Science and Culture

Philosophers of the European Enlightenment defined science in opposition to culture or humanistic knowledge. Science was truth based on verifiable observation and certain logical procedures, and thus stood opposed to all traditional beliefs. Francis Bacon, who initiated the philosophical tradition of elaborating ”demarcation principles” to distinguish science from non science,  differentiated  science from all knowledge that is based on tradition and all humanistic knowledge, thus defining it in opposition to most of what we think of as pertaining to culture (Bacon 2001). Science was distinct from culture due to both its method, which followed transhistoric, universal rules, and its results.

The Enlightenment distinction between science and culture has been thoroughly eroded since the late twentieth century. It is one of the major transformations in western intellectual life that science and scientific knowledge are now legitimate objects of study for the human sciences.

While classical sociological writers provide some of the tools for the analysis of scientific knowledge, they observed the Enlightenment science/culture distinction, and only subjected the latter to sociological analysis. When supposedly scientific knowledge was subjected to a critical sociological gaze, as in the young Karl Marx’s critique of political economy, the term ideology allowed him to distinguish the object of his criticism from science. Durkheim and Mauss argued that systems for classifying the natural world originate in social classifications, but maintained that scientific knowledge, through the use of pure logic, had become independent of its socially based origins.

Twentieth century   sociology   of science refrained from sociological analysis of the con tent of scientific thought, taking as its task the description of the social conditions under which knowledge is liberated from social determinants. Joseph Ben David’s historical sociology of the role of the scientist examined the historical emergence and institutionalization of the scientist’s role, which Ben David assumed to be a necessary condition for supporting and motivating inquiry that would be interested solely in truth as such. After careful consideration of the possibility of social influences on the content of scientific knowledge, Ben David concluded that such influences were marginal at best, and that therefore ”the possibilities for either an interactional or institutional sociology of the conceptual and theoretical contents of science are extremely limited” (Ben David 1971).

Robert Merton’s functionalist analysis of science approached the same issues in a synchronic manner. Merton was interested in describing the particular features of the social subsystem of science that allowed for the continuous production of validated knowledge. Scientists internalize an ethos that enables them, or constrains them at pain of social sanction, to detach their scientific judgments from any personalistic social considerations (Merton 1973). Both Merton and Ben David were therefore describing the social determinants of the freedom of science from social determination.

While the functionalist sociology of science is neglected today, it should be credited with transposing the question of the basis of scientific efficacy from the rules of method to the social conditions under which it is practiced. It retained much of the traditional demarcation of science from culture, but restated the demarcation criteria in social, rather than moral, psychological, or methodological terms.

In the mid twentieth century a number of philosophical developments challenged the absolute divide between science and culture, suggesting that scientific knowledge is inseparable from a broader culture, which is specific to a social group and historical period. Wittgen stein’s arguments about the insufficiency of formal rules and the impossibility of drawing a necessary course of action from them without reference to a specific ”form of life” demonstrated that the formalism of mathematics and logic do not free science from its broader cultural horizons. Quine, like Wittgenstein treating science as composed of linguistic elements, insisted on the dependence of observation on theoretical assumptions, and of hypotheses on a fabric of often unstated, often conventional, assumptions. Others, such as Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn, attacked the assumption that scientific knowledge is independent of a specific historical, and cultural, context. Polanyi emphasized personal judgment based on connoisseurship and tacit knowledge, while Kuhn emphasized the dependence of scientific work on shared traditions of scientific communities. Both argued that these cultural dimensions were not obstacles to scientific knowledge, but were indeed among its necessary conditions.

Licensed by the new philosophical understanding, a number of sociologists of science located at the University of Edinburgh in the late 1970s initiated a program of theoretical statements and case studies that aimed to extend the sociology of knowledge to science. David Bloor’s Knowledge and Social Imagery (1991) is the best known of these works. It is ironic that Bloor’s work has been classified among so called postmodernist studies of science, since Bloor could not have been more explicit in his modernism, calling for a causal science of science. Bloor argued that the sociology of science harbored a contradiction, and a betrayal of a thoroughgoing social scientific treatment of science. Only false or rejected knowledge was assumed to have social causes and a sociological explanation, while validated knowledge was assumed to be caused only by the objects to which it refers. By subjecting only discarded knowledge, or error, to sociological analysis, and assuming that validated knowledge did not have social causes, the sociology of science was inconsistent, and engaged in explanations by final causes. Arguing that both rejected and validated knowledge should be explained in terms of the same kinds of causal antecedents, Bloor proposed a ”strong program” for the sociology of science, also known as the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK).

While the Edinburgh School did not elaborate a detailed sociological theory of scientific knowledge, the works of its adherents share what might be called a neo Mannheimian or conflict sociology of knowledge. Following Mannheim’s ”perspectival” method, the Edinburgh studies of scientific controversies relate opposed positions on scientific questions to opposed positions in a social structure, with opposed interests. For instance, Shapin’s (1979) study of the phrenology controversy in early nineteenth century Edinburgh based its explanation on the opposed interests of the middle class proponents of phrenology and its opponents among the traditional academic elites. Opposed views on the structure of the brain and the interpretation of variation in human skulls were related to opposed interests in cultural authority.

