of the Month
Chosen by reviewer Nicole
Anthropologist, Rebecca Lemov has written her first
book. I wanted to highlight this author for her contribution to the study
of our world in her book World as Laboratory, Experiments with Mice,
Mazes, and Men. Not only was it fascinating and enlightening, but
her writing style was fluid and friendly. I appreciate that, especially
when I am reading technical information that could otherwise leave me
with big question marks or otherwise bored to tears. She does neither
of these in her new book.
She teaches what she preaches full time at Harvard's
History of Science Department, where
she has been a postdoctoral fellow for two years: She teaches the "critical
experiments" class in the Harvard history of science dept as well
as at the extension school. This, too, intrigues me. She is a work in
progress and her next writings should reflect a new thought or maybe more
intense thought. I cannot wait to see where she goes from here.
Nicole: Your writing style is unusual for a social scientist.
How were you able to demystify the information you presented in your book,
World as Laboratory and make it so user friendly?
Rebecca: Thank you for saying that-I always did want
to make the book user friendly, even when it wasn't a book, just a dissertation
for a Ph.D. Degree at the University Of California. I think it's too bad
that a lot of scholarly work never gets Read, usually because it's just
plain difficult to read. Being difficult is sometimes necessary, but sometimes
there's deliberate obfuscation going on (kind of an insider's version
of, "If you can't understand what I'm saying, I Must be exceptionally
smart"). When I re-wrote the dissertation as a book, I Tried to think
about what I as a reader would want to read, and to rigorously Restrict
myself to including information that's not boring. Over my desk, I had
a little sign that said, "Down with Boredom!"
Nicole: The information you presented in your book spanned many
years. How long did it take you to study and collect the information?
Rebecca: It took a total of about eight or nine years, from the
early "Help, I have to write my dissertation" phase, to several
years of research in archives at Harvard, Yale, the Carnegie, and Rockefeller
Foundation, the National Archives, to writing it in different spots in
California where I was lucky to have Fellowships (and also continuing
to write it while I was working as a legal Secretary because I had no
more fellowships). And then re-writing the Dissertation took another two
years, because I wanted to re-envision the book and make it speak to "broader"
issues in culture and society.
Strangely Enough, it turned out to have current relevance: little did
I know I was Writing a history of the interrogation methods being used
at Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Nicole: Your credits listed History and Anthropology at the University
of Washington. What are you doing now?
Rebecca: Right now I'm a postdoctoral fellow at the Department
of the History of Science at Harvard. It's a great job-two years of teaching
and writing and research at a place with good libraries and good colleagues.
We moved from Seattle to Cambridge this summer.
Nicole: And are you working on another book?
Rebecca: I'm working on another book, as mentioned, and have
an additional one in mind. The first one is about the history of the focus
group-a device that most people don't believe has a history. But in fact
it does: In the past sixty years the Focus group has moved, loosely speaking,
from government propaganda research Branches to university laboratories
to Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and K Street. In the 1940s-70s, focus groups
moved from elite, small-scale, and often Top-secret research groups to
large-scale consumer and political Campaigns--that is, they flooded American
society at large. So, in a way this Book will be similar to World
as Laboratory, tracing the "secret history" of a Social
science apparatus, but it instead of stopping in 1963, it will continue
into the present. The other book I'm working on is a collection of essays,
more Informal, on Buddhist meditation.
Nicole: World as Laboratory presented many differing viewpoints,
what specifically are yours in regard to fundamental human behavior? Do
you believe that humans are a product of learned behaviors? Or do you
believe that we have a soul?
Rebecca: I don't really believe in "fundamental" human
behavior, because I don't think anything is fundamental (not even a "soul"
in the usual sense of the word, Something solid and separate). I do think
we're creatures who learn a lot from our environments (just having a small
child shows that). The thing I didn't like about behaviorism was, basically,
its imagined separation of subjects from objects: the experimental animals
and the people who were potential objects of "Social engineering"
and social control methods. But to get back to the question of the soul,
I try to get all my knowledge-about ultimate reality as Well as everyday
reality-from experience, in particular from meditation in which you cultivate
the observation "things as they are." From this practice of
observation-via-meditation, I do have a conviction that (as Hamlet once
put It, or something to this effect) "There's more to heaven and
earth than your Philosophy, Horatio”. The soul is a series of relationships,
always unfolding. I definitely believe in blessings, and in counting my
Nicole: How would you describe your research?
