Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge

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The leading research orientation in contemporary science and technology studies—the social construction of scientific knowledge (SSK, or social constructivism)—has been controversial since its inception in the 1970s. It primarily consists of a set of methodological imperatives for the study of science and technology that focus on the means by which people, ideas, interests, and things are organized in specific places and times to produce knowledge that has authority throughout society, especially among those not originally involved in the process of knowledge production. Thus, social constructivists tend to stress the diversity of interpretations and applications of knowledge across social contexts. However, in areas where philosophers and scientists might interpret that diversity as different representations or instantiations of an already established form of knowledge, social constructivists treat that variety as part of the ongoing core process of knowledge production.

Social constructivists therefore do not recognize a sharp distinction between the production and the consumption of knowledge. Thus, social constructivism has a "democratizing" effect on epistemology by leveling traditional differences in the authority granted to differently placed knowers. To a social constructivist a technologist using a scientific formula is "constructing" that formula as knowledge in exactly the same sense as did the scientist who originated the formula. Each depends on the other to strengthen their common "cycle of credibility" or "actor-network," in the words of Bruno Latour, perhaps the leading social constructivist. In contrast, most philosophers and scientists would raise the epistemic status of the original scientist to that of a "discoverer" and lower the status of the technologist to that of an "applier."

Basic Attitudes and Origins

In philosophical terms social constructivism is a form of antirealism: Social constructivists do not presuppose the existence of a reality independent of the procedures available to the examined agents for deciding the truth value of their assertions. In this respect social constructivism has affinities with idealism, pragmatism, phenomenology, and even logical positivism. The proponents of all those movements agree that aspects of the world that traditionally have been cited as evidence for "external reality" are in significant respects the intended and unintended products of human practices. However, this common insight has led to rather different philosophical responses. For example, positivists and phenomenologists strive to design criteria that can command universal assent, whereas idealists and pragmatists regard the resolution of conflict in the application of such procedures as the basis of future epistemic developments. Social constructivists differ from earlier antirealists by challenging their common fundamental assumption of a centralized decision-making environment, whether it is a unified self or society.

In contrast, social constructivists presuppose that the social world in which construction occurs is highly dispersed. This implies that different decisions are taken across many places and times. This often is considered a "postmodern" feature of social constructivism. However, despite the lip service paid to French poststructuralist thinkers such as Michel Foucault (1926–1984) and Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), social constructivists originally derived this characterization from the social phenomenologist Peter Berger (Berger and Luckmann 1967), from his Viennese teacher Alfred Schutz (1899–1959), and ultimately from Schutz's mentor, the neoliberal political economist Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992).

Just as Hayek had argued in the 1930s, against the socialists, that no central planner can determine fair prices more efficiently than can the spontaneous self-organization of buyers and sellers, social constructivists deny that a single philosophical method can determine the course of science more efficiently than can the spontaneous self-organization of scientific practitioners. Hayek grounded his argument on the unique knowledge possessed by people differently placed in the market. Thus, the social construction of scientific knowledge can be seen historically as an extension of a market mentality into an aspect of social life—science—that for much of the twentieth century tied its legitimacy to the control mechanisms of the state.

Despite often being portrayed as antiscientific, social constructivism has precedents in the history of science, starting with Aristotle's view of matter as an indeterminate potential that is given form through human intervention. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the constructivist position was represented most clearly by chemists who contested the idea of an ultimate form of physical reality as defined by, say, "atoms." Instead, chemists appealed to "energy" as an updated version of Aristotelian potential. Current versions of constructivism further "socialize" this perspective by invoking concepts such as work and practice as the media through which scientific objects are brought in and out of existence. According to its proponents, social constructivism is the spontaneous philosophy of the working scientist, who is concerned more with making things happen in the laboratory, as well as in society at large, than with completing a philosophically inspired picture of ultimate reality. Not surprisingly, Latour and other leading social constructivists have flourished in engineering schools rather than in pure science faculties.

The Trajectory of Social Constructivist Research

The social construction of scientific knowledge normally is described in terms of its opposition to two familiar, although extreme, views that might be called philosophical rationalism and sociological determinism. Philosophical rationalism implies that science ultimately is driven by a concern for the truth, perhaps even a desire to provide a comprehensive and unified picture of reality. From that standpoint the social dimension of science functions as either a facilitator or an inhibitor of this quest. Sociological determinism implies that the science of a particular time and place is an ideological reflection of the social conditions that sustain it. From that standpoint the development of science is dependent on its larger societal functions. Social constructivism differs from those two perspectives by denying a strong ontological distinction between the "cognitive" (or "natural") and "social" (or "cultural") dimensions of science. Both dimensions are coproduced in any episode of scientific activity. As a result social constructivists see science as much more subject to agency and contingency than either philosophical rationalism or sociological determinism allowed.

David Bloor's Knowledge and Social Imagery (1976) was the first book to put forward the social constructivist case against both philosophers and sociologists. Bloor, a mathematician and psychologist, was influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein's (1889–1951) later writings on rule following. Wittgenstein implied that there is no correct way to continue a number series (for example, 2, 4, 6 ...) except to abide by the judgement of the community engaged in the counting because any arithmetic series is open to an indefinite number of continuations (such as 8, 10, 12 ... or 7, 8, 9 and then 10, 12, 14 ...), depending on what is taken to be the rule underlying the number series. Bloor generalized that insight in the name of a thoroughly naturalistic approach to the study of knowledge that he called the "Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge." That approach involved suspending all external normative judgements about the validity or rationality of knowledge claims. (In contrast, the "Weak Programme" would use sociology only to explain episodes of scientific dysfunction, because the canons of rationality were presumed to explain science's normal operation.) Bloor would look only to the standards of reasoning and evidence available to those who must live with the consequences of what they do. That approach encouraged what Bloor called a "symmetrical" attitude toward the various competing beliefs or courses of action in a particular situation. In other words the inquirer is to treat those beliefs or actions as seriously as the situated agents treat them, suspending any knowledge the inquirer might have about their likely or, in the case of historical cases, actual consequences. The import of this approach was to neutralize specifically philosophical appraisals of knowledge claims, which typically appeal to standards of rationality and validity that transcend the interests or even competence of the involved agents.

