Sociology of scientific knowledge

The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) is the study of science as a social activity, especially dealing with "the social conditions and effects of science, and with the social structures and processes of scientific activity."[1] The sociology of scientific ignorance (SSI) is complementary to the sociology of scientific knowledge.[2][3] For comparison, the sociology of knowledge studies the impact of human knowledge and the prevailing ideas on societies and relations between knowledge and the social context within which it arises.

Sociologists of scientific knowledge study the development of a scientific field and attempt to identify points of contingency or interpretative flexibility where ambiguities are present. Such variations may be linked to a variety of political, historical, cultural or economic factors. Crucially, the field does not set out to promote relativism or to attack the scientific project; the aim of the researcher is to explain why one interpretation rather than another succeeds due to external social and historical circumstances.

The field emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s and at first was an almost exclusively British practice. Other early centers for the development of the field were in France, Germany, and the United States (notably at Cornell University).[4] Major theorists include Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Sal Restivo, Randall Collins, Gaston Bachelard, Harry Collins, Paul Feyerabend, Steve Fuller, Martin Kusch, Bruno Latour, Mike Mulkay, Derek J. de Solla Price, Lucy Suchman and Anselm Strauss.

Programmes and schools

The sociology of scientific knowledge in its Anglophone versions emerged in the 1970s in self-conscious opposition to the sociology of science associated with the American Robert K. Merton, generally considered one of the seminal authors in the sociology of science. Merton's was a kind of "sociology of scientists," which left the cognitive content of science out of sociological account; SSK by contrast aimed at providing sociological explanations of scientific ideas themselves, taking its lead from aspects of the work of Thomas S. Kuhn, but especially from established traditions in cultural anthropology (Durkheim, Mauss) as well as the later Wittgenstein. David Bloor, one of SSK's early champions, has contrasted the so-called 'weak programme' (or 'program'—either spelling is used) which merely gives social explanations for erroneous beliefs, with what he called the 'strong programme', which considers sociological factors as influencing all beliefs.

The weak programme is more of a description of an approach than an organised movement. The term is applied to historians, sociologists and philosophers of science who merely cite sociological factors as being responsible for those beliefs that went wrong. Imre Lakatos and (in some moods) Thomas Kuhn might be said to adhere to it. The strong programme is particularly associated with the work of two groups: the 'Edinburgh School' (David Bloor, Barry Barnes, and their colleagues at the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh) in the 1970s and '80s, and the 'Bath School' (Harry Collins and others at the University of Bath) in the same period. "Edinburgh sociologists" and "Bath sociologists" promoted, respectively, the Strong Programme and Empirical Programme of Relativism (EPOR). Also associated with SSK in the 1980s was discourse analysis as applied to science (associated with Michael Mulkay at the University of York), as well as a concern with issues of reflexivity arising from paradoxes relating to SSK's relativist stance towards science and the status of its own knowledge-claims (Steve Woolgar, Malcolm Ashmore).

The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) has major international networks through its principal associations, 4S and EASST, with recently established groups in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Latin America. It has made major contributions in recent years to a critical analysis of the biosciences and informatics.

The sociology of mathematical knowledge

Studies of mathematical practice and quasi-empiricism in mathematics are also rightly part of the sociology of knowledge, since they focus on the community of those who practice mathematics and their common assumptions. Since Eugene Wigner raised the issue in 1960 and Hilary Putnam made it more rigorous in 1975, the question of why fields such as physics and mathematics should agree so well has been debated. Proposed solutions point out that the fundamental constituents of mathematical thought, space, form-structure, and number-proportion are also the fundamental constituents of physics. It is also worthwhile to note that physics is nothing but a modeling of reality, and seeing causal relationships governing repeatable observed phenomena, and much of mathematics, especially in relation to the growth of the calculus, has been developed precisely for the goal of developing these models in a rigorous fashion. Another approach is to suggest that there is no deep problem, that the division of human scientific thinking through using words such as 'mathematics' and 'physics' is only useful in their practical everyday function to categorize and distinguish.

Fundamental contributions to the sociology of mathematical knowledge have been made by Sal Restivo and David Bloor. Restivo draws upon the work of scholars such as Oswald Spengler (The Decline of the West, 1918), Raymond Louis Wilder and Leslie Alvin White, as well as contemporary sociologists of knowledge and science studies scholars. David Bloor draws upon Ludwig Wittgenstein and other contemporary thinkers. They both claim that mathematical knowledge is socially constructed and has irreducible contingent and historical factors woven into it. More recently Paul Ernest has proposed a social constructivist account of mathematical knowledge, drawing on the works of both of these sociologists.


