Description and Redescription in the Milgram Experiments

Description in the Psychological Sciences

by Jill Morawski

The essay begins:

Whether our work attends to material objects, texts, behavior, or logic, at one point or another we undertake description. Yet such description practices often proceed without reflection or analysis. In my own discipline, psychology, researchers describe behaviors, experimental protocols, data analysis, and results, although they do so with scarce guidance beyond what is offered in a style manual. In recent articles, Heather Love, Stephen Best, and Sharon Marcus have argued against “suspicious interpretation” and advocated practices that seem to reproduce precisely the kind of transparent description that psychology has long taken for granted. Best and Marcus, for example, characterize the contributors to a special issue of Representations, “The Way We Read Now,” as “relatively neutral about their objects of study, which they tend less to evaluate than to describe, and which they situate in landscapes neither utopian nor dystopian.” As David Coombs has observed, such turns to descriptive criticism in literary studies suggest a disciplinary future “in which English has grown much closer to the sciences” by embracing value neutrality and objectivity as epistemic virtues. These moves toward description and away from interpretation and critique might be beneficial to literary studies, but what, if any, are the benefits to the sciences? Prior to this question stands another: what constitutes description in the sciences?

These questions guide this essay, which considers them in terms of one particular science, experimental psychology. Even at the start, there are some ready answers to the first question. Description is and has been crucial to psychology’s empirical practices, yet this aspect of scientific work apparently is so established and routinized that researchers rarely elucidate their methods or demonstrate the kind of “attentiveness” to the details of the observational events that is more regularly valued in the humanities. Under these circumstances, a focus on the practices and epistemology of description could provide guidance by which experimenters might refine, enrich, and possibly extend their description practices. Benefits could accrue also to a related aspect of modern experimental psychology, the quantification ideal, for the rise and triumph of quantification (taking numbers as accurate and sufficient descriptions of psychological events) risks substituting the “truth” of numbers for reports of what is actually happening. Description studies thus have the potential to inform research psychologists’ pervasive translation of psychological phenomena into numerics. Further, although scientific psychology depends on the description of observable events, its technical practices often involve dense inferential reasoning—that is, interpretation. Insofar as literary criticism regularly attends to interpretive practices, psychologists can take heed and consider how literary analyses might guide them toward better ways of interrogating their own scientific habits of inferential reasoning.

At the outset, it is important to recognize some distinctive features of the production and uses of scientific knowledge that are fundamental to psychology’s description practices. Chief among these features are the ideal of reductionism; elaborate techniques and technologies that are deemed requisite to observation, calibration, and the description of objects in the world; the preeminence of quantification over all other forms of description; and valences of material power, social and physical, that differ significantly from the humanities’ powers in effect if not in kind. Historian Theodore (Ted) Porter has analyzed these dimensions of science and isolated two different kinds of description. The first section of the essay reviews his taxonomy of science’s thin and thick description and uses it to outline the forms and contours of description in the psychological sciences, while at the same time acknowledging variations across this heterogeneous field. Porter’s analysis is especially useful in highlighting the scientific descriptions that are disseminated for general use and showing the social and material power realized through them. These “thin” descriptions, as Porter names them, figure centrally in scientific psychology, a science founded in the late nineteenth century with an explicit goal of improving the human condition. This aspirational goal has been sustained for more than a century and is exemplified in the now iconic slogan “giving psychology away” (in the sense of making it available for human benefit). The expression was coined by George Miller, one of the acclaimed fathers of cognitive psychology, whose 1969 presidential address to the American Psychological Association (APA) urged psychologists to give psychology away “as a means of promoting human welfare.” The second section of the essay centers on this “responsibility” to give psychological knowledge away for people to use by examining the modes of description employed in what is arguably the most famous experiment in twentieth-century psychology, Stanley Milgram’s series of behavioral studies of obedience. Reported in 1963, Milgram’s experiments continue to be regarded as the preeminent account of human tendencies to obey authority today. Examination of the relevant publications and archival materials indicates, however, that these avowedly objective “behavioral” studies relied on more than descriptions of behavior. They presumed an identifiable ontology that delineated deep psychic motivations and the consequent limitations of human autonomy. In order to assess the implications of Milgram’s ontological presuppositions—for both psychology’s description practices and the dissemination of psychological descriptions—his data analysis is compared with a redescription of that scientific evidence. The redescription contrasts in crucial ways with Milgram’s account of the experimental subjects’ virtually inescapable pull to follow orders. It also shows how much description matters when we aim to give psychology away.

