Yesterday was the Amsterdam-Cachan Fall Workshop, aka “research day,” in the history of economics. The venue was held in the seminar room of the Tinbergen Institute, neighbor to the Faculty of Economics of the University of Amsterdam. The room was nicely packed. Unbenounced to the participants there was a secret society infiltrating the event. Two of the presenters were members of this blog, and two more “kids” were in the audience. World domination is in our grasp.
Besides our two papers, there were presentations by David Gindis, University of Lyon 2, surveying a close and distant history of conceptualizations of the firm as a legal person/entity/fiction, and Chris Renwick, University of Leeds, giving the tortured history of sociology at the London School of Economics and its self design as social biology. Finally, Roger Backhouse gave a draft of his (and Philippe Fontaine’s) introduction to an edited volume on the history of Post-WWII social science. One should applaud this project for its originality and the wealth of the materials it was unearthed. (I learned, for instance, that psychology headed many of the interdisciplinary efforts of the social sciences!) Omissions are a disclaimer in such comprehensive histories, and Roger was rowing against a stream of criticism when the floor opened for questions.
I want to reject our academic navel gazing, and the belief that “the dynamics of academia is surely too complex to be captured in a book”, or an introduction to a book. It should be easier to write a history of post-WWII social sciences than a history of economics from Aristotle to the present. The project is feasible. The trouble is how to write it? How to structure your text to stack up the materials? One might structure the introductory survey in short segments. This is how the authors are drafting it, slicing sections suffixed “context” (too much “context” however endangers semantic spillage). The assumption is that academia despite its internal mutation and biodiversity was faced with the same environment. It is one way to strike sameness. But I would look for it at another level, thinking cohorts and generations. Imagine three generations, one coming of age in WWII, another in the Cold War, another in the 1960s, and follow that generation around. For each generation one could select a branch of social science (scientists) to describe. As one follows the travels of our Odysseus, one could remark on how other social sciences faired. The social science interactions would come out vividly from a microcosmic vantage point.
To conclude, I file my suggestion for the Cold War period, be the turtle…