Sociology of scientific knowledge

Jump to: navigation, search

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 knowledge, 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 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).[2] Major theorists include Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Sal Restivo, Randall Collins, Gaston Bachelard, Harry Collins, Paul Feyerabend, Steve Fuller, Thomas Kuhn, 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, 1926), Raymond L. Wilder and Lesley A. 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 French school of science and technology studies, Actor-network theory (ANT). 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.[3]

The Sokal affair

In 1996, postmodern theorists of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) were the targets of a hoax paper by Alan Sokal in the journal Social Text, under the title Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. The ensuing debate led to these thinkers being accused of "relativism"--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

Sociologists of scientific knowledge


  1. Ben-David, Joseph (1975). "Sociology of Science". Annual Review of Sociology. 1 (1): 203–222. doi:10.1146/ Retrieved 2006-11-29.  Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  3. 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.
  • "Sociology of Scientific Knowledge Category Navigation." Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. Web. 23 Feb. 2012.

< of scientific knowledge>.

Further reading

  • Baez, John: The Bogdanoff Affair [1]
  • 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. 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. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Williams, R. & Edge, D. (1996). The Social Shaping of Technology. Research Policy, vol. 25, pp. 856–899 [2]
  • Willard, Charles Arthur. (1996). Liberalism and the Problem of Knowledge: A New Rhetoric for Modern Democracy, University of Chicago Press.
  • Jasanoff, S. Markle, G. Pinch T. & Petersen, J. (Eds)(2002), Handbook of science, technology and society, Rev Ed.. London: Sage.

Other relevant materials