Social construction of technical knowledge

After there was the sociology of knowledge (link), before there was a new sociology of knowledge (link), and more or less simultaneous with science and technology studies (link), there was Paul Rabinow’s excellent ethnography of the invention of the key tool in recombinant DNA research — PCR (polymerase chain reaction). Rabinow’s monograph Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology appeared in 1996, after the first fifteen years of the revolution in biotechnology, and it provides a profound narrative of the intertwinings of theoretical science, applied bench work, and material economic interests, leading to substantial but socially imprinted discoveries and the development of a powerful new technology. Here is how Rabinow frames the research:

Making PCR

is an ethnographic account of the invention of PCR, the polymerase chain reaction (arguably the exemplary biotechnological invention to date), the milieu in which that invention took place (Cetus Corporation during the 1980s), and the key actors (scientists, technicians, and business people) who shaped the technology and the milieu and who were, in turn, shaped by them. (1)

This book focuses on the emergence of biotechnology, circa 1980, as a distinctive configuration of scientific, technical, cultural, social, economic, political, and legal elements, each of which had its own separate trajectory over the preceding decades. It examines the “style of life” or form of “life regulation” fashioned by the young scientists who chose to work in this new industry rather than pursue promising careers in the university world…. In sum, it shows how a contingently assembled practice emerged, composed of distinctive subjects, the site in which they worked, and the object they invented. (2)

There are several noteworthy features of these very exact descriptions of Rabinow’s purposes. The work is ethnographic; it proceeds through careful observation, interaction, and documentation of the intentionality and practices of the participants in the process. It is focused on actors of different kinds — scientists, lab technicians, lawyers, business executives, and others — whose interests, practices, and goals are distinctly different from each others’. It is interested in accounting for how the “object” (PCR) came about, without any implication of technological or scientific inevitability. It highlights both contingency and heterogeneity in the process. The process of invention and development was a meandering one (contingency) and it involved a large group of heterogeneous influences (scientific, cultural, economic, …).

Legal issues come into this account because the fundamental question — what is PCR and who invented it? — cannot be answered in narrowly technical or scientific terms. Instead, it was necessary to go through a process of practical bench-based development and patent law to finally be able to answer both questions.

A key part of Rabinow’s ethnographic finding is that the social configuration and setting of the Cetus laboratory was itself a key part of the process leading to successful development of PCR. The fact of hierarchy in traditional scientific research spaces (universities) is common — senior scientists at the top, junior technicians at the bottom. But Cetus had developed a local culture that was relatively un-hierarchical, and Rabinow believes this cultural feature was crucial to the success of the undertaking.

Cetus’s organizational structure was less hierarchical and more interdisciplinary than that found in either corporate pharmaceutical or academic institutions. In a very short time younger scientists could take over major control of projects; there was neither the extended postdoc and tenure probationary period nor time-consuming academic activities such as committees, teaching, and advising to divert them from full-time research. (36)

And later:

Cetus had been run with a high degree of organizational flexibility during its first decade. The advantages of such flexibility were a generally good working environment and a large degree of autonomy for the scientists. The disadvantages were a continuing lack of overall direction that resulted in a dispersal of both financial and human resources and in continuing financial losses. (143)

A critical part of the successful development of PCR techniques in Rabinow’s account was the highly skilled bench work of a group of lab technicians within the company (116 ff.). Ph.D. scientists and non-Ph.D. lab technicians collaborated well throughout the extended period during which the chemistry of PCR needed to be perfected; and Rabinow’s suggestion is that neither group by itself could have succeeded.

So some key ingredients in this story are familiar from the current wisdom of tech companies like Google and FaceBook: let talented people follow their curiosity, use space (physical and social) to elicit strong positive collaboration; don’t try to over-manage the process through a rigid authority structure.

But as Rabinow points out, Cetus was not an anarchic process of smart people discovering things. Priorities were established to govern research directions, and there were sustained efforts to align research productivity with revenue growth (almost always unsuccessful, it must be said). Here is Rabinow’s concluding observation about the company and the knowledge environment:

Within a very short span of time some curious and wonderful reversals, orthogonal movements, began happening: the concept itself became an experimental system; the experimental system became a technique; the techniques became concepts. These rapidly developing variations and mutually referential changes of level were integrated into a research milieu, first at Cetus, then in other places, then, soon, in very many other places. These places began to resemble each other because people were building them to do so, but were often not identical. (169).

