Social embeddedness of scientific and cultural work

How do complex, socially embodied processes of cultural and scientific creation work? (I’m thinking of artistic traditions, scientific research communities, literary criticism schools, high-end culinary experts, and mental health professionals, for example.) This is a complex question, by design. It is a question about how a field of “cumulative” symbolic production moves forward and develops; so it is related to intellectual history, art history, and the philosophy of science. But it is also a question about the social embeddedness of creative work — the idea that the practitioners of literary theory, political science, high-energy physics, biology, or international relations theory proceed within material and social conditions, institutions, and incentives and constraints that train, guide, and valorize practitioners.

One of the important developments in the philosophy of science since 1970 was the development of large concepts designed to capture the social and institutional context of science, and to discover how the details of these social arrangements influence the content and value of the resulting scientific research. Thomas Kuhn’s framing of the history of science around paradigms, normal science, and anomaly was one of the early contributions to this perspective, as was Imre Lakatos’s focus on research programmes. There has emerged a strong interest in studying the sociological context of scientific and cultural work, and the institutions that facilitate and regulate publication and validation in various fields. These contextual arrangements define the systems of valuation that distinguish “good” products from “bad” products (good pieces of scientific discovery, good works of literary criticism). And they determine the prestige and career prospects of the researchers.

The “historical turn” in the study of science resulted in two large and independent innovations in how to think about “science in context”. The first is the recognition that scientific work (or cultural work) takes place within specific social and material conditions, and it is important to study those environments. The second is that research communities develop forms of “social cognition” that are specialized to their community, and that strongly influence the ways that they conceive of the world and design their research efforts. Both aspects are important insights, but they derive from separate insights into scientific work. I will address the social cognition feature in a later post.

The “new sociology of knowledge” (link) represents a fresh start on the “social embeddedness” orientation towards culture and knowledge, building on interdisciplinary fields like Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) (link). Charles Camic, Neil Gross, and Michele Lamont offer examples of some very interesting recent work in this field in Social Knowledge in the Making. Here is one of the core observations that the editors draw from the research contributions to the volume:

One of these themes is that social knowledge practices are multiplex, composed of many different aspects, elements, and features, which may or may not work in concert. Surveying the broad terrain mapped across the different chapters, we see, for example, the transitory practices of a short-lived research consortium as well as knowledge practices that endure for generations across many disciplines and institutions… (kl 338)

At site after site, heterogeneous social knowledge practices occur in tandem, layered upon one another, looping around and through each another, interweaving and branching, sometimes pulling in the same directions, sometimes in contrary directions. (kl 353)

The social-embeddedness approach to thinking about science and culture is intended to situate a cultural or scientific activity within a set of social/intellectual relationships, with the background hypothesis that the activity develops as a result of the cognitive, symbolic, and material relationships that exist among its practitioners. These may include graduate curricula, laboratory procedures, journal publication policies, funding agencies, and the other social, political, and intellectual/institutional resources that exist within that community of practitioners.

Detailed studies in the sociology of science shed light on how this conception of scientific research and valuation takes place. Norwood Hanson’s Patterns of Discovery (1958) was one of the earliest careful studies of a physics laboratory that demonstrated the impossibility of maintaining a rigid separation between observation and theory — a key tenet of logical positivism. As such, Hanson’s work represented one of the earliest contributions to post-positivist philosophy of science. Since then a large field of study has emerged that focuses on the details of research communities and laboratories. Paul Rabinow’s Making PCR is a fascinating account of a biotech laboratory in which he documents the extensive interdependency that exists among research scientists, laboratory technicians, managers, research assistants, and others. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life provides an ethnographic study of a biological research lab.

Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of a “field” of cultural and intellectual activity (link) in The Field of Cultural Production falls in the broad category of the social-embeddedness approach to cultural and intellectual activities described here. The heart of Bourdieu’s concept of “field” is “relationality” — the idea that the participants in cultural production and their products are situated and constituted in terms of a number of processes and social realities. Cultural products and producers are located within “a space of positions and position-takings” (30) that constitute a set of objective relations.

The space of literary or artistic position-takings, i.e. the structured set of the manifestations of the social agents involved in’ the field — literary or artistic works, of course, but also political acts or pronouncements, manifestos or polemics, etc. — is inseparable from the space of literary or artistic positions defined by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital. The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces. (30)

This text give us a better idea of what a “field” encompasses for Bourdieu. It is a connected network of social activity in which there are “creators” who are intent on creating a certain kind of cultural product. The product is defined, in part, by the expectations and values of the audience — not simply the creator. The audience is multiple, from specialist connoisseurs to the mass public. And the product is supported and filtered by a range of overlapping social institutions — galleries, academies, journals, reviews, newspapers, universities, patrons, sources of funding, and the market for works of “culture.”

The social embeddedness of intellectual and scientific research is important and worth careful study. We learn a great deal about the course of development of fields such as “high-energy physics in the United States”, “neo-liberal economic development theory”, or “post-modern literary studies” by discovering the ways in which researchers in these fields are trained (graduate programs), how they are funded, how their results are evaluated for publication, how the national laboratories work, what the peer networks are, how the researchers are awarded the signs of success within the discipline, and so on. We can perhaps trace the spread of new ideas over a period of time — for example, computable general equilibrium models in development economics — based on an understanding of the institutional settings of the relevant discipline. And this “embeddedness” feature is quite general across fields of intellectual, cultural, and scientific work.

An important question arises within this framework: why should we expect these kinds of sociological institutions to lead to “better science”, more insightful literary criticism, or better ethnography? We can certainly point to what Lakatos referred to as “degenerating research programmes”, and the case of Soviet biology under the iron hand of Trofim Lysenko provides a clear example of “bad science resulting from a disciplined research community”. Examples like these confirm that a “disciplinary matrix” is no guarantee of scientific progress or eventual discovery of the truth about a domain.

This is a question that philosophers of science have confronted, and there are substantive efforts to provide answers to the question, revolving around the fact that the empirical world provides its own feedback to bad science (through observation, experiment, and independent critical thinking). There is also a “bootstrapping” mechanism at work in the peer-review process for evaluating scientific work for publication, though it is also clear that a peer-review process may also have perverse results. Dogma is a risk within a scientific research community no less than in a culinary community (never, never, never use dried basil for pesto!). This is the point of the critique involved in the Perestroika debate in political science (link), where the critics maintain that orthodox journal editors and power holders show a dogmatic adherence to rational-choice theory over other possible approaches, and there is an equally deep divide within sociology over the validity of non-quantitative methods for sociological research (link). The fissure in literary studies between post-modern criticism and what Satya Mohanty calls “realist literary theory” represents a disciplinary divide in the humanities. All of that accepted — it is seems clear that scientific understanding of the world proceeds best when scientists criticize each others’ research on the basis of evidence and theoretical coherence. Fallible, yes; but a better bet than any other approach humanity has considered. We might go further and postulate that some institutional arrangements work better than others for promoting the truth-enhancing goals of science — for example, institutions that encourage independent thinking across ranks within the discipline.

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