Technology, Science, and Culture

It is because the sciences, especially the natural sciences, were for so long, and by so many, taken to be divorced from culture that their great interpenetration with culture remains surprising and, in some circles, controversial. In recent decades, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists of science have documented many ways in which cultural influences have affected the development of the sciences, and in which sciences have left an imprint on seemingly far flung aspects of culture. This scholarship has been vigorously, sometimes viciously, disputed by scientists and others who still see the sciences as largely unswayed by the cultures in which they are practiced. In the 1990s, this dispute became commonly, if rather grandly, known as ”the Science Wars.”


It is difficult to characterize the relationships between technology, science, and culture because neither “science” nor “culture” is easily defined.

“Science” typically refers to a set of practices aiming to uncover and formalize regularities in nature, and to the bodies of knowledge these practices produce. Since both the practices and the bodies of knowledge have varied by epoch, place, and discipline, however, any general characterization of science is partial and problematic.

“Culture” too is a general term that has no universally accepted referent. Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn famously catalogued over 200 definitions of culture, including the social legacy the individual acquires from his group,” ”a way of thinking, feeling, and believing,” and ”the storehouse of pooled learning.” A recent United Nations declaration reckoned culture as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional features of society or a social group,” and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions, and beliefs.” The relationships between science and culture, then, are relationships between hazy and ill grasped concepts.

Often, these relationships are viewed from one of two opposite directions. One concerns the impacts that culture has on science and technology, while the other concerns the influences of science and technology on culture. This crass division is problematic in the eyes of many because it assumes that culture” and science and technology” are fundamentally independent entities. For those who see science as a complex of human activities that are cultural from the ground up, the distinction between culture and science is misleading (making no more sense than similarly distinguishing between, say, culture and music). Still, the notion that science and culture are fundamentally independent realms has a long history, and remains influential to this day. For this reason, at least, there is heuristic value in distinguishing between the place of culture in science, and that of science in culture, so long as the limitations of this distinction are acknowledged.

Back to Top

Culture in Science and Technology

The view that science is free from cultural influences was most rigorously (and influentially) formulated by a group of scientists and philosophers meeting regularly in 1920s Vienna. This ”Vienna Circle,” as it became known, included some of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century – Rudolf Carnap, Karl Hempel, Moritz Schlick, and A. J. Ayer, to name a few -who developed a philosophy that became known as logical positivism, or logical empiricism. These philosophers saw in science the best exemplar of knowledge properly won. Science, as they saw it, ideally had two ways of ascertaining and verifying knowledge: direct observation and logic. No other source of knowledge (like tradition, intuition, or revelation) could be considered credible.

This view implied that good science is by its nature insusceptible to cultural influences, because it is a product solely of the logical manipulation of sense data. If the laws of nature are the same in New York and Nairobi, generating similar sense data, then the logical positivist view of science left no room for local culture to affect science. Indeed, in the view of many philosophers, scientists, and others who embraced this view, the greatest virtue of the scientific method was that it allowed flawed and subjective human beings to produce highly reliable, objective knowledge. As they saw it, science – unlike art, literature, philosophy, politics, couture, cuisine, and practically every other human endeavor – transcends human culture, a view that is sometimes called ”scientific exceptionalism.”

Though this image of scientific knowledge as uniquely divorced from the culture has retained currency in some circles to the present day, its heyday was brief. In July 1931, a Soviet physicist named Boris Hessen delivered before the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in Kensington, London, an address entitled ”The Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia.” In it, Hessen insisted that Newton s physics was influenced by class ideology and by the practical needs of moneyed Englishmen. These claims were embraced by some Marxist philosophers and scientists eager to see a link between early modern science and the culture of emerging capitalism, and they were rejected by many others for whom Hessen s paper was a crass attack on the intellectual purity of science. In 1935, Polish economist Henryk Grossman published in Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung a paper further developing Hessen s approach, called ”The Social Foundations of Mechanistic Philosophy and Manufacture.   In the same year, Ludwig Fleck argued in a book called Gene sis and Development of a Scientific Fact that ”thought styles in medicine and science greatly influence even seemingly objective observations. One year later, American sociologist of science Robert K. Merton completed a Harvard dissertation entitled ”Science, Technology, and Society in 17th Century England,” tracing links between the rise of science and both Puritan ideology and contemporary economic circum stance. These works and other ”externalist accounts (so called because they attributed scientific development to factors outside science itself) challenged the positivist account of the advance of science, suggesting that cultural, social, political, and economic factors greatly affected science, even influencing the very con tent of scientific theories.

