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Vexillology and Science

Last modified: 2005-05-28 by phil nelson
Keywords: vexillology |
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It would probably be better to see vexillology as an offshoot of heraldry. Until recently, it seem as if the study of flag was not even considered without its relationship with arms. It is probably due to the modern age tendency to create national flag with little if no connection to its coat of arms that actually brought about a paradigm shift.

Vexillology is about cataloguing and finding genealogical link between various flags but just as writing a book is in no way a requisite skill for a librarian, Vexillography, the creative side, is neither to vexillology.

I believe that necessity is probably the instigator of most flag. There are myths attached to most historical flag about its symbolism or its creator that have been thoroughly debunked. While those are born of emotion (due to a search for legitimacy) the work of the vexillologist is to report the facts while trying not to be influenced by a side. He has to be able to say: "this is what can be proven by document, this is what we can infer from document and this is what as been said but cannot be verified". In all this, it is not emotions that guide the vexillologist but knowledge of basic document analysis.
Marc Pasquin, 8 February 2004

Unless you consider under "scientific" only those related to natural sciences, and moving to "academic" all "other" things like study of folklore or numismatics or whatever. These studies are made academic (as opposed to "nonacademic" interest in the same) only be using the "scientific method" in studying them - right?

Regarding the possibility of prediction - I think that the whole issue is overemphasized. One should never expect a vexillological community to be able to predict how any future flag is going to be, just as no one expect the numismatics community with all it experts to predict what the next years set of coins of Georgia or Serbia and Montenegro would look like. Like us, numismatist can only provide "educated guesses" and "sensible predictions" but both these studies have no means to predict what the legislators are going to do at their whim - remember that the development of flags (just like that of coins design) is not a "social phenomenon" that could be traced and predicted, but is based on the decision of the people (legislators) who are, as a rule, not aware of the history and the phenomenon? "rules" and who may take a decision no-matter-what.
Željko Heimer, 8 February 2004

Fact gathering, theory, etc. are also inherent in other disciplines, for instance back in the dark ages when I was in college, we were discussing the theory of literature, of linguistics, of history and so forth.

In fact one of the major problems with the potential evolution of vexillology as a discipline in and of itself is the fact that (as noted in Orenski) there are few theoreticians in the field. The current methodology is based upon the primary historic model which has been espoused by Smith and others since the use of the term vexillology was first considered. We are dealing in the soft underbelly of history and, by extension, the emotion that is related to the use of the flag object. I think this was discussed in some detail in various posts over the years in the way the Union Jack is perceived in the UK, or how the citizens of the US perceive the stars and stripes (these being the tip of the iceberg).

And as long as there is only one basic model to vexillology, then it will continue to remain basically historical with some psychological/sociological relevance. Of course, the actual specifications provide an interesting diversion which could be expanded into why certain dimensions were selected over others, whether it relates to the colonial system, and so forth; as well as the potential of looking at why certain manufacturing methods or materials are better suited or why we are moving towards products that are more synthetic versus natural in composition.

Orenski's goal was not to say that vexillology was scientific in nature. Rather it attempted to apply a scientific method to the field. Smith and others have touted or said that vexillology is a scientific study of flags, but the basic methodology has been historical in nature. If vexillology can one day be considered a science, then Orenski speculated on how to adapt the scientific method to vexillology. Otherwise we might as well state that vexillology is the study of flags, period. The fact that Orenski has not created a major following is not because the information is esoteric, rather because it involves a shift in the thought of how we conduct vexillological research. And it also requires imagination to derive what may be important in vexillology.

And the key is how do we conduct that research? For the historical model we can follow the example over the years by Smith, Crampton and others. For the scientific model we have an example through Orenski, who is presently conducting or formulating several studies that deal with the way an object on a flag is perceived, why the discipline appeals to men more than women, and so forth. This is different from some other studies which may deal with the frequency of colors in flags during the 1970's, maps on flags, and so forth which may appear to be scientific in nature, but follow a different analytical track.

