Scientific Norms

The classic sociological formulation of the scientific norms was given by Robert K. Merton, in an article originally published as ”A Note on Science and Democracy” (1942) and reprinted as ”Science and Democratic Social Structure” in his Social Theory and Social Structure (1968 [1949, 1957]) and as ”The Normative Structure of Science” in The Sociology of Science (1973). The formulation is sometimes known by its initials, CUDOS, which stands for the four norms: communism, universalism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. Merton’s representation of the normative character of science has proved to be one of the most enduring of all sociological analyses. It has been discussed at length by both critics, who proposed the concept of counternorms, and sympathizers, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s became emblematic of   the ”Mertonian” approach to the social study of science. Nor has it remained static. ”Replication” is sometimes called the fifth norm. John Ziman suggested that ”originality” be added as a norm, and in many recent explanations of the acronym CUDOS the O is used for originality.


The Origins of the Scientific Norms

Merton wrote two papers on the scientific norms, both concerned with a political problem: the autonomy of science. The first was ”Science and the Social Order” (1938, in Merton 1973). This paper was presented during a period of intense political activity, a response to the political crisis over Nazi science, and in particular to the publication in the journal Nature of a translation of an article by J. Stark, originally published in Germany in a Nazi journal, that attacked ”Jewish” science. This translation caused a large outcry at a time when scientists in Britain and the United States were largely supportive of peace in Europe, but recognized the threat of Nazism and were coming to recognize the threat that science in Germany would be forced to conform to Nazi ideology. At the time of Merton’s first publication on this topic, there was a movement among scientists to respond to the Nazi threat to science politically. A series of resolutions and petitions was circulated, and scientists became politically active in defense of the autonomy of science, that is, the freedom of science from political control and direction (Kuznick 1987). The norms repeat ideas expressed in the petitions. The original title of the paper in which the CUDOS model appears, ”Notes on Science and Democracy,” written during the war, reflected Merton’s anxiety over conflicts that might arise between science and religion that might be given political expression in democracies.

Merton’s paper was preceded in the socio logical tradition by another deeply influential work, a speech by Max Weber entitled ”Science as a Vocation.” Weber asks a question on behalf of the students who were the audience for his speech: how does one know that one has a calling for science? The answer is given in terms of the personal qualities that enable one to properly fulfill the role of the scientist (or scholar). Much of the essay is devoted to explaining the limitations of science, and that science cannot provide a worldview. Weber does not give a simple list of personal qualities but speaks of ”the plain duty of intellectual integrity” (1946 [1921]: 155, cf. 146, 156), denounces the idea of ”personality” in science (p. 137), and says that ”the primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient facts”’ (p. 147). Weber’s comments may be compared to the list of virtues in the first of Merton’s papers, ”Science and the Social Order.” Here, Merton’s list of the special virtues of scientists was ”intellectual honesty, integrity, organized skepticism,   disinterestedness, impersonality” (1973: 259).

Merton’s point about these virtues, however, was that they formed an ”ethos.” This fact was relevant to the autonomy of science. Merton characterized ”a liberal society” as one in which ”integration derives primarily from the body of cultural norms toward which human activity is oriented” in contrast to a dictatorial structure, where integration is produced through formal organization and centralized social control (1973: 265). Science, because it was governed by an ethos, was already akin to ”a liberal society” and thus in effect already autonomous or self governed. The notion of ethos reappears in the more famous 1942 paper, but the list of virtues changes and the emphasis shifts to the norms of science understood primarily as external constraints, or, as Merton puts it, an ”affectively toned complex of values and norms that is held to be binding on the man of science” (1973: 268-9), which the scientist is at least partly socialized into.

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The Four Scientific Norms

The list of scientific norms begins with universalism, which Merton explains in terms of ”the canon that truth claims, whatever their sources, are to be subjected to preestablished impersonal criteria” (1973: 270). Acceptance of claims is not to be based on personal or social attributes of the claim maker, such as race, as the Nazis were encouraged to do by Stark (1938). Universalism is thus rooted in the impersonal character of science. Universalism is potentially a source of conflict with the larger society, particularly when the ethnocentrism of the larger society comes into conflict with science. But there are also cases in which the norm is breached by scientists, for example in wartime, when nationalism leads scientists to denounce the science of other nations for patriotic reasons, as occurred in World War I. Universalism also means that science should be open to talent, whatever the ethnic or status properties of the talented are. In this respect the values of science are similar to, and supported by, the values of democracy.

The second is communism. Merton says that the ”substantive findings of science are a pro duct of social collaboration and are assigned to the community. They constitute a common heritage in which the equity of the individual producer is severely limited   (1973: 273). The ”property rights” of the scientist to his ideas are limited to that of recognition and esteem. Scientists compete for recognition and are consequently greatly concerned with priority claims about discoveries, a concern which reflects the importance of originality in science. But ”the products of competition are communized (1973: 274). Merton s evidence for this norm includes the mild disapproval given to scientists who fail to communicate their discoveries, and by the fact that scientists acknowledge ”standing on the shoulders of giants.