And, as other knowledge-intensive businesses from Visicalc to Xerox to H-P to Microsoft to Google have discovered, there is no magic formula for joining technical and scientific research to business success.

Sociology of knowledge: Camic, Gross and Lamont


The sociology of knowledge has received a new burst of energy in the past few years, with quite a bit of encouragement and innovation coming from Science, Technology and Society studies (STS).  (STS overlaps substantially with the SSK research tradition described briefly in an earlier post.)  Charles Camic and Neil Gross have made very substantial contributions in the past few years, with special focus on the knowledge activities associated with the humanities and social sciences.  (Gross’s intellectual sociology of Richard Rorty is discussed here.)

So what is going on in this field today?  Camic, Gross, and Lamont, Social Knowledge in the Making, offers a genuinely pathbreaking collection of articles on different aspects of “social knowledge practices”.  The editors’ introduction to the volume does an excellent job of laying out the issues that current sociology of knowledge needs to confront.  They illustrate very clearly the differences in perspective associated with traditional intellectual history (which they describe as “traditional approach to social knowledge”; TASK), reductionist sociology of knowledge (attempting to link social conditions to specific set of ideas), and the science studies approach, which focuses a great deal of attention on the specific knowledge practices through which a community constructs and furthers a body of knowledge.

The editors make the point that the STS framework (and the SSK approach) is largely focused on the social practices connected with the natural and biological sciences — laboratories, graduate schools, journals, conferences. And they argue that the fields of knowledge production involved in social knowledge are both important and distinctive.  (They are distinctive for at least three reasons: social knowledge is reflexive, the data must be gathered from subjective participants, and there are powerful interests in play that are pertinent to various formulations of social knowledge.)  So it is timely to pay equally close attention to the practices and institutions through which economics, philosophy, sociology, or Asian Studies frame and construct knowledge.  This volume attempts to give a number of rigorous examples in different areas of the social knowledge domains of that kind of empirical-sociological research.

Here are a few premises of the editors’ approach to the problem:

By “social knowledge” we mean, in the first instance, descriptive information and analytical statements about the actions, behaviors, subjective states, and capacities of human beings and/or about the properties and processes of the aggregate or collective units — the groups, networks, markets, organizations, and so on — where these human agents are situated. (kl 78)

They also include in their definition of social knowledge the ways of knowledge making:

… the technologies and tools of knowledge making — that is, the epistemic principles, cognitive schemata, theoretical models, conceptual artifacts, technical instruments, methodological procedures, tacit understandings, and material devices by which descriptive and normative statements about the social world are produced, assessed, represented, communicated, and preserved. (kl 78)

Key to their approach is to engage in detailed studies of the social practices associated with knowledge production.  Here is how they define a social practice:

We define “practices” as the ensembles of patterned activities — the “modes of working and doing,” in Amsterdamska’s words — by which human beings confront and structure the situated tasks with which they are engaged.  These activities may be intentional or unintentional, interpersonally cooperative or antagonistic, but they are inherently multifaceted, woven of cognitive, emotional, semiotic, appreciative, normative, and material components, which carry different valences in different contexts. (kl 122)

The goal of this research effort is to do for the social sciences and humanities what the STS/SSK researchers have done for the natural sciences.  This tradition has …

shifted scholarly attention away from science as a finished product in the temple of human knowledge and toward the study of the multiple multilayered and multisited practices involved during the long hours when future kernels of scientific knowledge are still in the making. (kl 152)

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)

So how can this research goal be carried out in practice?  Here is how Andrew Abbott pursues some of these questions in his contribution to the volume in an essay that investigates in detail how historians have used libraries in their research:

I have two major aims in this chapter. The first is empirical. I want to recover the practices, communities, and institutions of library researchers and their libraries in the twentieth century. There is at present almost no synthetic writing about this topic, and I aim to fill that gap. This empirical investigation points to a second more theoretical one.  There turns out to be a longstanding debate between librarians and disciplinary scholars over the proper means to create, store, and access the many forms of knowledge found in libraries. By tracing the evolution of this debate, I create a theoretical context for current debates about library research. (kl 581)