Consider the fact that even after 40 years there is no one work that defines what constitutes vexillological inquiry. We still find people attempting to describe flags that originated outside heraldic tradition heraldically (where there is a heraldic basic, then yes, let's use the blazons). We end up defining what are incomplete taxonomies of flag families.

Does this mean that if we want to expand our study of flags from a mere near-hobbyist activity to a more professional nature that we have to adapt? In my opinion, yes. Smith and his adherents may be important in the historical model, but new ideas may be needed to address scientific inquiry, or to approach the cause and effect of the use of flags or any of a hundred things that have yet to be conceived at this time. It may mean that we develop new ways of description in advance of FIAV even considering them so that we can best annotate information in a way that can be understood by people who do not speak the language of the author.

It may mean that we go to attempting to understand the depictions of an image, correct or not, in order to determine what may have caused it to be reported incorrectly for decades or beyond (i.e. the spurious Irish Green Ensign). And it may meant that we work without the safety net of vexillology to try and rationalize flags which are seen in photographs and on news programs that supposedly don't exist.

The irony of the situation is that we can consider these and other methods of research that can lead to the establishment of a strong vexillological discipline. But we have to be able to analyze the ideas, and do so from a perspective that the future is yet to be written. We have to really discuss theory and practice, not just give it lip-service or assume that every person on the list intuitively knows what constitutes good and repeatable research. We have to be willing to say that the methods of Smith and Orenski may not work in certain circumstance and we may have to design our own paradigms.
Phil Nelson, 8 February 2004

Probably one of the evolution would be into the statistical and speculative approach, that is to say : "based on similar circumstances can we predict what form will the design of a flag take in a new nation". For example, after the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the new republic used modified flags for their agencies (army, ministry, border guard, etc...) that recall the ones used by the SU while other adopted completely different ones. So the interesting question to ask is: Is it possible to create a model which might help us predict what design will be chosen ? a model which might answer questions such as: how much impact as historicity on flag design and under which circumstances ?

Due to the complexity of the human psyche, we might not be able to predict every element that might enter into the choice of a design but we can on one hand make an educated guess and on the other try to find out why this flag more then that one was chosen. Even if the answer is "that design was cheaper to mass-produce during that era", we still have found out an answer which might elucidate the choice made by an another country under similar circumstances.
Marc Pasquin, 8 February 2004

I think of it like Psychology, which I studied for many years. The academic discipline of psychology is frequently close to the medical sciences (e.g., neurology), often close to the statistical sciences (e.g., psychophysiology), and often close to the arts (e.g., perception and aesthetics). At times it approaches all three simultaneously (e.g., psycholinguistics).

Vexillology is similar. At times, we deal more with the pure images of the flags (cf. heraldry), at times with their historical import (cf, history), at other times with their meaning to the users and viewers of them (cf. sociology and psychology). As such, the pursuit of flag information travels repeatedly between the sciences and the arts. And each is of equal importance.

Understandably, there is more objectivity possible in the annotation and description of the 'pure facts' of flag design - the years flags were used, their colours and dimensions - and as such, they are far easier to collect and collate. I firmly believe that the fotw-ws is the greatest collection of such information readily available on the planet.

The flags' meanings and import, however, are a more subjective area, and one which should also be tackled by us - mindful all the time that history is not just the amassing of facts but also the interpretation of them, and mindful, too, that this assessment is liable to change over time and from researcher to researcher.

This is, in its own way, a dangerous area, especially with a subject like flags which provoke enormous feelings. Our aim, IMHO, should be to collect information on the social and historical aspects of particular flags as objectively as possible, unswayed by any preconceptions we may have of their use. Where necessary, debate should take place on these views, but always with an academic attitude.

Emotion is an important thing to report, regarding flag use, but - again to use the 'scientific/academic' ethos, any violent emotions we have regarding the flags themselves have little place here. It's worth remembering that flags themselves aren't inherently evil, even when the uses they are put to may be so. Similarly I know we try very hard to avoid overt political statements on this list.