SSK has received criticism from theorists of the actor-network theory (ANT) school of science and technology studies. These theorists criticise SSK for sociological reductionism and a human centered universe. SSK, they say, relies too heavily on human actors and social rules and conventions settling scientific controversies. The debate is discussed in an article Epistemological Chicken.[5]

See also



  1. ^ Ben-David, Joseph; Teresa A. Sullivan (1975). "Sociology of Science". Annual Review of Sociology. 1 (1): 203–222. doi:10.1146/ Retrieved 2006-11-29.
  2. ^ Stocking, Holly (1998). "On Drawing Attention to Ignorance". Science Communication. 20 (1): 165–178. doi:10.1177/1075547098020001019. Retrieved 2013-01-19.
  3. ^ Wehling, Peter (2001). "Beyond knowledge? Scientific ignorance from a sociological point of view". Zeitschrift für Soziologie. 30 (6): 465–484. Retrieved 2013-01-19.
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-07-01. Retrieved 2017-09-12.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ Collins, H. M. and S. Yearley (1992). "Epistemological Chicken". In A. Pickering (Ed.) Science as Practice and Culture. Chicago, Chicago University Press: 301-326. Referenced at ANT resource list University of Lancaster, with the summary "Argues against the generalised symmetry of actor-network, preferring in the interpretive sociology tradition to treat humans as ontologically distinct language carriers". Website accessed 8 February 2011.


Further reading

Other relevant materials

External links

Beamtimes and Lifetimes

Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists is a 1992 book by Sharon Traweek on cultural anthropology and the sociology of science among people in the field of particle physics .

Various reviewers profiled the book.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour (; French: [latuʁ]; born 22 June 1947) is a French philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist. He is especially known for his work in the field of science and technology studies (STS). After teaching at the École des Mines de Paris (Centre de Sociologie de l'Innovation) from 1982 to 2006, he became Professor at Sciences Po Paris (2006–2017), where he was the scientific director of the Sciences Po Medialab. He retired from several university activities in 2017. He was also a Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics.Latour is best known for his books We Have Never Been Modern (1991; English translation, 1993), Laboratory Life (with Steve Woolgar, 1979) and Science in Action (1987). Although his studies of scientific practice were at one time associated with social constructionist approaches to the philosophy of science, Latour has diverged significantly from such approaches. He is best known for withdrawing from the subjective/objective division and re-developing the approach to work in practice. Latour said in 2017 that he is interested in helping to rebuild trust in science and that some of the authority of science needs to be regained.

Along with Michel Callon and John Law, Latour is one of the primary developers of actor–network theory (ANT), a constructionist approach influenced by the ethnomethodology of Harold Garfinkel, the generative semiotics of Algirdas Julien Greimas, and (more recently) the sociology of Émile Durkheim's rival Gabriel Tarde.

Latour's monographs earned him a 10th place among most-cited book authors in the humanities and social sciences for the year 2007.

David Bloor

David Bloor (; born 1942) is a British sociologist. He is a professor in, and a former director of, the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh. He is a key figure in the Edinburgh School and played a major role in the development of the field of Science and Technology Studies. He is best known for advocating the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, most notably in his book Knowledge and Social Imagery.

Economics of scientific knowledge

The economics of scientific knowledge is an approach to understanding science which is predicated on the need to understand scientific knowledge creation and dissemination in economic terms.The approach has been developed as a contrast to the sociology of scientific knowledge, which places scientists in their social context and examines their behavior using social theory. The economics of scientific knowledge typically involves thinking of scientists as having economic interests with these being thought of as utility maximisation and science as being a market process. Modelling strategies might use any of a variety of approaches including the neoclassical, game theoretic, behavioural (bounded rationality) information theoretic and transaction costs. Boumans and Davis (2010) mention Dasgupta and David (1994) as being an interesting early example of work in this area.

Informal mathematics

Informal mathematics, also called naïve mathematics, has historically been the predominant form of mathematics at most times and in most cultures, and is the subject of modern ethno-cultural studies of mathematics. The philosopher Imre Lakatos in his Proofs and Refutations aimed to sharpen the formulation of informal mathematics, by reconstructing its role in nineteenth century mathematical debates and concept formation, opposing the predominant assumptions of mathematical formalism. Informality may not discern between statements given by inductive reasoning (as in approximations which are deemed "correct" merely because they are useful), and statements derived by deductive reasoning.

