Social Organization Of Science Research Paper

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The sociology of science has been divided since about 1980 between those contending that science gains sociological significance because of its organizational location and forms, and those arguing that it should be understood for its knowledge-building practices. The two groups have tended to treat social organization in completely different ways, and have consciously developed their ideas in opposition to the others. However, both have used some notion of the social organization of science to explain the constitution of facts about nature and the development of ways of reworking nature for strategic advantage.



The tensions between the schools have been productive of new approaches to organizations and the operation of power. A scholar like Jasanoff, interested in political process and expertise, has used constructivist theories of scientific knowledge to show how central science has become to the legal system and regulatory structures (Jasanoff 1990). In contrast, a researcher like Bruno Latour, interested in the social struggles involved in making science ‘real,’ has demonstrated how the laboratory has become productive of powers that shape contemporary life (Latour 1993). This work, and much more like it, has begun to suggest the fundamental ways that contemporary political systems and other major institutions depend on science and technology for their forms, operations, and legitimacy.

It would have been hard for sociologists to entirely avoid the correlation between the growth of modern States and the so-called scientific revolution, and the questions it raises about power and control of the natural world. Courts in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries used scientists to help design military technology, do political astrology, and make the earth into a showplace of power (Grafton 1999, Masters 1998). Even members of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century (often depicted as a politically independent organization for science) dedicated much effort to addressing public problems with their research (Webster 1976). Practical as well as conceptual arts like cartography gained importance in Italy, France, and England as a tool for trade and territorial control. Double entry bookkeeping provided a way of legitimating both commerce and governmental actions through the management of ‘facts’ (Poovey 1998). Botany and the plant trade, particularly in Spain, The Netherlands, and France, enriched the food supply and increased the stock of medicinal herbs. Italian engineers tried to tame rivers, the Dutch and French built canals (Masters 1998), the English deployed medical police to ensure public health (Carroll 1998), and the French, English, and Germans worked on forestry (Scott 1998). Military engineering throughout Europe was revolutionized with a combination of classical architectural principles, and new uses of cannon fire and other weapons (Mukerji 1997). As Patrick Carroll argues, technoscience was not a product of the twentieth century, but already part of the culture of science (the engine science) of the seventeenth century (Carroll 1998). The point of science and engineering in this period was human efficacy, the demonstration of human capacities to know the world and transform it for effect. One manifestation of this was the cultivation of personal genius and individual curiosity, yielding a dispassionate science, but another was the constitution of political territories that were engineered for economic development and political legibility, and managed (in part) to maintain the strength and health of the population (Mukerji 1997, Scott 1998).

1. Functionalist Foundations Of The Sociology Of Science

The early sociologists of science, such as Merton and Ben-David, took for granted both historical and contemporary links between science and state power. They were steeped in the sociological literature on organizations that defined technology, at least, as central to the organization of major institutions— from the military to industry. Merton in his dissertation recognized the historical interest of courts and States in scientists and engineers, but traced the development of a disinterested culture of science, emanating from the places where thought was at least nominally insulated from political pollution: universities, scientific societies, and professional journals (Merton 1973, Crane 1972). Looking more directly at politics and science, Ben-David (1971), still interested in how social organization could promote excellence in science, considered differences in the organization of national science systems and their effects on thought. He assumed a kind of Mannheimian sociology of knowledge to argue that systems of research impact the progress of science. If location in the social system shaped what people could know, then the social organization of science was necessarily consequential for progress in science and engineering (Ben-David 1971).

These approaches to the organization of science were grounded in their historical moment—the Cold War period. Science and engineering were essential to the power struggle of East and West. It was commonly held that WWII had been won through the successful effort to dominate science and technology. Policymakers in the US and Europe wanted to gain permanent political advantages for their countries by constructing a system of research in science and engineering that would continue to dominate both thought and uses of natural resources. Western ideology touted the freedom of thought allowed in the non-Communist world as the route to the future. According to the Mertonians, history seemed to support this posture. England with its Royal Society independent of the government was the one which produced Newton—not France and Italy with their systems of direct state patronage (Crane 1972, Merton 1973). The result was a clear victory for the open society, and reason to be confident about American science, which was being institutionalized inside universities rather than (in most cases) national laboratories.

2. The Sociology Of Scientific Knowledge

For all that the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) first presented itself as a radical subfield at odds with the functionalist tradition, it continued Merton’s impulse to associate science less with politics than philosophy (Barnes et al. 1996). Taking the laboratory (rather than the Department of Defense), as the center of calculation for science (and science studies) was an effective way to imagine that power was not at stake in science—even in the US. Moreover, SSK presented good reasons to look more closely at scientific knowledge. In the Mertonian tradition, sociologists had discussed the relationship of organizational structures to scientific progress—as though sociologists could and would know when science was flourishing. Sociologists of scientific knowledge were not prepared to make such judgments about scientific efficacy, nor passively willing to accept the word of scientists as informants on this. For SSK researchers, what was at stake was the philosophical problem of knowledge— how you know when an assertion about nature is a fact (Barnes et al. 1996, Collins 1985). This was precisely what Merton (1973) had declared outside the purview of sociology, but SSK proponents now transformed into a research question. How did insiders to the world of science make these kinds of determinations for themselves?