I think this is pretty much what we try to do here. We are as impartial as possible about the flags themselves (although we may baulk at the aesthetics of some designs), while we may still report on the emotion felt by certain flags. Thus, for example, the recently cited photograph of a Nazi flag flying in pre-war Jerusalem can be remarked on for its emotional context in posts by Messrs Gutterman, Lahav, Kirsch, and Lamm, without any emotions they might have relating to that particular flag coming across in the messages.
James Dignan, 8 February 2004

Yes, I think that many people on the list are now familiar with Quo Vadimus. And while we may not necessarily all agree with his conclusions, they do offer a different perspective on the potential practice of vexillology. Fresh, if you ask me, for the very simple reason that he puts aside the idea that all vexillological research has to be based on the historical recitation model.

And my biggest criticism of Orenski is the question of repeatability of results. Will the perspectives of respondents in 10 years be similar to those we saw from his survey? And there large input from the vex community as well, which may have some significant bearing into the final results.

But it does have some better concepts behind it than Ted Kaye's study, for instance. Here, the general public, and vexillologists were asked for an aesthetic evaluation of the flags of the United States and Canadian subdivisions. Unfortunately it was interpreted (either by Kaye or others (and notably by politicians who saw the survey as criticism)) as a movement to change the state/provincial flag. Nothing in the survey indicated this was the intent, nothing in the results indicated that this was the goal. And it was released at the same time as Kaye's "Good Flag, Bad Flag" leaflet which addressed design aesthetics. And it has led to the creation of an advisory arm should jurisdictions seek to create their own flag. Again, will the results be repeatable in 10 years.

In my own survey of vexillological publications one of my respondents stated: "IMHO we should not busy ourselves with trying to change flags we somehow, and often quite arrogantly, perceive as ugly or otherwise inadequate or "bad". Vexillologists by definition study flags, not create 'Vexillological news.'" And studying flags could result in more than just a collection of facts, figures and specifications - but also perceptions on how people design and use the flags.

In summary, let me state my own opinions on the matter of vexillological scholarship:

  1. Vexillological scholarship is more than a mere recitation of facts and figures and drawings.
  2. The use of facts, drawings and figures (and footnotes) does not automatically turn a flag article into a scholarly one.
  3. The full potential of vexillology has yet to be defined. It is more than history, psychology, sociology, and symbology, but it encompasses all of these elements at the core.
  4. Vexillology does have predictive capabilities albeit not in the way that symbols to be selected can be accurately predicted. For both the Mississippi and Georgia state flag debates important information has been acquired and reported by the media as to the disposition of a flag or the way the flag is perceived within the jurisdiction. But vexillology does not have the resources to do the polling, meaning that the news media becomes the harbinger of vexillological predictability.
Phil Nelson, 8 February 2004

1. Originally this was spawned by "Quo vadimus" [ore01a], by Peter Orenski. I already discussed with Peter some of the topics at the ICV in 2001 at York, and again (after the publication) in Stockholm (ICV 2003). The problem was and is, that his essay, although valuable in raising a very valuable question, is a mixture of things I wholeheartedly agree with, and others I more or less wholeheartedly disagree. Therefore I never managed writing proper comments on the essay.

2. One of the things I really do not understand, why Peter put so much emphasis on a "taxonomy of academic/scholarly/scientific disciplines", i.e. on the question if vexillology is a "Science" (capital "S") belonging to the true sciences (i.e. social and natural sciences) and not belonging to "arts and humanities" (including history etc). As a biologist I never saw the social sciences being equally scientific as the natural sciences, and I never saw a difference between historical and social disciplines what regards the degree of being "scientific". This whole discussion is rather artificial to me.

3. I agree with Peter, that vexillology (to me this means the "study of flags", i.e. of all aspects of flags) should not be only hunting and gathering. However, he uses these terms, as if "hunting and gathering" itself would be bad. I think, the careful collection of flag information forms the basis for any proposed "scientific" study of flags. Without data from hunting and gathering we can only speculate. I don't think that speculation is more scientific than hunting and gathering. BTW, one should remember that much of the work done in accepted sciences is hunting and gathering: astronomy is mapping stars and galaxies; biology is collecting new species and new genes; chemistry is hunting for new compounds.

