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INTERPRETING THE PRODUCTION OF SCIENCE

by Robert M. Young

Member of the Radical Science Journal collective

Natural scientists, the author claims, are over-ready to hold forth about the social relations of science, ignorance of the considerable body of research and expertise that exists in this area.

 

It is a fact about the division of labour among branches of knowledge that working scientists do not find it any easier to think in sophisticated ways about the social relations of science than sociologists do to think about, say, quantum mechanics or catastrophe theory. But it's also a fact about the peck order of who has a right to feel more complacent than whom, that working natural scientists tend to think that their niche in the division of labour has a wider field of vision than, say, sociologists — even (especially?) sociologists of science. My own experience is that someone who does research on some aspect of "science and society" is much less likely to accept an invitation to speak on superconductors, nerve-muscle physiology, X-ray crystallography or psychology than experts in those scientific sub-disciplines are to write and lecture on epistemology, medieval science and society science and values or the social relations of scientific knowledge.

 

In some ways this is lovely, because it shows some attempt on the part of specialists to take seriously broader issues of social responsibility. On the other hand, the pronouncements of working scientists — especially eminent ones — tend to be made with an authoritativeness that is not appropriate outside their own area of expertise. It is easy to forget that equally serious people have conducted laborious researches and thought very hard about many aspects of the social relations of science, technology and medicine, and that disciplines, sub-disciplines and attendant literatures have grown up which are worth looking into before pronouncing quite so "authoritatively".

 

I say all this because I have recently had a number of experiences of working scientists writing in ways which I have found pretty dismissive and dogmatic about various aspects of science and values, science and society, science and ideology, in current and historical terms. These writings have betrayed little or no awareness that there are ongoing debates on these matters among people who have done their homework. The reason I am not giving examples is that I come in peace to offer access to some of the positions on these topics and have no wish to stir it up just now with the people whose names are on the tip of my pen.

 

The study of the social relations of science, technology and medicine has become a fairly complex field, and the scholars in the relevant domains would dearly love to have their work read and engaged with by working scientists according to standards which are normal between scientific specialists. Indeed, the debate on the problematic role of science and of various sorts of experts has become immensely important. It is a central theme in current cultural debate, occupying the attention of leading social commentators (see, for example, Daniel Bell's The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Penguin; and Daniel Boorstin's The Republic of Technology, Harper & Row). Serious engagement between those who think about science has, as a consequence of the significance of the issues, become urgent. If there is to be a responsible and fruitful debate about the appropriate relationship between science, technology and medicine on one hand and wider social, political and economic priorities on the other, surely it behoves all of us to know something about the existing research and points of view. I shall now mention eight approaches and ways into their literatures, without attempting to be exhaustive or to imply that they are mutually exclusive.

 

 

Sociology of Science. This is the most widespread and best-established approach — a recognised subdivision of sociology, differing only in its object of study. The sociologist of science investigates the social forces at work on and within the general scientific community as well as particular disciplines: growth of fields, funding, institutionalisation, professionalisation, career structure, patronage, priority disputes, communication networks, elites. The social system and the social relations of science are studied and interpreted according to the currently reigning approach in sociology, which concentrates on the structures and functions which go to make up stability and change. Fieldwork, quantitative methods and studies of the literature are employed, and the special normative features of science, e.g., objectivity and peer review, are given particular attention. The epistemological status of scientific findings and theories is not part of the domain of the sociology of science but is the concern of the philosophy of science (and to some extent of the sociology of knowledge).

 

The doyen of the sociology of science, who has contributed a stream of important papers since his pioneering work in the 1930s, is Robert K. Merton. His main papers are collected (with an introduction pointing to other approaches) in The Sociology of Science (Chicago). The comparable figure in the sociology of medicine is Eliot Friedson, whose Profession of Medicine (Dodd, Mead) broke new ground in the study of the professionalism of expertise. Social Studies of Science and Technology and Culture are periodicals which canvass this approach.

