[Extract from a letter, dated May 10, 1969.]
I have been developing three areas of research.... First, the progressive concept of science: I am primarily concerned with the impact of the rational engineering movement on the concept of science. Progressive concepts of science were extremely important in social thought and reform thought, e.g., in Croly, Lippmann. Yet I suspect that the scientific concepts of reformers owed more to rational engineering than to science proper. This is a confused matter, which the work of Samuel Hays, Wiebe (Search for Order), and others, like Barry Dean Karl, has not clarified. Second, the ideological status of Herbert Hoover with regard to engineers and scientists: My concern in this problem is to clarify Hoover's ideological relationships with the scientists and engineers.... I am convinced that in the 1920s's the scientists tried to take Hoover as a cultural symbol away from the engineers. Third, the social and cultural impact of the theories of relativity;...
All of these research topics are united by certain methodological problems. The primary problem is the lack of any cultural theory or sociological theory which adequately deals with the status of symbols in the transmission of cultural forms from generation to generation and from group to group within the same generation. For example, what is the role of symbols (e.g. Hoover as a symbol) in the maintanence of order among cultural values and social status heirarchies? What is their role when these values are in a period of extensive expansion, as in the progressive period (when new values were added to the American consensus), or in a period of contraction, as in the 1920's (when no new values were added, but some old values were subtracted)?
Last January, I turned to current sociological theory as canonized in Parsons and Shils's General Theory of Action. I found their views, however, insufficient. Parsons and Shils base their sociological theory on a mechanistic model which takes as a basic assumption the equilibrium and transmission of cultural forms. It is, however, precisely how equilibruim and transmission are achieved which I want to know. I cannot simply assume equilibrium and transmission. Moreover, Parsons and Shils do not deal adequately (almost not at all) with symbolism.
Consequently, I have turned to the sociological theory of Hugh Duncan and the literary criticism of Kenneth Burke. Both men reject a mechanistic sociology and base their work on a dramatistic model of social interacftion and cultural change. And importantly, both men center their work around the role of symbols--how symbols are created, maintained, and decline; their role in maintaining order among values when society is in rapid change; their role in stabilizing cultural forms and changing such forms.
I think that Robert Wiebe's Search for Order does an excellent job of pointing out the significance of "science" as a symbol for bringing together the many disparate values of progressivism. But Wiebe's work is only a beginning; his work is a synthesis, not an analysis, and the question of how historical evidence can be brought (or found) for this thesis is not explicitly dealth with, for that reason.
I am convinced that the theories of relativity and the importance of Herbert Hoover can be most profitably be examined at this level of cultural symbolism.... I think the theories [Einstein's theories of relativity] had a wider social and cultural significance than one would expect if one looked at them only from the logical point of view, or if one looked at them only from inside their scientific influence, so to speak.