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The Search for a Mature View of Industrial Research July 8, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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At the moment there is an interesting — if scattered — set of arguments about, proffered by senior historians, concerning what an appropriately mature handling of industrial research might look like.

In his essay “Time, Money, and History” (pdf, free) in the latest Isis, my colleague David Edgerton refers to the influence of the “spontaneous economics of academic research scientists,” which unduly privileges discussions of the importance of university-based research amid the much wider world of R&D, while also fixating on a more longstanding concern with how patronage might influence the course of research work (“filthy lucre”).  Most of the concerns still regularly expressed about the funding, independence, and broader importance of academic research were, by the 1960s, already widely circulated by purveyors of this spontaneous economics.

Amid particular ’60s-era concerns that science was being perverted by tighter connections to national defense and the economy, and stifled by more structured administration, some historians and sociologists of science were eager to dispel oft-voiced beliefs that science’s strange, new institutional situation represented a fundamental change in how science was done.  On this blog we have seen how Robert Merton was eager to argue that the competitive behaviors chronicled in James Watson’s The Double Helix (1968) were a longstanding feature of science, and not some twentieth-century pathology.  Similarly, in their 2007 essay, “The Commercialization of Science and the Response of STS,”1 Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent detect a nothing-new-to-see-here attitude as early as a 1960 commentary by Thomas Kuhn highlighting the history of the science-technology relation.

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Sociology, Science Indexing, and Science Indicators in the ’60s and ’70s April 25, 2012

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Simultaneously reading a recent Guardian article on the issue of open-access scientific publication, and Robert K. Merton’s “The Sociology of Science: An Episodic Memoir” (in The Sociology of Science in Europe, 1977, pp. 3-141) spurred me to wonder whether science studies could aid scientists to transition to a new model of scientific publication that is up-to-date with technology, but that also retains the intellectual and institutional virtues of present models. My answer to this question is: probably not.

The thought occurred to me because of Merton’s consideration of whether or not his 1940s-era understanding of how and why scientific credit is assigned the way it is could have led to the establishment of something like the Science Citation Index (SCI) prior to its actual appearance in 1963.  Merton speculated on why it didn’t, but he also marked a growing contact in the 1960s and ’70s between the historians and sociologists of science, publication indexing, and the rising tide of “science indicators”.  He reckoned this contact would grow as both the sociology of science and science metrics matured.  Unfortunately, the 1970s actually seems to have been its high-water mark.

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Merton, the DSB, and the Failed Digital Humanities of the 1960s April 15, 2012

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Following up on a reference in Gieryn 1982, I’ve been reading over Robert K. Merton’s long essay, “The Sociology of Science: An Episodic Memoir,” in The Sociology of Science in Europe (1977), pp. 3-141.  I’ll post more on it soon in the context of other recent posts on this blog.  For the moment, I’ll just say that the essay is thin on “norms”, “counter-norms”, “ambivalence”, etc.  It is mainly about the intellectual influences on the sociology of science that developed in the 1960s and ’70s.  It is also about the methods, ambitions, and projects of what Merton still regarded as a nascent discipline. It turns out these projects are well worth a tangential post, or two.

In this post, I want to focus on Merton’s account of his involvement with the planning of the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (DSB), and the computerized “data bank” that didn’t accompany it.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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Cultural History of Knowledge and Post-Marxist Social History of Science April 30, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Cult of Invisibility.
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The Edinburgh Science Studies Unit in the early 1980s; Steven Shapin is second from the left in the back row; David Bloor is first on the left and Barry Barnes is second from the right in the front row

Circa 1980, “social” historians who explored the connections between scientific work and its political, social, and economic milieus showed an interest in how scientists selected their objects of inquiry, in the allocation of scientific research effort, and in the social function of scientific work.  Unlike many historians of science, they showed comparatively little interest in the development of scientific knowledge itself.  In 1982 Steven Shapin wrote that he saw “no danger of ‘the history of science losing its science’, but,” he observed, “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” (my emphasis).

At that time, Shapin was a key figure in a movement that was opposed to a traditional philosophy-inspired history of science, which sifted “science” out of history and narrated its progress; to a Mertonian sociology of science, which delineated the conditions in which “science” takes place; and indeed to the social history of science, which linked lines of research to social interests, but which often took research results for granted.

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Unfocused: Science, Technology, and the Cold War November 28, 2010

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Collectively, historians know a lot about science and technology during the Cold War.  A significant number of books and articles have been written about the ambitious technological systems developed during the era, the enormous scientific endeavors made possible by expanded state and military funding, the rise of new intellectual programs in fundamental physics and molecular biology, the expansion of geoscience and social science and the development of new methods in them, the global integration of scientific work, and the importance of digital computation, among other subjects.  Accordingly, the present is an excellent time to reflect on and consolidate what has been learned, render the history of the era more navigable, and to suggest forward-looking research programs.

Unfortunately, this past summer’s Isis Focus section, edited by David Kaiser and Hunter Heyck did not take the opportunity to do that.  The limit of the section’s synthesis essentially said what the paragraph above said at greater length, and left the rest of the space as a forum for the individual contributors to showcase their own research projects, which are taken to “exemplify” recent research trends.  In this way, this Focus section is little different from past sections, which position themselves as the beginnings of new conversation, present some new empirical work, but mainly simply recapitulate basic ideas that can be considered the agreed-upon points in an aging scholarship, while reciting the perpetual mantra that “more work is needed” for any real understanding to occur.  This blog typically does not take these sections up.  But, since Cold War-era science is my own specialty, I thought a (now rather belated) critique of this particular section might be in order.

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Boundaries, Interests, and Traditions in the Management Thereof September 12, 2010

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When I posted on boundary studies in the history of science earlier this summer, I had in mind narratives focusing on epochal conflicts between groups, and the likelihood that we will learn little from the conflict that will help us understand the groups themselves.  In reaction to that, Amy Fisher (a PhD student from the University of Minnesota who has been doing some work for us at the AIP History Center) told me that for her the most interesting boundary problems were “on a smaller scale, as it connects to issues of identity.”  This was a good point, and I have had to go through a number of other posts before I felt I had my thoughts in order enough to address it adequately.

What boundary? This bridge has been here for years!

These smaller-scale boundary problems usually deal with individuals attempting to build lives, careers, or ideas, and having to situate their actions and beliefs within the strains of competing interests.  Natural philosophers might have had to reconcile their arguments about nature with their beliefs about religion.  Museum exhibitors might have to reconcile their desire to educate the public about certain kinds of scientific knowledge with the interests and expectations of that same public. In the twentieth century, physicists might have had to reconcile their desire to pursue their research interests with their ability to acquire funding by appealing to military, government, or industrial patrons.  Etc.

My response here is that in these cases the most relevant boundaries are not necessarily well-portrayed by the historiography.  Historians will typically portray actors as having to “negotiate” a compromise position on their own through a sort of an ad hoc process.  I would argue that it is here where historians’ aversion to reconstructing various long-term traditions is damaging, because it does not take into account established patterns of identity development and institution-building, which become models for a successful and legitimate resolution to the many many situations in which conflicts of interest arise.

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