Sociology Of Scientific Knowledge Research Paper

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1. Origins

The central concern of the sociology of knowledge is the idea that what people take to be certain is an accident of the society in which they are born and brought up. It is obvious that religious or political truths are largely affected by their social settings. If the truths are moral then such relativism is more troubling. But if the truths are scientific, then the idea of social determination is widely regarded as subversive, or self-defeating—since the science which purports to show that science is socially situated is itself socially situated. The sociology of knowledge, as formulated by Mannheim (1936), avoided these dangerous and dizzying consequences by putting scientific and mathematical knowledge in a special category; other kinds of knowledge had roots in society but the knowledge of the natural sciences was governed by nature or logic. Scientific method, then, when properly applied, would insulate scientists from social influences and their knowledge should be more true and more universal than other kinds of knowledge. From the early 1970s, however, groups of sociologists, philosophers, historians, and other social scientists began programs of analysis and research which treated scientific knowledge as comparable with other kinds of knowledge. Their work broke down the barrier between ordinary knowledge and scientific knowledge.

The post-1970s Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), which included major contributions from historians of science, shows us how to understand the impact of social influences on all knowledge. We can use the field’s own approach to query its intellectual origins. A suitable model is a well-known paper by a historian, Paul Forman (1971), who argued that the rise of quantum theory owed much to the ‘Weltanschauung’ of Weimar Germany. In the same way it could be argued that the 1960s saw the growth of postwar prosperity in Europe which allowed the development of new markets with young people becoming powerful consumers of goods and producers of culture—much of it consisting of a rebellion against traditional forms of expression; it saw the development of the birth control pill, making possible a (temporary) breakdown of sexual mores; and it saw experiments with perception-affecting drugs, while protests against the Vietnam war threatened old lines of institutional authority. The new order had its counterpart in academe. Antipsychiatry questioned the barriers between the sane and the insane, while in Europe at least, romanticized versions of Marxism dominated debate. SSK’s questioning of the traditional authority of science can plausibly be seen as a product of this social ferment.

The emblematic book of the period as far as science was concerned was Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn’s book was influential in helping to reinforce the intellectual atmosphere in which radical ideas about science could flourish. Kuhn’s notion of the incommensurability of paradigms, and paradigm revolution, provided a way of thinking about scientific knowledge as a product as much of culture as of nature. The book was not widely discussed until late in the 1960s, when the new social movements were at their height, and this adds force to the argument.

Philosophy of science in the early 1970s was also affected by this turn. The so-called ‘Popper–Kuhn’ debate (Lakatos and Musgrave 1970) pitted Karl Popper’s (e.g., 1959) notion that scientific theories could be falsified with near certainty, even if they could not be proved, against Thomas Kuhn’s (1961, 1962) claim that what was taken to be true or false varied in response to sudden revolutions in scientific world view. The ‘Duhem–Quine thesis’ (Losee 1980) showed that scientific theories were supported by networks of observations of ideas such that no one observation could threaten any other part of the network directly. Imre Lakatos’s ([1963] 1976) brilliant analysis of the history of Euler’s theorem showed that falsification of a theory was only one choice when faced with apparently recalcitrant observations. Lakatos’s work was particularly attractive to the social analyst of science because it dealt with the detailed history of a real case rather than arising from general principles. Lakatos was showing how mathematicians argued (or could have argued in principle). This was the world of philosophical activity into which the sociology of scientific knowledge was born.

Like any other group of knowers, sociologists of scientific knowledge prefer models of the genesis of their own ideas which reflect their self-image as ‘rational creatures’ or, in Mannheim’s phrase, ‘free floating intellectuals.’ In these models Kuhn plays a much smaller role. There are two intellectual stories. One turns on Ludwik Fleck’s ([1935] 1979) Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, which Kuhn cites in the preface of his 1962 book, and which already contained many of the key ideas found therein. Furthermore, Fleck’s book anticipated the developments in sociology of scientific knowledge which came in the 1970s in that, unlike The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, it included a case study of a contemporaneous scientific episode, Fleck’s own research on the Wasserman reaction for the diagnosis of syphilis. Indeed, Fleck’s book remains unique in sociology of science in that his social analysis was of a pioneering piece of scientific research which he himself was pioneering. Thus it is the most perfect piece of participant observation yet done in the social study of scientific knowledge.