 

Kuhn challenged

 

Sociology of Knowledge. The social origins of ideas and the social interests served by them is the domain of the sociology of knowledge, which some consider to be a branch of sociology and others treat as the furthest extension of epistemology into social studies. The recent debate on the problem of making any demarcation between science and ideology arose within the set of issues which developed from the work of Karl Mannheim, whose Ideology and Utopia: an Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (Routledge) published in 1936, is the classic treatise. The writ of the discipline ran only to the borders of mathematics and natural science, but it began to be pushed farther in the wake of a broader approach stimulated in 1967 by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman's The Social Construction of Reality (Lane), which emboldened some to ask if conceptions of natural reality might not be constructed in ways analogous to how societies and individuals come to experience the social world. The inviolability of natural knowledge to social analysis has also been challenged by Thomas Kuhn's studies of the social process of conceptual change in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago), by David Bloor's work on the sociology of mathematical knowledge; and by the work of his colleagues, Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin, at the Edinburgh Science Studies Unit.

 

But the most original and detailed study in this tradition is a tour de force by Paul Forman. His paper, "Weimar Culture, Causality and Quantum Theory, 1918-1927: Adaptation by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment" (published in Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, vol. 3, p. 1), shows just how deeply the sociology of knowledge can penetrate into the cultural evocation of scientific concepts and (in this case) whole approaches to natural phenomena. The issues raised by the sociology of knowledge are always in danger of undermining the foundations of the claims of science to value-free objective knowledge, and there is a large and fraught literature concerned with shoring up those foundations — something that is much easier to do in the physical than in the biological and social sciences .

 

Anthropology of Knowledge. It has occurred to some researchers to take a different perspective from that of Anglo-American sociology and the related problems of the epistemological status of scientific knowledge. Instead, a small band of anthropologists has suggested that we examine science, technology and medicine in the same way that we study the belief system, social system and process of socialisation of any tribe. This approach was inspired by Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss's Primitive Classification in 1903, and pioneered in Robin Horton's "African Traditional Thought and Western Science" (Africa, vol. 37, pp. 50 and 155), published in 1967. It has been most boldly and penetratingly developed by Mary Douglas in a series of studies beginning with Purity and Danger (Routledge). Starting with analyses of concepts of clean and dirty, pollution and taboo, her work (and that of others influenced by it) has gone on to consider the anthropology of the relations between the symbolic and social orders with respect to mathematics, geology, medicine, environmental debates, and general conceptions in sociology and biology — e.g., the historical and social relations among concepts of health and disease, adaptation and maladaptation, adjustment and deviance. In later work on Natural Symbols (Cresset), Implicit Meanings (Routledge) and Rules and Meanings (Penguin), she develops the thesis that we need to look again at the social basis of knowledge, to see how narrow the gap is between the construction of everyday knowledge and of scientific knowledge, and to treat them as a single field of enquiry. She concludes that nothing — no matter how detailed or how abstract and general — escapes the structuring of the social world: all is mediation.

 

Base and Superstructure. But if all is mediation, what is it a mediation of? Are the forces which provide the dynamic of the histories of science, technology and medicine to be found entirely within the internal history of discoveries and the history of ideas? Or is the determination to be found elsewhere in the last instance? Since the l9th century writings of Marx and Engels on ideology and political economy, marxists have argued that the economic structure of a society is constituted by the contradictory unity of the social relations of production and the material forces of production. This, in turn, provides the base on which arises a legal, political, cultural and intellectual superstructure. Whether or not — and if so how — to include natural science in this scheme has been a hotly controverted question within marxism and between marxists and non-marxists. Science as productive force? Science as super structure? Beginning with certain exploratory speculations of Engels in The Dialectics of Nature and Anti-Dühring and extending into the writings of Soviet marxists, a position has been worked out which treats scientific developments as direct reflections of changes in the economic sphere of production.