The essay then moves, with an ironic twist, from reviewing psychology’s principal description practices to considering how psychologists devoted to objective descriptions have also engaged interpretation and even undertaken the suspicious and symptomatic reading they frequently denounce (notably in their rejection of psychoanalysis). My turn toward what some might take to be an underside of scientific description aims neither to fault the scientists nor to debunk the science; nor is it intended to promote any wholesale rejection of so-called deep interpretation. Rather, by redescribing an experimental record, I point to ways of reading experimental subjects’ actions that do not depend on either an imagined veridical description (a transparent representation) of those actions or a deep reading of invisible motives or tangled mentations. Without claiming to discover the “real” experimental outcomes, this redescription of the experiment brings attention to the effects of subjects’ behaviors: working with different ontological precepts, it aims to illuminate the performative in the behaviors they emit. Continue reading …

This essay uses the case of scientific psychology to explore modes of description and the broader objectives underlying these modes, reporting on both the complexities and potentials of psychological description. It examines the description techniques of the classic Milgram experiment and offers a redescription of the resulting data to show both how psychology’s practices of description entail more than objective accounts of observed behavior and how these descriptions can influence the social world and our understandings of ourselves. The case of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in obedience suggest the material and social powers of the descriptions psychologists “give away” for human benefit.

JILL MORAWSKI is Wilbur Fisk Osborne Professor of Psychology at Wesleyan University, where she also serves as Chair of the Science in Society Program. Her historical work probes the performances of experimental psychology and the kinds of persons that are enabled or constrained through these scientific practices. Recent articles include “Epistemological Dizziness in the Psychological Laboratory: Lively Subjects, Anxious Experimenters and Experimental Relations” (Isis 2015), and “Livelihoods of Theory: The Case of Goffman’s Early Theory of Self” (Theory & Psychology 2014).

The Poetics of Description

Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature

by Joanna Stalnaker

The essay begins:

Today, when thinking about the divide between literature and science, we may tend to associate literature with the imagination and science with observation and description. The prehistory of this assumption can be traced back to the eighteenth century, when description first emerged as a contested category in urgent need of definition, beyond the traditional rhetorical notion of enargeia, the figure by which an absent object or person is made vividly present through words. As Lorraine Daston, John Bender, Michael Marrinan, Cynthia Sundberg Wall, and I have shown, the practice of description underwent significant transformations in the eighteenth century, as competing regimes of description emerged and were defined in opposition to each other. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s famous Encyclopédie, published over two decades beginning at midcentury, offered three separate entries on description: one for geometry, one for natural history, and one for belles lettres. A later iteration of that work, the Encyclopédie méthodique, added yet another entry on the newly invented genre of descriptive poetry, which purportedly undermined classical poetics by failing to subsume description to narrative or didactic design. Yet the disciplinary landscape operative in these definitions—and in the descriptive practices surrounding them—cannot be easily mapped onto our familiar opposition between imaginative literature on the one hand and scientific description on the other.

