Finalization in Science

Finalization in science is a theory concerning the relationship between science and society from a historical and political perspective. It was developed in the 1970s by Gernot Bohme, Wolfgang van den Daele, and Wolfgang Krohn (Bohme et al. 1972, 1973, 1976, 1978). Its main thesis is that modern science has internal dynamics that allow it to absorb external goals of research on an increasing scale. The expression “finalization” is meant to denote this tendency (Latin finis; purpose, goal). This theoretical model is continuous with the paradigmatic view of Thomas Kuhn and with Imre Lakatos’s methodology of scientific research programs, but adds additional features concerning the social contexts of science.

With respect to many fundamental disciplines of modern science the model assumes a typical three phase development. The first, or explorative, phase embraces the period prior to the emergence of theories which serve to organize the field. At this point a research program internally determining the relevance and succession of problems is absent. Rather, all kinds of challenging problems can be experimentally analyzed and classified, and serve to induce competing theories. Examples can be found in mechanics previous to Newton; chemistry before the work of Lavoisier, Proust, and Dalton; electrodynamics before Maxwell; evolutionary biology before Darwin; and genetics before the double helix model. Contemporary examples are neurobiology, research on chronic diseases, and cancer research. The explorative phase allows for multiple, if contingent, couplings of external problems with scientific interests. These couplings are important because they carry the institutional and monetary support of the research fields.

The second or paradigmatic phase is determined by the emergence of an internal research program directed toward the elaboration of a fundamental and unifying theory replacing provisional middle range theories. At this point science policy can only promote, not direct, such research, though prospects of technological returns in a more or less distant future legitimate investment of tax money.

While the formulation of these two phases roughly corresponds to other models, especially those of Kuhn and Lakatos, the original contribution of the finalization model comes from adding a third phase of theory development. Whereas Kuhnian paradigms grant researchers the unedifying business of solving puzzles and the Lakatos research program loses its capacity of progressive problem shift, the finalization model proposes a phase of finalized, or goal oriented, theory development. Central to the argument is the fact that fundamental theories usually cannot be applied to complex empirical systems for which they are valid. Fluid mechanics is a good example of this. On the one hand, it is based on a set of equations -classical hydrodynamics – which basically cover the behavior of all fluids. On the other hand, it turned out not to be applicable to certain viscosity problems posed by aircraft technology. The development of a special ”boundary layer” theory was needed – and achieved in the early twentieth century – in order to develop a theoretical model for the construction of aerofoils. These kinds of intermediary theories are called finalized theories, and make up the most important share of contemporary science. Based on a set of fundamental paradigmatic theories and conditioned by technological, ecological, and social expectations, finalized theories continuously and indefinitely fill up the stock of scientific knowledge. As compared to disciplines in phase two, paradigm formation is no longer the driving force, but rather it is the societal orientation of science that is the force. This shift from internal to external problem generation calls into question received concepts of an autonomous science or of science as an independent social system. However, the emphasis on theory development of sciences in their third phase distances the finalization model from concepts of control and steering.

The three phase model can be taken as an ideal format of a discipline’s life cycle. Addition ally, finalization theory takes seriously the fact that – independent of Kuhnian revolutions -many paradigms that evolved in the disciplines’ second phases remain in a stable state, which Heisenberg called “closed” theories. Classical mechanics, hydrodynamics, relativity theory, and quantum mechanics are cases in point. They serve as reliable knowledge bases for finalized research on externally induced problems. Case studies exemplify the relationships between closed and finalized theories. Contemporary science is predicted to turn to the development of finalized theories on an increasing scale. Epistemologically, such theories search for concepts that allow for the application of foundational theories to complex problems. Socially, they are guided by priorities set by institutions entitled to do so. The finalization model also accounts for normative implications. If societal issues become the guidelines of theory development, the question of interests becomes critical. Who is entitled to have a voice in setting research agendas, defining criteria of relevance, and negotiating the transformation of norms and values in theoretical knowledge? Modern ecology  in  its   tension  between  including or excluding human goals from nature served as a prototype for pondering these questions.

Shortly after its first publication finalization theory caused a fierce debate among German philosophers of science that soon spilled over into the media. Their predominant point of attack in this early version of ”science wars” was the allegation that, under the cover of a new social epistemology of science, Marxian ideas of socialist planning and control were being advanced. The media resonance included accusations of seeking a ”final solution” for science, of threatening science with a ”1984 situation,” of legitimizing “Lysenkoism.” An important factor in this turmoil was the institutional set ting. Finalization theory was developed in a newly founded research institute of the Max Planck Society, with its established worldwide reputation. The institute was directed by the physicist philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weiz sacker and the sociologist Jiirgen Habermas. Von Weizsacker’s public commitment for social responsibility of scientists and Habermas’s writings on ”knowledge and human interests” were the hidden targets of the critics. Even if they bore no responsibility for the finalization model, they were implicated to the extent to which their ideas could be traced in its content. (The controversy is documented in Bohme et al. 1983: 275-306.)

More serious criticism was raised by researchers from the emerging field of the social studies of science. For these researchers, the use of the internal-external terminology was unwarranted, the concept of ”closed theories” appeared to be too rigid, the adherence to epistemic norms in theory formation was not in line with the programs of relativism, and the focus on the development of research fields was not easily compatible with the rise of laboratory studies. A new interest in finalization theory has emerged in the context of the concept of ”knowledge society” and especially in the controversial discussion of the Mode II model advanced by Gibbons et al. (1994). The Mode II model claims a complete shift of the role and function of science as its context of application prevails over its basic research (Mode I). A few reservations notwithstanding, finalization can now be seen as an early attempt at understanding the new order and policy of science that seems to emerge in the contemporary development of knowledge society (Weingart 1997).


  1. Bohme, G., van den Daele, W., & Krohn, W. (1972) Alternativen in der Wissenschaft. Zeitschrift fir Soziologie 4: 302-16.
  2. Bohme, G., van den Daele, W., & Krohn, W. (1973) Die Finalisierung der Wissenschaft. Zeitschrift fir Soziologie 2: 128-44.
  3. Bohme, G., van den Daele, W., & Krohn, W. (1976) Finalization in Science. Social Science Information 23: 307-30.
  4. Bohme, G., van den Daele, W., & Krohn, W. (1978) Alternatives in Science. International Journal of Sociology 3: 70-94.
  5. Bohme, G., van den Daele, W., Hohlfeld, R., Krohn, W., & Schafer, W. (1983) Finalization in Science: The Social Orientation of Scientific Progress. Reidel, Boston.
  6. Gibbons, M. et al. (1994) The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Research in Contemporary Societies. Sage, London.
  7. Johnston, R. (1976) Finalization: A New Start for Science Policy? Social Science Information 15: 331-6.
  8. Krohn, W. & van den Daele, W. (1998) Science as an Agent of Change: Finalization and Experimental Implementation. Social Science Information 1.
  9. Pfetch, F. (1979) The Finalization Debate in Germany: Some Comments and Explanations. Social Studies of Science 115-24.
  10. Rip, A. (1981) A Cognitive Approach to Science Policy. Research Policy 4: 294-311.
  11. Weingart, P. (1997): From “Finalization” to ”Mode 2”: Old Wine in New Bottles? Social Science Information 36(4): 591-613.

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