Sociology of scientific knowledge
Overview
The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) is the study of science
Science
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe...

 as a social activity, especially dealing "with the social conditions and effects of science, and with the social structures and processes of scientific activity."
The sociology of knowledge
Sociology of knowledge
The Sociology of knowledge is the study of the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises, and of the effects prevailing ideas have on societies...

, by contrast, focuses on the production of non-scientific ideas and social constructions.

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.
Encyclopedia
The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) is the study of science
Science
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe...

 as a social activity, especially dealing "with the social conditions and effects of science, and with the social structures and processes of scientific activity."
The sociology of knowledge
Sociology of knowledge
The Sociology of knowledge is the study of the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises, and of the effects prevailing ideas have on societies...

, by contrast, focuses on the production of non-scientific ideas and social constructions.

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 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). Major theorists include Barry Barnes, David Bloor
David Bloor
David Bloor is a professor in, and a former director of, the at the University of Edinburgh .He started his academic career in philosophy and psychology. In the 1970s he and Barry Barnes were the major figures of the strong programme, which put forward queries against philosophical a priorism in...

, Sal Restivo
Sal Restivo
Sal Restivo is a leading contributor to science studies and in particular to the sociology of mathematical knowledge. His current work focuses on the sociology and anthropology of mind and brain, and the sociology of god and religion. He has also done work in the sociology of social and sociable...

, Randall Collins
Randall Collins
Randall Collins, Ph.D. is the Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Advisory Editors Council of the Social Evolution & History Journal. He is considered to be one of the leading non-Marxist conflict theorists in the United...

, Gaston Bachelard
Gaston Bachelard
Gaston Bachelard was a French philosopher. He made contributions in the fields of poetics and the philosophy of science. To the latter he introduced the concepts of epistemological obstacle and epistemological break...

, Harry Collins
Harry Collins
Harry Collins is a British professor at the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. While at the University of Bath Professor Collins developed the Bath School approach to the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge...

, Paul Feyerabend
Paul Feyerabend
Paul Karl Feyerabend was an Austrian-born philosopher of science best known for his work as a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he worked for three decades . He lived a peripatetic life, living at various times in England, the United States, New Zealand,...

, Steve Fuller, Thomas Kuhn
Thomas Kuhn
Thomas Samuel Kuhn was an American historian and philosopher of science whose controversial 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was deeply influential in both academic and popular circles, introducing the term "paradigm shift," which has since become an English-language staple.Kuhn...

, Martin Kusch
Martin Kusch
Martin Kusch is Professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna. Until 2009, Kusch was Professor of Philosophy and Sociology of science at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University...

, Bruno Latour
Bruno Latour
Bruno Latour is a French sociologist of science and anthropologist and an influential theorist in the field of Science and Technology Studies...

, Mike Mulkay
Mike Mulkay
Michael Joseph Mulkay is a retired British sociologist of science. He worked as a reader and researcher at the University of Cambridge until 1966, he was then lecturer in sociology at Simon Fraser University 1966 to 1969, at Aberdeen University from 1969 to 1973, and then as Professor of Sociology...

, Derek J. de Solla Price
Derek J. de Solla Price
Derek John de Solla Price was a physicist, historian of science, and information scientist,credited as the father of scientometrics.-Biography:...

, Lucy Suchman
Lucy Suchman
Lucy Suchman is a full Professor of Anthropology of Science and Technology in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University, in the United Kingdom...

 and Anselm Strauss
Anselm Strauss
Anselm Leonard Strauss was an American sociologist internationally known as a medical sociologist and as the developer of grounded theory, an innovative method of qualitative analysis widely used in sociology, nursing, education, social work, and...

.

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
Robert K. Merton
Robert King Merton was a distinguished American sociologist. He spent most of his career teaching at Columbia University, where he attained the rank of University Professor...

, 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
David Bloor
David Bloor is a professor in, and a former director of, the at the University of Edinburgh .He started his academic career in philosophy and psychology. In the 1970s he and Barry Barnes were the major figures of the strong programme, which put forward queries against philosophical a priorism in...