423px-thumbnailIn what follows, I will look at two writers from the French eighteenth century whose work illustrates the contingency of modern categories and definitions of description. The first is the famous naturalist and renowned stylist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, whose multivolume Histoire naturelle spurred the vogue for natural history across Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. The second is the once-celebrated but now obscure poet Jacques Delille, who took the Scottish poet James Thomson as his model and introduced the so-called genre of descriptive poetry in France in the last decades of the Old Regime. Taken together, these two writers exemplify what the great naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier called “the age of description.” This age has fallen out of view since Cuvier’s lifetime, lost to the modern fracture between literature and science. Yet I will argue that it holds special relevance for us today, at a time when short-story writers and political theorists alike share an impulse to ascribe agency to nonhuman things and to question the centrality of human perspectives. One of the biggest surprises to emerge from the unfamiliar landscape of the eighteenth-century age of description is its elaboration of a poetics of description grounded in dramatic shifts in scale and nonhuman perspectives on nature. Continue reading …

This article looks at two writers of the French eighteenth century, the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon and the poet Jacques Delille, whose innovative practices of description call into question our modern opposition between literature and science and raise the issue of how literature might be transformed through attention to nonhuman views of nature.

JOANNA STALNAKER teaches in the French Department at Columbia University. She is the author of The Unfinished Enlightenment: Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia (Cornell, 2010) and is currently working on a book about the last works of the French philosophes at the end of the Enlightenment.

The Beast in the Blood

The Beast Within: Animals in the First Xenotransfusion Experiments in France, ca. 1667-68
by Peter Sahlins

The essay begins:

The first practical experiments in transfusing animal blood into humans for therapeutic purposes—to cure sickness, especially madness, and to prolong life—took place in Paris in 1667 and 1668, and they worked. Or not. From the beginning, the experiments were shrouded in the competing claims of a highly public controversy in which consensus and truth, alongside the experimental dogs, lambs, and calves, were the first victims. “There was never anything that divided opinion as much as we presently witness with the transfusions,” wrote the Parisian lawyer at Parlement Louis de Basril, late in what became known as the “Transfusion Affair,” in February 1668. “It is a topic of the salons, an amusement at the court, the subject of philosophical dissertations; and doctors talk incessantly about it in all their consultations.” At the center of the controversy was the Montpellier physician and “most able Cartesian philosopher,” Jean Denis (1635–1704), recently established in Paris. With the experienced surgeon Paul Emmerez (?–1690), Denis performed transfusions, using primitive instrumentation, of small amounts of blood from the carotid arteries of calves, lambs, and kid goats into the veins of five ailing human patients between June 1667 and January 1668. Two died, but three were purportedly cured and rejuvenated. The experiments divided the medical establishment and engaged a Parisian public avid for scientific discoveries, especially medical therapies to cure disease and to provide eternal youth. For a moment at least, the Transfusion Affair fashionably eclipsed comets within an emerging “science for a polite society” in the late 1660s, and the attention of Paris turned to the therapeutic uses of animal blood, and of animals more generally. Continue reading …

PG204-540x362 copyThis article examines the attitudes toward animals and animal blood on both sides of the transfusionist debate and the resulting insistence on the “beast within” human nature that found a renewed expression at the beginning of the Classical Age.


PETER SAHLINS is Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, where has taught courses on early modern France and Europe since 1989. His past work focused on boundaries and identities, nationality and citizenship, and environmental history. His forthcoming book, The Year of the Animal: 1668 and the Origins of French Modernity (Zone Books) considers the unexpected appearance of animals on the French historical stage in and around 1668—in philosophy, medical practices, natural history, literary conversations, and visual culture—as a critical moment in the history of mechanism and absolutism in France.


Hinterwaldner Essay Wins Schachterle Prize

Inge Hinterwaldner’s Parallel Lines as Tools for Making Turbulence Visible (Representations 124) has won the 2104 Schachterle Essay Prize from the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA).

“Building on actor-network theory and the history of photographic and cinematic technologies, Inge Hinterwaldner’s article is an elegant, smart, and meaningful contribution to scholarship in science and technology studies that examines the use of experimental visualization to model turbulence in air and water around 1900. The essay discusses how two physicists–Etienne-Jules Marey and Friedrich Ahlborn–contrived to make visible, to measure, and to record these phenomena.” —from the SLSA prize announcement

The Schachterle Prize is awarded annually by the SLSA in recognition of the best new essay on literature and science written in English by a nontenured scholar.