One thing I find interesting in reading this work is the absence of the philosophy of science as one of the reflective areas of research through which the knowledge process is examined.  Thomas Kuhn is mentioned as an intellectual founder of the historical-sociological approach to the problem of scientific knowledge; but the vibrant discipline of the philosophy of science is not mentioned by any of the contributors.  This seems to be a lost opportunity, since philosophers too are trying to make sense of the processes, procedures, and norms of the sciences along the way towards an interpretation of philosophical ideas such as truth and objectivity in knowledge.  It would be highly interesting to see a careful study of the development of post-positivist philosophy of science (from Peter Achinstein, Hilary Putnam, and Bas van Fraassen to the present day, let’s say), by a sociologist who is willing to take the trouble to carefully examine the doctrines, schools, graduate programs, journals, associations, and dominant ideas that have evolved in the past half century within philosophy.

Tandem with this absence of the philosophy of science is an avoidance of epistemic concepts like “validity,” “approximate truth,” or “widening understanding of how the social world works.”  The impression given by this volume, anyway, is that the task of the sociology of knowledge is solely restricted to examination of the practices and material conditions through which systems of belief about the social world are formed, without a concomitant interest in evaluating the success of the enterprise at establishing some of the facts of how the world works.  This impression is born out in the closing paragraphs of Camic’s entry on “Knowledge, Sociology of” in the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Referring essentially to the approach taken by contributors toSocial Knowledge in the Making, Camic writes:

This second approach focuses the sociology of knowledge mainly on men and women who specialize in the production of ideas and on the particular social processes by which their ideas emerge and develop—a move that, in effect, transforms the field into a sociology of ideas. This perspective has tended to reject the core assumptions of the older sociology of knowledge, building instead on schol- arship that argues that sociocultural processes are as much internal to the content of ideas as they are external (Bloor 1976, Shapin 1992), that the meanings of ideas are only understandable to an investigator after careful contextual reconstruction (Skinner 1969), and that local, micro-level settings are often the main sites for the development of ideas (Geertz 1983, Whitley 1984). Like the broad-constructionist ap- proach, this narrow-constructionist perspective pre- sently provides a foundation for several lines of empirical research (see Camic and Gross 2000). No forecast can yet be made, however, as to which approach, if either, will rescue the sociology of knowledge from its traditionally marginal position in the discipline of sociology. (8146)

This excerpt too emphasizes the internal practices of the various knowledge communities, rather than the likelihood that the product of knowledge production is valid, veridical, or rationally supportable.

As I found in the earlier post on research communities, it seems that there needs to be more communication and mutual learning between the sociology of science and the philosophy of science. Admittedly the two disciplines have different goals; but in the end, we would like to understand both aspects of the process of knowledge formation in a way that makes coherent sense: the concrete social practices and the cognitive merits of the results.  Otherwise we have no basis for diagnosing what went wrong with Soviet biology and Lysenkoism (depicted in the photo at top).

Merton’s sociology of science

The organized study of “science” as an epistemic practice and a knowledge product has taken at least three major forms in the past century: the philosophy of science, the history of science, and the sociology of science.  Philosophers have been primarily interested in the logic of scientific inquiry and the rational force of scientific knowledge.  Historians have been interested in the circumstances, both external and internal, through which important periods of the growth of scientific knowledge have occurred — the Newtonian revolution, the Darwinian revolution, the “discovery” of cold fusion (above).  And sociologists have been interested in examining the norms and organizations through which “science” is practiced — how young scientists are trained, how collaboration and competition work within a scientific discipline or a laboratory, how results are assessed and communicated.

And because the intellectual frameworks within which philosophers, historians, and sociologists have been educated differ substantially, these meta-disciplines of the study of science are significantly different as well.  The philosophers are largely interested in the quality of the product — the rational force of a given body of scientific knowledge.  The historians are interested in the contingencies of development of a given field.  And the sociologists are interested in the social processes that lead to the creation of a body of scientific knowledge; they are inclined to “bracket” the epistemic standing or truth-value of the theories and hypotheses that a tradition has produced.