, 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
Imre Lakatos
Imre Lakatos was a Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science, known for his thesis of the fallibility of mathematics and its 'methodology of proofs and refutations' in its pre-axiomatic stages of development, and also for introducing the concept of the 'research programme' in his...

 and (in some moods) Thomas Kuhn
Thomas Kuhn
Thomas Samuel Kuhn was an American historian and philosopher of science whose controversial 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was deeply influential in both academic and popular circles, introducing the term "paradigm shift," which has since become an English-language staple.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
David Bloor
David Bloor is a professor in, and a former director of, the at the University of Edinburgh .He started his academic career in philosophy and psychology. In the 1970s he and Barry Barnes were the major figures of the strong programme, which put forward queries against philosophical a priorism in...

, Barry Barnes, and their colleagues at the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh
University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh, founded in 1583, is a public research university located in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The university is deeply embedded in the fabric of the city, with many of the buildings in the historic Old Town belonging to the university...

) in the 1970s and '80s, and the 'Bath School' (Harry Collins
Harry Collins
Harry Collins is a British professor at the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. While at the University of Bath Professor Collins developed the Bath School approach to the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge...

 and others at the University of Bath
University of Bath
The University of Bath is a campus university located in Bath, United Kingdom. It received its Royal Charter in 1966....

) 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
Mathematical practice
Mathematical practice is used to distinguish the working practices of professional mathematicians from the end result of proven and published theorems.-Quasi-empiricism:This distinction is...

 and quasi-empiricism in mathematics
Quasi-empiricism in mathematics
Quasi-empiricism in mathematics is the attempt in the philosophy of mathematics to direct philosophers' attention to mathematical practice, in particular, relations with physics, social sciences, and computational mathematics, rather than solely to issues in the foundations of mathematics...

 are also rightly part of the sociology of knowledge, since they focus on the community of those who practice mathematics
Mathematics
Mathematics is the study of quantity, space, structure, and change. Mathematicians seek out patterns and formulate new conjectures. Mathematicians resolve the truth or falsity of conjectures by mathematical proofs, which are arguments sufficient to convince other mathematicians of their validity...

 and their common assumptions. Since Eugene Wigner raised the issue in 1960 and Hilary Putnam
Hilary Putnam
Hilary Whitehall Putnam is an American philosopher, mathematician and computer scientist, who has been a central figure in analytic philosophy since the 1960s, especially in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophy of science...

 made it more rigorous in 1975, the question of why fields such as physics
Physics
Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

 and mathematics
Mathematics
Mathematics is the study of quantity, space, structure, and change. Mathematicians seek out patterns and formulate new conjectures. Mathematicians resolve the truth or falsity of conjectures by mathematical proofs, which are arguments sufficient to convince other mathematicians of their validity...

 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
Calculus
Calculus is a branch of mathematics focused on limits, functions, derivatives, integrals, and infinite series. This subject constitutes a major part of modern mathematics education. It has two major branches, differential calculus and integral calculus, which are related by the fundamental theorem...

, 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
Sal Restivo
Sal Restivo is a leading contributor to science studies and in particular to the sociology of mathematical knowledge. His current work focuses on the sociology and anthropology of mind and brain, and the sociology of god and religion. He has also done work in the sociology of social and sociable...

 and David Bloor
David Bloor
David Bloor is a professor in, and a former director of, the at the University of Edinburgh .He started his academic career in philosophy and psychology. In the 1970s he and Barry Barnes were the major figures of the strong programme, which put forward queries against philosophical a priorism in...

. Restivo draws upon the work of scholars such as Oswald Spengler
Oswald Spengler
Oswald Manuel Arnold Gottfried Spengler was a German historian and philosopher whose interests also included mathematics, science, and art. He is best known for his book The Decline of the West , published in 1918, which puts forth a cyclical theory of the rise and decline of civilizations...

 (The Decline of the West, 1926), Raymond L. Wilder and Lesley A. White, as well as contemporary sociologists of knowledge and science studies scholars. David Bloor
David Bloor
David Bloor is a professor in, and a former director of, the at the University of Edinburgh .He started his academic career in philosophy and psychology. In the 1970s he and Barry Barnes were the major figures of the strong programme, which put forward queries against philosophical a priorism in...

 draws upon Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. He was professor in philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 until 1947...

 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
Paul Ernest
Paul Ernest is a recent contributor to the social constructivist philosophy of mathematics. He illustrates this position in his discussion of the issue of whether mathematics is discovered or invented...

 has proposed a social constructivist account of mathematical knowledge, drawing on the works of both of these sociologists.

Criticism

SSK has received criticism from theorists of the French school of science and technology studies
Science and technology studies
Science, technology and society is the study of how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these, in turn, affect society, politics and culture...

