Strong Program Research Paper

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The ‘Strong Program’ is a set of methodological claims about the proper way to conduct sociological enquiry into the nature of knowledge, including scientific knowledge. The program enjoins the investigator to adopt four requirements, which may be labeled, respectively, (a) causality, (b) impartiality, (c) symmetry, and (d) reflexivity. ‘Causality’ means that the aim is not merely descriptive or interpretive but also explanatory. The concern is with what brings about and sustains a body of knowledge. ‘Impartiality’ means that the investigator disregards his or her sense of whether the beliefs under scrutiny are true or false, or rational or irrational. Equal curiosity should attend both sides of the evaluate divide. ‘Symmetry’ means that this equally distributed curiosity should issue in the same general kinds of sociological explanation. All beliefs confront the same general problem of credibility and depend on the same contingencies to solve the problem. True beliefs have no more intrinsic credibility than false ones. Finally, ‘reflexivity’ means that sociologists of knowledge must not claim access to any transcendent standpoint, or engage in special pleading, to justify their own claims. Put simply: no sociological theory of knowledge is acceptable unless it applies to itself. These requirements all stem from the desire that the approach should itself be ‘scientific’ in spirit, although it is widely perceived by critics as antiscientific. To offset such misunderstandings each of the points calls for amplification.

1. Causality

The commitment to causality does not mean that only sociological causes are at work. It is taken for granted that belief systems are the achievements of biological entities that interact with one another and their material environment. People have their eyes open, and sensory inputs influence individual and collective belief. Unless they had effective sense organs and some innate cognitive propensities, they could neither create nor transmit a shared culture. Knowledge cannot be ‘merely’ or ‘purely’ social. Sociologists can therefore only contribute partial explanations of the overall phenomenon of cognition. They must work alongside, say, sensory psychologists—but no adequate account of human knowledge can ever proceed without due acknowledgment of the role of the social. The ‘strength’ of the program lies in the necessity, not the sufficiency, of the social dimension.

The idea that material reality plays little or no role in science is a form of philosophical ‘idealism.’ Its association with the ‘Strong Program’ has been solely through the imputations of critics. For example, Latour (1993) says the program is one of a family of theories based on the idea that knowledge has two ingredients (‘nature’ and ‘society’) which trade-off against one another—the more of one meaning the less of the other. Within this framework the ‘Strong Program’ is said to be an extreme case where one of the ingredients, nature, actually makes a nil contribution. The strength of the program is thus wrongly said to reside in the claim that knowledge (and indeed reality) is purely social.

This false view of the ‘Strong Program’ is widespread. The sociologist Cole (1992) who himself accepts the zero-sum picture, seeks to distance himself from the program by insisting that nature plays some role rather than no role. He suggests that it is an empirical question to decide just how much influence is exerted by nature by comparison to that exerted by society. A variant of the error also underlies Gottfried and Wilson’s (1997) article in Nature. They claim that the program is incompatible with science having a good record of predictive success. The allegation appears to rest on the idea that if scientists were only attending to what is going on in society, and were not attending to what is happening in nature, then their ability to make predictions would be unintelligible. That, however, is not the ‘Strong Program’s’ claim.

The real claim of the ‘Strong Program’ is that scientists understand nature through and with society, not in spite of it. Society is the vehicle of understanding, not a screen or distraction. Society does not trade-off against nature, rather it enables scientific access to it. Society no more interferes with knowledge than the eye interferes with vision. They both operate as the relevant organ of cognition and as a necessary constituent of it. No one asks ‘how much’ of our visual experience is contributed by the eye, and ‘how much’ by the object seen. (We might ask ‘what’ is contributed, but not ‘how much.’) The question makes no sense, and in this framework neither does Cole’s allegedly ‘empirical’ research program to find out how much of knowledge depends on nature and how much on society.

How do social processes enable us to have scientific access to the world? What manner of ‘vehicle’ or ‘organ’ does society provide? The answer given by Kuhn (1962) illustrates the general case. Cognition within a group is coordinated by reference to a shared exemplar or paradigm, that is, a concrete achievement on which activity is modeled. By virtue of their orientation towards that achievement, and their knowledge of its standing in the eyes of others, members of a group endow it with a normative status. Something is constituted as a paradigm in the way that money is constituted as money by being regarded as money, and a leader by being seen as and known as a leader. In this way society gets woven into the very fabric of knowledge and into the struggle to make sense of intransigent, real-world processes. Establishing a paradigm produces a qualitative change in the mode of cognition from mere individual belief to a collective relation to the world that we can recognize as scientific. Without a paradigm there may be scientists, but there is something less than science.

2. Impartiality And Symmetry

The reference to Kuhn puts us in a better position to understand impartiality and symmetry. He did not argue that the idea of a paradigm merely helps us make sense of old theories about natural processes, but no longer applies to current or correct theories. On the contrary, he applied the idea to all cases, that is, impartially and symmetrically, because he was searching for invariant principles. Every shared approach to nature must overcome the problem that our experience can be given more than one interpretation. The shared interpretation has to be sustained in the face of continuing difficulty, anomaly, and the threat of fragmentation into subjective opinion.