Partly in response to these challenges, in 1938 philosopher Hans Reichenbach distinguished between what he called the ”context of discovery in science, in which accident, human foibles, and social and cultural forces played a part, and the ”context of justification, in which objective observation, logic, and reason alone determine which hypotheses are accepted and which are rejected. If cultural factors had any impact upon science at all, Reichenbach and the logical positivists insisted, it was limited to the messy and uninteresting ”context of discovery. But over ensuing decades, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists continued to describe cultural and social influences in almost every aspect of science. The most influential of these was Thomas Kuhn, who asserted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that science does not progress by amassing and correlating observations, but rather through sudden changes in fashion after which prior theories, and even data, acquire new meaning. Echoing Fleck, and drawing some inspiration from gestalt psychology, Kuhn argued that sense data themselves appear different to different researchers working from within different theoretical orientations. A Chinese acupuncturist and a Canadian cardiologist will see different symptoms in the same patient.

Kuhn’s book inspired a great deal of research, some challenging his outlook, and some taking it much farther than Kuhn himself could endorse. Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend concluded that science has no overarching method at all, and that in research ”anything goes.” Further, he declared in the 1975 introduction to the Chinese translation of his famous book Against Method that ”First World science is one science among many.” Different cultures produce different sciences. One of the most spirited efforts to describe the interpenetration of sciences and sociocultural factors was conceived at about this time in Edinburgh (and advanced by Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Donald MacKenzie, Steven Shapin, Andrew Pickering, and others) and called the ”Strong Program.” Its aim, according to Bloor, was to show that ”it was not possible anymore to hold a vision of science as exempt from social influences.” The accuracy or ”truth” of a scientific theory can never be taken to explain its acceptance, Bloor and his colleagues insisted, because it is acceptance on the part of a scientific community that determines which theories are considered accurate and ”true.” Thus, it is not just ”logic, rationality, and truth” that explain the progress of science, but also sociocultural negotiations within a scientific community. This view, embraced and expanded by a generation of historians, sociologists, and anthropologists of science, was developed into what became known as the ”social constructivist” (or sometimes ”social constructionist”) view of science, which held that what is taken to be true among   scientists   reflects   social consensus among them, and not bedrock facts about nature. Scholars advocating the ”social construction of technology” (SCOT) have similarly described how technologies do not evolve according to an inevitable logic of their own, but are constituted through ongoing negotiations between engineers, consumers, users, marketers, and others, and as a result reflect a mosaic of social and cultural assumptions.

In recent decades, feminist historians and philosophers of science like Evelyn Fox Keller and Donna Haraway have argued that cultural assumptions about gender greatly influence the production of scientific knowledge. Casual and commonplace sexist presumptions lead scientists to misrepresent women’s physiology, psychology, and social roles, as well as to prefer certain sorts of scientific theories (reductive ones, for instance) over other sorts (holistic ones). More radically, Sandra Harding and other feminist scholars of science have argued that scientists’ canons of epistemology – what they take to be knowledge and how they seek knowledge – are themselves conditioned in part by gender. In this view, often called ”standpoint epistemology,” what counts for evidence and argument may differ between female and male scientists. Other philosophers have emphasized that aesthetic considerations have greatly influenced which scientific theories have been accepted and which rejected. (”One can always make a theory, many theories, to account for known facts,” wrote Nobel physicist George Thomson, ”the test is aesthetic.”) Still others have emphasized the impact of literary conventions on science, arguing that canons of literary coherence influence which scientific theories are accepted and which are rejected. Sociologist of science Karin Knorr-Cetina has recently argued that scientific knowledge is mediated through varying ”epistemic cultures, shaped by affinity, necessity, and historical coincidence.” Taken together, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and philosophers of science have, in the past 70 years, described how religion, politics, economics, class, gender, race, art, etiquette, and many other ambient aspects of culture and society have affected the process and products of science. Scholars have found traces of these influences in every facet of scientific practice: choice of subject to investigate, experimental design, observation, inference, analysis, publication, and more. These findings have been embraced by many, probably most, scholars who study science, but they have remained a subject of acrimonious debate.

