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science, sociology of

science, sociology of A specialism, originating in the United States, which studies the normative and institutional arrangements that enable science to be carried out; or, as Robert Merton puts it, ‘a subdivision of the sociology of knowledge, dealing … with the social environment of that particular kind of knowledge which springs from and returns to controlled experiment or controlled observation’ (see ‘Studies in the Sociology of Science’, Part Four of his Social Theory and Social Structure, 1968
). The best-known classic studies are those by Merton himself, who investigated the consequences of modernity for the development of science, including (for example) the effects of the rise of ascetic Protestantism and the spread of democratic ideals. Many of these investigations are gathered together in his The Sociology of Science (1973). During the 1970s it became conventional to distinguish this literature from the European (largely British) dominated ‘sociology of scientific knowledge’ (often referred to simply as ‘SSK’), which is concerned more directly with what is counted as ‘science’—and why. The content of scientific knowledge is largely ignored within the former approach, which tends to assume both universal standards of logic and rationality, and fixed points in the physical world and in Nature. Proponents of the latter view, on the other hand, initiated a relativist revolution which drew attention to the social construction of scientific knowledge—and claimed no access to a Truth or Reality beyond this human activity.

Not surprisingly these two traditions are often represented as being in competition or even opposition. The earlier American writers tended to be interested in how societies could be arranged so that truth would emerge. This focus (which is evident, for example, in B. Barber's Science and the Social Order, 1952) is perhaps best understood against the background of European totalitarianism. The more recent British contributions ask how it is that certain conclusions about the physical and mathematical worlds are deemed to be correct in particular societies at certain times, and can therefore be seen as a manifestation of the wider phenomenological revolution in the social sciences during the 1970s, a sociological parallel to the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy. (The writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein are a common source of inspiration.) Told in these terms, it is possible to see the European literature as a critical reaction against the traditional normative approach to the subject, however this undoubtedly exaggerates the epistemological differences between the two research programmes. According to Harry Collins, for example, the relationship between the two is one of ‘cognitive tangentiality with…an admixture of academic antagonism’ (see ‘The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge’, Annual Review of Sociology, 1983
). Certainly, practitioners working in the cognate fields of the philosophy of science and the history of science have addressed both literatures in more or less equal measure, in the former case to defend rational progress in science against the relativist critique, and in the latter to contribute historical case-studies to the discussion and development of sociological theory. The contrast should therefore be seen very much as a heuristic device. Thomas S. Kuhn's (American) work on the relativistic implications of the concept of paradigms shows that the boundary between the two approaches was by no means hard and fast.

Both traditions have sponsored substantial programmes of empirical research and vigorous theoretical discussion. For example, European researchers have investigated the mechanisms involved in producing scientific knowledge, and shown that merely following the rules for the conduct of ‘proper science’ does not fully explain the outcome of research, or how scientific controversies are resolved in practice. These sorts of studies usually involve both close familiarity with the technical details of the areas of science under investigation, and detailed interviews with the members of particular scientific communities and networks, although a minority of researchers have adopted the anthropological technique of participant observation (perhaps by working as a technician in a research laboratory). Researchers utilizing the former technique tend to focus on scientific accounts, notably the meaning that the actors give to their professional activities, whereas the anthropological approach encourages observations of scientific life and behaviour. In both cases, the final sociological report is itself often highly specialized, requiring considerable familiarity, on the part of the reader, with the scientific field under investigation. On the other hand, some sociological studies of scientific knowledge manage to be both engaging and revealing, as for example in the case of the many investigations of so-called ‘fringe sciences’ (such as parapsychology).

The best overview of this relatively small, but dynamic and well-organized sociological field, is Andrew Pickering's introduction to his Science as Practice and Culture (1992)—a volume which also contains a representative sampling of recent contributions by many of the leading contemporary practitioners. A highly readable collection of case-studies is summarized and discussed in Harry Collins and and Trevor Pinch , The Golem: What Everybody Should Know about Science (1993)

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