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.