The implications for studying the organization of science were profound. Laboratories were the sites where facts were made, so they were the organizational focus of inquiry (Knorr-Cetina 1981, Latour and Woolgar 1979, Lynch 1985). Making a scientific fact was, by these accounts, a collective accomplishment, requiring the coordination of the cognitive practices both within and across laboratories. Laboratories had their own social structures—some temporary and some more stable. In most cases laboratory members distinguished between principal investigators and laboratory technicians, who had different roles in the constitution of knowledge. The significance of research results depended on the social credibility of the researchers. Science was work for gentlemen whose word could be trusted—not tradesmen or women even if they did the work (Shapin and Schaffer 1985). There were alliances across laboratories forged with ideas and techniques that were shared by researchers and were dedicated to common problems or ways of solving them (Pickering 1984). To make scientific truths required more than just an experiment that would confirm or disconfirm an hypothesis. The results had to be witnessed and circulated within scientific communities to make the ‘facts’ known (Shapin and Schaffer 1985). Scientific paradigms needed proponents to defend and promote them. Creating a scientific fact was much like a military campaign; it required a high degree of coordination of both people and things. It was a matter of gaining the moral stature in the scientific community to have a scientist’s ideas taken as truthful. The tools accomplishing these ends were both social and cognitive (Shapin and Schaffer 1985).

Members of these two schools (Mertonian and SSK) may have envisioned the task of articulating a sociology of science differently, but they shared a basic interest in socially patterned ways of thinking about, mobilizing, and describing nature (or the nature of things). Now that the dust has settled on their struggle for dominance in sociology the epistemological break assumed to exist between them has come to seem less profound. Power circulates through laboratories, and scientific experts circulate through the halls of power (Haraway 1989, Jasanoff 1990, 1994, Mukerji 1989). Ways of organizing research affect both the constitution of knowledge and ways of life (Rabinow 1996). The world we know is defined and engineered through patterns of cognition that include manipulation of nature—in the laboratory and beyond.

3. The Politics Of Knowledge-Making And Knowledge Claims

Contemporary research in the sociology of science has shed new light on organizations that sociologists thought they understood before, but never examined for their cognitive processes and relations to nature. Jasanoff’s work on the regulatory system in the US, for example, does not simply argue that concern about pollution and scientific regulation of other aspects of life has stimulated new research and yielded new information for policymakers—although that is true. She has shown how the legitimacy of the State has come to depend (to a surprising extent) on its claims to provide at least a minimal level of well-being for the population. Safe air, a healthy food supply, and good drinking water have become taken-for-granted aspects of political legitimacy that depend not only on manipulations of nature but also on the development of new strategies of reassurance. Regulators have not been able simply to ask scientists to use existing expertise to assess and ameliorate problems. They have had to cultivate sciences pertinent to the problems, and face the controversies about the results of new lines of research. The result is a new set of cognitive tools for science honed for policy purposes, and new pressures on political actors to understand and work with at least some of these measurements (Jasanoff 1990, 1994).

Similarly, political legitimacy in rich countries also rests on the government’s ability to confront and address medical problems. As Steven Epstein pointed out in his study of AIDS research, the population now generally expects doctors, scientists, and policymakers to solve problems and keep the population healthy. Any fundamental disruption of this faith in expertise leads to anger and (in the US case he studied) political activism. Government officials (like public health workers) in these instances need not only to advocate and support research but also to make the government’s health system seem responsive to public needs. This means that the dispassionate pursuit of scientific truths cannot dictate the practice of research, or the dispersement of drugs. Research protocols cannot be entirely determined by experts, but require debate with the activists as well as professional politicians for whom the problem is an issue (Epstein 1996).

Science is therefore used to manage public health (the body politic), and for creating a healthful environment for the citizenry. It is also used to design and manage infrastructures for the society as a whole. Computers are used to design roads, and manage toll systems. They are employed by hospitals to define illnesses, codify medical practices, and determine courses of treatment for individuals. The military has not only used scientists and engineers (in Cold War style) to develop new weapons and create new modes for their delivery, but has mobilized these groups to develop national communication infrastructures—from road systems to airports to the Internet (Edwards 1996). This engineering is oddly an outgrowth of territorial politics—in this period when States are supposed (by theories from post-modernist to Marxist) to be dying due to globalization (Castells 1996). However, responsibility for health and wellbeing are circumscribed by national boundaries, and legal responsibility for them is kept within territorial boundaries and remains largely a problem for States.

