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The sociologists’ game March 25, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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I’m planning on looking at the Collins-Evans SEE program in a little bit more depth in the future. I just received my copy of Rethinking Expertise, and will delve into it at the next opportunity (things are nuts–hence no blog posts in almost a week!) I think we’re eventually going to have a Q&A with Collins and Evans as part of an effort to improve the blog and expand readership.

For now, I’d like to take apart a line in my previous post about their “Third Wave” which is that they seemed “hamstrung” by not engaging in epistemology. This comment is clearly indicative of the historian/sociologist divide. Sociologists of science take particular pride in performing “symmetrical” analyses–that is their sociological descriptions should apply regardless of epistemology. This way they can comment equally on how scientific knowledge operates in society as well as how knowledge gleaned from reading the cracks in a turtle shell produced by a hot poker operated in Ancient Chinese society (say, by determining whether it was auspicious to plant crops).

This move can come off as sort of like a parlor game: how much can we say about knowledge and society without recourse to philosophy? Rhetorically, it takes scientific knowledge down to the level of turtle shell poking, which has been the cause of much protest, especially since reckless statements have been made (Zammito has a good line on this–I’ll dig it up later). I get the sense that the problems caused have also given rise to this idea of things having a “voice” which is interpreted through attendant “spokesmen”. This is part of the point of a lot of Latour’s work, particularly beginning with Pasteurization of France.

I won’t recap the whole history of SSK here (again, see Zammito); but I find it interesting that sociologists refuse to use philosophical “cheats” to rectify, at least temporarily, the rhetorical absurdities. As an historian, I feel entirely free to investigate social structures and philosophical convictions to see how they inhabit scientific practices, but (I think) that’s because I’m interested in investigating specific historical practices of specific actors; I’m not attempting to explain “scientific practice” in general (at least in long duration trends). In this way, I can at least make a stab at explaining the historical data.

The idea of having to tear science down before we can build it back up sociologically (as Collins and Evans seem to be trying to do) strikes me as inefficient. The insights achieved by SSK have been valuable, and we can write better histories because of it, but the gap between the initiation of Wave Two and the initiation of Wave Three (should it even take off), has meant spending Moses-like time spans in the academic wilderness with a deconstructed scientific enterprise that obviously has merit. If the refusal to use epistemological cheats really is just a parlor game, we should ask if it was worth it.

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