Essay on Science

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”Science” is a contested concept. There is no consensus about what it is and some maintain that the question itself is mistaken since there is no ”object,” science. The two epistemological extremes between which sociological frameworks used in the study of ”science” move are, first, that nature is recorded by science, provided that science is in a fit state as a social institution to do so, and, second, that science is a social construction and in this sense in principle no different than any other part of culture. If one is convinced of the first proposition one’s interest will be directed towards the ”goal” of science; the institutional norms that regulate the activity of the community of scientists; competition; and the reward structure of science operating through ”recognition” (citation practices, Nobel prizes, peer review). If one is convinced of the second proposition one will be interested not so much in the institution and community of science but rather in scientific knowledge and the question of how scientists reach a point where it can be said to have been ”made.” One will be interested in the ”negotiation” (including writing practices) through which a stable order of scientific objects is arrived at. Let us consider these two possibilities.

The US sociologist, Robert K. Merton, was certain that science had social underpinnings. It was not the product of timeless individual curiosity. Although twentieth-century experience showed that science could be affected by political ideology, in the west it seemed to retain its ”autonomy.” While located within capitalist society it was insulated from it, to a certain extent, by a set of distinctive norms. The upholding of these cemented the community of scientists, and functioned to allow the pursuit of reliable (or certified) knowledge to go on. Priority disputes demonstrated how important recognition was to scientists as their only reward. Scientists are expected to share their findings; to subject the claims of others to rigorous critical tests; to be disinterested; and to judge claims not by persons but by universal criteria. Merton’s norms were subjected to severe criticism of both an empirical and a theoretical kind. To his credit Merton was concerned with the distinctiveness of science. He founded the sociology of science, initiating a program of research carried out mainly by followers in the United States.

A second research tradition grew up in opposition to the Mertonian. It was known generically as the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK). Sociologists in Britain declared their intention to carry through Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge to its logical conclusion, not exempting scientific beliefs from its injunction to study the social bases of all beliefs. The aim should be to open what Merton and his followers had left as a ”black box.” Why, it was argued, should sociological analysis halt at the threshold of scientists’ beliefs as if these could not be socially influenced? SSK was avowedly relativist in its approach to scientific knowledge. Two broad schools are identifiable.

The first to appear was the ”interests” approach. Owing to ”interpretive flexibility,” replication is not a sure-fire, decisive way to close down uncertainty about the ”results” of experiments; and the closure which stabilizes ”knowledge” is brought about by a range of social factors rather than something in the data: the struggle is to define the data (or the ”phenomenon”).

To critics of this approach the idea that social interests cause interpretive behavior represents a failure to carry the ”interpretive” perspective through to its full logical conclusion, namely that there is only interpretation in scientific and social life generally. This point of view was backed up by the offering of an alternative, the ethnographic study of the laboratory through usually prolonged participant observation to see how science is ”made” from the messy materials to be found therein. A second alternative was the analysis of scientists’ discourse to see the devices by which they sustain their sense of reality ”out there” and their own access to it, against their competitors. Both approaches call for a more thoroughgoing reflexivity than the interests approach practiced. Arguably, by claiming to be authoritative, interest-type studies fail in full reflexivity. They are not based on the empirical testing of deductive theory, but rather on the post hoc interpretation of the interview data. Interview material is used to construct a ”story” of what was ”really going on” in disputes. That is, interview material is taken at face value as a faithful account rather than rhetoric and some of it is favored over the rest by the sociologist as being closer than other parts to ”what really happened.”

Ethnographic study has also been criticized for failing to meet its own requirements: (1) by drawing on theory and thus not truly letting the discourse ”speak” as far as possible without interpretation; (2) by having no way of recognizing the basis of differential authority in science, the effect of which the approach brings out; and (3) through acknowledging the role of rhetoric, allowing implicitly causal forces while denying them programmatic-ally. Recent and current studies in the sociology of science have tended to move away from an epistemologically single-stranded approach and actor-network theory tried with limited success to combine interpretive flexibility – or in principle openness – with attention to real-world outcomes.

Turning to political economy, Merton’s liberal view of science’s autonomy in democratic societies was not shared by J. D. Bernal, who raised the question as to whether a people’s science would be a different science from the one existing under capitalism. Analysts have divided on this issue, with some, like Bernal, adopting a relativist position similar to the sociologists of scientific knowledge. Herbert Marcuse took this position as later did some feminists (though in a somewhat different way). Freed from the existing relations of domination, human society would generate a new kind of science, different from the existing one, geared to emancipation. The alternative view to this one is that scientific knowledge is effectively neutral knowledge of nature, but the direction research takes and the uses of results that are fostered, are influenced by the social, political and economic relations of capitalism to the detriment of the freedom and enlightenment that science promises. Profit and military needs dictate the use to which a basically neutral science is put. This view tends to share with Merton the belief that nature speaks through science.


  1. Bernal, J. D. (1964) [1939] The Social Function of Science. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. (1986) [1979] Laboratory Life: The Construction   of Scientific   Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  3. Merton, R. K. (1973) The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  4. Woolgar, S. (1986) Science: The Very Idea. Tavistock, London.

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