Robert Merton was one of the giants of American sociology.  One of his core contributions had to do with his efforts to define the subject matter and methodology of the sociology of science.  A volume of Merton’s essays from the 1930s through 1960s on the sociology of science appeared in 1971, The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, and these essays are worth re-reading today.  Here are some of Merton’s formulations of the task of the sociology of science in “The Neglect of the Sociology of Science” (1952):

Numerous works … have variously dealt with one or another part of the subject [of the sociology of science].  But these … have not examined the linkage between science and social structure by means of a conceptual framework that has proved effective in other branches of sociology. (210)

Among current introductory textbooks in sociology … all deal at length with the institutions of family, state, and economy, many with the institution of religion, but very few indeed with science as a major institution in modern society. (211)

Unlike the pattern in solidly established disciplines, in the sociology of science, facts are typically divorced from systematic theory.  Empirical observation and hypothesis do not provide mutual assistance.  Not having that direct bearing on a body of theory which makes for cumulative knowledge, the empirical studies that have been made, from time to time, by natural scientists have resulted in a thin scattering of unconnected findings rather than a chain of closely linked findings. (212-13)

So the goal of the sociology of science is to examine the linkage between science and social structure using the “conceptual frameworks” of sociology.  The sociology of science needs to be based on empirical observation — i.e. it cannot be a purely conceptual discipline.  But it must possess an appropriate framework of sociological theory within the context of which empirical observations of scientific practice can be explained.

Several ideas were particularly important in Merton’s efforts to conceptualize the processes of science:

  • the importance of discovering the norms that underlay the research and thinking of scientists in a given field (the ethos of science); (“the emotionally toned complex of rules, prescriptions, mores, beliefs, values and presuppositions that are held to be binding upon the scientist”)
  • the internal social structure of various scientific disciplines (training, communication, information flow, evaluation)
  • the incentives that exist within the scientific disciplines that constitute the driving force for scientists to aggressively pursue publishable results; the reward system.  How do the imperatives of the ethos and the institutions of science come together to determine the patterns of behavior of the individual working scientist?  

One of Merton’s key methodological contributions was the idea that it was possible to observe and measure the institutions of science through careful empirical examination of the biographies, journals, and other objective markers of scientific activity. (This is what he refers to as the conceptual framework of sociology.)  He repeatedly attempts to quantify and measure the activities of science — publication rates, inventions, numbers of scientists in a field, and so forth.  For example, in “Changing Foci of Interest in the Sciences and Technology” (1938) he attempts to estimate the pattern of shifting scientific interest in England over the period of 1665-1702 by counting the numbers of articles to be published in various areas of science (tables 3-4). He finds that the physical and formal sciences fall in frequency during this time period, while the life sciences rise significantly (201).  How should we explain this shift in the interests of the scientific community?  Merton advocates a sociological cause.  Referring back to Rickert and Weber, he argues that this shift is likely to be linked to the broader societal interests of the time period:

Scientists often choose problems for investigation that are vitally linked with major values and interests of the time.  Much of this study will examine some of the extra-scientific elements which significantly influenced, if they did not wholly determine, the foci of scientific interest. (203)

Another of Merton’s key ideas is the role of the reward system of science, which he takes to be the motor of scientific change:

Like other institutions, the institution of science has developed an elaborate system for allocating rewards to those who variously live up to its norms…. The evolution of this system has been the work of centuries, and it will of course never be finished.  (297)

And he finds that this reward system gives great weight to originality and priority — which leads to the recurring phenomena of priority disputes, fraud, and plagiarism in science (309).  And it leads as well to the phenomenon of multiple discovery by independent researchers:

The pages of the history of science record thousands of instances of similar discoveries having been made by scientists working independently of one another.  Sometimes the discoveries are simultaneous or almost so; sometimes a scientist will make anew a discovery which, unknown to him, somebody else had made years before.  Such occurrences suggest that discoveries become virtually inevitable when prerequisite kinds of knowledge and tools accumulate in man’s cultural store and when the attention of an appreciable number of investigators becomes focused on a problem, by emerging social needs, by developments internal to the science, or by both. (371)