4. Peter proposes that vexillologists should more frequently ask "why?" and "how?". I agree, but we should be aware of the fact, that asking these questions is not enough. We should also get meaningful answers, and this is not trivial. Vexillology of this kind totally lacks the methods and the resources.

5. One major trap we are frequently walking into, is the "importance trap". As vexillologists we think flags are very important. Most other people do not think so, otherwise there would be more vexillologists. We tend to over-interpret facts that are pure coincidence or chance. If we want to know, for instance, why a specific flag is looking like it is, we think that this is a question important enough, that the respective authorities should know when we e-mail or phone them. They usually do not know, and just think: "what does this idiot want?" Even the authorities during the time of the adoption of the flag frequently did not think it would be important to file their discussions and considerations about the flag design, so that we can't answer the "why?". I am currently experiencing this in Austria, where I am trying to find out why around 10% of the Upper Austrian municipalities adopted flags striped in colours that cannot be derived from the arms, whereas it is common practice in Austria (and Bavaria ...) to derive the flag colours from the colours of the arms. Up to now no really meaningful answers from the respective municipalities.

6. Another thing about "us", the vexillologists. I think we should talk about vexillologists and not about vexillology. Vexillology does not simply happen, but it is done by vexillologists. So we should discuss, why (male) people do use their precious time for studying flags. And of course we should be aware of the fact that no vexillologist had studied vexillology at university, and that most vexillologists have no academic/scientific background (there are several biologists though. Finally, we should be aware of the fact that almost all of us do vexillology as a hobby, without having an academic framework supporting us. There are several scientific/academic studies heavily relying on amateurs, e.g. astronomy and entomology. However there is a backbone of institutions (universities and museums ...) for these studies, providing a standard for the amateurs. Vexillology lacks this backbone (thus we are an "invertebrate" science).

7. One last point: Science is not only the private research of single persons, but it is the on-going discussion about the results, their interpretation, hypotheses etc. Vexillology lacks the forum for this discussion, and this is the reason, why for instance Phil Nelson's study went by largely unnoticed. Where should one discuss that?
Marcus E.V. Schmöger, 9 February 2004

Pardon, but what vexillology lacks is the commitment to try and go beyond the frontiers that it has established. We look at The Flag Bulletin and may consider it one of the best academic publications around only because there has never been anything tried that is better. Yet, if we look closely, there are few, if any, publications that fit the mold in that they are peer-reviewed; the editor doesn't write a large percentage of the output and so forth. It may be a good feature if, for instance, we are looking at the possibility of a journal/magazine that appeals to a large audience. In fact some of the strengths of some of the association magazines is that they don't try to pretend they are academic in nature, rather passing along information in such a way that attracts the average person.

To do so would mean that we might have to challenge the concepts that all vexillology begins and ends with the model that we have from Smith. We may have to challenge the idea that some people have that the only person who can publish in a particular journal needs to have several magic letters behind his/her name. We may disagree with Orenski, but do we understand what he was attempting to do when he began Quo Vadimus as a demonstration that some form of scientific methodology could be applied to vexillology, i.e. that if we consider the discipline as a "science" it should have some form of scientific methodology behind it or those who promote vex as science should steer clear from using the term. QV should be viewed from that perspective.
Phil Nelson, 9 February 2004

The word "science" derives from "scientia," which means, simply, "knowledge" or, in German, Wissenschaft. At one level, therefore, "science" can mean simply any organized body of knowledge. Vexillology meets that test. So do other hobbies, like philately and numismatics. Also law, interior design, and the history of fashion.

But when people--at least most English-speaking people--use the term "science" they are implicitly distinguishing a field of study from the arts and humanities. In general, the characteristics of a "science" in this sense are that it is empirical (i.e., validated by testable hypotheses in accordance with Baconian-Galilean scientific method), cumulative (i.e., that the work of earlier scientists provides insights and information upon which later scientists can build), and theoretical (i.e., that it leads to the construction and testing of theories and models that explain or predict observable real-world events.

