Sunday, September 11, 2005

Eisenstein, Johns, Shapin, Geertz: Thoughts on methodology

A grim spectre has appeared on the road as I meander my way toward a completed proposal: methodology. My supervisor seems undaunted by the lack. He points out that “Leviathan and the Air Pump” was written without specific attention to methodology. For some reason I don’t think that I’ll have such an easy time of things.

I can’t imagine using one specific methodology or set of methods. There is no “Joy of Method” from which I can draw a tasty appetizer or satisfying entrée. Instead, I intend on adopting an approach that borrows from different methodologies. As discussed early, I’m quite interested in the Social Construction of Technology. Unfortunately, the attendant method is very strongly rooted in deep historical research. While I have no fear of archives, this attention to the mining of nuggets of fact is a bit off putting.

While SCOT may not be the panacea I seek, it’s a starting point. Perhaps a more important consideration is the general approach for my research. My personal feeling is that Geertz’s focus on the need for “thick description” is an admirable guiding framework. Indeed, Adler used it in his description of mechanical drawings as “thick things”.

One way of addressing this lack of methodology is to explore how other researchers have concurred it. Eisenstein is a good example. How and why did she do what she did? The reset of this note is dedicated to answering these questions. While she likely revealed aspects of her methodology in The printing press as an agent of change, I will explore this issue from the secondary literature on Eisenstein’s own works. The literary dialogue between Adrian Johns and Eisenstein is particularly illuminating.

Eisenstein (2002) clearly positions her own intentions:

“My work was not intended to be framed by either the history of the book or the history of reading. Instead, I had in mind a broader, currently unfashionable, unit of study: Western Civilization (or “Western Christendom”—as it was known in the fifteenth century). I wanted to explore how the shift from script to print affected diverse institutions, traditions, occupations, and modes of thought and expression that were present in Western Europe during the late fifteenth century.” (pg. 88)

Her thesis was that the printing press itself was the entity that led to wide-sweeping changes across the European social structure. Johns – influenced by his mentors Shapin and Schaffer – takes a remarkably different position. He maintains that interpretations or readings of particular works are inherently unstable that a number of local practices must exist before standard readings can be stabilized.

Eisenstein and Johns engage in a lively debate. The subject: can printed objects transcend the local?

While their approaches and findings differ, I can glean some insight into the criticisms they apply to one another’s work. I will attempt to summarize these general tenets:

  1. (E) must account for technology as well as human agency: “In my view, any complete account of ‘print and knowledge in the making’ (to cite Johns’s subtitle) must make room for changes in communication technology as well as for personal agency.” (pg. 90)
  2. (E) must account for both geographic bias and periodization. Eisenstein takes particular umbrage with Johns’s overt attention to the publishing conditions of one particular location in one particular era. Furthermore, she is incensed by his conflations of arguments from two distinct printing epochs.
  3. (J) must not mistake the true target of study. The book is not the phenomenon of choice. Johns positions “not a history of print culture but a cultural history of print” (pg. 116). “A cultural history of print should, I submit, be broadly constructivist about its subject. For all Eisenstein’s insinuations of postmodernism, this is not a particularly radical position; it resembles nothing so much as traditional empiricism. It amounts to holding that one should account for the very character of print historically, but telling how it was shaped by communities of printers, booksellers, readers, and (for want of a better term) censors.” (pg. 116)
  4. (J) must use primary sources in addition to secondary sources. Johns describes Eisenstein’s dependence on secondary sources as introducing circular errors i.e., she depends on the sources for both evidence of earlier practices and proof of modern interpretations. Johns maintains that earlier practices must be established – as far as possible – by primary sources.

One of the issues I find unresolved in their concerns of approach and methodology is the issue of thesis construction. Eisenstein has a clear thesis: printing press technology caused change. Johns departs from Eisenstein and borrows from Shapin and Schaffer: readings are always inherently local do to local practices. Each of the authors has used their thesis as a canvas to construct and position their arguments. I wonder at what stage in their research they developed these theses: did they emerge as part of ongoing study? Did they suddenly appear from the process of reviewing sources and grappling with greater problems? Is this sort of grand narrative necessary for pursuing this kind of work? My concern is that adopting such a position would necessarily limit the research process and that the canvas should only become evident as part of creating the picture.

Another source for methodology may come from Eisenstein’s reviews. She is quite bullish on the approach adopted by Roger Chartier as described in the introduction to The cultural uses of print in early modern France (Eisenstein, 1989). Since I happen to have it checked out, I now have an opportunity to review it.

