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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.


Decision, Risk, and Values: The Philosophy of Churchman and Ackoff December 10, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research.
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A couple of months ago, I suggested a possible conflict of interest between STS and the history of science.  Effectively, the aspirations of STS to contemporary relevance is at least partially dependent on potential contributions arising from new research results.  For these results to have impetus, conclusions should be novel.  Historians of science usually see their own opportunities in confirming STS results by mining examples from history, which, as illustrative examples, are treated as effectively “lost” to the present.

However, novelty can be augmented by conveniently forgetting the history of the ideas underlying the conclusions on offer.  By mining deep history for ideas that are, in some sense, to be considered “lost” (or by seeking evidence that the ideas have never existed at all), historians can inadvertently create an “anti-history” of the subsequent history of those ideas.  A better opportunity, I would argue, is to be found in placing the claims of STS and philosophical peers within their historical traditions.  Historians could keep track of who else is currently espousing these ideas based upon much fuller accounts of their history extending to the present.

Unfortunately, historians’ bookkeeping methodologies are woefully inadequate to this task.  But it is still possible to fill in pieces of the history where the opportunity arises.  This particular post is prompted by a recent post at The Bubble Chamber, which posits a recent move in the philosophy of science, which takes efficacy as a key criterion of knowledge.  However, my own historical work on the figures of philosophers West Churchman and Russell Ackoff (who just died last year) suggests that the tradition is neither new nor lost — perhaps just misplaced by philosophers (though I trust philosophers can clarify this point).  Neither was obscure: Churchman was actually editor of Philosophy of Science from 1948 to 1958.  However, both turned from philosophy of science to operations research before ultimately winding up in the eclectic realm of “systems thinking”.


Historians as Methodologists (Isis, Pt. 4) July 29, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Jane Maienschein, Manfred Laubichler, and Andrea Loettgers, in “How Can History of Science Matter to Scientists?” offer a number of cases in which the study of past experiments or chance encounters with historians have led scientists to examine their methodology and do things like question key assumptions, leading to productive scientific research. The chance encounter is a frequent spur to innovation, whether or not it is historical. These encounters can be substantive, such as reading about research in an unrelated field, or trivial: Richard Feynman told the story about how he was inspired to new research by seeing a student toss a plate in the air in a cafeteria, which led him to think about the physics of its wobble, which led to, um, magnificent things (Feynman didn’t say).

C. West Churchman (image imported from Wikipedia)

Anyway, if inspiration can come from the chance encounter, maybe the real question is how this benefit can be systematized. The reform of methodology and the questioning of assumptions reminded me of a couple of mathematician philosophers turned operations researchers I ran into in my dissertation work: West Churchman (right) and Russell Ackoff, who were students of Edgar A. Singer, who was a student of William James and a proponent of a little-known philosophy of science called “experimentalism” (which will be the subject of a talk at HSS this year by Alan Richardson; update: he’s also on the PSA program, which is joint with HSS this year, talking about Churchman and Ackoff as well: good times).

Before their turn to OR around 1950, Churchman and Ackoff proposed establishing Institutes of Experimental Method or Methodology Departments in universities, which would train multi-disciplinary “methodologists” and subject current experimental methods to systematic scrutiny to make sure they (more…)