 

The classical expression of this position was made during the dramatic appearance of the Soviet delegation at the 1931 International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in London (proceedings published as Science at the Cross Roads, Cass). The paper which caused the greatest stir and which remains the locus classicus of the "base - superstructure" (sometimes — I think rightly — called economism or the "vulgar marxist") view of science is Boris Hessen's "The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's Principia which links the main areas in Newton's physics with those in the economy in a one-to-one fashion: "If we compare this basic series of themes with the physical problems which we found when analysing the technical demands of transport, means of communication, industry and war, it becomes quite clear that these problems of physics were fundamentally determined by these demands" (p. 166). This approach had a profound influence on the treatment of science and its history by, for example, J. D. Bernal, Joseph Needham and J. G. Crowther. For most non-marxists, base-superstructure theory is equated with the marxist approach to science and is therefore a relatively easy target for satirical criticisms. Among the periodicals which have taken marxist economism seriously (but have not restricted themselves to this approach) are Science and Society and International Journal of Health Services.

 

 

Mediation Theory. Towards the end of his life Engels realised that the dangers of economic reductionism were considerable and argued for paying much more attention to the ways in which the base — now defined more broadly as "the production and reproduction of real life" — gave rise to, and interacted with, intellectual and cultural forces in complex and indirect ways. The base was determinate in the last instance, to be sure, but there were all the other instances (political, ideological), providing buffers, liberal interpretations, more or less enlightened patronage, institutions, cultural lags, unintended by-products — in short, myriad mediations which modify and can even contradict the ruling ideas of the owners of the means of production. Instead of reading off the likely reflections of economic forces in the superstructure, one had to approach the issues more circumspectly and consider matters from the point of view of the totality of relations.

 

Whole areas of study of these mediations grew up especially in philosophy, literature and other aspects of culture. Leading theoreticians extended the approach to the understanding of nature, as well as to science and technology in a narrower sense. Thus vulgar marxism was opposed by a richer view, for example, in Georg Lukács's History and Class Consciousness, Karl Korsch's Marxism and Philosophy, and Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks They wanted to replace the economism and scientism of vulgar marxism with a more subtle sense of the interrelations and mutual determinations among philosophical, politico-economic and natural categories. For example, Lukács thought of nature as a societal category, while Gramsci treated the concepts of matter and of objectivity as relative to the history of the mode of production.

 

In a related series of studies extending into the present, writers associated with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory concentrated on various aspects of cultural control — what Gramsci called "hegemony", i.e., the organisation of consent in a society by means other than overt physical force without the actual power relations becoming apparent. They placed special emphasis on science and technology, scientific and technological rationality and the role of scientific and technological experts in establishing and maintaining exploitative and repressive socio-economic structures in the midst of progress and plenty. Their work fully incorporated the investigation of science and technology into cultural studies in ways which have not yet been taken up by academic centres where other aspects of culture are studied. Among the relevant writings of this school are Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man, Jürgen Habermas's "Technology and Science as 'Ideology'" (in his Towards a Rational Society, Heinemann), Alfred Schmidt's The Concept of Nature in Marx (NLB), and — closely allied — Alfred Sohn-Rethel's Intellectual and Manual Labour: a Critique of Epistemology (Macmillan). There are two new journals concerned with the study of mediations Social Text and Marxist Perspectives; these join the well-established Cultural Studies (now a Hutchinson annual).

 

Social aspects

 

Labour Process Studies. More recently an attempt has been made to combine certain aspects of mediation theory with the analysis of the production of scientific knowledge which treats it by analogy to other sorts of production — as a labour process consisting of 1. work, 2. raw materials, and 3. means of production. This approach moves away from focusing on what is special about scientific knowledge and considers just how much of the social relations and social processes of the origination, reproduction and dissemination of science, technology and medicine are like those of any other manufactured products on the one hand and other areas o£ culture on the other. Instead of taking an epistemological approach involving a knowing subject and an object being investigated according to a method, it analyses a social process whereby scientific workers transform raw materials into products by means of instruments and procedures.