Eisenstein’s enthusiasm for Chartier (1987) is surprising. My reading of his introduction would indicate a methodology more in keeping with the approach of Johns than with that of Eisenstein. For example, Chartier makes a particularly strong case against “rupture”: studies that give primacy to social disruptions or fundamental segregations such as the differences between populaire and savant. Furthermore, he attributes particular importance to the study of practice:

“Treating such complex societies [as France] presupposes, in my opinion, reliance on another approach, one that focuses on specific practices, particular objects, and clearly defined uses. Practices connected with the written word – that set down or produced the spoken word, cemented forms of sociability, or prescribed behaviour; that took place in the forum internum or on the public square; or that sought to induce belief, persuade to action, or inspire dreams—offer a good entry into a society in which proliferating printed matter endeavoured to establish a modus vivendi with traditional forms of communication and in which new social distinctions fractures a shared based.” (pg. 11-12)

Such arguments certainly seem more in keeping with Johns approach. Chartier encourages researchers to explore the links between the printed text, speech, actions, and rituals:

“From the spoken word to the written text, from the written word to the act, from printed matter back to the spoken word: Such are a few of the trajectories that I shall attempt in this book to describe and to analyze, with the hope of restoring their full complexity to the various forms of expression and cultural communication.” (pg. 6)

Chartier also provides tropes to explore this cycle:

“The first of these models contrasts discipline and invention in various cultural forms and practices… Used together, they show that all procedures intended to create constraints and controls actually implement tactics that mitigate their effects or subvert them. They also show that, conversely, there is no such thing as a completely free and original cultural product which uses none of the materials imposed by tradition, authority, or the market and which is not subject to the surveillance or censure of those who hold sway over things and words.” (pg. 10)

“Discipline and invention, yes; but also distinction and dissemination. This second pair of linked notions is used… in order to propose a way of understanding the circulation of cultural objects and cultural models that does not reduce circulation to simple diffusion, usually considered to descend from the upper to the lower echelons of society.” (pg. 10)

Assuming that Eisenstein endorses these principles, I can further add to the fundamental tenets.

  1. (E via C) must account for the interaction of text, speech, action, and ritual
  2. (E via C) must eschew constructs of rupture in favour of continuity
  3. (E via C) might consider the dyads discipline/invention, and distinction/dissemination

Having heard from Chartier, I can solicit some input from Johns’s mentors: Shapin and Schaffer (1985). In the first chapter of Leviathan and the Air-Pump, they give us some insight into their own methodological approach. They build their arguments from two things: the black-boxed story of Hobbes, Boyle, and the air-pump as recounted in the Harvard Case Studies, and the typical questions addressed by the history of science:

“Far from avoiding questions of ‘truth,’ ‘objectivity,’ and ‘proper method,’ we will be confronting such matters centrally… These will be topics for our inquiry not resources unreflectively to be used in that inquiry.” (pg. 14)

Unfortunately, all three of these issues (with the possible exception of “proper method”) are inapplicable to a study of technological treatises. Of perhaps more interest is their general approach and how they address issues of objectivity since historians and scientists both belong to the tribe of researchers. Citing Schutz they note:

“Playing the stranger is therefore a difficult business, yet this is precisely what we need to do with respect to the culture of experiment. We need to play the stranger, not to be the stranger. A genuine stranger is simply ignorant. We wish to adopt a calculated and an informed suspension of our taken-for-granted perceptions of experimental practice and its products. By playing the stranger, we hope to move away from self-evidence.” (pg. 6)

Their reference to “the stranger” clearly echoes general tenets of ethnography as popularized by Agar’s “professional stranger” (Agar, 1980). Of similar merit are the influential writings of Clifford Geertz. For example, Alder describes the technical drawings of Napolean’s artisans “thick things,” deliberately playing on Geertz’s (via Ryle, 1975) notion of “thick description.” While Geertz is quite clearly describing social structures, I can hear echoes of Chartier in his words:

“Behaviour must be attended to, and with some exactness, because it is through the forms of behaviour – or, more precisely, social action – that cultural forms find articulation. They it as well, of course, in various sorts of artefacts, and various states of consciousness; but these draw their meaning from the role they play (Wittgenstein would say their ‘use’) in an ongoing patter of life, not from any intrinsic relationships they bear to one another.” (pg. 17)

From Shapin and Schaffer, and Geertz, I can prepare another tenet:

  1. (J via SS/G) must provide thick description

This tenet is woefully under-described. Geertz provides another important description: “Cultural analysis is (or should be) guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses, not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape.” (pg. 20)

The final contribution of Shapin and Schaffer concerns how to actually get started with the whole project. Famously, they write: “One can either debate the possibility of the sociology of science, or one can get on with the job of doing the thing.” (pg. 15) I imagine Shapin wrote this line; it reminds me of: “There is no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.” (Shapin, 1996 pg. 1) This glibness reminds me of Geertz’s recommendation on how to do anthropology: “I start by going.” [n.b., I may have made this up. For the life of me I can’t find the reference.] Perhaps this is where I can find the final tenet:

  1. (J via SS/G) must get on with it


Agar, M. (1980). The professional stranger : an informal introduction to ethnography. New York: Academic Press.

Chartier, R. (1987). The cultural uses of print in early modern France. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Eisenstein, E. (1989). The cultural uses of print in early modern France [by Roger Chartier. Book review.]. Sixteenth Century Journal, 20(1), 130.

Eisenstein, E. (2002). An unacknowledged revolution revisited. The American Historical Review, 107(1), 87-106.

Geertz, C. (1975). The interpretation of cultures : selected essays. London: Hutchinson.

Johns, A. (2002). How to Acknowledge a Revolution. The American Historical Review 107(1): 40 pars. Accessed 11 Sep. 2005 from

Shapin, S. (1996). The scientific revolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Shapin, S., Schaffer, S., & Hobbes, T. (1985). Leviathan and the air-pump : Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life : including a translation of Thomas Hobbes, Dialogus physicus de natura aeris by Simon Schaffer. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home