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3 The Sociology of Science and STS Studies

The ideas of the new philosophy of science had an important impact on sociology of science in 1970s and 1980s. In the traditional approach, inspired by the works of Robert Merton (1973), the task of the sociologist was intended as the study of the system of social relations that allows scientific communities to implement the scientific method and extend objective knowledge. It was not the task of sociology to analyze the content of the product of scientific method. But now there was no more a unique scientific method, and there was nothing for philosophy of science to discover about how to reliably acquire knowledge of the world. If non-epistemic factors, which are the sociologist's business, play such an important role in the production of scientific results, then also the analysis of this product becomes sociologist's business: Barnes, Bloor, and Henry (1996).

The so called strong programme in the sociology of knowledge, developed by the

Edinburgh School, claimed that social theory can describe and explain both the production of science and the product of science, because science itself is an elaborate social system for deciding what to say, how to talk about the world, and for making social decisions about technical matters: Barnes (1974, 1977), Bloor (1991). The products of science, the scientific facts, are artefacts of social practice and scientific knowledge is whatever a cognitive community collectively endorses or agrees upon by the pragmatics of social consensus. Scientific change is a matter of linguistic redescription and the generation of new discourses compelled by interaction with phenomena and directed by changes in social interests and cognitive needs. Incommensurability is not a problem, since no one language of the scientific culture can be objectively preferred to any other.

From a philosophical point of view, these ideas reflect a sometimes uncompromising relativism and some form of social constructivism: Collins and Pinch (1993), Knorr-Cetina (1981), Woolgar (1988).[1] They have produced some interesting studies in the history of science as those by Shapin and Schaffer on the seventeenth century scientific revolution: Shapin and Schaffer (1985), Shapin (1994), and in the anthropology of science that look at how scientists actually work doing experiments in laboratories: Latour and Woolgar (1986), Collins (1992), Pickering (1984). Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar interpret the laboratory as a literary text, where consensus is politically negotiated about what inscriptions of the text (traces, spots or points on screen or scales, recorded numbers, spectra and so on, the hard data of logical positivism) can be considered scientific facts.

According to Harry Collins' analysis, what constitutes an experimental result is decided by negotiations within the scientific community, driven by factors such as career, social and cognitive interests of the scientists, or the perceived utility for future work. More recently Andrew Pickering (1995) has put forward that an experiment is a dialectic of resistance and accommodation between the experimental apparatus and its running, the theory of the apparatus and the theory of the phenomenon under study: a successful experiment realizes a mutual agreement between all these factors. In its strongest formulation social constructivism says that only social facts do exist, that is, facts about the existence of the constructions we call scientific facts.

It is true that there are no numbers, spots, spectra out there in the world, and that human practices performed in a socially organized context are necessary for accessing scientific facts, but one cannot infer from that that these facts are solely social constructs. It is true that laboratory made facts are produced, maintained and understood under controlled conditions, but one must not forget that these facts cannot be produced without the operation of underlying causal processes that can operate also in absence of theoretical knowledge and beyond the intentions of human agents. as the historian Carlo Ginzburg wrote:

the fashionable injunction to study reality as a text should be supplemented by the awareness that no text can be understood without a reference to extra textual realities. (Ginzburg 1994, p. 295)

The tide of social constructionist theories that inflected many branches of the humanities also caused the birth of a new academic field: in the 1970s some American universities (such as Pennsylvania, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon and Stanford) began the first STS programmes aimed to social, political and economic analysis of science and technology. These studies were the academic response to the economic and political problems raised by the scientific-technological development and the dissatisfaction towards the traditional conception of science and technology: Mitcham and Mackey (1972), Spiegel-Ro¨sing and De Solla (1977). The acronym STS has two different readings that indicate two different traditions in this field of study: González Garc´ıa, L'opez Cerezo, and Luján L'opez (1996). If we read it as Science and Technology Studies, it is a research field that refers to the European tradition, that goes back to the above mentioned sociology of science works, and had initially set its interests mainly on scientific theories, moving only at a later time to the study of technology, while maintaining a strong theoretical characterization: Bijker, Hughes, and Pinch (1987), Bijker and Law (1992), Collins (1990), Latour (1987), Jasanoff (1995), Webster (1991). If we read it as Science, Technology and Society, it indicates the American tradition that from the beginning has studied technology and its impact on society, paying particular attention to ethical and normative issues, and to social and political philosophy, starting with the pioneeristic work of Lewis Mumford (1934): Durbin (1987), Fuller (1993), Ihde (1979), Mitcham (1994).

The main currents in this field agree that is impossible to distinguish between science and technology, and that technological factors are very important for the development of pure science itself. The technology is understood as a social process and technological determinism is criticized, together with the “linear model”, because in contemporary sociotechnical systems there are social factors (technical, organizational, cultural, political and economical) which interact with technological factors. Technological development is a process of variation and selection, and decisions about which of the technological variants are viable social choices are the result of negotiations between the actors of a network that includes scientists, engineers, business leaders, politicians: the interests of social actors shape technology, but this, in turn, changes social relations. In Latour's actor-network theory (1987) not only humans actors are nodes of this network but also material objects, and both are members of a new conceptual category, they are actants. Recently, it has been formulated the notion of eco-technological systems where technologies are integrated into broader social systems that may have similarities with ecosystems: Hughes (2006).

  • [1] For a critical approach to social constructivism, see Hacking (1999)
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