 

The model is based more on craft and industry than on pure knowledge and the ivory tower. It also helps one to think of the sorts of social factors which the sociologists of science studies, as integral to the production of knowledge rather than contextual. Grant-getting, customer-contract relations, careers, fashions, power and hierarchy are thereby more easily treated as part of a single domain which includes the research itself. Labour process studies of science, technology and medicine are just beginning to be conducted, but some early fruits can be found in the Conference of Socialist Economists' pamphlet on The Labour Process and Class Strategies and in articles published this year in Radical Science Journal (no: 6/7).

 

I want to mention but not discuss two other approaches. The first is structuralist studies of the relationship between power and the formal structure of knowledge, a perspective developed in a series of books of astonishing virtuosity by Michel Foucault, translated from the French as Madness and Civilization (Tavistock), The Order of Things, The Archaeology of Knowledge, The Birth of the Clinic, and Discipline and Punish. I mention his work for the sake of completeness and because it is brilliant, but it is difficult to imagine how one could build in a systematic way on his very idiosyncratic, individualist insights into various aspects of the archaeology of bodies of knowledge in the biomedical and human sciences.

 

Second, there is a recent trend to set up courses and programmes, units and symposia, and even posts (in a tight market) on science (or technology or medicine) and values (or ethics), especially in North America. My own view, after visiting a number of these enterprises, is that they reflect a deep malaise on the part of educational and research institutions about the need to think critically about ethical, socio-political, economic and ideological aspects of science, technology and medicine but that they have not on the whole found their way into the literatures and debates outlined above. That is, they are being set upon a rather ad hoc eclectic basis and have not yet made serious contact with disciplined studies of these issues, even though it is a welcome sign that some of the relevant questions are beginning to be asked within institutions and are finding a place in the curricula.

 

An analogy occurs to me which might help to overcome some of the scepticism many working scientists have about the social constitution of science. When On the Origin of Species first appeared, many scientists who could not see the connection between their findings and Darwin's theory insisted that he could not show them the missing links. He replied that they should not merely look at the tips of the branching trees of speciation but also back along the (necessarily fragmented) stems and branches to the trunk and roots deep in the fossil record. The analogy is that when a working scientist wants to know the social relations of knowledge, s/he needs not only to look at this fact or that ultracentrifuge but also at the concepts, the sorts of classifications, the assumptions, the history and the structural congruences between knowledge and the socio-economic order. This is not likely to be any easier to sort out than any other serious matter. Only if it is treated as a matter for sustained and disciplined inquiry in which the intellectual standards of special fields other than one' own are treated with the same respect one requires for one's own hard-won special expertise, are we likely to discover how societies constitute their knowledge.

 

No one is silly enough to suggest that particular findings — the boiling point of water, the spin on an electron, or the light polarisation of an organic compound — are determined by socio-economic forces. But many of the approaches outlined above do invite us to look at various levels of the constitution of knowledge by wider historical forces, not excluding, for example, the concept of electron or the classification of the properties of matter. At the deepest level, world-views or philosophies of society are arguably historically constituted. Within a given mode of production different epochs call up different disciplines and topics, along with criteria for acceptable answers to the questions we put to nature. Within a given period different priorities and conceptual frameworks arise.

 

The undoubted contributions of the internal history of ideas and discoveries can thus be complemented by asking a series of questions about, for example, why the 16th and 17th centuries (in certain countries) gave us closely-intertwined and far-reaching changes in the rise of capitalism the Protestant ethic and the development of the metaphysical assumptions of modern science; why the late 17th century gave us Newtonian mechanics, while Weimer Germany gave us acausality and quantum mechanics; why the 18th century was an era of classifications across a wide range of disciplines, while the mid-19th was preoccupied with progress through competition, and the 1950s and 1960s concentrated on micromechanisms of information coding and reproduction; why the early 19th century gave us phrenology, the turn of the present century eugenics and IQ, the 1920s behaviourism, followed by the development of ethology and most recently, by sociobiology.

 

Published in New Scientist 81 (no. 1148) 29 March 1979, pp 1026-28.

 

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

3412 words


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