Wednesday, September 15, 2004

from obvious to "obvious" and back again

I'm reading Andrew Abbott's Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. I might write a post about the book generally. But here is a passage I had a particular reaction to, from Abbott's discussion of his "heuristic" of Problematizing the Obvious:
Is there something everyone thinks is obviously true? A useful heuristic is to attack it systematically.

Perhaps the most famous recent example of this heuristic is _Time on the Cross_ by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman. Fogel and Engerman attacked several widely accepted 'facts': (1) southern slavery was dying as an economic system immediately before the Civil War, (2) slave agriculture was economically inefficient (and, consequently, defense of it was economically irrational), and (3) the southern economy as a whole was actually retarded by the existence of slavery. Fogel and Engerman rejected all of those propositions, which had been mainstays of the scholarly literature for many years when they wrote their book. In the process of that rejection, they demonstrated dozens of counterintuitive results...
So what leaped out to me about this supposed famous-recent-example of Problematizing the Obvious is that it's not actually an example of a Problematizing the Obvious at all. It is instead the second move in an intellectual game that has parallel occurrences all over the social sciences; that is, it's an exemplar of what might be better termed Problematizing the Non-Obvious "Obvious."

What I mean is: I suspect it has never been obvious to anyone without an extensive social science education that slavery would be a bad idea from the economic standpoint of the slaveowning class. Morally repugnant, obviously. So much so as to be worth going to war over, perhaps. But, economically, getting to own your workers rather than having to hire and pay them might seem obviously like it would make economic sense for slaveowners, especially for slaveowners in a pursuit like plantation farming. Indeed, it might even seem so economically beneficial as for some in places dependent on plantation farming to regard it as be worth going to war over, perhaps.

I am not an academic historian and so have no idea about the actual merits of one side or the other in the actual debate. But I do fancy myself someone who can recognize the more obviously obvious when I see it, and all I'm saying is that if either side in the debate is more obviously obvious, it's that slavery was working well for the southern economy, especially since they were so keen on keeping it.

So, then, the question is: how could it have become the case that a work that makes an extensive case for the ostensibly obvious could instead be regarded as a very famous example of Problematizing the Obvious? It's because there must have been an earlier line of academic work that first Problematized the Obvious, which became so uniformly accepted by academics in the area that it could be construed as obvious to them, even though it was now the opposite of what was obvious to the person-off-the-street.

There may be several hundred mini-examples of this in social psychology. In social psychology, there has been this relentless drive for findings that run against the grain of commonsense.* So you get this cycle where there is a theory-and-findings that Problematize the Obvious and then later a theory-and-findings that Problematizes the Non-Obvious "Obvious" in a way that brings the received wisdom back somewhere closer to what someone innocent to the entire debate would have guessed all along. (In the interest of being circumspect, I will not give examples nor make extensions to other areas of sociology where something deeply resembling this seemingly-simple-cycle could be argued to have driven major debates over the past couple of decades).

* Social psychologists are so insecure that their work will be seen as commonsense that a regular trope of social psychology textbooks is to have little boxes or whatever that present students with a proposition and ask "True or False" just to show them that there are times when they would have guessed wrong. Actually, I know sociologists who do something like this on the first day of their Intro-to-Sociology courses; they give students a true-false quiz on the first day where all the answers seem plausble but turn out to be false, as a way of convincing students that Sociology Is Not Just Commonsense.


Tom Bozzo said...

Fogel's Railroads and American economic growth may be a better example of 'problematizing the obvious,' in the likely popular view and the professionally accepted view -- railroads were important to U.S. development -- were better aligned. See this this review by Lance Davis at

As for how the obvious was problematized in advance of Fogel and Engerman, it's my recollection (from having read the book about 12 years ago) that their best points were scored against pre-'cliometric' economic historiography of slavery that had relatively little formal economic content -- assessments of the productivity of enslaved and free southern blacks more on overtly or covertly racist stereotypes rather than crop-yield data, etc. (In the case of Railroads, Fogel similarly had a field day with predecessors who conflated casual correlations between the expansion of the railroad network and 19th century economic development with causation.)

Corrie said...

Oh, thank goodness for the previous comment. I've been trying to figure out the correct way to spell cliometric for a few days, and was waaayyyy off the mark.