A final topic of interest in Merton’s sociology of science is his treatment of “peer review”.  Here is how he describes this part of the institutions of science in “Institutionalized Patterns of Evaluation in Science” (1971):

The referee system in science involves the systematic use of judges to assess the acceptability of manuscripts submitted for publication.  The referee is thus an example of status judges who are charged with evaluating the quality of role-performances in a social system.  They are found in every institutional sphere. (460)

So we might encapsulate Merton’s intellectual framework for the sociology of science in a few basic ideas: the sociologist needs to find ways of observing scientific practice empirically; the conduct of science is driven by the values that the institutions of science inculcate and enforce; the incentives created by the scientific institutions shape and motivate the behavior of scientists; and the product of science is the result of the constrained activities of scientists shaped and motivated in these particular ways.  So the sociologist needs to discover and document the values, he/she needs to uncover the evaluation mechanisms, and he/she needs to discover in detail how innovations and theories have emerged in specific research environments.

What this description leaves out from a contemporary perspective might include:

  • analysis of social networks of collaboration and communication among scientists
  • analysis of the institutions of training through which scientists learn their craft
  • content analysis of the results of scientific inquiry — recurring features of theory and explanation within specific research traditions

(Trevor Pinch is an important contemporary contributor to current sociology of science and is one of the editors of the 1995 volume, Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Here is a link to his syllabus for a seminar on the sociology of science that indicates how he conceptualizes the discipline.)

Are there "social kinds"?

Philosophers of science sometimes define the idea of a natural kind as “a group of things that share a fundamental set of causal properties.” Examples might be “gold,” “metal,” and “protein molecule.” And some philosophers assume that scientific realism means being realist about natural kinds. Do the typical concepts used in the social sciences succeed in identifying a social analog to natural kinds, which might be referred to as “social kinds”? And if not, is it possible to be realist about the social world but anti-realist with respect to “social kinds”?

First, what is involved in being “realist” in connection with the historical and human sciences? It is to assert several independent things: first, that there is the possibility of (fallibly) objective knowledge of social facts; second, that there are “social facts” to be known – that is, there are some mind- or interpretation-independent things that happen and can be the subject of knowledge; and third (questionably), that there are categories of higher-level social entities that “really” exist in the way that some philosophers say that natural kinds exist. It is entirely defensible to be a scientific realist in the social sciences, and I want to support the first two ideas but to argue against the third.

Concepts are of course essential to social knowledge. The heart of social inquiry has to do with coming up with concepts that allow us to better understand social reality: for example, racism, patterns of behavior, free market, class consciousness, ethnic identities. Theory formation in the social sciences largely consists of the task of constructing concepts and categories that capture groups of social phenomena for the purpose of analysis. But even the most successful social concepts do not identify groups of phenomena that could be called a “social kind.” High-level social concepts that serve to pick out groups of social phenomena—states, riots, property systems—generally do not refer to causally homogeneous bodies of social phenomena; instead, each of these is composed of individual social formations with their own history and circumstances. There is no uniform causal constitution that underlies all states or riots. The philosophical notions of “family resemblance” and “cluster concepts” serve better to characterize these high-level social concepts than does “natural kind”.

Examples of what might have been thought to be social kinds might include concepts such as these: proletariat, underclass resentment, revolutionary situation, racism; liberal representative states; fascism; feudalism; bureaucratic state. But I hold that these are not kinds in the strong sense that philosophers of the natural sciences have in mind. Rather, they are plastic, variable, opportunistic, individually specific instantiations across a variety of human contexts. We need to be able to identify some topics of interest, so we need language and concepts; but we must avoid reifying the concepts and thinking they refer to some underlying discoverable essence. (Think of how Chuck Tilly conceptualizes riot, rebellion, and resistance in terms of “contentious politics.” Rightly, he avoids the idea that there is one common thing going on in these instances across time, history, and place; his goal is to identify a medium-sized body of causal mechanisms that bundle together in various contexts to give rise to one signature of contention or another.)

