Friday, November 7, 2014

Social Science History Association, annual meeting

I am posting from Toronto, where I am attending the annual meeting of the Social Science History Association.  I've been a member of the SSHA for a few years; when I resigned from the American Anthropological Association in protest of their anti-science stance, I joined SSHA. I actually attended my first meeting in the 1980s, and published a paper in their journal, Social Science History, in 1987. But this is the first meeting I've attended since then. This has been an interesting weekend.

Professionally, there are some things the SSHA does well at their meeting, much better than the Society for American Archaeology meeting. Their sessions are all two hours in length. Most contain four papers of 20 minutes, plus time for a discussant, as well as time for discussion with the audience. Some of these discussions are run formally, with questions and answers, and some are more of a free-form discussion between presenters and audience. This format produces sessions much more intellectually satisfying experience than those at the SAA meeting, which has rushed papers, often ten or fifteen in a session, and no time for discussion.  All sessions fit into a single schedule grid, with 15 minutes between 2-hour time slots. This give time for continued discussion after a session, time to talk to people between sessions, and time to get to the next session. Sessions run on time.

The SSHA also has various alternative formats. They have a bunch of "author meets critics" sessions, with review of recent books, discussions with the author, and with the audience, and they have some roundtable events without formal papers.

Intellectually, many sessions have good coherence. The SSHA is organized into a series of 15 or 20 "networks." These are topic-based groups of members; I am in the urban and macro-historical change networks. There are also networks on gender, historical geography, cultural history, politics, and a bunch of others. Panels are reviewed by the networks, and the network coordinators assemble sessions from loose papers. My talk was submitted to the urban network, but they put me in a session organized by the historical geography network because of the GIS theme. The papers were diverse but very interesting and coherent in terms of analyses of movement using historical GIS data.

Each annual conference has an overall theme. Although all sessions do not have to relate to the theme, many do. This year the topic is "inequality," and I managed to hear a talk on inequality by Andrew Abbott, a sociologist I admire. Very interesting. They also evidently have a session about Charles Tilly every year, always overflowing. Tilly was an important part of the SSHA, and many of his colleagues and students are active members. There were four very interesting talks on extending Tilly's work in new directions. The chair was Daniel Little, author of the best social science blog, Understanding Society (it is listed in the right-hand panel here). In the audience discussion I talked about the lack of interest in Tilly's work in the field of anthropology. I mentioned that a paper I wrote (with Frannie Berdan) applying Tilly's model of durable inequality (Tilly 1998) to the Aztecs was rejected by American Anthropologist. Its sitting in a (virtual) drawer right now. Then, after the session, the editor of Social Science History came up and said that she'd love to get our paper applying Tilly's ideas to the Aztecs for the journal!
Charles Tilly
I also met Richard Harris for the first time. So now we both have to stop telling the story of how we had co-authored a paper with someone we have never met (Harris and Smith 2011)! Our paper was a response to a clueless survey of the field of urban studies that left out history and comparison. Our reply: "History matters" for urban studies.

I also met a colleague from ASU, urban historian Philip Vandermeer, for the first time. Its strange when you have to go to Toronto to meet a colleague from across campus.

This meeting was a very different experience from the SAA in that I know very few people. I'm not sure I'd want to go every year (next year the theme is pluralism, not exactly a major theme of my research). There just aren't enough papers from before the 18th century, or focusing on nonwestern settings.  But it has been fun and interesting. I had to overcome my archaeological inferiority complex. What am I doing here with a bunch of heavy-duty social science historians? Why would they care about archaeology? But this is a thoroughly interdisciplinary crowd, and in their estimation archaeology is great if contributes to answering questions of interest.

The image of a cat next to a net is an in-joke from the Tilly session.

Harris, Richard and Michael E. Smith  (2011)  The History in Urban Studies: A Comment. Journal of Urban Affairs 33(1):99-105.

Smith, Michael E.  (1987)  Archaeology and the Aztec Economy: The Social Scientific Use of Archaeological Data. Social Science History 11:237-259.

Tilly, Charles  (1998)  Durable Inequality. University of California Press, Berkeley.

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