4. Post-Colonial Studies Of Science And Technology

The territorial dimensions of legitimacy and public health are particularly apparent in the burgeoning post-colonial literature on science, technology, and medicine, showing the export to poor countries of research involving dangerous materials or medical risks (Rafael 1995). The export of risk was perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the US use of an atoll in the Pacific Ocean for bomb tests, but there have been numerous less dramatic instances of this. Manufacturers using dangerous materials have been encouraged to set up factories in Third World countries where economic growth has been considered a higher priority than environmental safety (Jasanoff 1994). Medical researchers in need of subjects have frequently turned to colonial populations for them (Rafael 1995). These practices make it obvious that dangerous research and manufacture are not necessarily abandoned because of the risks. They are simply done in those less powerful places within a state’s sphere of influence where legitimacy is not at stake. In these instances, political regulation at home has not necessarily created a moral revolution in science, but a physical dissociation of practices and responsibility. Outside the social world of Western gentlemen, there has often been little concern on the part of researchers about their moral stature. Governments have not systematically worried about the normative consequences of technological development. Instead, poor people have been treated (like prisoners at home) as a disposable population of test subjects—just what AIDS patients refused to be (Epstein 1996, Jasanoff 1994, Rafael 1995).

This pattern is both paralleled by, and connected to, the export of high technology into post-colonial areas of the world. The growth of manufacturing in Third World countries, using computerized production systems, and the growth of computing itself in both India and Africa for example, testify to another pattern of export of science and technology (Jasanoff 1994, Jules-Rosette 1990). These practices are usually presented as ways that corporations avoid local union rules, and deploy an educated workforce at low cost (Castells 1996). However, they are also ways large corporations have found to limit in-migration of labor from post-colonial regions, and to avoid political responsibility for the health of laboring people from poorer parts of the world. Less a case of exporting risk, it is a way of exporting responsibility for it (Jasanoff 1994).

5. Commercial Stakes In Scientific Thought

It would be easy to think that while politics is driving some areas of research, there remains a core of pure science like the one desired by Merton. However, commercial as well as political forces work against this end (Martin 1991). Even the publishing system that was supposed to buffer science from the workings of power has turned out to be corruptible. It is not simply that scientific texts (the immutable mobiles of Latour and Woolgar (1979) have found political uses; texts have not been stabilized by being put in print. As Adrian Johns (1998) has shown, simply because printing technology could fix ideas and stabilize authorship has not meant that the publishing industry would use it this way. In seventeenth-century England—the heyday of the scientific revolution— publications were often pirated, changed for commercial purposes, or reattributed. Scientific authorship never did unambiguously extend empiricism and accurate beliefs about nature, or give scientific researchers appropriate recognition for their work. Publishing in science was just another part of the book trade, and was managed for profit. To this day, commercial pressures as well as peer review shapes the public record in science. The purpose of the science section in newspapers is to sell copies, not promote scientific truth. However, scientists still frequently use the popular press to promote their research and advance their careers in science (Epstein 1996).

The practices of science and engineering themselves are not so clearly detached either. Commercial interests in biotechnology and computing have powerful effects on the organization of research, and relations between the university and industry (Rabinow 1996). Even though the Cold War is over, scientists still often cannot publish what they learn from DOD research (which includes work in computing). They rely on external funding, and so must study what is of interest to the government. They are under careful supervision of administrators when they export engineering practices from the laboratory into the world (Mukerji 1989). Dreams of democracy served by science and technology seem hard to sustain.

6. Beyond Power Knowledge

The broad range of contemporary studies of the politics of science and engineering do not just manifest a revival of interest in the political dimensions connections of science and engineering in the post-Foucaultian world of power knowledge, but they manifest new understandings of how power operates through multiple organizational forms. Scientists have (both historically and in the present) aided in the articulation of a system of power based on the principles familiar to the Frankfurt School—the domination of nature for the domination of people. Researchers in science studies who focus on the political mobilization of research for organizational advantage are now making clearer how strategic scientific management of the natural world works and does not work. It seems that governments and industry historically have not so much attained the ideas about nature they needed or paid for, but that scientists, in pursuing knowledge, have also produced means of dominating nature that have been used (and to some extent contained) by those institutions (Mukerji 1989). Modern states, in funding the cultivation of cognitive systems for learning about and managing natural resources, nuclear power, chemical pollutants, and viruses, have generated new patterns of domination but have also opened themselves up to new questions of legitimacy and, in some cases (Epstein 1996), to a redistribution of expertise. The system of scientific and engineering research is not just productive of ideas, but also transportation systems, research animals, laboratories themselves, and new technologies (like the Internet) (Edwards 1996, Kohler 1994, Rabinow 1996). The result is not just a brains trust of scientists, but an entire sociotechnical environment built for strategic effect (Cronon 1991). The cognitive systems of science and engineering are not just ways of coordinating thought through language to reach the truth, but ways of making the world again to reflect and carry human intelligence (and stupidity) about nature.


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