Twin Research, Biography as Method, and More

The History of the Human Sciences has just released its December issue online. Featured in the issue are articles on twin research, sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (pictured left) and biography as historical method, photography and biological vision, and the role of the environment in early American sociology.

In “Twin research, revisionism and metahistory,” Thomas Teo and Laura C. Ball, both of York University, explore the carefully managed presentation of the history of twin research. As is stated early on, the “article does not provide a history but is interested in the historiography, or, better, the historical accounts and reconstructions, of twin research, written by insiders” (p. 3). Teo and Ball look at how insiders selected pioneers in the field and what historical evidence has been privileged in constructing a history of twin research. The abstract to this article reads:

We understand metahistory as an approach that studies how histories within a particular discipline have been written and focus on insider scientists’ reconstructions of twin research. Using the concept of ethical-political affordances we suggest that such histories are based on a management of resources that prove to be beneficial for representing one’s own research traditions in a positive light. Instead of discussing information on the context and intellectual life of pioneers of the twin method, which include high-caliber eugenicists and Nazi ideologues, and on how the twin method has been used and abused, insider scientists’ accounts present twin research as neutral, objective and void of any kind of political connotations. We show how important leaders of German twin research have been historically managed, and how their contributions have been distorted and omitted. Reasons for historical revisionism by omission and for selectively revised accounts of the past are discussed. Suggestions for writing accounts of the twin method are included and focus on the necessity of self-reflection, considerations regarding one’s own ethical-political inclinations, and review of the existing historical literature. In analyzing these connections, we attempt to understand how science, politics and history interact.

In “Magnus Hirschfeld, his biographies and the possibilities and boundaries of ‘biography’ as ‘doing history’” Toni Brennan and Peter Hegarty explore biography as historical method through a study of the biographies of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. The abstract reads:

This article considers the two major biographies of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, MD (1868–1935), an early campaigner for ‘gay rights’ avant la lettre. Like him, his first biographer Charlotte Wolff (1897–1986) was a Jewish doctor who lived and worked in Weimar Republic Berlin and fled Germany when the Nazi regime came to power. When researching Hirschfeld’s biography (published in English in 1986) Wolff met a librarian and gay activist, Manfred Herzer, who would eventually be a cofounder of the Gay Museum in Berlin and publish (in German, in 1992) the other major Hirschfeld biography currently available. Using, inter alia, the correspondence between Wolff and Herzer, the article aims to explore and interrogate the boundaries and possibilities of ‘biography’ as a form of ‘doing history’.

In “Given time: Biology, nature and photographic vision” Steve Garlick discusses our changing understanding of nature given the advent of photography. The abstract reads:

The invention of photography in the early 19th century changed the way that we see the world, and has played an important role in the development of western science. Notably, photographic vision is implicated in the definition of a new temporal relation to the natural world at the same time as modern biological science emerges as a disciplinary formation. It is this coincidence in birth that is central to this study. I suggest that by examining the relationship of early photography to nature, we can gain some insight into the technological and epistemological underpinnings of biological vision. To this end, this article is primarily concerned with the role of photographic technology in the genealogy of biological vision. I argue that photography has always been ambiguously located between art and science, between nature and culture, and between life and death. Hence, while it may be a technological expression of the scientific desire to know and to control nature, photographic vision has continually disrupted and frustrated the ambitions of biological technoscience. The technovision of early biological science illustrates that the elusive temporality of nature has always been central to the production of knowledge of life.

Finally, in “Not as natural as it seems: The social history of the environment in American sociology” Filip M. Alexandrescu examines the prevalence of environmental themes in early American sociology through an analysis of textbooks from nearly a hundred years of the discipline. The abstract reads:

This article argues against Catton and Dunlap’s claims that the naturalbenvironment has been ignored or downplayed in American sociology before the emergence of environmental sociology in the 1970s. By reviewing a collection of 86 sociology textbooks between 1894 and 1980, the article provides quantitative evidence regarding the scope and types of references to the natural environment in mainstream sociology. The bulk of the article is based on an interpretive-historical analysis of the different representations of the environment in the textbook literature. This analysis is carried out from the perspective of the sociology of knowledge, whereby sociological ideas about nature are interpreted in terms of their intellectual milieu and social context. The main finding is that the ‘natural environment’ has been interpreted in different ways and has been put to a variety of epistemological and ideological uses – particularly positivism and functionalism – throughout the history of the discipline.

Also included in this issue are several book reviews:

Kenton Kroker. The Sleep of Others and the Transformations of Sleep Research. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Reviewed by Roger Smith.

Peter N. Miller (Ed.). Momigliano and Antiquarianism: Foundations of the Modern Cultural Sciences. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Reviewed by Louis Rose.

Steve Fuller. Dissent over Descent: Intelligent Design’s Challenge to Darwinism. Cambridge: Icon Books, 2008. Reviewed by Graham Richards.

A reply to Richards by Fuller is also included, as well as a response to Fuller by Richards.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.