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Sociology and History: Shapin on the Merton Thesis August 28, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post will mainly focus on Steven Shapin’s “Understanding the Merton Thesis” Isis 79 (1988): 594-605, which may be my favorite work by him.

Robert K. Merton’s “functionalist” sociology viewed “science” as a kind of Weberian ideal type — a form of thought that is identifiable by its peculiar, philosophically-defined characteristics. Merton’s sociology of science held that this thought could also be identified with social behaviors, characterized by a set of “norms”, which made the thought possible.

The Merton Thesis (which slightly predates Merton’s enumeration of science’s norms) holds that the rise of science in early-modern England could be linked to the social behaviors valued by the Puritanism of that milieu. This was the subject of Merton’s PhD thesis and his 1938 book Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England.

As I briefly noted in a prior discussion, before 1980 it was generally supposed that a sharp division could be drawn between the sociology of science, which (like philosophy) sought general principles, and the history of science, which focused on particulars. Beginning in the 1970s sociological reformers would criticize Mertonian sociology by using the historical record of scientific work to point to its inconsistency with the Mertonian portrait.

Mertonians could respond that these inconsistencies were incidental to general knowledge. For example, in his introduction to the 1984 edition of The Scientist’s Role in Society (first edition, 1971), Mertonian sociologist Joseph Ben-David responded to critics operating under the rubric of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) (xxii):

The argument in the first chapter of this book does not deny that research and discovery are on many occasions influenced by conditions external to science [i.e. social contexts]. It only asserts that whereas the influence of the internal [i.e., rational] disciplinary traditions is permanent and ubiquitous, since these traditions more or less determine what can be done in science at any given time, the external influences are ephemeral and random. Therefore, it is argued in the book, the external influences are the proper subject matter for historical inquiry, which is traditionally concerned with one-time events, but not for sociology, which is interested in regular, ‘systematic’ relationships, and not in one time occurrences.

Nevertheless, in spite of clear distinctions they drew between sociology and history, Mertonian sociologists did, of course, suppose that sociological analysis could be useful to historians by helping to tie the history of the scientific enterprise (but not the contents of science) to its social surroundings. Shapin’s 1988 piece explained how it was supposed to do so.

Shapin’s piece was, partially, an apologia for the Merton Thesis.* He observed, “There has never been a celebrated historical theory so cautiously framed, so methodologically eclectic, so hedged about with qualifications as to its form, content, and consequences, and so temperately expressed” (594). Given Merton’s conscientiousness, Shapin found little cause for the controversies that have surrounded the thesis. He supposed that the “failure to appreciate its methodological eclecticism and judiciousness can at best be the result of the very ‘swift-reading’ at which Merton mildly bridled in 1970…. ‘Swift-reading’ may be culpable in the academic world, but it is all too common, the more so if one’s readers have their ‘straw men’ already formed in their minds before they come to the text” (604).

Merton (1910-2003) has, of course, been something of a lightning rod for those who have a stake in repudiating various theories of history and of science. Despite his own assertions that he intended no such thing, the Merton Thesis could smack of a deterministic materialism to those opposed to the sort of Marxist history of scientific knowledge offered by contemporaneous figures like Boris Hessen (1893-1936).

Meanwhile, despite the extensive qualifications Merton put on his claims, meticulous historians could note that there was no necessary connection between scientific work and Puritanism, pointing to alternative sources of the seventeenth-century scientific enterprise, and its flourishing in non-Puritan contexts.

And, of course, SSK proponents, including Shapin, continually faulted the “norms” of Mertonian sociology for failing to account for the sociological processes that made stable agreements about knowledge possible, and for failing to call attention to important social phenomena to be found in the history of knowledge production. In fact, Shapin took a moment to reinforce the point here (595):

Far from poaching the traditional game of historians of science, Merton was actually offering them further resources by which they might protect scientific knowledge from sociological scrutiny. ¶ For Merton the explanandum was emphatically not scientific method or scientific knowledge: it was the dynamics and social standing of a scientific enterprise that was itself conceived of as a black box. There was no reason to open up the box that contained scientific procedures and knowledge; there was nothing sociological to be said about what was in the box.

