Observer and observed

This Thursday and Friday I observed attendance to a workshop organized by my colleague at the University of Amsterdam, Harro Maas. The workshop was the first major event of a 4 to 5 year project considering methodologically and historically the practices of observation in economics. Following the “house rules” the project will draw comparisons between the social and the natural sciences. In attendance of the workshop were a number of big names (and brains) in the history of science and economics, and I felt this strange weight on my shoulders as I awaited my turn to speak. The presentation was about how Leonard Silk used drama to communicate with economists and his readers, and was itself tragic. No one was really sure what my paper had to say about observation.

vdbpanopticonI had not thought hard enough about what I knew about observation and what I wanted to say about it. In studying economic journalism I try to consider it as a an observational practice, but it is hard to follow journalists as they skim through a sea of sources, interests, pressures, conventions. I have tended to leave that part of my story for a later date. Instead, I have studied how, between 1950 and 1970, stories about economics changed, and how the status and place of economic journalism has evolved in the publishing business. Yet, as I follow journalists in conversation with economists, with readers, with editors, can I say that they are only producing content and not collecting it? Can I say that there is no observation in communicating?

Considering other papers in the workshop among my favorites was Tom Stapleford’s story of how “field agents” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics turned from “experts” with a intuitive knowledge of communication, into “operatives” following well designed data collection scripts. The BLS was disciplining its employees. This kind of “panoptic” observation seems to be the rule of modern bureaucracies. The observer is himself observed by an architecture of procedures. The observer observes the other to gather data and himself to enforce rules of objectivity.

peephole_portrait_011This takes me to the relationship between the observed and the observer and how many combinations one might have. Ted Porter’s story of Le Play noted how class and ideological membership separated the social scientist from his subject, requiring the intermediation of town mayors. The same problem was manifest in Anne Secord’s account of studies of the condition of the Manchester poor (F. Engels gained access through his Irish lover). It may be that natural science observation has contently employed various forms of eye holes, while social sciences, people studying people, has required a different kind of optical/social technology. Although at times social scientists will remain behind the door, looking in silence, they will often engage their subject. In this sense, journalists ad my story seem less exceptional. Journalists communicate, and they observe while communicating, and they develop strategies to construct identity and difference from their subjects: the economists and the public. They do it to seduce and provoke. They do so to initiate a conversation and a relationship without which there is nothing to observe.

8 thoughts on “Observer and observed

  1. I met with Harro Mass at the last HES conference and we spoke a bit about this project – which I think sounds really fascinating, but in retrospect and after reading Tiago’s post, I can’t shake this feeling that we as economists (and historians) pigeonbox our queries to such an extent that we ignore other social science’s contributions to what we are exploring.

    On observation, was there anyone at the conference talking about Anthropology and Sociology who have been grappling with this problem of observed and observer for the last 50-100 years?

    There are long courses taught on this, and I wonder what appearances people like Bronisław Malinowski or Erving Goffman from the anthropology department might have made?

  2. Ben, I am not sure the criticism is fair. Workshops are understandably incomplete and are not aimed at all angles of a problem, they help by raising questions. Besides, the observer/observed concern was not one in the program, its the one I arrived at trying to puzzle what I had presented. There was indeed nothing on anthropology or sociology, but the papers by Porter and Secord referred to a time when social science was not so easily partitioned.

    In end I suspect that the “long courses” actually don’t solve any problem, anymore than Foucault+Deleuze+Badiou+Zizek can only get me started. These courses address the problems of a particular social science discipline as seen from today.

  3. Tiago, I take your point and you are right – a workshop can’t cover everything, and it is not fair to critique it on that ground – I accept that.

    That being said, I would disagree about your take on the ‘long courses’ taught in anthropology and sociology – they might not provide a final definite solution (but again, what does?), but they do provide a very long tradition of scholarship on the issue of observing and being observed. Malinowski and Goffman are as big in Anthropology as Smith and Keynes are in economics.

    Their work is not really just addressing a social science today, but have informed fieldwork, observation, performance and social enquiry for more than a century, which might not be timeless, but its relevance is still being studied today…

  4. Sure and in that sense it too must be historicized and understood in its proper contexts. My reluctance is to adopt it as key to unravel the historical problems of other sciences. Looking at anthropology alongside economics might be insightful if we hold them in equal terms. Not one imperial over the other. And that is my only concern.

  5. Much about various ways to observe within social sciences. Thanks. Could you say more about the comparison with natural sciences?

  6. The way the workshop was structured was to have historians of natural science and historians of social science presenting side by side. No one of them actually compared social and natural science in a single paper/presentation.

    Then there was a brainstorming session(s) mixing the different participants into separate groups and asking them to discuss comparisons (natural vs social). We are still figuring out what happened in these and whether anything came out of them.

    Sorry, that doesn’t say much…

  7. The brainstorming was not such a good idea. More generally my feeling is that by taking a too formal approach – here are the natural sciences and their historians, here are the social sciences and their historians – it hindered somewhat the possible exchanges that might have on specific periods (I am thinking for example at our session with Mary Terall whose research is useful for me and she said that the reverse was true and yet, there had been no real exchanges during the session).

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