Whereas Bloor, along with his Edinburgh colleague Barry Barnes (1975), mapped out the conceptual terrain defined by social constructivism, the 1980s and 1990s brought a plethora of historical and sociological case studies inspired by that position. Constructivist historical studies characteristically reinterpret landmark scientific debates so that what traditionally was seen as an instance of truth clearly triumphing over falsehood came to appear as a more equally balanced contest in which victory was secured at considerable cost and by means that were specific to the contest. Attached to these reinterpretations is a view, traceable to Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), in which every scientific success entails a rewriting of history to make it appear inevitable. In this respect social constructivist history of science aims to "deconstruct" the narratives of scientific progress typically found in science textbooks and works of science popularization.

Stephen Shapin and Simon Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985) is perhaps the most influential work of this sort. It deals with Robert Boyle's (1627–1691) successful blocking of Thomas Hobbes's (1588–1679) candidacy for membership in the Royal Society. This episode normally is told in terms of Hobbes's persistent metaphysical objections to the existence of a vacuum long after it was found to be scientifically reasonable. However, it turns out that Hobbes was defending the general principle that experimental demonstrations are always open to philosophical criticism even if the philosopher could not have designed such an experiment. Hobbes's failure on this score set a precedent for the competence required for judging experiments that began to insulate science from public scrutiny.

Constructivist case studies typically draw on the sociological method of grounded theory, according to which the inquirer introduces a theoretical concept or perspective only if the agents under study also do so. Grounded theory originally was used to oppose structural functionalism, the leading school of U.S. sociology, which was associated with Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) and Robert Merton (1910–2003). Proponents of that school postulated that deviance is a well-defined role that performs specific functions in the social system. In contrast, for grounded theorists the deviant role, say, in the context of asylums and hospitals, had to be constructed from moment to moment because generally speaking there was no clear observable difference between the behavior of so-called normals and that of deviants.

Achievements and Weaknesses

The groundbreaking, albeit perverse, insight of Latour and Steve Woolgar (Latour and Woolgar 1986), Karin Knorr-Cetina (1981), and the other early constructivist sociologists was to imagine that "deviance" may apply to people on the positive extreme as well as the negative extreme of a normal distribution curve. Thus, in their daily laboratory tasks scientists do not sound or look especially different from people working in an industrial environment subject to an intensive division of labor. Nevertheless, scientists are socially constructed as exceptionally rational, producing knowledge that commands authority throughout society. How is this possible? For a constructivist sociologist the answer lies in the "made for export" language scientists use to describe their activities and the specific distribution channels in which that language, as expressed in journal articles, preprints, and press releases, circulates. This produces a forward momentum, involving many other people, laboratories, interests, and so forth, that eventually turns a unique set of events into a universally recognizable fact.

There is little doubt that social constructivism has provided an important challenge to standard historical, philosophical, and sociological accounts of science. The question is its implications for science itself. The steadfast adherence of constructivism to the symmetry principle has been both a strength and a weakness.

The strengths of constructivism extend beyond intellectual insight to the ease with which it can be used in science policy research, especially in a time when constrained budgets and skeptical publics demand that science be evaluated in terms of its actual consequences rather than its professed norms. In this respect social constructivism has been a success in the marketplace, proving especially attractive to the increasing proportion of academic researchers who depend on external contracts for their livelihood. However, beneath that success lies a weakness: Constructivism lacks a clear normative perspective of its own. This lack largely reflects its decentralized vision of social life. Although constructivists excel in revealing the multiple directions in which science policy may go, they refuse to pass judgment on any of them or even on the means by which their differences might be resolved. In this respect social constructivism is indifferent to the future of science and the role of science as the vanguard of rationality and progress in society at large.

The program of "social epistemology" has attempted to redress this imbalance in social constructivism. It argues that social constructivism can provide the basis for a science policy that is both genuinely democratic and experimental. Conventional science policy tends to be problem-centered without evaluating the relevant discipline-based knowledge. Indeed, science policy analysts rarely think of themselves as constructing problems the problems they address—they are simply treated as given. In contrast, social epistemology moves science policy toward constructivism by critically examining the maintenance of institutional inertia: Why don't research priorities change more often and more radically? Why do problems arise in certain contexts and not others? These questions are addressed on the basis of three presumptions that take seriously the normative implications of the social constructivism (from Fuller and Collier 2003):

  • The Dialectical Presumption: The scientific study of science will probably serve to alter the conduct of science in the long run, insofar as science has reached its current state largely through an absence of such reflexive scrutiny.
  • The Conventionality Presumption: Research methodologies and disciplinary differences continue to be maintained only because no concerted effort is made to change them—not because they are underwritten by the laws of reason or nature.
  • The Democratic Presumption: The fact that science can be studied scientifically by people who are themselves not credentialed in the science under study suggests that science can be scrutinized and evaluated by an appropriately informed lay public.


SEE ALSO Science, Technology, and Society Studies;Sokal Affair.


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Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge

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Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge