Life Cycles in Social Science History
When one is asked to speak on the past, present, and future of social science history, one is less overwhelmed by the size of the task than confused by its indexicality. Whose definition of social science history? Which past? Or, put another way, whose past? Indeed, which and whose present? Moreover, should the task be taken as one of description, prescription, or analysis? Many of us might agree on, say, a descriptive analysis of the past of the Social Science History Association. But about the past of social science history as [End Page 481] a general rather than purely associational phenomenon, we might differ considerably. The problem of description versus prescription only increases this obscurity.
Let me begin with a simple example, one concerned only with issues of description and one that arose at the session in which this article was originally presented. Those who view “social science history” retrospectively and ontologically—from the present reality of a particular social formation backward—might wonder why cultural approaches to history were so long “excluded” from the SSHA. In this view, such approaches are now central; why weren’t they always? But those who view social science history with a prospective ontology—from the movement’s origins forward—understand social science history to have been a movement to attack classical historical questions with the kind of quantitative analysis that is generic in the social sciences. In that case, cultural perspectives are not and have never been part of the enterprise, since their academic home when the social science history movement began was the (then and still) resolutely antiquantitative discipline of anthropology. There was no reason to expect cultural perspectives in SSHA, and, indeed, the association’s drift toward them betokens an invasion of the organization-snatchers. On yet another analysis, however, social science history is a general umbrella term, without any immediate phenomenal referent, a term that is created by yoking the two theoretical constructs of social science and history. This view seeks the phenomenal reality of social science history by compounding the phenomenal realities of those constructs, seeking answers to questions like “Who does historical kinds of things in economics?” and their correlatives “Who does economic analysis in history?” and so on. Like the retrospective ontology position, this one also wonders at the absence of anthropology but, I think, leans toward explanations linking that absence to the recurrent scheduling conflict between the meetings of the SSHA and the American Anthropological Association.
Let me then declare my strategy for dealing with this indexical hydra. I shall start from a personal answer to our questions about social science history and work my way toward a more general one. In the process, I shall try to alert the reader to my various changes of stance. I shall also try to draw a general moral from the whole exercise.
I begin with a disclaimer. Although I have written at least one purely historical account of social science history (Abbott 1991), my work in the area [End Page 482] has all been driven by the overarching theoretical (and prescriptive) project of developing a fully processual social theory, together with its corresponding methodologies. The reader may thus expect the by now traditional Abbott sermon on how social science history has failed to carry out its theoretical mission to unify social science and history. I have been delivering this sermon since about 1990 in various settings and guises, and it’s a good sermon. On the other hand, it’s getting a little boring. So instead of donning my theoretical armor and mounting my methodological Rozinante for another tilt at disciplinary unity, I’m going to stay at home and begin with a reflection on my own experience in the SSHA.
My first SSHA meetings were meetings in the old style, at universities. I remember in 1982, at the Indiana Union, having a random drink late one night with the great anthropologist Sidney Mintz (anthropologists did occasionally come to SSHA), who turned out to be a colleague of my third-grade sweetheart and who (re)introduced me to a high school classmate of mine who had become a historian of South Indian irrigation. I recall in 1984, at the Ontario Institute for Studies of Education, crowding into a small room with a million others while Natalie Davis proudly showed and commented on her new film Martin Guerre. The meetings were smaller then. They seemed wildly personalistic, yet at the same time a little lonely. One would find oneself with nothing to do and nobody to chat with in the corridors, and one would drift into sessions on butter and eggs in the Upper Midwest or catch a few minutes of population trends in nineteenth-century Norway or hear a passionate denunciation of ecological regression or a paper on the details of consumption trends in the 1920s.
The networks were smaller then, too, and few indeed were the networks that mounted a session in every time slot. So we drifted from the sessions of one network to those of others in a kind of random interdisciplinarity. A few lunch and supper groupings derived from particular departments or disciplines or universities, but one often tagged along with friends of friends and ended up listening to disciplinary talk as foreign as the language of space aliens. The bottom line, of course, was that everybody knew huge numbers of interesting facts about something—shoemakers’ incomes or death rates or psychiatric ideologies or voting patterns or whatever. There was a glorious confusion about the whole enterprise. We were all talking different languages but shared a common fascination with understanding old things in new ways. [End Page 483]
It must have been in 1991, in New Orleans, that Nancy Folbre—whom I had come to know at one of these “friends of friends of friends” dinners—looked me in the eye at a program committee meeting and said, “The SSHA has gotten boring. We really ought to start a new association and get crazy again.” Although I was busy at the time being Mr. Responsibility as program cochair for Margo Anderson (another random-connection friend), I was soon to see what Nancy meant. As SSHA got larger, networks grew to the point where they could put on a session in every time slot. Whole new networks arrived, in part through Margo and other program chairs who saw exciting new areas in historical social science. Both these trends—the increasing size of the old networks and the ingestion of whole new communities—conduced to a gradual separation of communities within SSHA. More and more people came simply to do their own things. By the mid-1990s the annual meeting was up to 700 bodies, and the loony cross-pollination seemed mostly gone. It had become possible and even common to go to SSHA and not hear a paper from the other side of one’s personal universe. There was interdisciplinarity, to be sure, but it seemed pietistic, even complacent. It was a faint shadow of the disciplinary anarchism of SSHA in the 1970s and early 1980s. No longer were the back rows in a history of agriculture session filled with historical demographers and critical elections people and Tilly people and whoever else happened to be walking by.
