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Science and technology were once commonly seen as free from cultural influences. This view was championed in the 1920s by scientists and philosophers known as the ”Vienna Circle” (Rudolf Carnap, Karl Hempel, Moritz Schlick, and others), who maintained that science produces objective, supra-cultural knowledge via direct observation and logic.
The heyday of this notion was brief. By the 1930s, scholars like Boris Hessen, Ludwig Fleck, and Robert Merton argued that cultural, social, political, and economic factors affect science, influencing even the content of scientific theories. Thomas Kuhn asserted in his 1962 Structure of Scientific Revolutions that science experiences sudden changes in fashion – sometimes following broader cultural changes – after which theories and data acquire new meaning. This view was debated by a generation of historians, sociologists and anthropologists of science, spawning what became known as the ”social constructivist” view of science, which held that what is taken to be true among scientists reflects social consensus, and not bedrock facts about nature. Scholars advocating the ”Social Construction of Technology” (SCOT) have similarly described how technologies do not evolve through an inevitable logic of their own, but are constituted through ongoing negotiations between engineers, consumers, users, marketers, etc., reflecting a mosaic of social and cultural assumptions. As such, science and technology bear the imprint of the cultural circumstances in which they arise, while at the same time, our culture bears the imprint of science and technology that play an increasingly central role in almost every aspect of our lives.
Expanding on the pioneering work of Bruno Latour, many scholars today picture social and cultural artifacts, human actors, and natural objects as linked in a single ”network.” The identity of each element of the network is constituted, in varying degrees, by all other elements in the network. In Latour’s system, it makes little sense to track social and cultural ”influences” on science or technology or the ”social construction” of scientific knowledge or technological artifacts, because these formulations overlook the fact that society, artifacts and nature are mutually constituted. This model, though not without problems, captures nicely the inextricability of science, technology, and culture.
- Knorr Cetina, K. (1999) Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.