shows capital to act as a kind of quasi-state, and to histories of social thought like those by Howard Brick and Dan Rodgers that tie political/economic and intellectual change together.

On the whole, the trend Sklansky sees appears to have been made possible in large part by creative intellectual appropriation: Daston, Porter, Carson, Alder etc. are not “historians of capitalism.” But Sklansky is right in seeing their work as consonant with and constitutive of the project of the history of capitalism. Up to this point, history of capitalism seems largely to have been working in parallel to or even borrowing from the science-studies-turn in history of science.

But I have high hopes that the history of capitalism will increasingly be a resource for us to draw upon, that in the process of appropriating STS for its own purposes, the history of capitalism will show us new ways to think about changes in science, medicine, and technology that are more aware of political economy.