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Thomas Gieryn’s Criticism of Post-Mertonian Science Studies March 20, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post is about: Thomas Gieryn, “Relativist/Constructivist Programmes in the Sociology of Science: Redundance and Retreat” Social Studies of Science 12 (1982): 279-297.

The richness, honesty, and critical depth of many of the debates in the social studies of science in the late ’70s and early ’80s continues to surprise me, since their full contours were not very well preserved in later rehearsals.  In this blog’s most recent swing through this history, we noted Harry Collins’s early-’80s articulation of a “methodological relativism” which sought to develop a pure sociology of scientific knowledge unburdened by epistemological baggage.  This program contrasted with Karin Knorr Cetina’s belief that the pursuit of general sociological knowledge was unlikely to turn up much, and that the way forward was in localized ethnographic studies.

Now, I have always just assumed that the sociologist Thomas Gieryn identified with such radical (if divergent) postures.  Gieryn pretty much initiated the still-popular strategy of analyzing “boundaries” in science studies.  And, in the 1983 article in which he did so, he made explicit use of Michael Mulkay’s argument that science’s Mertonian “norms” were mainly rhetoric that scientists used to establish an “ideology” around themselves.  Although I did not suppose Gieryn so radical as Mulkay, I did not expect what I found in Gieryn 1982  — an energetic criticism of Collins’s “relativism”, of Knorr Cetina’s “constructivism”, and of any pretensions that sociology was making a radical escape from the program of Robert Merton.

One of the ways in which radical SSK (sociology of scientific knowledge) was defined was as an inquiry into the sociology of processes of knowledge-making that traditional Mertonian sociology did not feel the need to address.  According to SSK’s proponents, in the Mertonian scheme sociological factors made science possible, but did not operate within its rational processes.

For his part, Gieryn denied that a sociology of knowledge-making was antithetical to the Mertonian program.  He traced Merton’s interest in the subject to a 1945 programmatic statement on the sociology of knowledge*, in which Merton had declared that the “sociology of knowledge came into being with the signal hypothesis that even truths were held to be sociologically accountable.”  Merton specified that “beliefs, ideologies, religious morals but also positive science” were among the “mental products” capable of being analyzed in terms of things like “group structures, power structures, competition, conflict and interests” (283).

And, in a 1977 study† of the development of Thomas Kuhn’s ideas about scientific revolutions (more on this anon), Merton observed that “systematic investigation of the processes of intellectual influences in intellectual microenvironments has scarcely begun.”

In relativist/constructivist approaches, Gieryn saw many claims to novelty in realistic portrayals of scientific behavior, which he regarded as actually fully amenable to Merton’s norm of “organized skepticism”.  Organized skepticism was an

analytical construct which links the institutional goal of science — for Merton, the extension of certified knowledge — to certain prescribed behaviour patterns that facilitate attainment of that goal.  The disagreements, hesitancies, doubts, inconsistencies and negotiations which attend the production of scientific knowledge are exactly what one would expect from scientists acting in what for Merton is normatively appropriate behaviour. (285)

In addition, Merton’s investigations of the “ambivalence” of science (the interplay of norms and “counter-norms” — balancing skepticism with commitment, communalism with privacy, etc.) could account for behaviors held up by radical reformists as incompatible with traditional sociology of science.  As we have seen, Mulkay preferred to dispense with the idea of normative structure in favor of a portrait of a more anarchic opportunism in science, rather than pursue studies of its “ambivalence”.

Gieryn allowed that the self-styled radical sociologists did shift the emphasis to knowledge production processes, to local contexts, and to things like rhetoric.  He also allowed that to “find evidence in Merton of intersections with this [relativist/constructivist] programme is not much of a challenge, in part because so large an achievement as Merton’s is almost certain to contain allusions and intimations to diverse questions hinted at if not always pursued” (287).

Nevertheless, for Gieryn, it was still important to deflate pretensions to a novel break with Mertonian sociology, because such a break also courted certain programmatic dangers.  One danger was a “nothing but-ism” he ascribed particularly to Collins that reduced the production of scientific knowledge to “nothing but the social processes of negotiation, interpretation and battles among competing interests” (288, Gieryn’s emphasis).  For Gieryn, this attitude “rejects a priori” certain kinds of explanations for scientists’ behavior, such as those relating to how to deal with “surprise” in the course of scientific work (288-89).

