Reports of the Death of the Sociology of Science Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

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THIS TITLE ECHOES MARK TWAIN WHO is apocryphally reported to have said that "the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" after his obituary was published in the New York Journal in 1897 while he was still very much alive. He died in 1910. His actual words "the report of my death was an exaggeration" convey the famous sentiment, albeit a little less memorably. (1)

Here we report on another death which has been greatly exaggerated--that of the sociology of science. According to a widespread legend, the sociology of science became extinct and was replaced by one or more new modes of observing and theorizing about science. At the very least, these new modes are viewed as having been added to the mix and having come to dominate (e.g., see discussion of Hess 1997; Restivo and Croissant 2008; Sismondo 2008; Yearley 2005 below). The candidates usually mentioned are the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), social studies of science, or social epistemology. Such legends are so widely believed in the field most inclusively known as science studies" that a prominent philosopher of science issued a plaintive call for a revival of the sociology of science (Kitcher 2000). Similarly, Frickel and Moore (2006) collected a series of case studies which they view as representing a revival of the sociology of science, but one centered on the political. A related possibility is that the different modes of studying science have become wholly distinct. Hull (2000) viewed this as undesirable and called for more interaction, to be achieved by "cutting each other some slack," an attitude he viewed as prevailing in the study of biology where philosophers, historians, social scientists, and even biologists interact in the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology. So--it should be revived, it is being revived, it could be revived, but perhaps first the question should be asked whether it ever died. Before some data are presented, an extremely abbreviated history will be useful.

Originally, the philosophy, history, and sociology of science were independently institutionalized tHull 2000). Although metaphysics had long since evolved into the natural sciences and epistemology into psychology and the social sciences, the philosophy of science for long remained curiously immune to this "scientizing" of what were once exclusively philosophical topics. Eventually, however, the reigning paradigm in the philosophy of science in the latter part of the first half of the twentieth century, logical positivism, melted under Quine's (1951, 1960) attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction and his embrace of a (psychological) "naturalized epistemology" (1969) as well as Kuhn's (1962) historical account of revolutions in science. These led ultimately to the conclusion that only theories as a whole have empirical import and they, or more inclusively, paradigms or research programs as a whole, only relatively, that is in competition with others. In the view of some, these developments in philosophy led naturally not so much to Popper's (1959, 1962, 1972) falsificationism, his "conjectures and refutations" emphasizing only selection against, but rather to "conjectures" and changes in relative frequencies by means of any, or all of, competition, conflict, and cooperation--that is to evolutionary theories of scientific change, such as those of Toulmin (1972) and Hull (1988). As a minimum, they helped make space for the professionalization and institutionalization of the history and sociology of science.

Some of Robert K. Merton's writings on the subject of science date to the 1930s and 1940s in which he made it clear that he viewed the sociology of science as a branch of the sociology of knowledge (e.g., Merton 1937) pioneered by Karl Mannheim. However, the sociology of science was not fully institutionalized until the 1960s--primarily at Columbia University by Merton, but also at The University of Wisconsin at Madison by Warren O. …