The discovery of causal processes is essential to social explanation — not the discovery of high-level uniform categories of social events or structures. We explain social outcomes best when we can uncover the causal mechanisms that gave rise to them. However, most social ensembles are the result of multiple causal mechanisms, and their natures are not common, simple, or invariant. “States” embody mechanisms of social control. But as Tolstoy said about unhappy families, every state manages its contention in somewhat different ways. So we can’t and shouldn’t expect common causal properties across the class of “states”. And this is directly relevant to the central point here: the “state” is not a social kind, and there is no simple theory that encapsulates its causal properties.

This approach has specific implications for the conduct of the social sciences. For example, political science and the study of different types of states: we can identify common mechanisms, sub-institutions, building blocks, etc., that recur in different political systems. And we can offer causal explanations of specific states in particular historical circumstances — for example, the Brazilian state in the 1990s. But we cannot produce strong generalizations about “states” or even particular kinds of states — for example, “developing states”. Or at least, the generalizations we find are weak and exception-laden. Rather, we must build up our explanations from the component mechanisms and institutions found in the particular cases.

So here is a moderate form of scientific realism that is well suited to the nature of the social world: be realist about social mechanisms but not about social kinds. Be realist and empiricist in epistemology: we can arrive at rationally justified beliefs about social mechanisms. And be a skeptic or nominalist about social kinds. There are no macro or molar-level social kinds.

Social science history and historical social science

Social science methods and historical explanation seem to come together in several different ways; what can we say about the differences of approach between “history using the tools of the social sciences” and “social science research that pays close attention to history”?

E. P. Thompson treats the making of the English working class. His work is multi-faceted. He gives treatment of workingmen’s organizations and publications; churches and pastors; riots and chants; petitions to parliament; and much else. The story is historical in several respects: it provides an account of change over time and it engages in detailed and fine-grained description of specific circumstances in the past. Is Thompson attempting to explain something? Perhaps it is more accurate to say that his aim is to describe this extended, multi-location, multi-group process of “making”, along with some sense of the circumstances and features of agency that brought this “class” into being. And he goes out of his way to emphasize the contingency of the story that he tells: this “class” could have taken a very different shape, depending on altered circumstances and agency along the way. His is as much like the work of a biographer, detailing the development of personality, the contingencies of personal history, the formation of character, and the actions of the mature person.

Charles Tilly treats the development of contentious politics in France over three centuries. His account too is “historical”: it describes the development and diversity of contentious politics in France through revolution and periods of quiet. His account too is attentive to difference; he emphasizes the many ways in which French contentious “underclass” politics varied across time and across region. The politics of workers in Paris were quite different from those of the winemakers of the Vendée. But Tilly’s account is deliberately sociological and theoretical. The goal of his study is to discover causes; to test a few theoretical hypotheses about mobilization; and to use the “data” of French working class history as a basis for testing and evaluating sociological theory.

Each of these examples is a major intellectual contribution; each contributes to our historical understanding; each focuses on a historically situated working class. But the two oeuvres have substantial differences of orientation and feel. One is explicitly theoretical in its goals; the other is nuanced and descriptive. One aims at arriving at explanations; the other is interested in providing a qualitative understanding of the experience of ordinary men and women of the 18th and 19th centuries in rural England. One is historical social science, while the other is social science history.

So it is an important question within the philosophy of history, to articulate the difference between these two configurations of “social science” and “history.” How are the two genres distinguished? Are they differences of style, each embodying a complex of narrative and explanatory values? Are they at opposing ends of some sort of spectrum, ranging from descriptive to explanatory or concrete to abstract? Or are they actually logically different in some way—perhaps along the lines of the distinction between three conceptions of time described by William Sewell?

Perhaps most extremely, would we be right to consider excluding Tilly’s work from the domain of the “historical” and place it instead within the domain of social science, distinguished from other varieties of social science primarily by the fact that the data upon which it depends are facts about the past? In other words, is it possible to suggest that “historical social science” is not a variety of historical writing at all?

How might we characterize some of the differences between these two bodies of writing about the past? Do they constitute different paradigms, research frameworks, or forms of historical practice? Do they embody different complexes of assumptions about what to emphasize, what the standards of rigor are, what is required by way of description, detail, and fact; what is intended by way of explanation and understanding; the role that interpretation of the lived experience of agents plays; and so on?