Rebecca: I've always been interested in "strangely neglected"
topics, to quote Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim-things, topics, subjects, or
books that were once famous and heralded and now lie neglected on dusty
shelves or burrowed away in archives. So, my research is a way of discovering
those forgotten parts of the past and showing how they live on, in ways
that people often don't recognize. I find that in the practice of modern
life, we consumers of media culture are often encouraged to believe that
the times we are witnessing have no parallel and no usable past-that we
are pioneers of some new form of human nature and human society. I like
to find unexpected links and connections among past, present, and future.
Nicole: How do you plan to further your studies in this area?
Rebecca: I'm still interested in the topic of "human engineering"
and the question behind it: to what extent are people controlled (by habits,
by culture, by family, by society) and to what extent can freedom be cultivated.
But I don't think the two are necessarily in opposition-that was the mistake
of the 1960s, to think that in order to be free you had to cast off all
the old forms, grow your hair, go naked, engage in free love, etc. Sometimes
you can be the most imprisoned when you believe you are the most free
you've ever been. The connections between freedom, imagined freedom, delusion,
and illusion are what I want to continue studying.
Nicole: Would you call yourself an Anthropologist or a Historian?
What is the difference?
Rebecca: I have a doctorate in cultural anthropology and am working
as a Postdoctoral fellow in the history of science, but whether I call
myself an anthropologist or historian depends on the context. For example,
in professional, academic circles, other anthropologists often seem to
doubt that I'm a "real anthropologist" or that I'm in fact "doing"
anthropology, because I haven't engaged in what most would consider fieldwork.
In that sense, I'm more comfortable saying I'm a historian of science.
On the other hand, historians may doubt that I'm a "real" historian
because my degree is in anthropology. There's a lot of cross-disciplinary
mistrust in the academy.
A typical way of distinguishing the two is: anthropologists work in the
field, historians work in the archive; anthropologists work on cultures
distant geographically, historians work on cultures distant temporally.
In truth, I don't really think there's a difference, at least not a really
important one aside from disciplinary conventions (for example, historian
dress more conservatively and their scholarship has more footnotes). Other
than that, what interests me about both is the ability to ask good questions,
and some tools for trying to answer them.
World as Laboratory
Experiments with Mice, Mazes,
Hill and Wang
November 28, 2006
it at Amazon
by Nicole Merritt, MyShelf.com
World as Laboratory, Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men,
by Rebecca Lemov, is one of those unexpected surprises. When I received
this book for review, I thought it would be typically technical, scientific,
and hard to navigate. What a surprise!
Author, Rebecca Lemov, has written a layman friendly guide to the historical
science of human behavior. World as Laboratory has proven itself
a rare find in the realm of Social Science. I was left with a renewed
love of science history. It also left me with an interest in reading more
about human behavior and why we do the things we do.
World is full of human behavioral experiments conducted through the years
with men, mice, and more, as guinea pigs for the sake of learning what
makes humans tick. Ms. Lemov's writing style is refreshing and transitions
easily from experiments, such as Loeb?s worm to Watson?s rats, so fluidly
that it does not once make the reader feel inadequate. As an anthropologist
and history teacher, she manages to engage the reader in the history of
the scientist behind the experiment. Discovering this information, as
in Mower?s life, allows the reader to have a deeper understanding of the
results, both true and false.
Lemov is indeed a gifted researcher and writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed
myself. If you are an avid science/history reader, or if you have an interest
but never thought you could wade through the jargon, this book is for
This is her first book, and I am definitely interested in what is next.
I will keep you posted.