Author of the Month

Rebecca Lemov
[February 2007]
Chosen by reviewer Nicole Merritt, MyShelf.Com


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.


Interview

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 blessings.

 

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.


Reviews

World as Laboratory
Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men
By
Rebecca Lemov
Hill and Wang
November 28, 2006
0-8090-9811-3
Paperback
Non-Fiction/Science/History

Reviewed: 2007
Buy it at Amazon

Reviewed 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 you.

This is her first book, and I am definitely interested in what is next. I will keep you posted.


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