Of course, the SSHA remained the most exciting meeting of my year. As a cross-disciplinary association, it lacked the white slave traffic in faculty members and graduate students and manuscripts that dominates disciplinary meetings. Its gossip was purely personal, not instrumental; divorces were personal crises, not hiring opportunities. But like the disciplinary meetings, the SSHA did see more graduate students in search of yet another venue to hawk themselves and their wares. So even here one began to sense a kind of desperate professionalism, usually brought into the organization by the very people—like me—who found it so wonderfully exciting in its antiprofessionality and wanted their students and friends to share in that craziness.
But while there is a certain plausibility in this quick sketch of SSHA history—the meeting has gotten bigger, the network programs are much more comprehensive, the number of parallel sessions is indeed overwhelming—one can’t help suspecting (especially if one turned 50 last Monday) that the [End Page 484] whole thing is a function of what SSHA has taught us to call the life course. For one thing, there is the inevitable familiarizing as we pass through a life course within the organization. I was introduced to SSHA by Nancy Tomes, a historian of American psychiatry, whose own connection with the organization came not through substantive specialty—the history of professions and of medicine in particular has never been a big interest here—but because she went to Penn, one of the organization’s original homes. When I arrived at the Bloomington meeting, I literally knew one other person there. Little wonder that I thought of SSHA as Miranda’s brave new world, for even disciplinarily it seemed foreign; there were few sociologists there other than Chuck Tilly and his students. But as the years passed and my connections ramified, SSHA lost the wild excitement of unfamiliarity. This is an experience we all face.
Not only is there the normal familiarization that comes with enduring participation; there is also the time pattern of the professional career. As my generation has entered the dominant age bracket in academia, we are all preoccupied with running things and publishing ourselves and our friends. We know all those people standing in the hall and stop to talk to them instead of dropping into a session that might take us into another dimension. The best of us are too immersed in trying to get our own work done before the shadows fall to pay much attention to other people’s.
The possibility of a life course interpretation drove me back to the data, and sure enough, the facts do not strongly bear out my first, organizational version of the story. When you count names in the programs, the meetings of the early to mid-1980s turn out to have commanded nearly two-thirds the numbers of the present meeting. The organization’s very earliest meetings may have been very small, but the organization has added only about another 50% on top of what it had when I started with it. Moreover, in the 1980s we met for a shorter period, so in fact some networks did manage something in nearly every time slot—historical demography and economic history are the obvious examples. The old programs just don’t bear out the belief that my experience has been that of the organization as a whole.
So somewhere out there, young cultural studies types are having their heads rotated by some economic historian’s analysis of grain prices in Umbria. And young macrosociologists of the welfare state are puzzling through historians’ accounts of religious fervor in nineteenth-century County Mayo. [End Page 485] And young historical demographers are wondering why the development of mental hospital architecture seems so interesting. That’s my prediction about what we would find if we actually surveyed session attendance at the current SSHA, and, perhaps more important, it is also my prescription for what ought to be happening.
I have, then, two divergent views of SSHA development. One is an institutional account that regards normalization of the association as an accomplished fact (possibly a semi-accomplished fact) and that attributes normalization to increase in size and to the inevitable regularizing that comes of survival and growth. The other is a personal account that regards normalization as the mere appearance produced by the aging of Andrew Abbott the observer.
The real solution here is not to try to figure out the difference between a periodization view of SSHA history and an understanding of that history in terms of the academic or personal life cycle but rather to recognize that the two of these things come together in the terraced reality that is a history of organizations in terms of layered cohorts. Here we come to a theoretical insight that is in fact useful for the future of social science history. It is inevitable that we periodize history, inevitable because of convenience and ease of memory as much as because of the substantive reality of periodic institutional change. But underneath the periods at any given time lie quite divergent realities of cohort experience.
