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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 537-548

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Review Essay

The Historian in the Rose Garden?

Kenneth Lipartito

Fifteen years ago, Richard Neustadt and Ernest R. May wrote a series of historical case studies that they hoped would lead to "working procedures to get more history used better on the job by busy people preoccupied with daily decisions . . . of management." With the publication of their book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, history boldly launched itself into the field of policy studies, bidding to take its place with economics, political science, and other fields that claim to present useful knowledge. 1 Perhaps the fond dream of a "council of historical advisors" might finally come true. 2 Visions of White House invitations and Rose Garden parties danced in the heads of who knows how many middle-aged historians.

It is still unclear if policy history will fulfull these dreams. Historians sometimes find jobs in departments of urban affairs, in programs of public administration, or in business schools. They are employed in government agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service, and the Department of Defense. Some have been called upon to offer expert [End Page 537] testimony in court or before congressional investigatory bodies. Others have sought to write books aimed at those who make policy decisions.

The books discussed here--David M. Hart, Forged Consensus: Science, Technology and Economic Policy in the United States, 1921-1953; Herbert Gottweis, Governing Molecules: The Discursive Politics of Genetic Engineering in Europe and the United States; and David C. Mowery and Nathan Rosenberg, Paths of Innovation: Technological Change in 20th Century America--are of this sort. 3 They make their intentions known by mixing dust-jacket blurbs from historians (in the interest of full disclosure, mine appears on David Hart's book) with praise from nonacademics or from scholars in policy schools. They use history, even though each author is something other than a historian. David Hart was trained in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Herbert Gottweis is a professor of political science in Vienna. David Mowery teaches in a business school; Nathan Rosenberg is an economist. All of them share, however, an interest in using history to augment the atemporal behavioral models of their disciplines.

Whether under the rubric of path-dependence, policy feedback, the new institutionalism, or poststructuralism, history has recently intruded into a wide range of social-science theory. Sometimes it sneaks in the back door, relabeled "retrospective assessment," to gain legitimacy by appearing anything but antiquarian. Historians will find these three books more forthright in this respect, closer to what they commonly read. Each one takes context seriously, is based on archival research, and recognizes the power of narrative. None seems constrained to hide history beneath the petticoats of positivism. It is refreshing to be reminded, for example, that path-dependence--the notion that past experience and behavior influence present or future outcomes--is "as old as the writing of history." 4

Of the three, Mowery and Rosenberg's Paths of Innovation covers the most familiar ground for historians of technology. Drawing on their own extensive work as well as a vast number of monographic studies, the authors handily summarize the most important findings in the history of technology as they apply to innovation and economic change. Rosenberg, of course, is well known for his explorations of the "black box." To economists, this has largely meant explaining the "residual," or that great part of economic growth not caused by additions to capital and labor. Discovered by Moses Abramovitz and formalized in the growth model of Robert Solow, the residual [End Page 538] was revealed through historical investigations of gross national product delving back into the nineteenth century. Presumably a good portion of the residual consists of technology and improvements in technology.

Mowery and Rosenberg are quick to point out that it is a mistake to treat technology as simply an object or to account for it as a factor comparable to labor, capital, and natural resources. Technical advance is generally embodied in...


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