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Norms, “Ideology”, and the Move against “Functionalist” Sociology September 4, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) critique of the Mertonian program to define a “normative structure of science” centered around the complaint that, by focusing on the social conditions that fostered scientific rationality, nothing was said about the sociology of knowledge-producing processes in everyday scientific work. It seems to me that SSK strategies like “methodological relativism”, and Steven Shapin’s embrace of “middle-range” historico-sociological theories, might ultimately have resulted in additions to, and a reconciliation with, the original Mertonian framework.

However, at the same time, another critique questioned the basic validity of that framework. This critique shared the SSK critique’s interest in describing actual scientific work, but, like Mertonian sociology, it focused on scientists’ and others’ sense of the essence of scientific culture without directly addressing knowledge-production processes. This critique held that, because “functionalist” ideal-type systems of scientific behavior could not actually be found in their pure form, such systems did not meaningfully exist. Legitimate sociology had to be obtained inductively from the empirical record, as studied by historians and ethnologists.

A key work here is: Michael Mulkay, “Norms and Ideology in Science,” Social Science Information 15 (1976): 637-656.

Mulkay was much exercised by studies indicating that Mertonian norms failed to describe even scientists’ own stated attitudes toward their work (639):

In recent years, there has been much criticism of this kind of functional analysis of science. One reason for such criticism is that detailed study by historians and sociologists has shown that in practice scientists deviate from some at least of these putative norms with a frequency which is remarkable if we presume that the latter are firmly institutionalised.

Rather, though behavior following Mertonian norms could be found, it seemed to coexist with what Mertonians called “counter-norms”, which were essentially the opposite of norms. If science was supposed to be universal, it often revolved around cliques; if it was supposed to be disinterested, scientists often fiercely defended pet theories; if science was supposed to be communal, it was often secretive. Mulkay pointed, in particular, to a then-recent study of NASA moon scientists by Ian Mitroff.*

Mitroff’s own response had been to attempt to revise the Mertonian framework, which by then emphasized the “ambivalence” of science as it balanced norms and counter-norms. In his conclusion, Mitroff suggested that Thomas Kuhn’s division of science into pre-paradigmatic, normal, and revolutionary phases helped frame the idea that how well “defined” a scientific problem was determined whether norms or counter-norms were likely to dominate.

For his part, Mulkay preferred to pull the temple down, rather than suppose that norms and counter-norms functioned in any sort of organized relationship within science. By his reckoning, there was no evidence that either norms or counter-norms were institutionalized within a functioning reward system in science. Instead, rewards were allocated “overwhelmingly in response to the perceived quality of the scientific findings presented” (642).

Mulkay supposed, therefore, first, that scientists used various social behaviors opportunistically to advance the interests of local epistemic communities, and, further, that the entire Mertonian sociological framework established to that date was actually reflective of an “ideology” established through the rhetoric that scientists deployed in justification of their work to outsiders (646):

I wish to suggest … that scientists have tended to select from their repertoire of accounts, those formulations originally taken by the functionalist interpreters to be the central norms of science; and that this version was selected because it served the social interests of scientists. It follows that the original functional analysis did identify a genuine social reality, but one better conceived as an ideology than as a normative structure.

To make this case, Mulkay rested on a number of studies of scientists’ rhetoric and institutional organization: George Daniels, “The Pure-Science Ideal and Democratic Culture,” Science 156 (1967): 1699-1705, and “The Process of Professionalization of American Science,” Isis 58 (1967): 151-166; Daniel Greenberg, The Politics of Pure Science (1967); and Ronald Tobey, The American Ideology of National Science, 1919-1930 (1971). And also studies of perceptions of science among high-school and college students by Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux, and David Beardslee and Donald O’Dowd, respectively.

A similar approach was used in Thomas Gieryn, “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists” American Sociological Review (1983): 781-795, which I have previously discussed in the context of historians’ interest in boundary studies.

Gieryn’s aim was to address the “demarcation problem” as not simply an analytical task for philosophers and sociologists of science, but as a product of scientists’ polemical strategies: “This paper restates the problem of demarcation: characteristics of science are examined not as inherent or possibly unique, but as part of ideological efforts by scientists to distinguish their work and its products from non-scientific intellectual activities” (781-2, Gieryn’s emphasis).

