Mild and cozy are the attributes of most conferences I go to these days. My peer group is deficient in Messianism: historians of economics generally do not proclaim themselves world saviors. You don’t get big speeches or melodrama, or wolfish competitiveness. The faces repeat and so too the conversations. Then, what you lose in novelty you get back in friendly admiration.
Exceptions to the rule come by design. For some years, the History of Political Economy Group at Duke University has run annual conferences, where by invitation, open call or a cocktail of the two, they have brought historians and practitioners to converse with our tribe. This year the topic was “The Unsocial Social Science? Economics and the Neighboring Disciplines since 1945”, organized by Philippe Fontaine and Roger Backhouse. Doubling as whistleblower and anthropologist I don’t want to rerun the good fare of the meeting (buy the book when it comes out, or rent the DVD).
Here is some stage setting. The meeting was held in the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. The building resembles a closed courtyard with the meeting rooms and offices squaring an inner core, whithin a set of stairs level with sofas and tables halfway between floors. To me it evokes the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. (I once saw it full, all the way up, into the corridors, as people crowded to hear Paul Krugman.) In the conference meeting room were about 20 conference participants, discussants and observers. The attendance was made up of historians of economics and historians of social science. The proposition of the meeting was that everyone would speak authoritatively about the social sciences with special attention to economics’ place in post World War II dynamics.
Here is what happened. They danced. (Ok, i am writing this late while listening to remixes of Shakira!) That is the best analogy I can find to describe the mood in the room. The historians of social science were careful not to step on the economics, mostly they avoided making any moves that direction, waiting for historians of economics to lead and fill in. The historians of economics were equally prone to immobility in swinging into other social science histories. This conference opened up the realization that “neighboring” historians need to practice the dance. In the politeness hid a deeper estrangement. What held them up was a sort of Orientalism. Historians of social science from their historiographic vantage point saw economics as the other, monolithic, right leaning, authoritative, isolationist and imperialist; the Other. Historians of economics saw it as a Self: diverse, layered, complex, alive.
In the twentieth century, the social sciences have scraped, overlapped, intersected, in think tanks, in government offices, in rhetorical scripts and cultural imperialism. Historians look at snapshots of contact and contrast. The questions tend to be ones of difference. Why this won and that lost? Why this is turquoise and that one pink? My suggestion is to divert our gaze from the boundaries parsing economics, psychology, sociology. Abandon the case studies. Look at the social sciences in narratives as a cultural force shaping public life. The identity game is expelled, projected out. We are left with science and society.