There were, then, plenty of reasons why those with a stake in establishing various intellectual programs would want to cast the Merton Thesis as a reductionist straw man. I think it should be acknowledged that Shapin was taking the high road here by defending the legitimacy of Merton’s historiographical contributions, even if he himself was eager to move beyond Merton’s sociology.

Shapin observed that the link Merton drew between Puritanism and seventeenth-century English science was a matter of happenstance rather than determinism. According to Merton, science requires certain “values” and “sentiments” allowing intellectual individualism, and fostering not only an interest in the transcendent, but also secular improvement. It so happened that these values and sentiments were to be found in Puritan asceticism and sense of social obligation, which thus provided a social context in which science could develop.

Definitively, this was not to say that Puritanism provided a unique source of these values and sentiments, or that science did not have other roots. It was obviously possible for science to develop in Catholic contexts as well, despite the less hospitable value system of Catholicism. The confluence of values simply seemed to promise some insight into the growth of science in a particular time and place.

Vilfredo Pareto

Perhaps Shapin’s most important contribution in his 1988 piece was his elucidation of the relationship between Merton’s thinking and the sociology of Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923, probably better known today for his work in theoretical economics). For Pareto, “sentiments” were unobservable states of mind that manifested themselves both in actions and in what actors said about their actions. Sociologists could access the “residues” of sentiments through an intensive study of consistent verbal behaviors.

In effect, sentiments presented an alternative to Marxist materialist explanations for those who did not wish to attribute historical developments to conscious design. While Puritan religion unquestionably produced markedly different ideas from science, they could be linked by the sentiments underlying them both, as evidenced in the patterns of verbal justifications given for them. According to Shapin (601):

Given that the dominant sentiments of the historical setting were expressed in religious language, any new form of social action, such as experimental natural philosophy, was obliged to justify itself and to seek legitimacy by a public display of its compatibility with those sentiments and their expression: ‘New patterns of conduct must be justified if they are to take hold and become the foci of social sentiments.’

This did not mean that early-modern English scientists “cobbled together socially expedient justifications for their activities, which activities were in fact motivated solely by ‘intrinsic’ values. On the contrary, Merton stipulated both that scientists were genuinely and powerfully motivated by religious sentiments and that they need not be conscious of these motivations” (602).

My own difficulty with the Merton Thesis has mainly to do with the difficulties associated with identifying a novel enterprise of “science” in the seventeenth century. The notion sets up the key problem as finding an environment amenable to it amid otherwise unpromising cultural terrain. My own preference would be to connect the new genres of the seventeenth century work and literature with established genres, noting specifically which developments might have been novel and controversial in specific settings, and which were not. This obviates the need to look for peculiar niches where a wholly new and unfamiliar enterprise could survive and grow.

Shapin also noted this genre difficulty (fn32), but was primarily interested in defending the sophistication of Merton’s arguments, particularly given their novelty in the historiography of the 1930s. I think Shapin was right about this: Merton does seem to have succeeded in judiciously drawing out the mental connections that scientific figures drew between their projects (however we might designate them) and the religious attitudes of their milieu. It is not surprising that Merton succeeded, because, Shapin again emphasized, the claim was never meant to be radical. It was an example of what Merton called a “theory of the middle range” — non-global in its application, but suggesting some applicability, given modification, beyond purely local contexts.

I feel it is also unsurprising that Shapin sympathized with Merton’s middle-range melding of history and sociology. The connections that Shapin himself observed in Leviathan and the Air Pump (1985, with Simon Schaffer) between gentlemanly status and the validity granted to testimony on matters of observational fact, and, more broadly, between arguments about scientific procedure and ideas about reliable polity (i.e., Thomas Hobbes’ criticisms of experimental natural philosophy), were themselves only fully valid within a local historical milieu, and even there they were incomplete explanations of historical behaviors. But, like Merton’s thesis about the emergence of the scientific enterprise, Shapin’s ideas were new and compelling, and likewise drawn from more global sociological theories, in this case about the prerequisites for the successful construction of scientific knowledge.

*The piece’s title is a variation on Gary Abraham, “Misunderstanding the Merton Thesis: A Boundary Dispute between History and Sociology,” Isis 74 (1983): 368-387, which also defends the thesis against historians’ varied interpretations, some of which appear to be quite outside of my experience and perhaps worthy of follow-up.

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