The requirements of impartiality and symmetry face a major obstacle because they run counter to some aspects of common sense. In general, our curiosity has a markedly partial and asymmetric structure. We typically confine the request for causal explanation to the breakdowns in our routine expectations. When things go smoothly we do not ask why, because nothing more needs to be said. If nothing needs to be said, perhaps nothing can be said, and we may be tempted to think that causality does not apply, or that qualitatively different kinds of causes are in operation. Thus, some philosophers have argued that while illusory perception calls for causal explanation, veridical perception does not. No professional psychologist would speak like this—just as no medical scientist would say there are causes for disease but no causes for health, and no engineer would say there are causes for why bridges collapse but none for why they stay up. If psychologists and other scientists can restructure their professional curiosity, and give it a locally symmetrical character, then this is also an appropriate posture for sociologists.

A deeper problem for symmetry comes from our capacity to follow rules. Here is the argument. Everyone accepts that the rules of a game, such as chess, are conventional and hence social. But once the rules have been agreed the question of whether or not a move conforms to the rule seems to be nonconventional. It is a matter of conceptual match or logical consistency and inconsistency. More generally, the meaning of any concept may be a matter of convention, but the question of whether an object falls under that concept seems wholly different. Meaning is conventional; truth is not. A sociologist may legitimately try to explain the choice of rules and definitions, but not, surely, matters of consistency and truth. The first is a question of causation, the latter belongs to the realm of logic and rationality. In as far as we follow rules and respond to considerations of meaning and truth our behavior must be explained rationally not sociologically. So, once again, asymmetry asserts itself.

This argument is widely accepted, but it may be challenged on the grounds that, in reality, every single act of concept application is problematic and negotiable. Not every single act is negotiated, in practice they are often routine, but as the history of science, logic and mathematics shows us, they are negotiable. Past applications of a concept do not serve to fix meanings and thereby determine in advance the norms of proper concept application or rule following. The move to the next case is always problematic. This position, known as ‘meaning finitism,’ follows from the determined effort to adhere to the causal and scientific perspective. It marks an important point of contact between the ‘Strong Program’ and the later philosophy of Wittgenstein which centered on the analysis of rule following and the problematic character of ‘sameness.’

3. Reflexivity

This requirement immediately raises the issue of relativism and self-refutation. If sociologists, own claims are socially determined and relative’ why believe what they say? That the program is relativist is beyond question, but this can be seen as a strength not a weakness. Relativism (which should not be confused with idealism) is the opposite of absolutism and implies that there are no absolute justifications for any knowledge claim. All justifications end in something unjustified and merely taken for granted. But this does not mean that there is never any reason to accept what anyone says, as if it were all an ideological smokescreen. It just means that in the end reasons are local and contingent. Such an admission is not self-defeating. To draw that conclusion would be to argue in a circle from the premise that the only real reasons are absolute ones, thus begging the question on behalf of absolutism. Rather, it is the attempt to produce absolute justifications that should be viewed with suspicion.

4. Conclusion

The ‘Strong Program’ was formulated by an interdisciplinary group in Edinburgh in the early 1970s (see Barnes 1974, Bloor 1976). The immediate aim was to codify and clarify an emerging body of case-studies, particularly by historians of science (see Shapin 1982). The real life-blood of the sociology of scientific knowledge lies with such empirical work, for example, to name but a small sample: Mackenzie 1981) on the history of statistics and its connections with eugenics, Shapin and Schaffer (1985) on the disputes surrounding Boyle’s experiments with the air-pump, Harwood (1993) on styles of research in German genetics before 1933, and Kusch (1999) on the different theories of mind generated in different psychological laboratories in the early years of the century. The program continues to serve its function, but its rich contributions to specific historical and sociological projects have been obscured to some degree by criticism of its philosophical foundations.


  1. Barnes B 1974 Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory. Routledge, London
  2. Bloor D 1976 Knowledge and Social Imagery. Routledge, London
  3. Cole S 1992 Making Science. Between Nature and Society. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  4. Gottfried K, Wilson K G 1997 Science as a cultural construct. Nature 386: 545–7
  5. Harwood J 1993 Styles of Scientific Thought. The German Genetics Community 1900–1933. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  6. Kuhn T S 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago University Press, Chicago
  7. Kusch M 1999 Psychological Knowledge. A Social History and Philosophy. Routledge, London
  8. Latour B 1993 We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  9. Mackenzie D A 1981 Statistics in Britain 1865–1930. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, UK
  10. Shapin S 1982 History of science and its social reconstructions. History of Science 20: 157–211
  11. Shapin S, Schaffer S 1985 Leviathan and the Air Pump. Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
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