The Forest and the Tree

Every six months or so, I find myself reading parts of Phil Mirowski’s Machine Dream…and a few –sometimes angry- reviews of the book. That’s the thing when someone is ambitious enough to write his version of postwar economic history as a whole. Whatever you research on in this period, you end up confronting some of his claims (from this book or his recent work on the Chicago School and the Mont Pelerin Society).

Most reviewers eventually address the same issue, namely the consistency of Mirowski’s collective history with the various individual histories they have produced (Boland’s review is characteristically titled “zoomed-in vs zoomed-out”). Sometimes relying on archival sources, they fault Mirowski for overestimating the influence of such funding body or military organization on the individuals they have worked on (or on themselves, see Binmore’s review), or for caricaturing them as laqueys of Von Neumann or Hayek. And yes, I confess being hurt by his rough picture of such and such character I’ve lived with for years, reading their articles, drafts, private correspondence, diaries and most intimate thoughts.

But is there any road from individual to collective history? Is there any positive counterpart to the word “caricature,” a way of selecting a few characteristics from each individual, some that would together account for the shape of economic science, without distorting individual pictures of these individuals? Or do those willing to write collective history start the other way round, from these global forces that inform, filter and possibly distort individuals’ intellectual development? And how are these forces to be selected, if not on the basis of individual cases? Is collective history essentially a puppet history?

HOPE’s 2007 conference on biography and autobiography brought the question to light, but provided no answer to my obsessive question:

Is the kind of individual history I’m trying to write of any help to fashion the big picture?

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10 thoughts on “The Forest and the Tree

  1. I like to think that what I write, even the most microhistorical piece, has some “larger” points to it. I refuge myself on sociology and social history, and my small stories are making points on both – how identities form and reform, how authority is established in the economics past.
    In these postmodern (post-post-modern?) days it is hard to believe in metanarratives or grande narratives. They are always provocative and enjoyable to read, and I am happy someone is writing them. But for me they do not represent the state of the art and it is not obvious that they unlock a priviliged truth or perspective that is absent in good microhistory. I don’t believe in that hierarchy.

  2. I also don’t believe in a hierarchy between micro and macro histories. Both have relevant roles and contributions to make. And there is a non-trivial interaction between them. For example, it is most relevant to point out and identify in a macro scale the tendency to “formal”, general, utilitarian (dynamic) equilibrium modeling in the postwar period. However, the exact nature of this tendency differs among fields and uses of economics. So, there are very important elements that can be explored only in the micro scale. That’s why I ended my Ph.D. thesis by saying that (I guess self-quoting is acceptable in blogs… But sorry for it anyway):

    “although I focused my narrative on two narrow concepts of [optimal monetary policy], my discussion is inevitably part of the broader stabilization of the neoclassical economics after World War II. Therefore, I see my narrative as being a mosaic: of using small but significant pieces to make a broader portrait. It is clear that constructing such a portrait is a multiple-person effort and that different portraits can be constructed.”

    One complaint people make about Mirowski’s book, as pointed out by Beatrice, is that he overstates or overinterprets his evidence. That’s a criticism that applies both to the macro and to the micro history, in different but equally important ways.

  3. This is a problem that scholars wrestle with in many disciplines. I have recently been reading A General Theory of Scientific/Intellectual Movements by Scott Frickel and Neil Gross (Amer Sociol. Rev. 2005, 70 (April: 204-232) in which the authors seek to make general sense of many individual case studies in science studies concerning the “dynamism” of science.

    I suspect that there can be no single answer to the question posed, only individual accommodations at a particular time in a personal and community life, by individual scholars diverse in taste, temperament, and breadth and depth of reading. Mirowski is of a type, and others are of other types with respect to such metrics. Some days I long to generalize, some days I am repelled by oversimplified big narratives.

    Is this too not a point that Popper and Kuhn worried about in their writing, about a teleology, the “point” of scientific work?

    Once one has set out to think about and make truths, comprehending large Truth seems to be a project for the mad or obsessed. But I project.

  4. Schwarzy: I hope not so, but there seems to be a kind of aggregation issue here. What characteristic of individuals can we derive collective traits from, and what if these characteristics are not those these individuals would judge relevant to understand their life and work?