It is sometimes claimed that this norm has nothing to do with communism in the political sense, but this is not true. Merton was influenced by J. D. Bernal, a British scientist and communist who wrote an important book on the social character of science, in which he said that science was already a kind of communism, because scientists ”have learned consciously to subordinate themselves to a common purpose without losing the individuality of their achievements,   that ”each one knows that his work depends on that of his predecessors and colleagues, and that it can only reach its fruition through the work of his successors, and because scientists understand the necessity of collaboration which they accept without the blind following of leaders (1939: 415-16). Bernal, like many of his contemporaries on the left, wrote about the ”frustration of science, the idea that capitalism was an obstacle to the application of science to human welfare. Merton alludes to these writings with the comment that the ”communism of the scientific ethos is incompatible with the definition of technology as ‘private property in a capitalistic economy (1973: 275), and notes that one response to the conflict by scientists has been to advocate socialism. His discussion of this and other conflicts produced by this norm points in the direction of his later discussions of the conflicting feelings or ambivalence which norms produce.

”Disinterestedness is a feature of the professions in general that was important to Talcott Parsons, who related it to the dealings of professionals and clients. Merton observes that scientists do not have ”clients   in this way, but do have the problem of fraud and the problem of pseudosciences. Merton observes that fraud is rare in science, and explains this, in a remark able passage, by saying that ”the activities of scientists are subject to rigorous policing, to a degree perhaps unparalleled in any other field of activity   as a result of the public and testable character of science (1973: 276). Socialized sentiment combines with this ”rigorous policing to make this norm especially stable.

Organized skepticism requires the ”temporary suspension of judgment and the detached scrutiny of beliefs in terms of empirical and logical criteria” (1973: 277). This is a source of potential friction with religion, and occurs especially when science extends into new topics previously covered by other institutions.

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The Scientific Counternorms and the Critics

The literature on the norms expanded in the 1950s, with various clarifications and additions, many of which related to the central fact of the passionate, personal commitment of scientists, one of the features of Weber’s discussion of science that Merton had omitted. It loomed larger as a result of such influential works as Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge (1958). Bernard Barber (1952) had suggested that ”emotional neutrality” was a separate norm and an important brake on the passions. But Merton and Barber moved away from this image of science. Merton noted that priority disputes were an example of the affective involvement of scientists with their own ideas, and Barber observed that the problem of resistance of scientists to discovery was intrinsic to science. This new view fit better with a functionalist account of science in which both the norms and the passions they contained were functional for science. But it also fit with Merton’s developing sense that norms typically involved conflicting feelings or ”ambivalence.”

The idea that the norms had counternorms was developed by Ian Mitroff, whose study of elite moon scientists showed that tenacity in support of one’s own idea was an accepted part of science and a condition for its progress. On the basis of this research, Mitroff proposed counternorms for each norm. The counternorm to organized skepticism, for example, was ”organized dogmatism,” which he formulated in this way: ”The scientist must believe in his own findings with utter conviction while doubting those of others with all his worth” (Mitroff 1974: 592). Michael Mulkay expanded on this discussion, and turned it in a radically different direction. He argued that there were no strongly institutionalized norms of the Mertonian sort in science, and treated the Mertonian norms as an ”ideology,” asking what purposes this ideology served, suggesting that we understand science ”not just as a community with special professional concerns and with normative components appropriate to these concerns, but also as an interest group with a domineering elite and a justificatory ideology” (1976: 654).

This line of argument drove the discussion toward the question of whether the norms were applicable to the new situation of science, which was understood to be more commercialized and ”private.” The norms came to appear to some critics as the idealization of a previous form of science that systematically distorted the present understanding of science. New models of transdisciplinary research with specific practical goals also seemed to fit poorly with the norms, which now could be seen to relate primarily to competition for prestige in a disciplinary setting.

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  1. Barber, B. (1952) Science and the Social Order. Free Press, Glencoe, IL.
  2. Bernal, J. D. (1939) The Social Function of Science. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  3. Kuznick, P. J. (1987) Beyond the Laboratory. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  4. Merton, R. K. (1942) A Note on Science and Democracy. Journal of Legal and Political Sociology 1: 15-26.
  5. Merton, R. K. (1968 [1949, 1957]) Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press, New York.
  6. Merton, R. K. (1973) The Sociology of Science. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  7. Mitroff, I. (1974) Norms and Counternorms in a Select Group of Apollo Moon Scientists: A Case Study of the Ambivalence of Scientists. American Sociological Review 39: 579-95.
  8. Mulkay, M. J. (1976) Norms and Ideology in Science. Social Science Information 15(4/5): 637-56.
  9. Polanyi, M. (1958) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  10. Stark, J. (1938) The Pragmatic and the Dogmatic Spirit in Physics. Nature 141 (April 30): 770-1.
  11. Weber, M. (1946 [1921]) Science as a Vocation. In: From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Trans. H. H. Gerth & C. W. Mills. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 129-56.
  12. Ziman, J. (2000) Real Science: What It Is and What It Means. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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