Sociology of Scientific Knowledge Essay

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In the early 1970s, the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) started to dynamically emerge from a broad church of sociological, historical and philosophical reflections upon the very nature, direction, content and truth status of scientific knowledge itself, rather than merely upon the social relations between those who happen to be scientists.

Hence, even the heartland of rationality, namely logic and mathematics, should systematically be investigated and explained in terms of its social origin and underpinnings. According to the Strong Program, which originally took form on the basis of an acute critique against Robert Merton’s sociological work, as well as of the post-Kuhnian problematic around the relationship between the sociology of science and the sociology of knowledge, this systematic investigation should, in principle, be causal, impartial, symmetrical, and reflexive.

Furthermore, ethnomethodological researchers, mainly inspired from the Nietzschean and Wittgensteinian philosophies of language and meaning, have adopted an ethnographic approach to the study of what Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1986) perceptively called ”Laboratory Life,” which has eventually gone on to comprehensively include studies of conferences, journal management etc. That is, empirical access to the everyday lifeworldly experiences and negotiations at the ”lab bench” is said to give an added dimension of insight into the very reality of social life inside technoscience.

These researchers have strategically pointed out the myriad ways in which ”truth” and the idea (or impression) of ”objectivity” are competently managed and creatively enacted in the everyday performative activities of technoscience – in particular, the myriad ways in which the inherently messy business of generating new data is ”cleaned up” in its later presentation at scientific conferences and in academic publications.

A groundbreaking contribution, which has been closely related to the aforementioned ”laboratory studies” and systematically attempted to develop new innovative directions within SSK, can be discerned in the original emphasis on actor-network theory (or the sociology of translation). Bruno Latour and others (Michel Callon, John Law, and Madeline Akrich) elaborated this theory by carefully giving up any received distinction between social/nature, social/technology, and human/nonhuman. Here, the ”hardness” of scientific facts simply relies on changing networks of heterogeneous actors or ”actants” (and their ongoing interactions).

The very notion of an ultra-activistic nature ultimately constituted a radical departure from our taken-for-granted anthropocentric worldviews assigning priority to the human and the social. Subsequently, old dualisms disappeared from the field of SSK, on the methodological basis of the supposedly universally applicable principles of agnosticism, generalized symmetry, and free association.

Since the 1980s, the parallel pragmatist reconsideration of the Strong Program’s principle of reflexivity, derived from several intellectual movements such as post-structuralism, constructivism, feminism, discourse analysis, and ethnomethodology, has obviously served the goal of a generalized symmetry between science and the social world, aiming to self-consciously prevent sociology from pretending the detached and free-floating observer. But this profoundly calls for a critical sociology of scientific knowledge – that is, a critical broadening of SSK beyond the selective ontological focus on ”substantive findings” and the subsequent exclusion of moral, political and policy questions.

Bibliography:

  1. Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. (1986) Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  2. Woolgar, S. (1988) Science: The Very Idea. Tavistock, London.

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