Contributed by William Walter Kay BA JD © 2022
The 1970s proved fertile for science studies scholars. Early in the decade Science, Technology and Society (STS) departments popped like tulips across Dutch, Scandinavian and English-speaking campuses. STS overlapped with environmental and anti-nuclear activism.
Circa 1976, Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) emerged among British Sociology of Knowledge and Sociology of Science scholars who rejected Merton’s and Mannheim’s restrictions on exploring the substance of scientific fact-making.
SSK’s prime mover, David Bloor of the Edinburgh School, broached political influences on the content of science. Harold Collins of the Empirical Programme of Relativism rivalled Bloor as SSK’s ringleader. Both pushed the ‘Strong Programme’ – its tenets:
a) explain the success of scientific beliefs causally; i.e., it is not enough to say a belief succeeded because it was correct;
b) explanations should be impartial with respect to a knowledge claim’s truth or falsity;
c) investigations should be reflexive (reflective) with an eye on whether scientists (or sociologists) influence subjects under their investigation; and/or whether they are influenced by their own research;
d) treat successful and unsuccessful knowledge claims symmetrically; and,
e) the asymmetrical subjecting of non-scientific beliefs to external interest analysis while sparing scientific beliefs the same treatment must end.
SSK became Sociology’s problem child by asking:
a) What counts as a scientific fact?
b) How do scientists determine facts?
c) Does funding alter the content of scientific knowledge?
d) Do external interests influence substantive scientific knowledge?
“Interest investigations” explore the extent to which economic, political, religious or professional interests determine the focus and content of science. While economic interests appear obvious, sociologists warn against over-simplification. Connecting material interests to scientific constructs is not always straight forward.
“Macro-social interests” might refer to the entire professional middle class seeking intellectual hegemony; or it might refer to a single profession struggling to retain authority over a narrow field.
Other interests might include matters such as biases favouring computer modelling over empirical research; or, institutionalised infatuations with particular algebraic equations.
SSK and STS sprouted off-shoots. Social Constructionism dates to the early 1980s writings of Sal Restivo. Constructivist language was appropriated by the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) school. More consequential was SCOT’s French variant, christened Actor-Network Theory (ANT) in 1987.
ANT mastermind, Bruno Latour, is an elitist derivative of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Pareto. Unlike SSK’s British pioneers, Latour and company, are Mode 2 intellectuals. Latour’s Center for the Sociology of Innovation (CSI, est. 1967), is a subsidiary of the Paris-based engineering and technology-oriented, School of Mines. CSI launched “Sociology of Translation” in 1980 with Latour at the helm.
Latour eschews the term “social,” arguing that inasmuch as everything is social the term is redundant. (Critics counter that, yes, everything is indeed social, but not transparently so. The social dimension contains invisible strata from which ideas and actions erupt.)
After re-branding his methodology “ANT,” Latour studied France’s first foray into electric cars. He discovered techno-scientists more concerned with manufacturing political support than cars.
To Latour science is practise not knowledge. He focusses on scientific writing and on activities inside laboratories. Latour’s The Pasteurization of France (1988) depicts Pasteur as a politician and showman. Pasteur built a network of labs, assistants, farmers’ groups and doctors’ societies. His public demonstrations regarding germ theory culminated in the French Government imposing health regulations of Pasteur’s design. Pasteur’s motto:
“Give me a laboratory and I will raise the world.”
ANT represents a departure from SSK, which Latour deems obsolete. ANT stresses the “constructive” nature of both science and society. ANT prefers “techno-science” to “science.” ANT prefers “actant” to “actor.” Actants need not be human. Actants can be institutions, machines, laws, elections, theories or models.
Latour considered the likes of scallops and ocean currents to be actants capable of allegiances and associations. Clearly, this is not the vocabulary of Sociology. SSK retained distinctions between humans and non-humans. Bloor and Collins clashed with Latour.
By the mid-1990s, SSK had spread across Western campuses, notably to US universities where it enjoyed National Science Foundation funding. Academic publishers, hitherto uninterested in science studies, now solicited contributions. Demand outstripped supply; …a rarity for Sociology. (1)
Beneath this sparkling surface troubles lurked. Shapin’s Here and Everywhere: Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (1995) rang the alarm. SSK had fallen victim to its success. Anthropology, Literature and Cultural Studies professors boarded SSK’s bandwagon causing incoherence and loss of focus. Recent converts lacked grounding in Sociology. Under-grad courses were unsatisfactory. Research quality plummeted while external resistance (a.k.a. the Science Wars) spiked.
Compounding the problem was the fact that, compared to most humanities disciplines, SSK is “hard” – it requires a grasp of scientific technicalities. Shapin stressed, however, it is not the complexity of the hard sciences but their “sacredness” that begets anxiety.
In the 1990s the Science Wars raged between scientists and sociologists over who had authority to critique science. SSK impudently dared investigate a culture more prestigious than itself. Counter-critiques were often broadsides against Sociology in general. Scientists launched obtuse, willful misrepresentations of sociological claims and methods. They spewed accusations of bias, hostility and extremism. Sociological research was further obscured and obstructed by allegations of determinism and reductionism. (Restivo) (In reality, Sociology is less determinist and reductionist than Chemistry.)
Certain sociologists joined the scientific establishment’s attack on SSK. Some accused SSK of pretentiously modelling itself upon the natural sciences. Others claimed SSK had been overwhelmed by science’s heterogeneity and by the technicalities of scientific language and equipment.