Inge Hinterwaldner’s research interests include computer-based art and architecture, image theory, model theory, and temporality in the visual arts. Her first book is entitled Das systemische Bild (The systemic image; Munich, 2010).

Rapture of the Deep

Denotation in Alien Environments: The Underwater Je Ne Sais Quoi
by Margaret Cohen

This article by Stanford professor Margaret Cohen examines nonfiction documentary forms where distinctly poetic practices have served as a communicative, if not denotative, tool. Accounts of the first extended underwater observation by pioneering divers like William Beebe, Hans Hass, Philippe Tailliez, and Philippe Diolé used literary allusions and fanciful rhetoric to express the implausible conditions of this alien environment, in a practice that reached its height before the flowering of underwater color and documentary cinema in the mid-1950s.


“Denotation in Alien Environments” is from Representations’ special issue Denotatively, Technically, LiterallyThe introduction to the issue by Elaine Freedgood and Cannon Schmitt is available online free of charge.

Philosopher Catherine Malabou at Berkeley

Una’s Lecture
Photo of Catherine Malabou.

Monday, April 14, 2014 | 6:00 pm
Banatao Auditorium, Sutardja Dai Hall, UC Berkeley

French Philosopher Catherine Malabou teaches at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University in London. She is the author of The Future of Hegel (2005), What Should We Do with Our Brain? (2008), Plasticity at the Eve of Writing (2009) and Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience (2013)Her work has created the foundation for a wide range of current research focusing on the intersections between neuro- and biological science and the humanities. Her Una’s lecture, “Odysseus’ Changed Soul,” will offer a contemporary reading of Plato’s myth of Er (Republic, Book 10).

Professor Malabou’s short essay “The King’s Two (Biopolitical) Bodies” will appear in Representations 127, available in July 2014. In residence at Berkeley through the month of April, she will be a featured speaker in the interdisciplinary conference  “Animation/Reanimation” April 18, 2014 and participate (along with Representations editorial board member David Bates) in a two-day workshop April 11-12, entitled “Plasticity and Pathology: The History and Theory of Neural Subjects.”

The Language of Science in George Eliot

 “George Eliot’s Science Fiction”
by Ian Duncan

479px-Eastern_equine_encephalitisIn this essay Ian Duncan tracks the strangeness of scientific language in Eliot’s fiction, showing how her recourse to comparative mythology and biology in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda engages a conjectural history of symbolic language shared by the Victorian human and natural sciences. Troubling the formation of scientific knowledge as a progression from figural to literal usage, Eliot’s novels activate an oscillation between registers, in which linguistic events of metaphor become narrative events of organic metamorphosis.

“George Eliot’s Science Fiction” is from Representations‘ special issue Denotatively, Technically, LiterallyThe introduction to the issue by Elaine Freedgood and Cannon Schmitt is available online free of charge.


Inge Hinterwaldner on Visualizing Turbulence

“Why is it that we try to achieve new insights, new knowledge, new design by way of making artifacts such as sketches, diagrams, and models?”


HinterwaldnerFig14In her essay “Parallel Lines as Tools for Making Turbulence Visible” (Representations 124), Inge Hinterwaldner, Assistant of Modern Art History at the University of Basel, addresses this question through the work of physicists Etienne-Jules Marey and Friedrich Ahlborn, both of whom made photographic attempts to depict turbulence in air and water at the turn of the twentieth century. Both scientists used parallel lines to describe their findings, yet their representations functioned differently, depending on the differing underlying conceptions from which each began.
HinterwaldnerFig16b (1)


Inge Hinterwaldner’s research interests include computer-based art and architecture, image theory, model theory, and temporality in the visual arts. Her first book is entitled Das systemische Bild (The systemic image; Munich, 2010).