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Sociology and History: Shapin on the Merton Thesis August 28, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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This post will mainly focus on Steven Shapin’s “Understanding the Merton Thesis” Isis 79 (1988): 594-605, which may be my favorite work by him.

Robert K. Merton’s “functionalist” sociology viewed “science” as a kind of Weberian ideal type — a form of thought that is identifiable by its peculiar, philosophically-defined characteristics. Merton’s sociology of science held that this thought could also be identified with social behaviors, characterized by a set of “norms”, which made the thought possible.

The Merton Thesis (which slightly predates Merton’s enumeration of science’s norms) holds that the rise of science in early-modern England could be linked to the social behaviors valued by the Puritanism of that milieu. This was the subject of Merton’s PhD thesis and his 1938 book Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England.


Schaffer on the Hustings, Pt. 2: Malignant Historiography and Self-Healing August 26, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Pt. 1 of this post began a discussion that stems from (but extends well beyond) two works of Simon Schaffer: 1) “Augustan Realities: Nature’s Representatives and Their Cultural Resources in the Early Eighteenth Century”; and 2) “A Social History of Plausibility: Country, City and Calculation in Augustan Britain”.  These works identified misleading narratives within a broader social and cultural historiography: a rise of reasoned polity and culture, and a decline of superstition and enchantment.  I suggested that in critiquing these narratives Schaffer had taken to the hustings to show how these narrative faults could be remedied by making use of then-recent insights in the historiography of science.  According to Schaffer, in order for all historical beliefs (scientific or superstitious) to survive and proliferate, their proponents had to engage in polemics that portrayed the beliefs as beneficial — and opposed beliefs as dangerous — to the social order.

In a sense, Schaffer was playing a role that is quite similar to the people he was writing about.  As he wrote in (1), “Representations about nature were stabilized … because … natural philosophers made their representations grip key interests within culture.”  His diagnosis of a historiographical ill and offer of a remedy from the historiography of science should invite us to consider why the diagnosis and remedy were deemed apt by the critic, and why he thought it would be received as apt by his intended audience.  Also, as Aaron suggested in the comments to Pt. 1, we should likewise be open to questioning who this audience really was. (more…)

Sociology, History, Normativity, and Theodicy August 9, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in History as Anti-Philosophy, Methods.
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“For my part I see no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but much literature in the social history of science has less of a connection with the sociology of knowledge than many apparently traditional exercises in the history of ideas.”

“Finally, there is a marked lack of rigour in much social history of science; work is often thought to be completed when it can be concluded that ‘science is not autonomous’, or that ‘science is an integral part of culture’, or even that there are interesting parallels or homologies between scientific thought and social structures.  But these are not conclusions; they are starting points for more searching analyses of scientific knowledge as a social product.”

—Steven Shapin, 1982

To my mind, Shapin’s “History of Science and Its Sociological Reconstructions,” (History of Science 20 (1982): 157-211) is perhaps one of the best articulations of how sociological methodology could augment historiography.  It is a manifesto for the sociology of knowledge program against critics (Joseph Ben-David, Rupert Hall, and Larry Laudan are specified).  It’s also an argument against more sterile sociology-based historiographical methods—the “social history of science”.  As pointed out in the quotes above, these methods draw no substantive connections between sociology and the intellectual production of knowledge: society is simply something that imprints itself on scientific institution-building, practice, and claims.

To put it another way, Shapin ought to be understood as an epistemological sociologist, one who in 1982 was apparently fighting against many of the same problems that bedevil us today.  No one, to my mind, better articulated how integral things like proper institution-building and proper etiquette have always been (more…)