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Q&A (Intro): The Use of Sociology September 23, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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As I’ve suggested in my posts on Simon Schaffer’s early works, sociology, whether we acknowledge it or not, is an essential component of historiographical work.  The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) program, initiated in the 1970s, has led to some remarkable improvements in historiographical method, essentially by requiring historical explanation for things that were previously taken for granted because knowledge produced by scientific method was assumed to speak for itself.  Where prior scholarship might have simply assumed that good scientific work diffuses on its own (and those who didn’t see that it was “good” were just intellectually deficient), suddenly educational background, the efforts of scientists to “sell” their ideas, resonance with scientists’ religious or intellecutal convictions mattered in understanding the history of science (what I call the “Reception Revolution”).  Similarly, it became inadequate to claim that those who were simply “more curious” or who “looked harder” at nature saw new things; the ability to see new things (at least in all but the most obvious cases) required some understanding of what projects those scientists were undertaking, what training prepared their minds to see what they saw.  And, most famously, the policing of the borders of scientific communities became of paramount historical interest, because conclusions could only be legitimately validated by those in an appropriate moral and intellectual position (Shapin and Schaffer’s famous “Hobbes was right”).  SSK was a boon to the history of science because it caused historians to ask new questions, and, lo and behold, we found good answers to the questions that we asked.

But, to paraphrase Copernicus, sociology is written for sociologists, and historians do well to keep that in mind.  Sociologists seek a sociological theory of science, but this goal has been interpreted by different sociologists in different ways since the SSK revolution.  All seem committed to viewing sociology as the only lens that they are willing to use to understand scientific actions.  Now, some seem to view this as a call for the sociological theory of science to be the theory of science.  This has led to the theories of the “French School” and the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) program, which seek to incorporate the individual scientist’s persuading encounter with the natural world into sociological schemes, which, famously, gives agency to non-human actors.  Others, especially those following the “Bath School” (Harry Collins is among these), have insisted that science must be described by only sociological means and that the encounter with the natural, by definition, does not qualify.  To try to incorporate the encounter with the natural into sociological explanatory schemes is to play “epistemological chicken” (1), and the allies of ANT slammed on the brakes too late (or never slammed them on at all) and went over the cliff.

Will sitting amid the methodological ruins

Will sitting amid the methodological ruins

Those of us sitting here amid the methodological ruins of the mid-’90s “Science Wars” are probably inclined to look warily on the Bath program, as it seems to suggest that science is “merely” sociological, just a cobbled-together set of things scientists have decided for whatever reasons to agree upon.  But that’s not right.  Rather, Collins and his allies counsel disciplinary restraint.  I commented when I first started blogging about their SEE program that it showed a strange unwillingness to engage with the philosophical, but I see now that this is by design: they are unrepentant sociologists—and rightfully so.  Historians are totally free to take scientists’ accounts of their own work at face value and to discuss its epistemological qualities on the basis of their accounts, say to discuss how an experiment convinced a scientist of an argument or generated new ideas.  Collins and co. would not object, I think.  They would simply urge us to keep in mind that, sociologically, we are taking scientists at their word about their work, that there are questions not being unpacked about why that experiment was seen as capable of answering those questions, or where those ideas really came from.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote Seinfeld.  In most circumstances, we should feel free to work this way; we have no choice but to do so; we would be foolish not to do so; and that’s OK.

Crazy stick-figure diagram

Funny stick-figure diagram

I don’t really think most historians have engaged enough with the differences between the various positions among the sociologists.  I can certainly understand why, and would include myself in this group (stroll through some blog posts from the first few months of this year).  After all, the sociology of science deals with inward-looking problems, and deals in an intellectual currency of jargon-ridden terminology, funny stick-figure diagrams, in-jokes, tongue-in-cheek prose, and off-beat case examples.  Either, in a fit of pique, we have sworn off the whole sordid affair (which we shouldn’t because they have helped us in the past), or, we have taken the odd decontextualized dispatch from this sociological world (usually something by Latour or Shapin’s Social History of Truth) as license to declare every indication of a contested scientific category or some link with a localized social context to be some sort of important historical insight automatically worth sharing with the rest of the profession.

The proper stance toward sociology, I now believe, is to ask “what have you done for us lately?”  Fortunately, Collins and allies have been asking this question for over 15 years with the strong suspicion that the answer is “not nearly so much as has been claimed”.  Their desire is for a sociological program that can yield insights that are not based upon our presuppositions; that can yield “counter-commonsensical” results, as they often put it.  The result is what Collins and his colleague at Cardiff Rob Evans consider to be a new “Third Wave” in the sociology of science: “Studies of Expertise and Experience” (SEE).  (Wave One was pre-SSK sociology of science, Mertonian “norms” and all that; Wave Two was SSK and the attempts to expand upon it).

While SEE provides no clear means of resolving disputes on social problems concerning science and technology, it does offer prescriptive advice on who should be involved in problems and in what way, by dividing expertise up according to individuals’ abilities to understand and participate in arguments in the public realm and in the realm of technical decision.  We may have no choice but to take scientists at their word about the issues they know best, but we should be careful not to let that expertise bleed over into taking them at their word about issues they don’t know so well.  SEE provides us with some means of telling the two kinds of issues apart.

I won’t go into detail about SEE here.  Interested readers can pick up Collins and Evans’ book Rethinking Expertise, and can look at their web site.  Taking some familiarity with the SEE program for granted, I asked them eight questions designed not to give them a platform to rearticulate SEE, but to probe the rationale beneath SEE and to understand its implications better.  I am grateful that they took the task very seriously and have crafted detailed responses to each question, which I will serialize here.  I come away convinced of my initial belief (rooted in my thinking along similar lines concerning the post-1940 “policy sciences”) that SEE can help historians understand why scientists have been organized and have organized themselves around defined problems in the ways that they have.  I feel that, for the first time in over twenty years, the sociology of science has provided us with useful new conceptual tools

Note that there have been plenty of objections and controversy concerning SEE in the sociological community, which Collins and Evans have documented on their web site.  I will not worry about that.  This Q&A is not designed to report journalistically on sociologists’ disputes or (God forbid) to enter into them, but to begin a discussion to see what SEE can do for us historians, and what remains for us to do for ourselves.

(1) H. M. Collins and Steven Yearley, “Epistemological Chicken” in Science as Practice and Culture, edited by Andrew Pickering, University of Chicago Press, 1992.  See responses in the same volume.

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