[Humanist] 30.28 how disciplines grow

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun May 15 09:56:07 CEST 2016

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 28.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 14 May 2016 10:32:01 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: how disciplines grow

In one of his typically entertaining articles, economic historian 
William N. Parker (Yale) wrote a report in 1962 to the Scandinavian 
Economic History Review to summarise American work for the benefit of 
colleagues. To qualify it he acknowledged the fact that the authority of 
results "is partly a sociological rather than a strictly scientific 
fact". At that time his brand of economic history, with strong emphasis 
on quantification (hence "quantifiers" in the following) and so 
statistics, was new enough to bring to mind how disciplines are formed. 
The following may be of some interest and, I hope, amusement, to those 
of us here still concerned with the formation of digital humanities.

> Wolves travel in a pack, lions in a pride, geese in a gaggle,
> philosophers and sewing ladies are found in circles, and scholars and
> fish in schools. A collection of quantifiers is a social sub-group
> within the school of scholars. It has the strength of a pack and can
> repel attack from without by strong defences, or by counter attack
> from within. Its very presence disturbs the self-confidence of
> skeptics; the tangle of intricately interrelated statistics springing
> up jungle-like within its shadow gives the most diligent or most
> hostile critic pause. Only the most profound resentment and the
> sheerest misanthropy will push the uninitiated into the tangle, and
> once he has entered, the heavy perfumes, the charm of the foliage and
> the sense of communion with the esoteric may overpower enmity.
> Constructive scholars, chary of their time and vulnerable to
> criticism, will come gladly to exchange confidence and congratulation
> for the right to pursue their own concerns. They will accept a set of
> income estimates, quote them if need be, and even imagine that they
> understand them and that they exist as facts, rather than as the
> frail structures of hypotheses their authors had intended. And apart
> from this impress which a like-minded group of scholars can make
> upon the world at large, there is the reinforcement of inner strength
> that comes from family life. When the number of scholars grows to a
> certain point, they can produce their own conferences, become one
> anothers' reviewers and critics, and even finance their own journals.
> They establish a private language and tradition; allusions, jokes and
> friendships spring up, and the corporate life grows through students
> and in extreme cases through intermarriage. They form an example of
> the social equivalent of what in atomic physics is known as a
> critical--or in this case some would say, uncritical--mass.

William N. Parker, "Work in Progress: A Report to Ernst Söderlund". 
Scandinavian Economic History Review 10.2 (1962): 233-44.)


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London

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