I have a really hard time putting vexillology into the category of "science" in this meaning of the term. (In that regard, it's unfortunate that Whitney Smith decided to give the study of flags an "-ology" name.) Why? Because I can't see how anyone could hope to articulate any kind of general theory of flags--as flags--that remotely approximates the richness to which serious science aspires. Flags are cultural artifacts, and as such their study can inform the development of theory in other academic disciplines, just like the study of ancient potsherds and 18th century gardening. In doing this, vexillology can be scientific, even though it is not itself a science. For example, in my own field of political science one could see the scientific study of flags informing questions like these:

One could postulate a theory of how the elements of design in a flag generate emotional responses. I wouldn't care to do so, because my sense is that it's too culturally variable, but it would be a scientifically valid pursuit if someone cared to undertake it. However, once again, it is not primarily a vexillological question but a psychological one, and doing it justice would have to take the researcher into the exploration of non-flag symbols as well.

Let me go on just a little longer and differentiate among five forms of vexillologists' behavior and how I see our role in all this.

First, we can play an important contributory role in ensuring that flags as a form of human symbol-making and communication are given due attention in broader social and historical research, by carrying out the hunter-gatherer-mapper function that Orenski is so dismissive of. What kind of flags do societies use? For what purposes? Mapping is especially important--how does one flag relate to another? But we undermine our cause in this regard if we are uncritical about sources, or if we engage in speculation about what the flag of the Gray Wolf horde of the southern Huns must have looked like, or if we assume without evidence that two flags that look alike must be related. Post hoc is not sufficient to prove propter hoc.

Second, we can prescribe and advocate what we think are good standards of flag design and critique the flags of the world on the basis of those criteria. There's nothing wrong with this, but it is an esthetic undertaking, not a scientific one. Moreover, we should be aware that the canons of good design are dependent on culture and history--they are not eternal universal verities--and reconcile ourselves that ultimately there's no disputing taste. It should go without saying that this kind of judgment has no place in the mapping work described above.

Third, we can obsess over Pantone shades and ratios, which is largely what we seem to do. Again, nothing inherently wrong with this. Precision is good, and this can be broadly useful to highlight in cases where the people who use the flag attach some significance to shape or shade. But in general it has about as much wider interest as the question of whether a 1939 U.S. 3-cent stamp has 14 or 16 perforations along its vertical sides.

Fourth, we can express our views about whether particular displays of flags are right or wrong, good or bad, etc. I do it, we all do it, nothing wrong with it, but not of particular importance except insofar as it amuses us.

Finally, we can wax rhapsodic over the glories of this or that flag, the manifold wrongs that have been committed by the bearers of this flag against the bearers of that one, etc. I shouldn't be dismissive of this, since emotional reactions to our own or other flags is often what brings many of us to vexillology, myself included. For that matter, evoking an emotional response is what many flags are intended to do, and perhaps we'd be less than human not to react accordingly. But serious scholarship requires us to separate those emotional reactions from our more "scientific" study of flags. If I'm studying animal psychology, I can't let the fact that I love my terrier affect lead me to moral judgments about the behavior of rats. And if I can't isolate those feelings, maybe I'd better study botany instead.

In closing, let me endorse virtually everything that Marcus Schmöger said. I think for the most part he's dead on target with two minor exceptions:

  1. I think there is a detectable difference between social sciences and humanities that has to do with their aspirations toward the development of predictive theories of human behavior. In effect, however, this is not a vital question for vexillologists, since vexillology falls squarely in the humanities category anyway
  2. I'm not sure why e-mail can't be a forum for profound debate. Long, thoughtful texts can be exchanged on the list just as easily as hurriedly dashed off notes, and more easily than such texts can be exchanged and discussed in learned journals and symposia.

Joe McMillan, 9 February 2004