Agendas in the Historiography of Science

By Jon Agar, on 8 June 2012

I’ve been reviewing a very good edited collection of the historian of computing Michael Mahoney’s papers. Mahoney died in 2008, but he left behind a series of papers filled with good advice to historians of science. One of his best tips is that we should pay attention to what he calls the “agenda” of a discipline or specialty if we want to understand it.

Here’s Mahoney’s definition and development of the idea:

“In tracing the emergence of a discipline, it is useful to think it terms of its agenda, that is, what practitioners of the discipline agree ought to be done, a consensus concerning the problems of the field, their order of importance or priority, the means of solving them, and perhaps most importantly, what constitute solutions. Becoming a recognized practitioner of a discipline means learning the agenda and then helping to carry it out. Knowing what questions to ask is the mark of a full-fledged practioner, as is teh capacity to distinguish between trivial and profound problems. Whatever specific meaning may attach to ‘profound’, generally it means moving the agenda forward. One acquires standing in the field by solving the problems with high priority, and especially by doing so in a way that extends or reshapes teh agenda, or by posing profound problems. The standing of the field may be measured by its capacity to set its own agenda. New disciplines emerge by acquiring that autonomy. Conflicts within a discipline often come down to disagreements over the agenda: what are the really important problems? Irresolvable conflict may lead to new disciplines in the form of separate agendas.

As the Latin root indicates, agendas are about action: what is to be done?”

(Michael Mahoney, ‘Computer science: the search for a mathematical theory’, originally published in Krige and Pestre (eds), Science in the 20th Century, reprinted in Histories of Computing, Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 130)

I thought it worth abstracting this long quotation for two reasons.

First, this seems to be a really good, concrete proposal for what makes a discipline, and who is considered to be a valid practitioner. That’s a useful historiographical tool for historians of science.

Second, we might like to ask, as historians of science, what is our agenda? What do we agree ought to be done? What are the problems of the field? How should we rank them?