Back to Top

Science and Technology in Culture

Little (if anything at all) in modern, western culture remains untouched by science and technology. Science has long found a place in the arts, for instance. Science and scientists have been a recurring theme in modern literature, from John Donne’s ”The Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary” and Moliere’s The Learned Ladies to Mary Shelley’s Franken stein, Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, and on to recent generations’ torrent of science fiction. Science has left imprints on centuries of painters   and   sculptors.   Leon   Battista Alberti acknowledged as much in his On Painting (1435), which applied classical optics and geometry to techniques for producing perspective on canvas. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting reflects years of patient empirical study of the human form, as well as of physical and mechanical principles.   Andreas   Vesalius’s   De Fabrica (1543) was at once an anatomy atlas and a masterpiece of early modern artistic engraving. The tradition of artists consulting natural philosophers and scientists to perfect their craft continued unabated to the modern epoch when, for example, studies of vision carried out by researchers like Hermann von Helmholtz were eagerly devoured by early impressionists like Seurat, who acknowledged the crucial influence of science on his painting. A contemporary observed that a key to Picasso’s work was his use of ”geometric figures – of a geometry at the same time infinitesimal and cinematic.” Around the same time, futurist painters like Giacomo Balla   and   Umberto   Boccioni championed science, and especially technology, as the principal object of their art, calling for a moratorium on nudes, still lives, and other traditional artistic subjects and declaring that instead ”we will sing the multicolored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals; the nocturnal vibration of arsenals and docks beneath their glaring electric moons … factories hanging from the clouds by the threads of their smoke; … large breasted locomotives bridled with long tubes, and the slippery flight of airplanes.” More recently, ”transgenic   artists”   and   ”bio artists” like Eduardo Kacs have adopted laboratory techniques as an artistic medium, asserting that ”new technologies culturally mutate our perception of the human body from a naturally self regulated system to an artificially controlled and electronically transformed object.” Kacs works in the medium of genetic modification, and he is not alone. In fact, for each of these examples, hundreds of similar examples can be adduced.

The influence of science upon music is, if anything, still more longstanding and deeply ingrained. Until modern times, music was itself considered a science (and was one of the mathematical sciences of the classical quadrivium, along with astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic). Until after the Renaissance, Boethius’s sixth century De musica remained the most influential guide to music, advancing the notion that music expresses the same mathematical principles that govern the relations between all elements in the cosmos. Marin Mersenne investigated pitch in his physical inquiries (describing his findings in his 1636 Harmonie universelle), and Galileo Galilei, himself a lutenist of reputation, described his own empirical studies of the sounds produced by vibrating strings in his Discourses Concerning Two New Sciences. The relationship between physics and music remained intimate for subsequent centuries, for both scientists like d’Alembert, Bernoulli, Euler, Laplace, and Helmholtz and composers like Bach, Handel, Telemann, and Rameau. In the twentieth century, new technologies allowing sounds to be produced electronically and recorded greatly changed the nature of music. Electric pianos and guitars came into common use by mid century, finding their place alongside a great number of newly minted instruments, from the Theremin to the Moog synthesizer. By the final decades of the century, synthesized and computer generated compositions dominated much of both popular and avantgarde music. In some cases, contemporary science was an immediate source of inspiration, as when Iannis Xenakis produced a series of compositions structured according to the kinetic theory of gases.