, Actor-network theory
Actor-network theory
Actor–network theory, often abbreviated as ANT, is a distinctive approach to social theory and research which originated in the field of science studies...

 (ANT). These theorists criticise SSK for sociological reductionism
Reductionism
Reductionism can mean either an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things or a philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can...

 and a human centered
Anthropocentrism
Anthropocentrism describes the tendency for human beings to regard themselves as the central and most significant entities in the universe, or the assessment of reality through an exclusively human perspective....

 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.

The Sokal affair

In 1996, postmodern theorists of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) were the targets of a hoax paper by Alan Sokal
Alan Sokal
Alan David Sokal is a professor of mathematics at University College London and professor of physics at New York University. He works in statistical mechanics and combinatorics. To the general public he is best known for his criticism of postmodernism, resulting in the Sokal affair in...

 in the journal Social Text
Social Text
Social Text is an academic journal published by Duke University Press. Since its inception as an independent editorial collective in 1979, Social Text has addressed a wide range of social and cultural phenomena, covering questions of gender, sexuality, race, and the environment...

, under the title Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. The ensuing debate led to these thinkers being accused of "relativism
Relativism
Relativism is the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration....

"--a charge that at least some proponents of the view embrace. The supposed 'relativism' prevalent within the SSK, especially in the work of 'strong sociologists' such as Barry Barnes and David Bloor, may be regarded as a misnomer even though these sociologists themselves assent to the label. This is because the strong programme does not deny the existence of a human-independent reality. Neither does it affirm that all knowledge claims are 'really true' just because the relevant community accepts them as true. The position of strong sociology is that sociologically interesting knowledge (e.g. institutionalised forms of knowledge) are human products even when they have been formulated as a result of interaction with a human-independent physical world as is the case in the so-called natural sciences. Such sociologically interesting knowledge is not given with the physical world but is a product of group/social processes. They claim that passively observing the world will not convince 'rational' individuals to assent to such knowledge.

See also

  • Sokal affair
    Sokal Affair
    The Sokal affair, also known as the Sokal hoax, was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies...

  • Science and technology studies
    Science and technology studies
    Science, technology and society is the study of how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these, in turn, affect society, politics and culture...

  • Social constructionism
    Social constructionism
    Social constructionism and social constructivism are sociological theories of knowledge that consider how social phenomena or objects of consciousness develop in social contexts. A social construction is a concept or practice that is the construct of a particular group...

  • Sociology of knowledge
    Sociology of knowledge
    The Sociology of knowledge is the study of the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises, and of the effects prevailing ideas have on societies...

  • Historiography of science
    Historiography of science
    Historiography is the study of the history and methodology of the discipline of history. The historiography of science is thus the study of the history and methodology of the sub-discipline of history, known as the history of science, including its disciplinary aspects and practices and to the...

  • Scientific Community Metaphor
    Scientific community metaphor
    In computer science, the Scientific Community Metaphor is a metaphor used to aid understanding scientific communities. The first publications on the Scientific Community Metaphor in 1981 and 1982 involved the development of a programming language named Ether that invoked procedural plans to...

  • Paradigm shift
    Paradigm shift
    A Paradigm shift is, according to Thomas Kuhn in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , a change in the basic assumptions, or paradigms, within the ruling theory of science...

  • Philosophy of social science
    Philosophy of social science
    The philosophy of social science is the study of the logic and method of the social sciences, such as sociology, anthropology and political science...

  • Economics of scientific knowledge (ESK)
    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...


Sociologists of scientific knowledge

  • Barry Barnes
  • David Bloor
    David Bloor
    David Bloor is a professor in, and a former director of, the at the University of Edinburgh .He started his academic career in philosophy and psychology. In the 1970s he and Barry Barnes were the major figures of the strong programme, which put forward queries against philosophical a priorism in...

  • Sal Restivo
    Sal Restivo
    Sal Restivo is a leading contributor to science studies and in particular to the sociology of mathematical knowledge. His current work focuses on the sociology and anthropology of mind and brain, and the sociology of god and religion. He has also done work in the sociology of social and sociable...

  • Randall Collins
    Randall Collins
    Randall Collins, Ph.D. is the Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Advisory Editors Council of the Social Evolution & History Journal. He is considered to be one of the leading non-Marxist conflict theorists in the United...

