Research

My work uses historical analysis and multiple methods to ask how we learn about and make moral judgments regarding the world around us — especially socially and geographically distant people and events. This basic question unfolds in several directions.

“The India Directors in the Suds.” 1772. Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. [Description]
History, morality, corruption, and empire.  First, I am centrally interested in corruption and its socio-historical dynamics. My book project, Modernity’s Corruption, asks how and why what we consider to be corrupt today — our deviation away from some “public good” in the name of our “private interest” — emerged out of a much older understanding of corruption as the loss of balance among various competing appetites and impulses, called “passions” by contemporaries. I trace the shift between these two understandings through the English East India Company’s transition from a (largely) merchant trading concern to a semi-sovereign territorial ruler from the middle of the Eighteenth to the middle of the Nineteenth centuries.In addition to this book project, my interest in the East India Company has resulted in several other projects. I have published work on the Company’s tax administration arguing that officials’ visions of Indian society as fundamentally similar to or different from Britain shaped the organization of tax administration. I also argued that the crisis the Company experienced in the second half of the Eighteenth century can best be stood as a conflict among closely related social fields spanning Britain and India. And elsewhere, I argue that Company officials used fundamentally moral arguments to anchor their organizational arguments as they struggled with one another. Finally, I am continuing this focus on the Company in two works in progress: one examines the different organizational and social movement frames applied to early territorial revenue streams obtains by the Company; and another is a more theoretical exposition of what I call “relational corruption” through an analysis of the biography of one of the Company’s most (in)famous servants, Robert Clive.

Interior of Johns Hopkins university seminar room with students at work. ca. 1887. This is an early example of disciplinary “seminar” pedagogy. From the Hopkins Retrospective.

Culture, science, discipline, and method.  My interest in moral evaluation and knowledge of “distant” social spaces also extends to the present day. In this research direction, I have focused on how social-scientific claims are legitimated across disciplines, how schools of theory spread, and how history has influenced social science more broadly. In collaboration with Damon Mayrl, I have asked how historical sociologists construct the methodological “scaffolding” of their work, how they develop research questions, find materials, analyze their evidence, and publish their findings, and also how their various approaches are bound together by reference to a common theoretical canon. Additionally, I have asked (in collaboration with Mayrl and Matthew Mahler) why it is that ethnographers increasingly find historical social science attractive. With Jensen Sass, I am extending this interest to how history, political science, and sociology evaluate the same scientific works through a mixed-methods analysis of book reviews over the course of the Twentieth century. And finally, I am collecting data on how postcolonial theory and Straussian political theory spread (or failed to) in various humanistic and social-scientific disciplines.