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Collins and Tacit Knowledge December 26, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Before proceeding further in my discussion of “tactile history”, I’d like to take a slight detour back through my discussion of Harry Collins’ “methodological relativism” to his earliest articles, in order to get at some of the ideas underlying his interest in tacit knowledge, which was highly influential in the historiography of science, and continues to play a key role in his current work on the sociology of expertise:

1) H. M. Collins, “The TEA Set: Tacit Knowledge and Scientific Networks,” Science Studies 4 (1974): 165-186

2) H. M. Collins, “The Seven Sexes: A Study in the Sociology of a Phenomenon, or The Replication of Experiments in Physics,” Sociology 9, (1975): 205-224

Throughout the history of social constructionism in the history of science, there was never any agreement as to what the relationship between sociology and history was supposed to be.  Some proponents evidently sought to reduce the history of science to a sociological process, effectively replacing philosophical accounts (see especially David Bloor’s “Polyhedra and the Abominations of Leviticus” [paywall]).  Collins attempted to come to purely sociological accounts of scientific knowledge without resorting to philosophical appraisals, but not necessarily replacing philosophy or supposing that sociology should be able to account for the history of science.  Tacit knowledge was crucial to his analysis of how and where sociological factors operate in science.

By the mid-1980s, programmatic differences between the various proponents of SSK dominated discussion in the field.  In “The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge: Studies of Contemporary Science,” Annual Review of Sociology 9 (1983): 265-285, Collins himself observed (265-266) that SSK was “recently disappointing because, though the field has only begun to fulfil its potential, disagreements are now taking up more space than substantive contributions, the standard for an acceptable theoretical discussion is not uniformly high, and field study design often owes more to local circumstances than to research strategy.”

In 1975, though, it was still possible to view SSK as a fresh, progressive, and unified endeavor.  Collins traced his work on the sociology of scientific knowledge-building to Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), and to then-more-recent program-building works:

David Bloor, “Wittgenstein and Mannheim on the Sociology of Mathematics” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 4 (1973), 1973-91.

Barry Barnes, “Sociological Explanations and Natural Science: A Kuhnian Reappraisal” Archives Européennes de Sociologie 13 (1972), 373-391.

Richard Whitley, “Black Boxism and the Sociology of Science,” in Sociological Review Monograph No. 18 (September 1972), 61-91.

Collins’ contribution to this literature was his interest in working out the consequences of the fact that the explicit rational processes of science cannot account for the totality of science as a creative and social process.  He pointed out that interest in this issue stemmed back at least to Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) and his discussions of tacit knowledge, particularly in Personal Knowledge (1958).

Collins held that there were specific places where the rational (or “algorithmic”) work of science met the social work of science (2, 206):

The overall programme is to show how scientific concepts are related to the societies (or political interests) in which they are embedded.  What is needed if these demands are to be met, is some discussion of the mechanism of the construction of scientific cognitions which shows where ‘society gets in’.  Simply to show that particular elements in science are congruent with particular interests or cultures is not sufficient.  It has to be shown that ‘the scientific method’ — the actual practices of scientists — could yield one result rather than another in different social circumstances.

It is worth noting here that Collins’ criticism of the insufficiency of showing the “congruence” of science with a surrounding culture would be repeated by Steven Shapin in his occasional calls for the construction of a fully fleshed out social (rather than individualistic) epistemology — I believe this remains a powerful criticism of the lack of ambition in a lot of historical work, which has habitually contented itself by resorting to the notion that linking scientific work to a social, cultural, or political context constitutes a “good deed for the city,” so to speak.

Anyway, for his part, Collins thought that “sociological explanations” of science would be found in the specific places where rational (i.e., articulated) matters could not account for failures to come to agreement in scientific work (2, 208):

According to the algorithmical model we would expect a scientist wishing to replicate an experiment to search his available information sources for the algorithm, follow it, produce an exact copy of the original appartus, and ipso facto identical results.  Where this process does not take place the model implies that the explanation might be found in the incompleteness of the algorithm in available information sources, and it follows that the sociologist should look for the causes of this incompleteness.

In this way, sociological study could help account for the unarticulated “culture” that socially determines whether or not experiments have been successfully replicated, or, indeed, scientific progress has been made (2, 208):

The only way to know if any culture has been absorbed is in successful interaction with native members.  In the case of scientists, successful interaction means producing results acceptable to the scientific community, for instance, doing an experiment which works.

Collins would later devote a great deal of work to examining the powers and limits of rational processes that are embedded in computer programs, and their inability to recreate human intelligence because of their inability to recreate the necessarily unarticulated aspects of human culture, which determine when and how algorithms are to be applied, and so whether or not agreements can be reached.  (Incidentally, see also Simon Schaffer on William Whewell’s (1794-1866) critical distinction between “permanent” and “progressive” knowledge.)

Collins’ famous study of the TEA laser (ref. 1) illustrated how its builders could not explain, based on their understanding of why the laser was supposed to work, why their laser worked but a replication of it did not, until it was revealed that their understanding of why their laser worked was incomplete — their initial success relied crucially on a phenomenon generated by an incidental feature of their device’s design.  In “The Seven Sexes” Collins’ likened this knowledge encapsulated in practice but not articulated (or even “known” in the TEA laser case) to author Kurt Vonnegut’s portrayal in Slaughterhouse 5 of extradimensional aliens who state that, when viewed from an additional dimension, successful human reproduction can be seen to require the existence of seven distinct sexes, rather than the standard two.

Here, then, is the basis for much of Collins’ work as a sociologist.  Although he has studied a number of scientific communities, he has done the most extensive work with physicists attempting to study gravitational waves (“The Seven Sexes” was his first paper on this community, and he still publishes on it) where “algorithmic” knowledge-building is sparse, but the sociological content of science is, accordingly (by his conception), rich.

If by 1983 the SSK project seemed to be dissolving into programmatic disputes, it was at just this time that it was enthusiastically taken up by historians.  Circa 1990, historical research in trust in individuals’ skilled perception, instrument standardization, and the rise of self-registering instruments were all offshoots of Collins’ project to establish a theoretical structure surrounding the sociological content of science.  As with Shapin’s social epistemology, though, this was probably the last time there was a sense that new historiographical gains were being systematically derived from the theoretical consideration of the preconditions for successful science.

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