  • Gaston Bachelard
    Gaston Bachelard
    Gaston Bachelard was a French philosopher. He made contributions in the fields of poetics and the philosophy of science. To the latter he introduced the concepts of epistemological obstacle and epistemological break...

  • Paul Feyerabend
    Paul Feyerabend
    Paul Karl Feyerabend was an Austrian-born philosopher of science best known for his work as a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he worked for three decades . He lived a peripatetic life, living at various times in England, the United States, New Zealand,...

  • Thomas Kuhn
    Thomas Kuhn
    Thomas Samuel Kuhn was an American historian and philosopher of science whose controversial 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was deeply influential in both academic and popular circles, introducing the term "paradigm shift," which has since become an English-language staple.Kuhn...

  • Martin Kusch
    Martin Kusch
    Martin Kusch is Professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna. Until 2009, Kusch was Professor of Philosophy and Sociology of science at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University...

  • Anselm Strauss
    Anselm Strauss
    Anselm Leonard Strauss was an American sociologist internationally known as a medical sociologist and as the developer of grounded theory, an innovative method of qualitative analysis widely used in sociology, nursing, education, social work, and...

  • Lucy Suchman
    Lucy Suchman
    Lucy Suchman is a full Professor of Anthropology of Science and Technology in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University, in the United Kingdom...

  • Harry Collins
    Harry Collins
    Harry Collins is a British professor at the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. While at the University of Bath Professor Collins developed the Bath School approach to the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge...

  • Mike Mulkay
    Mike Mulkay
    Michael Joseph Mulkay is a retired British sociologist of science. He worked as a reader and researcher at the University of Cambridge until 1966, he was then lecturer in sociology at Simon Fraser University 1966 to 1969, at Aberdeen University from 1969 to 1973, and then as Professor of Sociology...

  • Steve Fuller

Further reading

  • Baez, John: The Bogdanoff Affair http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/bogdanov.html
  • Bloor, David (1976) Knowledge and social imagery. London: Routledge.
  • Bloor,David (1999) Anti-Latour. Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A Volume 30, Issue 1, March 1999, Pages 81–11)2.
  • Collins, H.M. (1975) The seven sexes: A study in the sociology of a phenomenon, or the replication of experiments in physics, Sociology, 9, 205-24.
  • Collins, H.M. (1985). Changing order: Replication and induction in scientific practice. London: Sage.
  • Collins, Harry and Steven Yearley. (1992). Epistemological Chicken in Science as Practice and Culture, A. Pickering (ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 301-326.
  • Edwards, D., Ashmore, M. & Potter, J. (1995). Death and furniture: The rhetoric, politics, and theology of bottom line arguments against relativism. History of the Human Sciences, 8, 25-49.
  • Gilbert, G. N. & Mulkay, M. (1984). Opening Pandora’s box: A sociological analysis of scientists’ discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts
    Laboratory Life
    Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts is a 1979 book by sociologists of science Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar.This influential book in the field of science studies presents an anthropological study of Roger Guillemin's scientific laboratory at the Salk Institute...

    . 2nd Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (not an SSK-book, but has a similar approach to science studies)
  • Latour, B. (1987). Science in action : how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (not an SSK-book, but has a similar approach to science studies)
  • Pickering, A. (1984). Constructing Quarks: A sociological history of particle physics. Chicago; University of Chicago Press.
  • Shapin, S. & Schaffer, S. (1985). Leviathan and the Air-Pump
    Leviathan and the Air-Pump
    Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life is a book by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. It examines the debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over Boyle's air-pump experiments in the 1660s. On a more theoretical level, the book explores the deeper issue of...

    . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Williams, R. & Edge, D. (1996). The Social Shaping of Technology. Research Policy, vol. 25, pp. 856–899http://www.comunicazione.uniroma1.it/materiali/16.47.15_WilliamsEdge_1996_TheSocialShapingOfTechnology.pdf
  • Willard, Charles Arthur. (1996). Liberalism and the Problem of Knowledge: A New Rhetoric for Modern Democracy, University of Chicago Press.
  • Jasanoff
    Sheila Jasanoff
    Sheila Jasanoff is an American academic and significant contributor to the field of Science and Technology Studies.-Biography:She is Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where she directs the Program on Science,...

    , S. Markle, G. Pinch T. & Petersen, J. (Eds)(2002), Handbook of science, technology and society, Rev Ed.. London: Sage.

Other relevant materials

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