Radical sociologists critiqued SSK’s narrow focus on the “laboratory” and neglect of elephants in the room like the Military-Industrial-Complex. They found SSK overly philosophical; insufficiently polemical.
Pseudo-radicals promised to lead SSK down ‘revolutionary’ paths complete with experimental literary forms. As they could not abandon the idiom of realism without losing comprehensibility, these pseudo-radicals impressed only the dim. (Shapin)
Sociology of Science supremo Joseph Ben-David castigated SSK as an irrelevant failure staffed by amateurs who meddled in areas of Epistemology better left to philosophers.
Philosophy professors eagerly volunteered for the Science Wars, …on the scientists’ side. Philosophers extoll the ethics and objectivity of science; contending that scientific judgements arise from sound, unambiguous methods. Their opposition to the sociological analyses of science is an extension of a pre-existing academic turf war impacting their sub-discipline, Epistemology.
Philosophers reject Sociology of Knowledge’s claim to a provide a more practical, concrete discussion of human cognition than Epistemology. Philosophers consider “Social Epistemology” to be an oxymoron. To philosophers, truths arise from rational processes occurring inside individual minds. Knowledge is pure only when removed from practical considerations. Genius transcends the mundane. Politics profanes. Science must keep the “social” at bay. Conversely, to sociologists, historical forces obviously drive cultural-intellectual progress; and, external interests obviously dictate, at a minimum, the focus of scientific research.
Social Constructionists, in particular, reject Philosophy’s individualism, rationalism and relativism. They further contend that the Philosophy-versus-Sociology conflict will never be resolved by conventional discourse. Philosophers, being bound to defend archaisms, will forever misinterpret Sociology. Only one, Epistemology or Sociology of Knowledge, shall survive. (Restivo)
To philosophers’ chagrin, sociologists advance the maxim:
“No scientific claim shines by its own light.” (Shapin)
It takes a campaign to establish a scientific fact. Campaigners must first gain stature within a techno-scientific community to get their findings respected. To acquire effective cognitive leverage they must win over fellow techno-scientists and the public; all whilst evincing disinterest. Theories attain fact-hood through contestable, negotiable “translations.”
Laboratories do more than experiment. They modify their external social environments. Techno-scientists build networks. Only networks establish facts. Networks try to marshal juggernauts. Techno-scientists study the interests of potential actors then, using summarization and grouping techniques, translate those interests. Translations are marketing operations aimed at recruiting actors into networks. When networks successfully translate the interests of actors, they align with those actors. Actor-Networks re-cast reality in pursuit of self-perpetuating mechanisms of interpretive power accretion.
Technology and science are distinct yet inextricable. Academic scientists distort science’s relationship to technology by photo-shopping themselves in at the front of technological parades. In reality, technological breakthroughs lead scientific progress, not the other way around.
Science and technology further entwine through industrial-scale production of lab equipment. Standardization of such equipment requires global networking among techno-scientists. This mutual re-shaping of science and technology climaxes with major labs orchestrating grandiose experiments with billion-dollar, custom-made equipment.
History of Technology publications consist mainly of hagiographic success stories unbothered by social theory and roundly warped by economic apologetics and techno-determinism. Sociologists reject techno-determinism’s teleology and mono-dimensionality. Sociologists do not see technology as autonomous. A technology’s utility is always controversial. Sociological emphasis on the deliberative aspects of technology adoption clashes with notions of a technologically driven society. Techno-determinism undergirds debilitating denials of democratic choice.
In a democracy, contends Collins, citizens need information about techno-science disputes, especially about the scientific establishment’s interactions with governments and the media. The science that citizens need to know is always controversial science.
According to Collins, controversial scientific theories are under-determined by the data. One data set may support multiple theories. “Interpretive flexibility” survives experimentation. Repeatability cannot turn disputed knowledge into certainty. If the paradigm-embedding project is struggling to win trust, then either the results, or the significance, of their experiments is undermined.
Experiments explain little if incompetently done. In disputed science there is no consensus on competence. Scientists dispute not only results but also the quality of the work. As no result retains potency in the face of determined critics, experiments in controversial science rarely produce clear conclusions. Results can be re-characterised as irrelevant, or ground-breaking, based on after-the-fact revisions.
Partisans, with no personal involvement in experiments, express resolute certainty in those experiments’ results; i.e., “distance lends enchantment.”
Of key importance are the “closure mechanisms” that settle controversies around specific fact determinations. Forces external to the scientific community may prompt closures.
Settled science is difficult to unsettle. Once consensus is declared facts get woven into the fabric of practise.
Losers in scientific controversies may continue fighting after consensus has turned against them. Dissenters may form academic alliances or vigilante science groups. Being on the losing side leads some scientists to abandon science altogether; while others acquire an interest in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. (2)
- Shapin, Steven. Here and Everywhere: Sociology of Scientific Knowledge; Annual Review of Sociology, 1995. (21:289-321) All further parenthetic references to Shapin are taken from this document.
- Pinch, Trevor. Controversies at the Research Frontiers of Science; International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences, 2015. All further parenthetic references to Shapin are taken from this document.
Collins, H. Concepts; International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences (Second Edition) 2015.
Collins, Harry & Pinch, Trevor. The Golem: what you should know about science; University of Cambridge Press, Second Edition, 1998.
Restivo, Sal & Croissant, Jennifer. Social Constructionism in Science and Technology Studies; Chapter 11 from Handbook of Constructionist Research; Guilford Press, New York 2007.