HSS 2010 – Lost in the supermarket

HSS meetingThis is not only a metaphor. The History of Science Society’s 2010 annual meeting was held at the Hyatt Regency in Montreal and the hotel is indeed located in a mall!

Because our methods and interests are increasingly evolving toward those of the history of science, it seems logical to want to get closer to the HSS community as well. Problem is: is there such a community? And if so, can we really get the gist of it only by attending a few sessions more-or-less randomly? Apparently not. Though I enjoyed some nice presentations such as David Kaiser on the role of hippies in drawing cohorts of students to physics departments and was fascinated by the new publications on the University of Chicago Press’ stand, I was mostly unable to identify new trends in research. Some attendants do archival work of some kind, some other visit museums and others curate exhibitions. While classic intellectual history and attempts at reinterpreting the canonical literature are still going strong, some others are making movies and investigate the more cultural aspects of science. In front of this methodological bonfire, it is difficult to have an accurate vision of what History of Science is in 2010. One meaningful anecdote is that I unexpectedly met Jonathan, a friend I had not seen for a long time. I knew Jonathan as an American writer, musician and poet living in Paris. I thought he was undertaking work in literary criticism. I knew his interest had moved toward the philosophy of science – well, honestly I had forgotten this information – but I would not have imagined myself attending his presentation at the HSS meeting – I have to add here that it was a joint HSS/PSA (Philosophy of Science Association) meeting but Jonathan’s session, though dealing with philosophical aspects, was really part of the HSS part of the event. My failure in identifying my friend as a member of the community I am targeting says much about the diversity of styles that co-existed there.

Another remark on the meeting: I realized looking at the book of abstracts that unlike HET meetings, the HSS meeting mostly draws North-American and British researchers. While the Dutch and the Germans are well represented, the French and the Italians, who are attending the ESHET and HES meetings en masse, are  barely visible at the HSS.

Last but not least, another contributor to this blog was there (as well as a former one), so he may also have something to say.

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7 thoughts on “HSS 2010 – Lost in the supermarket

  1. I thought I saw some trends, or at least features that contrast with what is being done in the history of the social sciences. A lot of the work at HSS was on “material culture” (or the sessions that registered in my brain) on model organisms, objects accumulated, moved around. There was comparatively few papers on Scientist A or B, few genealogies of ideas, few methodological pieces. I am not sure these are genres we can adopt, since they point towards the moral economies of science, or how sciences constitutes the political, applied to economics it does not work much. In fact I was wondering throughout the meetings if economics produces a “material culture”? (beyond Black-Scholes)

    P.S. At the PSA, thanks in part to N. Cartwright’s presidency there was significant buzz around the subject of evidence-based policy, or science for use.

    1. Preempting Ben, maybe “national accounts” count as material culture, but none is really that material.

      Incidentally the “material culture” theme may include the literature that covers sciences in the empires/nation states with their connections/overlaps with commerce and the development of capitalism…

  2. Hum… I can think of several material cultures related to economics: diagrams and visuals would be one (Ah! the Tableau économique), books and journals would be another obvious entry (the theme of the dematerialization of contemporary economic writings seems obvious here), computers and more generally the history of measuring and computing tools used in economics still another one, I would also qualify the history of observation in economics as another case and so on… Yet another perspective, more in the fashion of Bourdieu, would be to study the evolution of the form of economics in relation to the changing social status of the economic knowledge producer (e. g., the appearance of the economic scholar: someone paid for teaching and researching the economic laws).
    To sum it up, in my point of view, the problem is not so much that the material culture of economics does not exist, it is that we as H of E do not really address this kind of issues. We socialize more as scientists, whereas historians of science do it more as humanity scholars and historians.

  3. I feel thoroughly pre-empted here – what with the mentions of national accounts (Tiago) and observation (Loic)but I am intrigued by another term you mentioned Tiago: “Evidence based policy making”

    The part of me that is participating in government policy is intrigued to learn more about what was said at the conference on this?

    And the second part of me is curious about the implications of this term. Does the acceptance of ‘evidence based policy’ today, mean that we used to make policy based on no evidence?

    1. I believe the term may have come from medicine, where “evidence based medicine” is now understood to be a gold standard. Look it up on Google. Basically, it requires not just positive clinical studies, but comparative studies, controlled studies, and meta-analysis. For example, such studies have overturned “good practices” like stenting coronary arteries for patients with no histories of heart attacks, and routine PSA screening tests for all men over 50.

      Evidence based policy might, I suspect, constrain NASA to unmanned space flights, and so on. And just what is the evidence for better national mental health care from community based practice instead of institutionalization, and the positive effects of minimum wage legislation, for instance?

    2. P.S. And of course, educational policy — best ways to teach reading, effects of class size on student performance, etc. is made on the basis of no such gold standard of evidence.

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