    Pedro: I did not mean to provide any hierarchy. I’ve simply started from an end of the spectrum wondering if those standing at the other can hear me. But what about your willingness to point out the relevance of your work “to make a broader portrait.” What about Tiago’s attempt to show “how the how life histories can be used to write the history of heterodox economics as a history of communities of scholars.” For sure, the opposition individual/collective, microhistory/macrohistory, is a caricature, there are multiple levels of narratives, individual, networks, communities, schools of thought. This does not do away with my concern, however, nor with this shadow desire that our microhistories help understand the dynamics of the profession.

    Tiago: at first I thought you sounded extremely reductionist or individualist (methodological) because you seem to assume surely that collective history is no more than a sum of individual histories, or than collective history doesn’t matter. But maybe the problem is that Mirowski’s story is a very big one. Isn’t Backhouse Palgrave article on “economics in postwar America” another metanarrative whose relation to our work is worth reflecting on? And I read you HOPE 2007 paper on oral history in heterodox economics as an attempt to sketch a “larger picture” although not the largest but the story of a community) on the basis of individual memories.

    What I am saying is that if history is a social science as economics and sociology are, then no wonder than we end up confronting the difficult task of finding a third way between individualism and holism. There is surely no “privileged truth” in collective histories, only a partial one with other parts to be found in microhistories. The crux lies in the relationships between these two kind of histories, some that are, as Pedro says, “non trivial” enough to deserve consideration.

  5. Cabalist3 : “Large Truth” is no project for young scholars 😉 Maybe years of practice can help the historian sense how to generalize?
    Thank you for the reference; I was wondering if sociologists, who have a different approach of the individual/collective issue, would write the history of their field differently.

  6. Beatrice: Actually, historians of sociology have a much more complex set of issues to face than do historians of economics. They have all been trained as sociologists, and for the most part are attempting to theorize, or employ existing sociological theories to, their material. If the material is the history of sociology, e.g. a project like the development of the idea of social stratification, they would have to provide an explanation that passes muster with sociologists like themselves. It would not be common though to find an economic explanation of the development of the idea of public goods.

    Worse, if one is an adherent of the strong program, then the idea of social stratification is historicized in even more complex ways, and reflexivity must be faced directly. Historians of economics never deal with reflexivity as a problem for their accounts. Question: Should they? What would Mirowski’s book have had to address were he to have faced this problem?

  7. Beatrice, I did not mean to imply that you had a hierarchy in your mind. My point is that I don’t believe such a thing exists. The non-trivial interaction between micro and macro histories, in my view, goes basically in the following way: the macro histories point our attention to certain aspects of the development of economic thought, but we can really understand them only by doing also micro histories, because these aspects are used and negotiated in different ways in different areas. As a consequence, micro histories may point to some general aspects that macro historians were not aware of. On the other hand, micro histories need some underlying “guidance” in order to make some sense of a myriad of particular aspects. That’s why I called it a mosaic: because the pieces you choose and the way you organize them put constraints on the general picture that can emerge; on the other hand the very organization of small pieces follow some general “principles”. Thus, I do believe that if you’re on any end of the spectrum, people on the other may surely listen to you. And on this it is very interesting to learn about the historians of sociology challenge and practice.

  8. Pulling the endless string of metaphors, after forest and trees, after the mosaic (i am partial to azulejos), how about optical instruments? A telescope does not reveal the big story, it draws the very large and far between into familiar sight. So does the miscroscope for the very small. Maybe one could claim that narratives are like these instruments and they discipline different phenomena to a familiar scale. That being the case, then it is not the device so much that matters but what we do with what we see through them.

  9. Going back to metaphors, I like the “forest and trees” and the “mosaic” ones exactly by their ambiguity with respect to the distinction micro/macro history (though I new your predilection for azulejos, also shared by myself…). Optical instruments also have that flavor, but the whole microscope/telescope issue is a bit more rigid as the instruments and the objects of study keep a closer relation to each other, in the sense that you can’t use a microscope to study a whole organ (you can only analyze it by its smaller components) or a nearby star –the forest and the mosaic are things which can be seen in both scales, macro and micro.
    That’s all about metaphors, but the crucial point is that the object you want to domesticate and the instrument you create to capture it are developments that go hand in hand.

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