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Q&A (Intro): The Use of Sociology September 23, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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As I’ve suggested in my posts on Simon Schaffer’s early works, sociology, whether we acknowledge it or not, is an essential component of historiographical work.  The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) program, initiated in the 1970s, has led to some remarkable improvements in historiographical method, essentially by requiring historical explanation for things that were previously taken for granted because knowledge produced by scientific method was assumed to speak for itself.  Where prior scholarship might have simply assumed that good scientific work diffuses on its own (and those who didn’t see that it was “good” were just intellectually deficient), suddenly educational background, the efforts of scientists to “sell” their ideas, resonance with scientists’ religious or intellecutal convictions mattered in understanding the history of science (what I call the “Reception Revolution”).  Similarly, it became inadequate to claim that those who were simply “more curious” or who “looked harder” at nature saw new things; the ability to see new things (at least in all but the most obvious cases) required some understanding of what projects those scientists were undertaking, what training prepared their minds to see what they saw.  And, most famously, the policing of the borders of scientific communities became of paramount historical interest, because conclusions could only be legitimately validated by those in an appropriate moral and intellectual position (Shapin and Schaffer’s famous “Hobbes was right”).  SSK was a boon to the history of science because it caused historians to ask new questions, and, lo and behold, we found good answers to the questions that we asked.

But, to paraphrase Copernicus, sociology is written for sociologists, and historians do well to keep that in mind.  Sociologists seek a sociological theory of science, but this goal has been interpreted by different sociologists in different ways since the SSK revolution.  All seem committed to viewing sociology as the only lens that they are willing to use to understand scientific actions.  Now, some seem to view this as a call for the sociological theory of science to be the theory of science.  This has led to the theories of the “French School” and the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) program, which seek to incorporate the individual scientist’s persuading encounter with the natural world into sociological schemes, which, famously, gives agency to non-human (more…)