Fleck’s book, however, was not widely known until many years after Kuhn’s was published, and not until long after the sociology of scientific knowledge had established its own way of doing things. Fleck, then, was the first to set out some of the crucial ideas for SSK, but he had little influence on the new movement except through his influence on Kuhn, while Kuhn helped open up the social and intellectual space for what came after rather than providing intellectual foundations or methodological principles; in other words, Kuhn provided the intellectual space but not, to use his own term, the paradigm.

The origin of SSK’s intellectual and methodological paradigm has to be understood by looking at more direct influences. In the 1970s a group of philosophers, concerned with defending science against what they perceived as its critics, put forward the argument that sociological analysis could be applied only to knowledge that was in error, whereas true knowledge remained insulated from social forces. The intellectual source for the sociologists who inspired these initial attacks and fought against them was yet another philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose work was central to the anthropological debate about whether there were universal standards of rationality (Wilson 1970). Readings of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later philosophy (1953, 1956, Winch 1958) were the crucial theoretical resource for the work in sociology of scientific knowledge that had its origins in the mid-1970s. The ‘Edinburgh School’ and its ‘strong program’ argued on philosophical grounds that ‘symmetrical analysis’—analysis that treated true knowledge and false knowledge equally—was possible. Historical studies conducted in this framework showed how social influence affected scientific conclusions, in science in general, in early studies of the brain, in the development of statistics, and in high-energy physics (Bloor 1973, 1983, Barnes 1974, Shapin 1979, MacKenzie 1981, Pickering 1984). Independently, a group at the University of Bath applied Wittgensteinian ideas to contemporary episodes of science, particularly controversies in physics and the fringe sciences, and developed the methodology of interviewing at networks of competing scientific centers. Its program became known as the ‘Empirical Programme of Relativism’ (EPOR; Collins 1975, 1985, Pinch 1977, 1986, Travis 1980, 1981). These approaches were to become quite widely adopted in the early years of SSK.

As the 1970s turned into the 1980s other groups, more strongly influenced by anthropological practice, entered and influenced the field. The Edinburgh–Bath approach was influenced by anthropology in that much of the discussion of the meaning of Wittgensteinian philosophy for the social sciences turned on questions to do with the knowledge of isolated ‘tribes’ and its relationship to Western knowledge. The newer contributors, however, took their methodological approach as well as their philosophy from anthropology. Their work founded the tradition of ‘laboratory studies.’ In the Strong Program the source of material tended to be historical archives; in EPOR the method was interviews with members of the ‘coreset’ of scientific laboratories contributing to a scientific controversy; in laboratory studies the method was a long sojourn in, or deep study of, a single laboratory (Latour and Woolgar 1979, Knorr Cetina 1981). The setting for the laboratory studies tended to be the life sciences rather than the hard sciences or fringe sciences.

Another important input was the interpretive tradition in sociology associated with phenomenology and ethnomethodology. Indeed the term ‘social construction’ is a widely used description of the approach: ‘social construction of scientific knowledge’ was taken from the title of a well-known book by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman (1967)—though Berger’s Invitation to Sociology (1963) probably had more direct impact on the field. Ethnomethodology strongly influenced all those who practiced SSK and especially the detailed analyses of scientific practice such as those by Lynch (1985 [but written much earlier than its publication date]), Woolgar (1976), and especially the move of some authors into what became known as ‘discourse analysis’ (Knorr Cetina and Mulkay 1983).

