Bannister, Robert C. Sociology and Scientism: The American Quest for Objectivity, 1880-1940.

 

Bannister, Robert C. Sociology and Scientism: The American Quest for Objectivity, 1880-1940.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Calolina Press, 1987.

What is the origin of knowledge? In some cases one's science is the direct result of personal
taste. For example, L. L. Bernard's attack on instinct theory derived from his dislike of the U.S.
of his day. He attacked the idea of a "fighting instinct" because he did not like the heroics of
wartime America. He attacked what he didn't like, and out popped an anti- MacDougall thesis in
social psychology and a set of ideas which changed American thinking in the social sciences.

In describing the origin of Ogburn's Social Change, Bannister suggests that: "Depressed by
growing manifestations of the irrationality of public opinion, Ogburn by 1919 shared the postwar
cynicism... This disillusion set the stage for Social Change. Ogburn's starting point was the
apparent contradiction between the model of human rationality implicit in the economic
interpretation and the mounting evidence of irrationality." (p. 169) And, regarding Ogburn's
enthusiasm for statistics, "If Ogburn were to establish a niche at Chicago, it would have to be as
an outspoken apostle of quantification." (p. 169)

Commenting on Bernard: "The tragedy of his career, if his final bitterness and alienation can be
so described, was compounded by the fact that for all his foibles and eccentricities, there was
something immensely appealing about the man and his vision. To the many students and friends
who loved him, ‘L.L.B.' was an attractive human being." (p. 229)

With those examples in mind, "(Objectivism)...was a product of the convergence of various
factors that shaped the nation's academic culture generally from the 1910s through the 1930s.
Socially it was nurtured by the fluidity, and the resulting absence of tradition and community,
that inceasingly marked American life toward the end of the nineteenth century. To characterize
that life in terms of ‘status' and ‘nostalgia' is to ignore a more basic element in the lives of many
Americans - the lack of institutional density that in more stable societies defines rules, mediates
meanings, and induces the comfortable feeling that society and shared values are a natural and
enduring aspect of the human condition." (p. 232)

"Objectivism, rather than being the end product of a unilinear professionalization, was a
symptom of vulnerability... Ideologically, the emergence of objectivism coincided with a growing
interest in efficiency, adjustment and social control. These slogans, in turn, reflected a growing
concern with order over freedom, and with how society shapes the individual rather than vice
versa... What distinguished the objectivists was not their concern for order, or even for a basis of
authority in science, but their implicit conviction that this order must be imposed from outside,
ideally with the help of experts of one sort or another." (pp. 235-236)

The main characters in this history, the "objectivists," are: Lester Ward, Albion Small, Franklin
Giddings, William B. Sumner, L. L. Bernard, F. Stuart Chapin and William F. Ogburn.
Interspersed with these major players there are others of note: E. H. Sutherland, A. G. Keller, P.
A. Sorokin, G. Lundberg. and H. Odum. This constitutes Bannister's list of the practitioners of
objectivism in sociology.

He ends with this quote: "...science seemed the only possible standard in an increasingly
pluralistic and fragmented America." In other words, there was a good ideological reason for the
quest for objectivity: Americans wanted to justify order and stability in what was an apparently
disordered world.

/Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Viking, 1987./

Here is a science reporter for the New York Times writing a best-selling book on some of the
new applications of some recent developments in mathematics, physics, and computer science:
the discovery that apparent randomness, chaos, has a very definite structure which appears in the
most dissimilar things. Physicists studying state changes (liquids to solids), and meteorologists
studying new methods of graphing weather patterns, and computer scientists displaying new
methods of graphing complex relationships, have discovered a simple iterative process at the
heart of their observations. Chaos is not nondetermined. The reason that it has not been seen
before is that physicists were not trained to see the sorts of structures which are emerging.
Trained in what amounts to Euclidean geometry, they ignored the plumes of cigarette smoke, the
unfolding of a leaf, the flow of a river and, thereby, missed: chaos.

The principal innovators in this field are listed as: Edward Lorenz, Michel Henon, Robert Mat,
Benoit Mandelbrot, Mitchell Figenbaun and Doyne Farmer. These are the people who first saw
that one had to surrender the assumptions: 1) that simple systems behave in simple ways and 2)
complex behavior implies complex causes; and 3) that different systems behave differently. The
new assumptions are: 1) simple systems give rise to complex behavior; 2) complex systems give
rise to simple behavior; and 3) the law of complexity holds universally. Progress in this field was
made possible only by rejecting the professionally accepted assumptions of set 1 and replacing
them with set 2. The substitution here is termed a Kuhnian revolution, the third most important
of the 20th century (the first being the relativity theory of Einstein and the second, quantum
mechanics).

The history is recent enough to allow for personal recollections which clearly indicate the
difficulties experienced by the heretic-revolutionary. Consider Lorenz. He had several
difficulties, the chief of which was that he was not a physicist or a mathematician, but a
meteorologist whose publications were not read by physicists. Then, too, mathematicians don't
readily communicate with physicists, and vice versa. Loyalists display their loyalty by refusing to
ask the questions which allow for new sciences to develop. Other factors intruded also:
mathematicians do not use computers, and computer technology is necessary if the advances
described here are to be developed.

There are "odd fellows" here: Benoit Mandlebrot of IBM is a character who does not fit, who
does not belong to any of the communities of science. (He has also made things hard for himself
by being a blow-hard and a self-promoter who hogs glory.) Finally, many of the contributors to
this field are young and had a tough time convincing their elders of the worth of what they were
doing. All in all, the introduction of the new field was difficult.