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Kuhn’s Demon, or: The Iconoclastic Tradition in Science Criticism January 21, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The message that scientists are human and that science is messy is crossing the ether once again. Of late there has been a certain degree of excitement percolating among historians and science-studies scholars over the #OverlyHonestMethods hashtag on Twitter. It seems that scientists are sending out tweets about their work that happen to nicely coincide with the images of science that historians would like to present to the world. Twitter is, of course, the world hub for “trending” topics, and this particular trend is already simmering down. But, before the moment is completely gone, it might be worthwhile to reflect briefly on the history of the ideas 1) that there exists a dominant image of science as a pristine and rigidly ordered activity, and 2) that the negation of this image would be broadly beneficial to scientists and society.


Is it idol-smashing time again already?


Clifford Geertz on “Ideology” as an Analytical Term, Pt. 1 April 1, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences, Ideology of Science.
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Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

I suspect most historians, including myself, could not say much about the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s work and ideas beyond the two-word phrase “thick description”.  Yet, almost all historians will know at least that much.  Further, although he borrowed the phrase from Gilbert Ryle, these historians will likely associate the phrase with Geertz, probably because at some point they have read his 1972 essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”.  As an undergraduate history major, I was assigned it as part of my senior year methods course.

I would argue that most historians know about thick description, as exemplified in “Deep Play”, because it has become integral to our sense of professional identity.  It articulates what we have the ability and freedom to do, which others cannot (or, for ideological reasons, do not) do.   This identity identifies historians as reliable experts at getting beyond the surface features of a culture and teasing out the hidden values and presuppositions lurking within its more visible elements: its texts, its propaganda, its day-to-day practices, its objects, and so forth.

Unfortunately, this skill is often treated as a kind of secret, to which historians simply gain access upon induction into the historians’ guild by reading works like “Deep Play”.  Once in, you need not worry too much about what actually constitutes legitimate and valuable interpretations of past cultures.  (My bête noire is historians’ continued belief that “scientism” and “technological enthusiasm” constitute legitimate characterizations of the rationales in certain technical and political cultures.)

We could doubtless benefit from reading more of Geertz on the proper interpretation of culture.  This post is about his essay, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” first published in Ideology and Discontent, ed. David E. Apter (Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), pp. 47-76, which still bears sober reading a half-century later.


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

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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.


Merton on the Reception of Watson’s The Double Helix September 15, 2011

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For many decades now, various critics have supposed that the relations between science and society suffer because of the prevalence of an unrealistic view of science as something that is abstract and dehumanized. This supposition licenses the critics to deploy therapeutically realistic images of science to deliver their audience from their false idols into a state of mature understanding.

In his paper, “Should the History of Science Be Rated X?” Science 183 (1974): 1164-1172, Stephen Brush supposed the history of science could play just such a “subversive” role in science education. At that same time, according to some stories, the history of science itself had to be rescued from ne’er-do-well myth-spinners working as philosophers of science, Mertonian sociologists, and, of course, American scientists justifying their work to society and Congress.

All of this overlooks the fact that our entire society had already been freed from its illusions by James Watson’s best-selling 1968 memoir, The Double Helix.


Norms, “Ideology”, and the Move against “Functionalist” Sociology September 4, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Ideology of Science.
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The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) critique of the Mertonian program to define a “normative structure of science” centered around the complaint that, by focusing on the social conditions that fostered scientific rationality, nothing was said about the sociology of knowledge-producing processes in everyday scientific work. It seems to me that SSK strategies like “methodological relativism”, and Steven Shapin’s embrace of “middle-range” historico-sociological theories, might ultimately have resulted in additions to, and a reconciliation with, the original Mertonian framework.

However, at the same time, another critique questioned the basic validity of that framework. This critique shared the SSK critique’s interest in describing actual scientific work, but, like Mertonian sociology, it focused on scientists’ and others’ sense of the essence of scientific culture without directly addressing knowledge-production processes. This critique held that, because “functionalist” ideal-type systems of scientific behavior could not actually be found in their pure form, such systems did not meaningfully exist. Legitimate sociology had to be obtained inductively from the empirical record, as studied by historians and ethnologists.

A key work here is: Michael Mulkay, “Norms and Ideology in Science,” Social Science Information 15 (1976): 637-656.


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…)

Holmes, Part 3: Does Nature Matter? April 18, 2008

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Comparing what I’ve (poorly) called the historical arc vs. the historical reality models of writing history, Holmes goes on to discuss some of the relevant literature. Probably his main target here is Robert Kohler’s (1982, now out of print) From Medical Chemistry to Biochemistry: The Making of a Biomedical Discipline, the first chapter of which explores how “physiological chemistry” was caught in a sort of professional limbo between physiology and organic chemistry in the German university system–hence this gap between first major calls for a cell-oriented chemistry ca. 1850, and the eventual instantiation of a full-blown biochemistry ca. 1900.

Now, things get complicated here, so all this is all too-fast, too-rough recapitulation, but, long story short, Kohler’s book focuses almost exclusively on the non-scientific politics of disciplinary formation. One of Holmes’ big points is to bring the science back into the picture. “If we are to understand scientific innovation and change comprehensively, then we need studies at all levels of organization, from the individual investigator [which he goes on to defend vigorously] and the local research school to the international field; and on time scales ranging from daily experimental operations to the several decades or even much longer that are often required for scientific problems to evolve and for major domains of scientific knowledge to be acquired.” He had previously discussed Mulkay and Edge, but he’s also clearly addressing the points made by Kohler and Latour: “A research field is more than a network of communication and ties of professional interest.”

In some sense, this boils down to the usual, “but nature matters!” argument deployed against the “spin up” interpretation of sociology. Rudwick (see the last post) certainly agrees (see the latest HSS newsletter). Kohler seems to as well, and actually, in his 1982 book, seems to lament the politics of the German university that prevented biochemistry from emerging. Although Holmes gets into it, repeatedly, with the sociologists’ “spin up” arguments throughout the lectures, I get the feeling his main concern is not with proving that nature matters, but, rather, that he has his own, very historiographical agenda. He wants to know how we get down to telling histories that reveal what mattered, and thus why his approach to history is best in this case, as opposed to an approach like that used in, say, Great Devonian Controversy or From Medical Chemistry to Biochemistry.

By embracing both long time spans (unlike a case study approach like Rudwick’s), and by embracing laboratory-level practice (unlike Kohler’s approach to a similar topic), Holmes aims to show how the formation of a field like biochemistry is not simply a matter of willing it into existence provided there are no political barriers, but that nature and the evolution of ideas about nature matter in determining what is deemed worth investigation. Most of his lectures are centered around constructing a narrative in which such points are pertinent. In other words, he shows how a more sociologist-friendly book like Kohler’s is actually more Whiggish than his approach, because it presumes that a field like biochemistry ought to exist, and that it was necessary for the emergence of biochemical knowledge (as Kohler himself seems to confirm). This could all be a big misinterpretation of the historiographical argument taking place, on both Holmes’ and Kohler’s parts–I read this stuff quickly–but it’s what I took away from it.

Next time: Holmes responds to some criticisms in his epilogue.