While members of the Edinburgh School and SSK built their sociology of scientific knowledge around the classical tradition of the sociology of knowledge, with sources in Durkheim, Marx, and Mannheim, others approached the question of science as the phenomenological question of the genesis of facts as such. While the SSK approach sought social explanations for given beliefs, these studies made the very existence of knowledge a problem for explanation. Also phenomenological in their methodology, researchers in what came to be called the laboratory studies approach sought to observe firsthand the work involved in stabilizing scientific facts. Studies by Lynch (1979), Latour and Woolgar (1979), and Knorr-Cetina (1981) treated facts, and indeed the existence of a taken for granted external reality, as tied to the instruments, procedures, and social arrangements of scientific work.

The most influential approach to emerge from this phenomenological tradition is that associated with Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and John Law, and known as actor network theory. It begins with the principle of generalized symmetry articulated by Callon, by which one should not make an a priori metaphysical divide between humans and all other entities, attributing agency only to the former. There is no prior basis to presume that the social world is real while the natural world is constructed, any more than the opposite. To attempt to explain scientific knowledge in terms of social factors is to commit prematurely to a social realism. What is real and what is relative should be an outcome of the processes we examine. Actor network therefore allows for a proliferation of agents, which are all both constructed and constructing.

The objects of science, and indeed the world, are constructed through the linking of heterogeneous agencies in a network. All entities are located on a continuum from nebulous, poorly defined, controversial facts or artifacts to ”black boxes,” facts or artifacts that can be put to use without reference to the circumstances of their production. The difference between an incontrovertible fact and an uncertain claim is a function of the difference in the scope and strength of the network connections.

Actor network theory was presented as a comprehensive challenge to social science. It contained a principled rejection of the social explanation of scientific knowledge and of any explanatory priority of the social. The actor network theorists argued that there is no ground for an a priori distinction between the social and the natural, and the presumption that the social can be used to explain the natural (as described by science). A sociological reduction of science would impose the product of the researcher’s own network on an object in which the social is itself an outcome. It rejects an a priori distinction between science and culture, but not by collapsing science into culture. Rather, culture and science both refer to the mutual construction of the world through the elaboration of networks.

North American interactionist traditions have yielded yet another variant of sociological study of the content of science. With some sources in the ”social worlds” research of symbolic interactionists such as Howard Becker and Anselm Strauss, scientific knowledge is here regarded as part of the local world that scientists construct. Sociologists such as Adele Clarke and Joan Fujimura applied this perspective, as it had been applied to work in cultural, industrial, and professional organizations, to the work of scientists. The work of scientists is then viewed as a process of negotiating a social order and its boundaries.

Philosophical challenges to the universality of scientific knowledge also resonated with feminist studies. While women’s marginalization in scientific fields had been a topic of historical and sociological study, feminist research now argued that a historically specific form of gender domination was in fact built into scientific knowledge, and into the official definition of scientific method. Evelyn Fox Keller (1985) examined the history of the British Royal Society, and argued that the scientific method pioneered by Francis Bacon and his followers was based on a definition of masculinity. Male attributes of rationality, objectivity, and affective detachment were elaborated into the qualities of a scientist, with the use of an explicitly gendered metaphor. The relationship of the scientist to nature was described in terms of the male con quest of female sexuality. With this thesis of the gendered origins of scientific method, was the argument that a method based on detachment was in fact unnecessary, and was used to suppress equally valid ways of knowing, based on aptitudes more likely to be rooted in women’s experience. The field of feminist epistemology has elaborated ways of knowing that are rooted in the experience and ”standpoint” of women.

While there are now many approaches that treat science and scientific knowledge as cultural endeavors, linked to the historically specific culture in which it is produced, these approaches as a whole have been the subject of continuing controversy. In a series of debates known as the science wars, some have objected to efforts to understand the content of science in terms of the culture and social structure of the society in which it is produced. Challenges to the independence of scientific truths from social and cultural conditioning have been regarded as challenges to science as such, and as relativistic (Gross & Levitt 1994).


  1. Bacon, F. (2001) The Advancement of Learning. Modern Library, New York.
  2. Ben-David, J. (1971) The Scientist’s Role in Society: A Comparative Study. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  3. Bloor, D. (1991) Knowledge and Social Imagery. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  4. Gross, P. R. & Levitt, N. (1994) Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  5. Keller, E. F. (1985) Reflections on Gender and Science. Yale University Press, New Haven.
  6. Knorr-Cetina, K. D. (1981) The Manufacture of Knowledge: An Essay on the Constructivist and Con textual Nature of Science. Pergamon, New York.
  7. Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. (1979) Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Sage, Beverly Hills, CA.
  8. Lynch, M. (1985) Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science: A Study of Shop Work in a Research Laboratory. Routledge, London.
  9. Merton, R. K. (1973) The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  10. Shapin, S. (1979) On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge. Sociological Review Monograph 27. Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 139-78.

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