If Gieryn was off-target here, this may have been because the target was in the process of moving.  As we have seen, Collins was just then articulating a “special” form of relativism, which aimed to limit “sociological explanation” of knowledge to purely sociological manifestations of knowledge.  This drove an (ill-defined) wedge between the goals of sociology and the task of producing full historical accounts of particular incidences of knowledge-building (which Gieryn evidently sought).  This misunderstanding seems to have actually gotten ironed out in the back-and-forth that followed Gieryn 1982.**

At the same time, though, Gieryn had a point that individual (rather than social) knowledge-producing behaviors also derive from sociological structures that need to be studied (289):

What makes science unique, in part, are institutionalized procedures which define the intersection of natural and social worlds.  The appropriate question is not if the natural world intrudes in scientific constructions of knowledge, but how it does so in science in a different way than in religion or the arts or even commonsense.

Gieryn did seem to gather in his original criticism that Collins’s program involved certain methodological rules that restricted the frame of analysis, but he felt those rules unduly limited inquiry: “To include elements of the natural world is not essential, but our understanding of scientists’ behaviour is deepened with their inclusion” (289).

As to the “constructivism” in the work of scholars like Knorr Cetina or Roger Krohn, Gieryn questioned the restriction of the sociology of science to “local accounting procedures” (289), which, he felt, led to “an exaggeration of [the laboratory’s] theoretical importance.”  He allowed, “Of course, Bell Labs and The Salk Institute have their differences and even idiosyncracies, but it is obscurantist to argue that their presumed uniqueness makes it futile to examine them as two illustrations of certain institutional characteristics of science as a whole” (290).  He similarly argued against Mulkay and Nigel Gilbert’s limitation of inquiry to scientists’ rhetoric.  Like Collins, Gieryn was looking for general sociological conclusions, and was not finding them in “constructivist” programs.

As one might gather from Gieryn’s above-quoted indictments, he had a firm idea about what issue he expected these conclusions to revolve around (281):

what explains the origins of modern science in the seventeenth century (or so), and its ascendence in four centuries to a position of cognitive monopoly over certain spheres of decisions?  To answer this historical question requires inquiry into the constitutive analytical question [Gieryn’s emphasis]: what makes science unique among culture-producing institutions?  This is not a popular question these days.

Indeed.  From my perspective, Gieryn’s “historical question” is framed awfully coarsely.  And, in his reply to Gieryn,‡ Krohn took him to task on this point (among others): “The Mertonian programme … and Gieryn’s piece before us, assume the unique features of science are already known — the four norms, and so on.”  And Gieryn himself seems to have backtracked spectacularly on it in his 1983 paper introducing the study of arguments over the “boundaries” of “science”, though I feel he probably didn’t actually turn full-bore “post-Mertonian” — he had been, after all, a devoted student of Merton.

It would be interesting to know, however, whether or not Gieryn might have lost a bit of his spirit of advocacy for Merton given what appears to have been a struggle with his “constitutive analytical question”.  In any event, the very real methodological points arising from the clash between Mertonian and self-styled post-Mertonian sociology, between those seeking general sociological knowledge and those confining themselves to ethnographic study, and between the connected but divergent concerns of sociologists, philosophers, and historians of science were not well attended to after 1983.

*R. K. Merton, “Paradigm for the Sociology of Knowledge,” reprinted in The Sociology of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973).

†R. K. Merton, “The Sociology of Science: An Episodic Memoir,” in Merton and J. Gaston, eds., The Sociology of Science in Europe (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois UP, 1977).

**See Thomas F. Gieryn, “Not-Last Words: Worn-Out Dichotomies in the Sociology of Science,” Social Studies of Science 12 (1982): 329-335.

‡Roger Krohn, “On Gieryn on the ‘Relativist/Constructivist’ Programme in the Sociology of Science: Naïveté and Reaction,” Social Studies of Science 12 (1982): 325-328.

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