The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) is a field of sociology that started to take form in the early 1970s. Sociologists, historians, and philosophers who shared a common interest in studying the social underpinnings of science took as a joint focus the very content of scientific knowledge. Previously, a division of labor had existed between philosophy and sociology. Philosophers’ role was to analyze and define norms of science, discussing and drawing up demarcation criteria between science and non-science. Sociologists were to study the structure of scientific institutions and provide explanations when science went wrong. Thus, the only type of knowledge qualifying for sociological attention was knowledge perceived to be somehow faulty. The sociology of scientific knowledge, however, approached all scientific knowledge claims – regardless of whether they were held to be true or false – as material for sociological investigation (Bloor 1991 ).
The intellectual roots of SSK are many and varied. Definite influences are philosophers and sociologists such as Weber, Durkheim, and Marx with their ideas about social construction, Wittgenstein’s argument about the extension of rules, and Mannheim’s writings about ideas as socially located. Later scholars, such as Robert Merton and Thomas Kuhn, are also recognized as predecessors to a field that started to take a more definite form with the publication of the Strong Program in the mid-1970s. The Strong Program was a programmatic statement from a transdisciplinary group of academics based at the University of Edinburgh, the so called Edinburgh School. It proposed that scientific knowledge should not be treated as a special case of knowledge, but instead be analyzed and explained in terms of its social origin and causes. A sociological account of the emergence of scientific knowledge should be causal, impartial, symmetrical, and reflexive.
Around the same time, a similar approach to the study of scientific knowledge was being developed elsewhere in Britain. EPOR, the Empirical Program of Relativism, formed the basis for the Bath School and was led by Harry Collins. As the name suggests, EPOR proposed that scientific knowledge production should be studied empirically and that a relativist approach should be taken to the object of study. It was, however, emphasized that the relativist stance should be deployed as a methodological tool and not necessarily reflect an ontological position. Sociological studies of science should demonstrate the ‘‘interpretive flexibility’’ of knowledge claims, describe the institutional and network based mechanisms that would achieve ‘‘closure,’’ and, finally, connect such closure mechanisms to wider social and political structures.
One assumption underlying the SSK approach is summarized in the Duhem Quine hypothesis, which states that a theory always is underdetermined by data. No one theory can ever singularly explain a specific set of data; there are hypothetically an infinite number of theories that could be supported by the same data set. Therefore, a theory can never be tested on its own, and with reference to nature, e.g., the data themselves. Instead there tends to be a whole weave of interconnected assumptions being tried. The pertinent question for the sociology of scientific knowledge is that if theories are underdetermined by data – that is, if ‘‘truth’’ cannot be determined by reference to nature – how is it that scientists still manage to gather around more or less stable theoretical constructs?
One commonly used model in SSK has been to analyze different positions in a given debate in terms of what wider interests they represent. Interests are invoked to explain how closure and consensus can be achieved in science despite the inherent potential for innumerable developments.
Interest explanations are often macrosocial and ‘‘interests’’ are, for example, the interests of the professional middle class in attaining or retaining moral and intellectual legitimacy for power and influence (Shapin 1975; Barnes & MacKenzie 1979), interests linked to investments in certain kinds of skills, models, or technologies (Fujimura 1988), or the interests of a professional group to claim or to maintain the cognitive authority over an issue or area (Gieryn & Figert 1986).
Stability can also be explained on a more microsocial level, as the result of negotiations between different scientists who achieve local agreement (Knorr Cetina 1981). Such a micro social approach represented a new trend in SSK, often known under the label of ‘‘laboratory studies.’’ In early SSK studies there had been a focus on scientific controversies. Typically, such analyses would encompass two or more competing ‘‘sides’’ of scientists arguing over a given theory or result. One of the perceived methodological advantages of such an approach was that in times of contentious science, ‘‘normal’’ rules and practices in scientific everyday life tend to be questioned and are thereby made visible to the analyst. The proponents of laboratory studies, conversely, wanted to study such ‘‘normal’’ scientific practice and the everyday production of knowledge.
In 1979, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar published a landmark book called Laboratory Life, an ethnographic study of the Salk laboratory in San Diego. The authors took an anthropological approach to their objects of study and chose to ‘‘make the familiar strange,’’ thereby not taking anything for granted – so, for example, one of the drawings at the beginning of the book describes in detail the air conditioning system in the laboratory. Two years later, Karin Knorr Cetina published another important ethnographic study in which she described how successful laboratory work required a vast amount of ‘‘tinkering.’’ Like her French colleagues, Knorr Cetina noted the ‘‘messiness’’ of science in practice and how much of scientists’ time is spent making difficult objects behave properly so as to get a desired or acceptable outcome. Laboratory studies dispelled the popular belief that scientists go into the laboratory with a hypothesis to test, set up the experiment, test it, and then accept whichever result they get as the answer to their query. Instead, only certain kinds of outcomes will count as a ‘‘result’’ – most anomalies will fall under the category of experimental failings and only result in the scientist calibrating his or her equipment, or changing the parameters of the experiment.