Mathematical folklore

As the term is understood by mathematicians, folk mathematics or mathematical folklore is the body of theorems, definitions, proofs, or mathematical facts or techniques that circulate among mathematicians by word of mouth but have not appeared in print, either in books or in scholarly journals. Knowledge of folklore is the coin of the realm of academic mathematics.Quite important at times for researchers are folk theorems, which are results known, at least to experts in a field, and considered to have established status, but not published in complete form. Sometimes these are only alluded to in the public literature.

An example is a book of exercises, described on the back cover:

This book contains almost 350 exercises in the basics of ring theory. The problems form the "folklore" of ring theory, and the solutions are given in as much detail as possible.

Another distinct category is wellknowable mathematics, a term introduced by John Conway. This consists of matters that are known and factual, but not in active circulation in relation with current research. Both of these concepts are attempts to describe the actual context in which research work is done.

Some people, principally non-mathematicians, use the term folk mathematics to refer to the informal mathematics studied in many ethno-cultural studies of mathematics.

Minerva (Springer journal)

Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy is a quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal covering the sociological study of scientific knowledge and research. It was established in 1962, replacing a series of bulletins that had been published by the Congress for Cultural Freedom's Committee on Science and Freedom beginning in 1954. It is published by Springer Science+Business Media and the editor-in-chief is Peter Weingart (Bielefeld University). Since 2013, the journal's home institution has been the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of Science (I²SOS) at Bielefeld University.

Ortega hypothesis

The Ortega hypothesis holds that average or mediocre scientists contribute substantially to the advancement of science. According to this hypothesis, scientific progress occurs mainly by the accumulation of a mass of modest, narrowly specialized intellectual contributions. On this view, major breakthroughs draw heavily upon a large body of minor and little-known work, without which the major advances could not happen.

Physics envy

The term physics envy is a phrase used to criticize modern writing and research of academics working in areas such as "softer sciences", liberal arts, business studies and humanities. The term argues that writing and working practices in these disciplines have overused confusing jargon and complicated mathematics, in order to seem more 'rigorous' and like mathematics-based subjects like physics.

Planck's principle

In sociology of scientific knowledge, Planck's principle is the view that scientific change does not occur because individual scientists change their mind, but rather that successive generations of scientists have different views.

The reason for the name is the statements by Max Planck:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it

An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth.

Planck's quote has been used by Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend and others to argue that scientific revolutions are arational, rather than spreading through "mere force of truth and fact". It has been described as Darwinian rather than Lamarckian conceptual evolution.Whether age influences the readiness to accept new ideas has been empirically criticised. In the case of acceptance of evolution in the years after Darwin's On the Origin of Species age was a minor factor. Similarly, it was a weak factor in accepting cliometrics.

Politics of Nature

Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences Into Democracy (2004, ISBN 0-674-01289-5) is a book by the French theorist and philosopher of science Bruno Latour. The book is an English translation by Catherine Porter of the French book, Politiques de la nature. It is published by Harvard University Press.

Science in Action (book)

Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (ISBN 0-674-79291-2) is an influential book by Bruno Latour. The English edition was published in 1987 by Harvard University Press. It is written in a textbook style, and contains a full-featured approach to the empirical study of science and technology. Moreover, it also entertains ontological conceptions and theoretical discussions making it a research monograph and not a methodological handbook per se.

In the first chapter Latour develops the methodological dictum that science and technology must be studied "in action", or "in the making". Because scientific discoveries turn esoteric and difficult to understand, it has to be studied where discoveries are made in practice. For example, Latour turns back time in the case of the discovery of the "double helix". Going back in time, deconstructing statements, machines and articles, it is possible to arrive at a point where scientific discovery could have chosen to take many other directions (contingency). Also the concept of "black box" is introduced. A black box is a metaphor borrowed from cybernetics denoting a piece of machinery that "runs by itself". That is, when a series of instructions are too complicated to be repeated all the time, a black box is drawn around it, allowing it to function only by giving it "input" and "output" data. For example, a CPU inside a computer is a black box. Its inner complexity doesn't have to be known; one only needs to use it in his/her daily activities.