It is this mass of hidden, terraced subjectivity that is the target of a true history and sociology of emotions, both in its own right and as a motive force in other social processes. Many of us can conjure up an instant image of the 1920s as the decade of “cool” and, indeed, can buttress our views by referring to Peter Stearns’s fine book on that subject. But the Twenties were lived not only by the cool generation but also by the Gay Nineties types in their declining years, by the mugwumps in their late prime, by the war veterans as the middle-aged middle class, by the postwar immigrant generation as their early American years, and so on. We have been more aware of these competing generational sensibilities among immigrants, I think, than in the native population. But it seems, more generally, that we should aim in future social science history to broaden our conceptions of historical periods so that we imagine not simply the smooth surface of the dominant phenomena of [End Page 486] particular periods, but the full lexis diagram that contains the generational structure of a society experiencing itself over time.
And here I see that I have come once again to the Abbott sermon. That is, I continue to feel that the most important goal of social science history should be to find new and more comprehensive theories of history and also to create the new genres of analysis and writing that can put those theories into effective execution. Calling for a terraced approach, one that always recognizes the historical continuity and layering of cohorts, is clearly part of that enterprise.
This search for effective genres of research and writing is among the most important work we do. It is one thing to talk about contingency, another to write about it systematically. It is one thing to talk about narrative, another to fully puzzle out the relation between narrative and structure. It is one thing to talk about multiplicity and diversity, another to capture that multiplicity and diversity in a way that challenges and elevates readers rather than confusing and exasperating them. We should not emulate Samuel Beckett, who in his attempt to teach us about boredom and meaninglessness wrote a play whose second act many of us have never bothered to see. (Estragon isn’t the only one who “couldn’t go on.”) We don’t theorize contingency by writing haphazardly; we don’t theorize narrative by telling stories; we don’t represent diversity by merely mixing voices. The general task of creating the genres for a true social science history remains ahead of us.
So my theoretical message concerns the importance of lexis diagrams and of a terraced, multilevel conception of historical periods. My practical challenge for the day is to ask how we can write persuasively and systematically about a generationally terraced history without being reificatory, or mechanical, or simply confusing.
For the SSHA itself, my message is a simple one. Like Nancy Folbre, what I have found exciting about this organization is its sheer breadth and unpredictability. It’s clear enough, after some reflection, and particularly after listening to the confusions that I and others perpetrated on this panel, that to recapture that excitement for oneself is a matter of will, of simply going to hear about traffic in Berlin and cholera in Italy and Progressive Era orphanages and the meaning of the Pullman historical landmark. It’s a matter of knowing when you’re tired of the perennial epistemological debates [End Page 487] and just want to hear something new and interesting—new and interesting either methodologically or factually or interpretively.
For the organization, it’s a matter of arranging the life course of individuals’ participation so that when they get bored (and boring), they drop out. The organization is lively because we come prepared to be both excited and exciting. We are not here to get jobs or push paradigms. We are here to celebrate why we didn’t become lawyers or doctors or even nonhistorical academics—because we find the project of knowing the past infinitely beguiling. The organization has to stay in front of that celebration. It must aim to include within itself any group celebrating effectively and must aim to quietly shed or sideline those whose celebrations have gotten routine and dull. To return to my opening example, it may be that quantitative history has become a little dull, as cultural history is in the process of doing at this very moment. What is dullest about both is a kind of self-righteousness that just doesn’t fit with SSHA’s heritage of iconoclasm. It is true that iconoclasm is the last refuge of a bore and, indeed, that iconoclasm has in some hands become a cover for work that is pedestrian or ignorant or both. But at the same time, the organization will continue to be great only if our first emphasis is on excitement and interest.
This emphasis condemns us to perpetual change. Fortunately, it also condemns us to perpetual rediscovery of perennially important ideas and themes. To be sure, it gets exasperating, as one gets older, to have younger people ram truisms down your throat as new discoveries. (I’ve never gotten over the Rutgers history graduate student who told me, “You really ought to read this guy Goffman.”) But that’s preferable to seeing truly important ideas disappear entirely. And since we all get bored with repeated ideas, disappearance or ritualization is a fate that awaits any idea, however important it may be. So it’s harder work to stay interested as we get older, but that’s our problem, not the SSHA’s. Let anarchism reign.
Andrew Abbott is the Ralph Lewis Professor of Sociology at the Univesity of Chicago. He is the author of The System of Professions, a study of the division of labor. He has also written extensively on the problem of temporality in social science and has developed novel methods for sequence data. Two recent book manuscripts concern scholarly disciplines and their development. Department and Discipline is a study of the Chicago sociology department in relation to the larger discipline. Chaos of Disciplines is a theoretical and empirical analysis of knowledge change in social science and, more broadly, of self-similar social structures.