The impact of science and technology was greater still in newer cultural media like film and television. These media would not exist at all without technological advances produced by modern science. Science and technology have in turn been constant themes in movies and television. From early movies like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to recent ones like Contact and Al, the cinema has constantly reflected on science and technology and their effect and meaning. So too has television, in dramas ranging from Star Trek to Dark Angel, and in hundreds of thousands of hours of science and nature documentaries broadcast over the six decades of the medium’s existence. At the same time, advances in computer science have greatly expanded what is possible to depict on screen.

The influence of science on culture reaches well beyond the rarefied reaches of the arts. Historians have shown, for instance, how advances in bacteriology in the first half of the twentieth century changed conventional views of cleanliness, leading in time to a great increase in the time housewives devoted to housework. Advertisers enlisted science, pseudo science, and fake science to sell soft drinks, clothing, shampoo, baby formula, anti-perspirant, and automobiles. A lab coated scientist soberly explaining the virtues of a product became one of the most recognizable images in western consumer culture.

Science has also helped fashion modern political culture. Friedrich Engels captured something crucial of Karl Marx’s aspirations (if perhaps not his accomplishments) when he said of him in eulogy, ”just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” Throughout its century of growing and waning popularity, Marxism was presented by supporters as a ”scientific” politics, its scientific nature warranting its validity and inevitability. In liberal societies, science played a different, though no less important, role as growing armies of economists, sociologists, engineers, and other ”scientific experts” have been called upon to help fashion and evaluate every aspect of policy and administration. In a similar way, scientists now exercise great influence in the courts, serving as expert witnesses hired to persuade juries and judges of the veracity of facts, the credibility of litigants and witnesses, and the extent of damages.

Back to Top

Science, Technology, and Culture

In the end, the complex relations between science and culture are not exhausted by canvas sing how culture influences science and science influences culture. It is often the case, and more now than ever, that science and culture are indistinguishable, even in principle. Historian William Everdell has described how in the first years of the twentieth century many came to doubt the possibility of attaining true objectivity, a change that owed at once to the politics, economics, science, and art of the day, and ultimately changed each of these fields. ”The belief in objectivity crumbled so that phenomenology and solipsism began to take over not only philosophy, but literature, politics, psychology and at last even physics” (Everdell 1997). More recently, the enormous attention paid to the impact of genetics on human character and behavior reflects a change in the very notion of what it means to be human, which is equally a product of scientific and cultural assumptions and has equally (and enormously) affected both the practice of science and the nature of the societies and cultures that produce science. In such cases, it is impossible to tease apart the mutual influences of science and culture, because the two are so tightly and diversely intertwined as to be inseparable. Many scholars today, expanding on the pioneering work of philosopher and anthropologist of science Bruno Latour, picture social and cultural artifacts, human actors, and natural objects as linked in a single ”network.” The identity of each element of the network is constituted, in varying degrees, by all other elements in the network. In Latour’s system, it makes little sense to hypothesize social and cultural ”influences” on science, or even about the ”social construction” of scientific knowledge, because these formulations overlook the fact that society and nature (and the sciences that ostensibly study nature) are mutually constituted. This model, though not without problems, captures nicely the inextricability of science and culture.

Back to Top


  1. Barnes, B., Bloor, D., & Henry, J. (1996) Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Analysis. Athlone, London.
  2. Bijker, W. (1995) Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  3. Bucchi, M. (2004) Science in Society: An Introduction to the Sociology of Science. Routledge, New York.
  4. Everdell, W. (1997) The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth Century Thought. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  5. Ezrahi, Y. (1990) The Descent of Icarus: Science and the Transformation of Contemporary Democracy. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  6. Fuller, S. (1997) Science. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  7. Golan, T. (2004) Laws of Men and Laws of Nature: The History of Scientific Expert Testimony in England and America. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  8. Golinski, J. (1998) Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  9. Hess, D. (1997) Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction. New York University Press, New York.
  10. Knorr-Cetina, K. (1999) Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  11. Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  12. McAllister, J. (1996)  Beauty  and Revolution in Science. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Back to Top

Back to Sociology of Science