Social construction of technology

Social construction of technology (also referred to as SCOT) is a theory within the field of science and technology studies. Advocates of SCOT—that is, social constructivists—argue that technology does not determine human action, but that rather, human action shapes technology. They also argue that the ways a technology is used cannot be understood without understanding how that technology is embedded in its social context. SCOT is a response to technological determinism and is sometimes known as technological constructivism.

SCOT draws on work done in the constructivist school of the sociology of scientific knowledge, and its subtopics include actor-network theory (a branch of the sociology of science and technology) and historical analysis of sociotechnical systems, such as the work of historian Thomas P. Hughes. Its empirical methods are an adaptation of the Empirical Programme of Relativism (EPOR), which outlines a method of analysis to demonstrate the ways in which scientific findings are socially constructed (see strong program). Leading adherents of SCOT include Wiebe Bijker and Trevor Pinch.

SCOT holds that those who seek to understand the reasons for acceptance or rejection of a technology should look to the social world. It is not enough, according to SCOT, to explain a technology's success by saying that it is "the best"—researchers must look at how the criteria of being "the best" is defined and what groups and stakeholders participate in defining it. In particular, they must ask who defines the technical criteria success is measured by, why technical criteria are defined this way, and who is included or excluded. Pinch and Bijker argue that technological determinism is a myth that results when one looks backwards and believes that the path taken to the present was the only possible path.

SCOT is not only a theory, but also a methodology: it formalizes the steps and principles to follow when one wants to analyze the causes of technological failures or successes.

Sociology of scientific ignorance

The sociology of scientific ignorance (SSI) is the study of ignorance in and of science. The most common way is to see ignorance as something relevant, rather than simply lack of knowledge. There are two distinct areas in which SSI is being studied: some focus on ignorance in scientific research, whereas other focus on public ignorance of science. Sociology of scientific ignorance is a complementary field to the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK).When studying ignorance in scientific research, the common standpoint is that ignorance can be used as a tool in science. An example of this is blackboxing, which is the notion that it can be beneficial to hide the internal parts of a system, and only make the input and output visible to the user.

Studies of public ignorance of science focuses on how scientific ignorance can affect society, the public view of science, and what can give rise to public ignorance of science. This area is related to public understanding of science.

Sokal affair

The Sokal affair, also called the Sokal hoax, was a scholarly publishing sting perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal's intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether "a leading North American journal of cultural studies—whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross—[would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions".The article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", was published in the Social Text spring/summer 1996 "Science Wars" issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and it did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist. Three weeks after its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax.The hoax sparked a debate about the scholarly merit of commentary on the physical sciences by those in the humanities; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

The metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants (Latin: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) expresses the meaning of "discovering truth by building on previous discoveries". This concept has been traced to the 12th century, attributed to Bernard of Chartres. Its most familiar expression in English is by Isaac Newton in 1675: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

Stigler's law of eponymy

Stigler's law of eponymy, proposed by University of Chicago statistics professor Stephen Stigler in his 1980 publication "Stigler’s law of eponymy", states that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. Examples include Hubble's law which was derived by Georges Lemaître two years before Edwin Hubble, the Pythagorean theorem although it was known to Babylonian mathematicians before the Pythagoreans, and Halley's comet which was observed by astronomers since at least 240 BC. Stigler himself named the sociologist Robert K. Merton as the discoverer of "Stigler's law" to show that it follows its own decree, though the phenomenon had previously been noted by others.

Strong programme

The strong programme or strong sociology is a variety of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) particularly associated with David Bloor, Barry Barnes, Harry Collins, Donald A. MacKenzie, and John Henry. The strong programme's influence on Science and Technology Studies is credited as being unparalleled (Latour 1999). The largely Edinburgh-based school of thought has illustrated how the existence of a scientific community, bound together by allegiance to a shared paradigm, is a prerequisite for normal scientific activity.

The strong programme is a reaction against "weak" sociologies of science, which restricted the application of sociology to "failed" or "false" theories, such as phrenology. Failed theories would be explained by citing the researchers' biases, such as covert political or economic interests. Sociology would be only marginally relevant to successful theories, which succeeded because they had revealed a true fact of nature. The strong programme proposed that both "true" and "false" scientific theories should be treated the same way. Both are caused by social factors or conditions, such as cultural context and self-interest. All human knowledge, as something that exists in the human cognition, must contain some social components in its formation process.

We Have Never Been Modern

We Have Never Been Modern is a 1991 book by Bruno Latour, originally published in French as Nous n'avons jamais été modernes : Essai d'anthropologie symétrique (English translation: 1993).


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