As the 1980s turned into the 1990s the concentration on language that began with the move to discourse analysis helped SSK to come to seem a part of the much larger movement known as ‘postmodernism.’ The influence of French philosophers of literature and culture such as Derrida became marked. Since then ‘cultural studies of science,’ which share with SSK what could broadly be called a ‘social constructivist’ approach to science, have attracted large numbers of followers in the humanities as well as the social sciences. The respective methods and, more especially, the attitudes to methodology, make it possible to separate cultural studies from SSK. Crucially, SSK practitioners still take natural science as the touchstone where matters of method are concerned, though the model of science is very far from the narrow statistically-based notion of science that informed the ‘scientific sociology’ of the 1950s and early 1960s and continues to dominate much mainstream sociological practice in the USA. SSK stresses the more general values of careful empirical observation and repeatability. Cultural studies, on the other hand, takes philosophical literary criticism, or semiotics, as the model to be followed.

2. Concepts

Among sociology’s traditional topics was the study of the social factors which affected scientists’ choice of research topic. The sociology of scientific knowledge, however, took it that the outcomes of research projects were also affected by their social setting. SSK showed that theoretical and experimental procedures did not determine, or fully determine, the conclusions of scientific research. The philosophical ideas described above provided an important starting point, but sociology developed its own concepts set in the working world of the scientist rather than the abstract world of the philosopher. One strand of research showed how difficult it was to transfer the skills of physics experimentation between settings, that it was even harder to know that such skills had been transferred, and that it was harder still to know when an experiment had been satisfactorily completed. This meant we did not know whether a negative experiment should be taken to contradict a positive one. This argument became known as ‘the experimenter’s regress’ (Collins 1975, 1985), and revealed the scope for ‘interpretive flexibility’ regarding the outcomes of passages of experimentation and theorization. It also means that even while SSK stresses the importance of empirical research and repeatability, it is aware that, by themselves, such procedures cannot turn disputed knowledge into certainty in either the natural or social sciences.

Even if experimental science produced widely accepted data, as Pinch (1981) showed, their ‘evidential significance’ could vary and the same finding could count as revolutionary or insignificant. Sociological studies also described the process between the dis- ordered activities of the laboratory and the orderly ‘findings’ (Latour and Woolgar 1979, Knorr Cetina 1981) or ‘discoveries’ (Brannigan 1981) reported—or constructed—in the published literature. Latour and Woolgar demonstrated the way that ‘modalities’— phrases that qualified a finding or referred to the particular time and place of its generation—were successively stripped from publications as the finding became established. What they called ‘inversion’ was the way the stripping of the modalities, and like processes, comprised the establishment of the finding—a reversal of the accepted direction of the causal arrow. It was also shown that, with some exceptions, ‘distance lends enchantment,’ that is, certainty about scientific outcomes tends to increase as the intepreter’s distance from the laboratory increases (Collins 1985, MacKenzie 1998). This explained why commentators’ accounts often seemed far more confident than the reports of the scientists themselves, and explained much about the way scientific knowledge was diffused beyond the specialists.

Mechanisms were described by which potentially open-ended disputes were brought to a close around a particular interpretation, with EPOR concentrating on fringe sciences, the ‘French School’ concentrating on the interplay of actors within networks (Latour 1987), and the ‘Edinburgh School’ concentrating on large-scale political influences on the content of ideas (Shapin 1979, MacKenzie 1981, Shapin and Schaffer 1987). More recently, work on closure has broadened to include studies in the social construction of technology, the public understanding of science and law and science.

3. Significance

As the recent so-called ‘science wars’ have revealed, outsiders consider that the importance of SSK and related analyses of science lies in the impact they have on the perception of the meaning of science in the wider world. SSK is widely seen as a radical relativist attack on science. But both the philosophical and political radicalism of the social analysis of science varies from program to program and study to study.

