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Upcoming Q&A with Collins and Evans July 16, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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We’re excited to announce that for our first interview series of posts, Harry Collins and Rob Evans have graciously agreed to answer a number of questions for us about their program to establish a “third wave” in the sociology of science: Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEE). The essential reading on the topic is their book, published last year, Rethinking Expertise.

It’s fast reading, but if you want a quicker tour, take a look at this interview with Harry Collins from American Scientist, and also the official SEE web site, which has all the background reading and primers you could want.

SEE, as I understand it, is still not widely accepted among sociologists of science, but the insights jibe with a lot of thinking I’ve been doing on problems of science & scientific thought and policymaking for my work on operations research and other policy sciences. So I’m happy to do whatever propaganda work for it I can. The questions, though, will be probing rather than passive, and I hope readers will chime in on the comments sections. Tell your friends, and watch this space!

The sociologists’ game March 25, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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I’m planning on looking at the Collins-Evans SEE program in a little bit more depth in the future. I just received my copy of Rethinking Expertise, and will delve into it at the next opportunity (things are nuts–hence no blog posts in almost a week!) I think we’re eventually going to have a Q&A with Collins and Evans as part of an effort to improve the blog and expand readership.

For now, I’d like to take apart a line in my previous post about their “Third Wave” which is that they seemed “hamstrung” by not engaging in epistemology. This comment is clearly indicative of the historian/sociologist divide. Sociologists of science take particular pride in performing “symmetrical” analyses–that is their sociological descriptions should apply regardless of epistemology. This way they can comment equally on how scientific knowledge operates in society as well as how knowledge gleaned from reading the cracks in a turtle shell produced by a hot poker operated in Ancient Chinese society (say, by determining whether it was auspicious to plant crops).

This move can come off as sort of like a parlor game: how much can we say about knowledge and society without recourse to philosophy? Rhetorically, it takes scientific knowledge down to the level of turtle shell poking, which has been the cause of much protest, especially since reckless statements have been made (Zammito has a good line on this–I’ll dig it up later). I get the sense that the problems caused have also given rise to this idea of things having a “voice” which is interpreted through attendant “spokesmen”. This is part of the point of a lot of Latour’s work, particularly beginning with Pasteurization of France.

I won’t recap the whole history of SSK here (again, see Zammito); but I find it interesting that sociologists refuse to use philosophical “cheats” to rectify, at least temporarily, the rhetorical absurdities. As an historian, I feel entirely free to investigate social structures and philosophical convictions to see how they inhabit scientific practices, but (I think) that’s because I’m interested in investigating specific historical practices of specific actors; I’m not attempting to explain “scientific practice” in general (at least in long duration trends). In this way, I can at least make a stab at explaining the historical data.

The idea of having to tear science down before we can build it back up sociologically (as Collins and Evans seem to be trying to do) strikes me as inefficient. The insights achieved by SSK have been valuable, and we can write better histories because of it, but the gap between the initiation of Wave Two and the initiation of Wave Three (should it even take off), has meant spending Moses-like time spans in the academic wilderness with a deconstructed scientific enterprise that obviously has merit. If the refusal to use epistemological cheats really is just a parlor game, we should ask if it was worth it.

Wave Three in the Sociological SEE March 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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By far the most interesting thing cropping up in my semi-annual journal review will not be featured in the History Center newsletter, because it is not directly concerned with physics. It is the recent Studies in History and Philosophy of Science dedicated to Harry Collins, Robert Evans, and Mike Gorman’s attempt to create “Wave Three” in the sociology of science, which Collins calls Studies of Expertise and Experience (SEE) (originally outlined in a 2002 article by Collins and Evans in Social Studies of Science). To recap, Wave One is the “science is a special form of knowledge” associated with Merton et al.; Wave Two is the “no it isn’t” SSK trend that I’ve been rambling about here as a central motivator of the case study literature found in the history journals.

Wave Three is designed to correct the obvious and longstanding shortcomings in Wave Two by focusing on the social dynamics of “expertise” rather than “truth-production”–that is, roughly, trying to explain not only how knowledge is validated by society, but the mechanisms by which it actually becomes useful. Before descending into the usual sociological hell of illustrative case examples, labyrinthine jargon, and funny diagrams (here, things like the “Periodic Table of Expertises”), the three of them come up with some useful ideas, particularly one about “interactional expertise”, which they seem to view as a generalization of the Galisonian “trading zone”.

Effectively, interactional expertise deals with knowledge exchange between groups who overlap, whose knowledge is relevant to each other’s activities, but who are not part of the same expert community. It also puts knowledge in the framework of decision-making rather than knowledge-production, which has some interesting possibilities I could talk about later. (It also suggests they may simply be covering ground that Herbert Simon covered in Administrative Behavior 60 years ago during the supposed heyday of Wave One).

I think the Wave Three’ers are a little hamstrung by their seeming unwillingness to discuss epistemology (a remnant of the old antagonisms with the philosophers?), but it still strikes me as salubrious given the historiographical trends produced by Wave Two. (Conveniently, it also meshes quite well with some ideas appearing in my dissertation and forthcoming book, but that’s a topic for a time when the book is much nearer to the printing press!)