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“Hypothetical Machines”: The Science Fiction Dreams of Cold War Social Science

Rebecca Lemov
Isis
Vol. 101, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 401-411
DOI: 10.1086/653107
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/653107
Page Count: 11
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“Hypothetical Machines”: The Science Fiction Dreams of Cold War Social Science
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Abstract

ABSTRACT The introspectometer was a “hypothetical machine” Robert K. Merton introduced in the course of a 1956 how‐to manual describing an actual research technique, the focused interview. This technique, in turn, formed the basis of wartime morale research and consumer behavior studies as well as perhaps the most ubiquitous social science tool, the focus group. This essay explores a new perspective on Cold War social science made possible by comparing two kinds of apparatuses: one real, the other imaginary. Even as Merton explored the nightmare potential of such machines, he suggested that the clear aim of social science was to build them or their functional equivalent: recording machines to access a person's experiential stream of reality, with the ability to turn this stream into real‐time data. In this way, the introspectometer marks and symbolizes a broader entry during the Cold War of science‐fiction‐style aspirations into methodological prescriptions and procedural manuals. This essay considers the growth of the genre of methodological visions and revisions, painstakingly argued and absorbed, but punctuated by sci‐fi aims to transform “the human” and build newly penetrating machines. It also considers the place of the nearly real‐, and the artificial “near‐substitute” as part of an experimental urge that animated these sciences.

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