For example, ‘epistemological relativism’ implies that one social group’s way of justifying its knowledge is as good as another’s and that there is no external vantage point from which to judge between them; all that can be known can be known only from the point of view of one social group or another. Ontological relativism is the view that, in social groups such as those described above, reality itself is different. A combination of epistemological and/or ontological relativism can be referred to as ‘philosophical relativism.’ This attitude is nicely captured by McHugh in the following quotation: ‘We must accept that there are no adequate grounds for establishing criteria of truth except the grounds that are employed to grant or concede it—truth is conceivable only as a socially organized upshot of contingent courses of linguistic, conceptual and social behaviour’ (1971, p. 329). Philosophical relativism is, then, a philosophically radical viewpoint.

A still more philosophically radical position is the ‘actor (or actant) network theory’ (ANT) most closely associated with Michel Callon and Bruno Latour. The approach was first signaled by Latour and Woolgar when, in 1986, they changed the subtitle of Laboratory Life (Latour and Woolgar 1979) from The Social Construction of Scientific Facts to The Construction of Scientific Facts so as to signify that the ‘social’ in their view no longer deserved special mention in the shaping of scientific knowledge. Subsequently, as Callon and Latour developed their ideas, scientific facts came to be seen as emerging from the interplay of ‘actants’ in the ‘text,’ of life—suggesting that ANT should most properly be included under cultural studies of science rather than SSK. Within Callon and Latour’s ‘text,’ terms such as ‘social’ and ‘natural’ are themselves outcomes of the interplay of actants rather than original causes. Therefore, to draw attention to the social as a special factor is to begin the discussion at too low a level of generality. Under this approach ‘constructivism’ has ceased to be social and among the actants nonhumans are given as much reality-forming agency as humans (Callon 1986). The philosophical radicalness of ANT is clear in its refusal to accept even the notion of human and nonhuman as primary.

Methodological relativism, by contrast, says nothing direct about reality or the justification of knowledge. Methodological relativism is an attitude of mind recommended by some of those who practice SSK; it says that the sociologist or historian of science should act as though the beliefs about reality of any competing groups being investigated are not caused by the reality itself. The intention is to limit analysis to the kind of causes of scientific beliefs that are located in the domain of the social. Methodological relativism is meant to push exploration of the social causes of belief to the limit without having it cut off by the argument that a belief was widely accepted because it was rational. Methodological relativism is, then, not at all radical as a philosophy, it is a (social) scientific method.

Relativism may be called time-bounded if it claims only that scientific procedures are often inconclusive in the short term whatever the deeper significance of the consensuses that are attained in the long term. This kind of relativism, which has no philosophical potency, is all that is needed to support much current social analysis of contemporary science, especially controversies that impact on the public domain (e.g., Collins and Pinch 1993, Richards 1991, Epstein 1996).

The relationship between philosophical radicalism and political radicalism is, however, perverse. Time-bounded relativism has consequences for contemporary scientific controversies such as engage environmentalists and the like: it has this power because it shows that, contrary to the way these things are treated in textbooks and the like, the ‘short-term’ period when scientific disputes are being resolved is often many decades long. The empirical and analytic tools of SSK explain why this is likely to be so and it means that we should not expect speedy science-based resolutions to our current technological dilemmas. From this it can be argued that the decision-making power once monopolized by scientific experts should be more widely shared (Wynne 1987). Methodological relativism, which is philosophically quietist, tends to be disturbing to the scientific community as it blatantly ignores scientific consensus however well established. To go the other extreme, ANT, the most philosophically radical position of all, by removing humans from the central position they hold in social constructivism, recreates a relationship between scientists and their nonhuman objects of study which is similar to that which held before the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s (Collins and Yearley 1992, Callon and Latour 1992, Fuller 2000). What about philosophical relativism? Scientists and philosophers seem to believe that philosophical relativism can be used to justify nonscientific beliefs such as astrology or creationism, though its proponents deny it fervently, and at least one critic (Fuller 2000) has argued that it is politically quietist. SSK, of course, argues that as knowledge moves from its seat of creation to a wider audience, it tends to be stripped down and simplified, so it is not surprising that the subtleties of the various relativist positions have escaped the more outspoken critics of the social analysis of scientific knowledge.


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