sociology of science

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sociology of science

the branch of sociology concerned with study of the social processes involved in the production of scientific knowledge as well as the social implications of this knowledge, including TECHNOLOGY (see also SOCIOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE, SCIENCE, SOCIAL STUDIES OF SCIENCE).

The pioneering work on the sociology of science was by Robert MERTON (1938) whose determinedly sociological work on 17th-century British science (especially the Royal Society) emphasized the mix of economic and military concerns, interests and religious beliefs (notably Protestantism) in the motives of early scientists. In his later work Merton also identified central social characteristics of science (e.g. the ‘norm of universality’, i.e. that, at least in principle, anyone ought to be able to check for themselves the validity of any scientific ‘finding’).

If Merton's later work identified ‘ideal types’ of scientific activity, subsequent work in the sociology of science has tended to break down any sharp distinction between science and other forms of knowledge. In recent years, sociologists have distinguished 'strong’ and ‘weak’ versions of the sociology of science. If earlier ‘weak approaches were based largely on the need to explain the social basis of ‘false’claims to knowledge (scientific errors, ‘parasciences’ such as astrology, etc.), leaving the basis of’true’ knowledge a matter for the PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE, the more recent 'strong’ approach has seen as its role the study and explanation of all forms of scientific knowledge (see also EPISTEMOLOGY).

One thing to emerge from this more even-handed treatment of’true’ and false’ knowledge is that both of these forms share a common basis in everyday constructions of social reality, and problems in escaping INDEXICALITY and in establishing warrantabilty Understanding of both kinds of knowledge is held to benefit from the study of the social impetus to new scientific ideas provided by economic and social interests, including the disciplinary and personal interests of the scientists.

Examples of recent detailed study in this expanded vein are:

  1. studies of the role of interests, fashions, etc. in particular disciplines or movements in science, e.g. the rise and fall of EUGENICS (Harwood, 1977), studies of IQ testing and even the history of mathematics;
  2. studies of the DIFFUSION of scientific ideas;
  3. studies of major 'scientific revolutions’ (e.g. KUHN, 1962);
  4. ethnographic and related forms of close-up empirical analysis of the everyday social construction of scientific knowledge, e.g. in laboratories, the presentational arguments and graphic representations, etc. used by science, e.g. B. Latour and S. Woolgar, Laboratory Life (1979).
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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