During the 1980s, a new perspective gained ground among social scientists who studied science and technology. Actor network theory (ANT), developed by Michel Callon and Bruno Latour in Paris, and John Law in Britain, proposed that successful scientific work was a result of successful networks. ANT made no difference between science and technology, but instead used the term ‘‘technoscience.’’ To build a large, strong, and successful network, a given actor needs to enroll allies and translate their interests so that they aim toward the same, or a compatible, goal. In that respect, ANT networks and the activities of actors within them are similar to what one would traditionally think of as politicking. However, ANT networks include not only human actors but also so called actants – non human objects or phenomena. Actants do not differ from their human counter parts in important ways – they, too, have interests and agency. Actants can be proteins, scallops, doorstops, or referendums, and anything in between.
ANT thus took issue with the traditional SSK way of explaining the emergence and shape of natural science knowledge. Actor network theorists wanted to extend the concept of symmetry so as to include nature, a generalized or so called supersymmetry. There is, it was argued, an inherent asymmetry in the SSK approach because of its insistence on only allowing social explanations, thus imputing that the social world is more ‘‘real’’ than the natural world. Scientific knowledge is explained by reference to social interests, but the social interests themselves are taken as ‘‘real’’ and stable entities.
ANT also took a radically different approach to ‘‘interests.’’ With an actor network approach, interests are regarded as both cause and consequence. These co-produced interests are both a resource that can be used when enrolling actors and a result of that enrollment activity. If one actor manages to translate the interests of others and thereby successfully align them, this transform and enroll strategy will increase the actor’s possibilities of creating and defining reality. This creates a self-perpetuating movement, as the abilities to define and translate are co-produced. An actor who successfully translates will gain ever more interpretive power. In Michel Callon’s famous study of the fisher men in St. Brieuc Bay, the question posed by the marine biologists – ‘‘How do scallops anchor?’’ – served to simultaneously translate the interests of the fishermen, the scientists, and the scallops, making it a question of survival for the scallops, of future livelihoods for the fishermen, and the pivotal question that needed to be answered – the obligatory passage point – in the scientists’ field of research (Callon 1986).
SSK critics of actor network theory have pointed to how agency appears to be unevenly distributed among actors and actants, in two different ways. Firstly, it appears that the initiative to network building always has to come from human actors. Secondly, it is the privilege of the analyst to decide which non-human object will enjoy the role of ‘‘actant’’ – in Callon’s St. Brieuc Bay study, only the scallops are assumed to have agency. The ships, test tubes, etc. are treated as ‘‘normal’’ objects.
Other critics have highlighted a focus on scientific ‘‘heroes’’ in ANT studies, a tendency to take rationality to be unproblematic and dis connected from cultural understandings of ‘‘rational,’’ and a failure to account for cultures or practices in their analyses. ANT was thus not unreservedly accepted into the realm of SSK, but provoked a long running debate on matters ontological, methodological, and epistemological – perhaps best summarized in the so called ‘‘chicken debate’’ between the Paris School, championed by Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, and the Bath School, represented by Harry Collins and Steve Yearley. Points of contention were, in particular, the role and status of actants and, thus, the role and status of ‘‘nature’’ versus ‘‘the social.’’
Some 20 years after the emergence of the Strong Program, the field of SSK had grown in so many disparate directions that it no longer had its firm 1970s identity as one distinct perspective. Many other approaches, such as dis course analysis and symbolic interactionism, had gathered their own followings and developed discrete methodological tool kits and theoretical frameworks. In the present day, SSK has taken its place as one of many perspectives in the larger field of science studies.
- Barnes, B. & MacKenzie, D. (1979) On the Role of Interests in Scientific Change. In: Wallis, R. (Ed.), On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge. University of Keele Press, Keele, pp. 49-66.
- Bloor, D. (1991 ) Knowledge and Social Imagery. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Callon, M. (1986) Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay. In: Law, J. (Ed.), Power, Action, and Belief. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
- Collins, H. M. (1981) Stages in the Empirical Programme of Relativism. Social Studies of Science 11: 3-10.
- Fujimura, J. H. (1988) The Molecular Biological Bandwagon in Cancer Research: Where Social Worlds Meet. Social Problems 35: 261-83.
- Gieryn, T. F. & Figert, A. (1986) Scientists Protect their Cognitive Authority: The Status Degradation Ceremony of Sir Cyril Burt. In: Bohme, G. & Stehr, N. (Eds.), The Knowledge Society: The Growing Impact of Scientific Knowledge on Social Relations. Reidel, Dordrecht.
- Knorr-Cetina, K. (1981) The Manufacture of Knowledge. Pergamon, Oxford.
- Kuhn, T. (1970 ) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. (1986 ) Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
- Merton, R. K. (1973) The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Shapin, S. (1975) Phrenological Knowledge and the Social Structure of Early Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh. Annals of Science 32: 219 43.
- Wittgenstein, L. (1958) Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell, Oxford.
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