4 Groundbreaking Ideas in the Sociology of Science

How did the sociology of science take a radical turn, and begin to encroach on the philosophy of science?

Jul 28, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
sociology of science ideas
Photograph of scientist working, 2017, via Pixabay


What is the sociology of science, and in what way did it overlap with philosophical approaches to science in the latter half of the 20th century? This article will cover the so-called “radical” turn in the sociology of science, Robert Merton’s traditional sociological approach, the notion of the Strong Program, and Bruno Latour’s “actor-network theory.”


1. The Radical Turn in the Sociology of Science

peter godfrey smith photograph
A photograph of Peter Godfrey-Smith, 2020, via petergodfreysmith.com


In the latter part of the 20th century, there was a general proliferation of a set of radical approaches to sociology and science. These approaches appeared to conceive of themselves as an attack both on what had previously been the mainstream sociological approach to science, and the mainstream philosophy of science (drawing, as they did, on new work in the philosophy of science which appeared to break with the latter quite significantly).


In the view of Peter Godfrey-Smith, a modern philosopher of science to whom this article is greatly indebted, the sociology of science came to view itself as a “successor discipline” to the philosophy of science. How? Why? And what should we make of these developments?


First, it would be good to have a sense of what counted as the sociology of science before this radical turn. The figure most often associated with the sociology of science in its more traditional mode is Robert Merton. Merton developed his approach to science in the 1940s. He conceived of science as a social enterprise, to which one could apply certain sociological ideas developed in other contexts.


2. Robert Merton on Science and Social Norms 

merton black white photograph
Robert Merton, 1965, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Merton developed four norms that he viewed as characteristic of scientific activity; universalism, communism, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. These norms meant, roughly, that anyone could do science regardless of their family background, race, class, and so on, that scientists should share their results, that they should not participate in science for personal gain, and that they should challenge and test ideas they came up with collectively.


Another important idea Merton developed was that of the reward system, which in science basically comes down to getting credit for coming up with something first. That this is the main reward in science makes sense of the extraordinary number of (often quite bitter) priority disputes that have historically gone on amongst scientists, whilst much of the rest of the world might look on and wonder, ‘who cares, now that it’s been discovered?’


Merton suggested that the point of this reward system was to encourage original thinking and that—as with most community standards—this can misfire, leading to a slapdash “mania to publish” and shallow accusations of slander. In other words, the reward system can end up in tension with some of the scientific norms set out above.


3. The Strong Program 

black white photo kuhn
A photograph of Thomas Kuhn, via the Voegelin View


The main opposition to Merton’s view arose towards the end of the 1970s, with the emergence of what is known as the “Strong Program.” If the old way of doing the sociology of science was to explain the social dimension of science and take it seriously as a field of sociological study, the new way would attempt to explain particular scientific beliefs in sociological terms.


Moreover, underlying the old and new approaches were different philosophies of science. Roughly speaking, Merton and those influenced by him conceived of science as making predictive generalizations. Those who came to overthrow Merton instead embraced the philosophy of Thomas Kuhn, the idea of holism about testing (which comes from W.V.O Quine), and the incommensurability of scientific worldviews with one another.


The upshot of this latter conception of science is that science is not a kind of gradual accumulation of knowledge, but moves in sudden lurches, overthrowing much of what was taken for granted before at once. This nonlinearity tended to challenge the conception of the scientist as simply discovering facts about nature and suggested that there was some more creative, indeed a distinctly social, element to the results obtained by science.


The Strong Program (more properly, “The Strong Program in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge”) originated with Barry Barnes and David Bloor at the University of Edinburgh. The defining principle they advocated was the “symmetry principle,” which held that all forms of belief or behavior should be approachable using the same kinds of explanation. That is, scientific beliefs arise out of the same general forms as other beliefs, and so scientific beliefs can be approached with the same kinds of explanation as we approach other beliefs.


edinburgh colour panorama
Photograph of Edinburgh, 2019, via Pixabay


Scientific beliefs can therefore be seen as arising out of particular social conventions—strange, idiosyncratic social conventions, but conventions nonetheless. The kinds of factors that explain why scientists come to believe what they believe can, in principle, be explained the same way we talk of other forms of social convention establishing beliefs.


This way of approaching scientific belief tended to move towards a more controversial analysis of scientific beliefs in the context of social and political factors within society. Donald Mackenzie, for instance, offered an analysis of the development of statistics which suggested one of the major forces behind its development were the practical, imperial objectives at the heart of 19th-century British politics.


The complexity of the causal analysis, which holds certain scientific beliefs and the social or political forces in the background together, seems to cut both ways for the Strong Program. On the one hand, their complexity makes it difficult to clearly demonstrate that there was no meaningful relation between the two, but on the other, establishing the precise causal mechanism at work here is similarly difficult.


This way of thinking about science upset a lot of people, including Thomas Kuhn (to whom the Strong Programmers owed a crucial intellectual debt). The critical debate has been muddled in no small part by the accusation of “relativism” which is often leveled against the Strong Programmers. Relativism can be embraced as a label, when it is understood in a certain way—when, for instance, it is taken to refer to the view that the meaning of concepts of rationality, evidence, and justification is relative to a particular social context.


4. Bruno Latour’s Sociology of Science in Laboratory Life

microscope photograph colour
Photograph of a microscope, 2014, via Pixabay


Of course, the criticism of relativism involves something further. One potential criticism of this kind might suggest that the Strong Program is self-defeating. How? Well, there is the problem of reflexivity—if the beliefs held by scientists are largely the product of local, social conditions, then what about the beliefs held by sociologists of science? Surely these, too, have to be conceived of as the product of social conventions, with no particular special claim to be true, factual, objectively right, and so forth?


This certainly seems like a problem for strong programmers, but perhaps not an insurmountable one. Another recent, influential, and fairly radical direction taken by sociologists of science is due to Bruno Latour and his work Laboratory Life.


Latour spent some time doing fieldwork in a molecular science laboratory and reported his findings in a very distinctive way. He pointedly refuses to take scientific activity on anything like its own terms. Indeed, he approaches science with a kind of intentional, bemused distance—picturing the laboratory as a strange place, where chemicals, machinery, and small animals enter, and pieces of paper (that is to say, research papers) leave.


The intricate processing that turns the former into the latter is, in Latour’s view, in no small part based around trying to show that no human touch is really being applied to what is on the paper. What is on the paper are facts, simply how things are.


The Strong Program attempted to analyze science in terms of social and political states of affairs. Latour’s “actor-network theory” takes neither society nor nature as primary. Rather, scientific work itself is taken to be the driving force. Society and nature are equally products of it.


The creation of fact is, for Latour, always an attempt to develop immunity from challenge, from alternative conceptions of things. The sociology of science as a whole can, therefore, be seen to have taken a turn towards describing science not as something apart from the rest of life, as special in some way, but as deeply enmeshed with the social element of human existence.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.