Gieryn drew on anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s 1964 essay, “Ideology as a Cultural System” (more on this at a later date) to note the complementarity of “interest” and “strain” theories of ideology, but mainly to heed Geertz’s suggestion that sociologists study the “‘stylistic resources’ used in constructing ideologies: how do ideologists use literary devices metaphor, hyperbole, irony, and sarcasm, or syntactical devices of antithesis, inversion, and repetition?” (782).

Prior studies of ideology and science seemed to presume the authority of science, but to understand the source of that authority the study of rhetoric seemed to be the way forward (783):

Mulkay offers a promising agenda: he analyzes Merton’s four norms not as constraints on scientists’ behavior, but as ‘vocabularies’ for ideological descriptions of science. Especially when scientists confront the public or its politicians, they endow science with characteristics selected for an ability to advance professional interests. Scientists have a number of ‘cultural repertoires’ available for constructing ideological self-descriptions, among them Merton’s norms, but also claims to the utility of science for advancing technology, winning wars, or deciding policy in an impartial way.

Gieryn then went on to examine the qualities of science within the “ideologies” of science presented in the speeches of John Tyndall (1820-1893); the disputes over phrenology previously investigated in the 1970s by Shapin, Geoffrey Cantor, Roger Cooter, and Roger Smith; and reaction to then-contemporary suggestions in America to control the publication of sensitive but non-classified research. In these debates, science tended to be defined not only in terms that protected its interests, but in ways that were complementary to the interests of potential supporters, and that marginalized rivals.

Although Gieryn portrayed the construction of ideologies as complementary to, rather than a replacement for, Mertonian studies of “ambivalence”, his empirical program for defining “boundary-work” contributed to a removal of boundaries between sociological analysis and history. In 1983, the sense that norms functioned around or within scientific work in any consistently organized and analyzable way was waning, replaced by the sense that distilling ideal-types out of the social behaviors of science was an ideological exercise undertaken mainly by scientists themselves.

I believe this look at Mulkay and Gieryn’s sociology will help develop a few interrelated points:

First: the role of SSK in the development of the history of science has been overstated.  While those initials took on great symbolic significance in marking an intentional break with older scholarly work, the SSK project never actually cohered. While SSK did help focus attention, in particular, on the analysis of cultural conventions of trust within the sciences, this issue was also present in critiques of the Mertonian norm of “universalism”. Collins’ identification of the “experimenter’s regress” as a point of breakdown in irreconcilable conflicts does seem to have been unique to SSK.

Second: the renunciation of sociological abstraction, which established a preference for empirical work in the history and ethnography of science, seems to owe a large debt to the sort of critique discussed in this post. Ironically, once history and ethnography were licensed to take the lead, they ceased to take much new inspiration from, or contribute many new ideas to the social studies of science — as was recently noted by Lorraine Daston, who saw it as a turn from science studies to the methods of microhistory.

However, third: historians’ and ethnographers’ interests were funneled thereafter into a fairly specific set of questions revolving around the conflicts that occur across divides where different standards of valid or valued knowledge prevail. While SSK’s “symmetry” and Gieryn’s “boundary-work” would both emphasize such divides, an emphasis on rhetorical conventions (or, as I like to say, “insultography”) at these divides seems more directly related to the critique outlined here.

Finally, as a side note, it is interesting to observe that while Shapin clearly identified with the SSK critique in the 1970s and ’80s, in The Scientific Life (2008), he made something much more akin to a Mulkay-style attack on the Mertonian functionalist program’s empirical failures in describing the motivations of industrial researchers, and in particular the supposition that industrial scientists would be burdened by the “ambivalence” caused by the strain of living under multiple, conflicting normative structures. I would recommend reading the book as basically a delayed entry in these 1970s-era debates.

*Ian Mitroff, The Subjective Side of Science (1974); see also his “Norms and Counter-Norms in a Select Group of the Apollo Moon Scientists: A Case Study of the Ambivalence of Scientists,” American Sociological Review 39 (1974): 579-595. Also, intriguingly, Mitroff seems to have been a student of philosopher-operations researcher West Churchman.


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