Comparative historical social science is a particular instance of historical social science. There is a well-developed contemporary literature on the conceptual and methodological issues raised by comparative historical social science. And the participants in this literature generally seem to come down on the side of the “social science” conclusions rather than the “historical explanations” side of the debate. The goal of comparative social science is to assess causation, and to use knowledge of concrete historical cases as a source of evidence for evaluating causal theories. Examples include the explanation of social revolution (Theda Skocpol), the explanation of social contention (Charles Tilly), the explanation of economic development (R. Bin Wong, Philip Huang), the explanation of labor union politics (Howard Kimmeldorf).

Now let us turn the lens in the other direction and ask, in what ways do the contents of social science knowledge aid in the construction of historical knowledge? What is the role of theory and causal hypothesis in paradigm examples of historical knowledge? Virtually all historians would first insist: “Historical research cannot take the form of application of social science theory to the data. Rather, the historian’s task is to discover the particular and the grain of the materials in front of him. History is not the unfolding of theoretical premises and good historical knowledge does not result from deducing consequences from general social science theories.” That being conceded: are there forms of historical inquiry and knowledge that are importantly and rationally assisted by social science theory?

One variant of historical writing where social science theory is apparently pertinent is in the “causal narrative”. Historians are well served by appealing to social science theories of causal mechanisms in order to explain the transitions that they identify in their causal narratives. This is a logical point. And yet, it is strikingly difficult to find examples of leading historians who make use of social science theory in this way. Philip Huang is an example of a professional historian who makes substantial use of social science theory and concepts; Simon Schama is an example of a historian who is averse to this use. More commonly, the authors who provide causal narratives informed by social science theory are themselves sociologists or other social scientists (Skocpol, Tilly, Wolf, Paige).

It seems from some of these scattered observations, that there is indeed a significant difference between social science history and historical social science. The explanatory goals appear to be different, and the methods of reasoning and standards of rigor and adequacy seem to be distinct as well. So the question of how the disciplinary differences fit together is one that demands continued scrutiny.

Politics and science

In the idealized version of science, the enterprise of scientific knowledge discovery follows its own logic without extraneous non-cognitive or non-rational influences. But this is unrealistic. Science is a social activity, conditioned by institutions, governments, and other social forces. So it is worth considering how politics influences the course of science and how these influences affect the rationality or veridicality of the enterprise. Does the fact of political influence on science make science either less rational or less true?

There are at least two ways in which science can be affected by social or political factors: in terms of the formulation of research questions and priorities, and in terms of the content of the findings of scientific research. Pernicious examples of the second kind of influence are easy to find in the history of science. For example, Stalin’s insistence on the correctness of Lysenko’s adaptationist theory of species led Soviet biology into a biological science that was profoundly untrue: organisms do not evolve according to the processes or mechanisms attributed to them by Lysenkoism. So the political imperative from Stalin to the adoption of a particular scientific hypothesis led to erroneous science. It was also irrational science (because it depended on criteria of acceptance that were political rather than empirical).

This form of influence of politics on science is clearly anti-scientific and anti-rational. And, regrettably, we appear to have clear instances of this kind of substitution of political expediency for rational scientific judgment in the behavior of the current US administration, in the form of its efforts to control the content of scientific judgments about climate change (article).

So one form of political influence on science is clearly anti-scientific. When politicians substitute their wishes for the judgment of capable scientific researchers, it is inevitable that the result will be bad science. And, of course, bad science is a bad basis for future problem-solving.

But consider the other form of influence mentioned here: the setting of priorities for scientific research, especially through funding strategies. Is this kind of influence inherently inconsistent with the empirical and rational claims of science?

It is obvious that science is subject to this kind of influence. When the National Institutes of Health decides to give higher priority to one kind of cancer rather than another, or to diabetes research over Alzheimer’s research, this national institution is setting the agenda for university researchers throughout the country. When the US government gave priority to space exploration research over atmospheric or oceanic research in the 1960s, it likewise gave encouragement to certain scientific disciplines and inhibition to others. And, predictably, there was more progress in the scope and depth of scientific knowledge in some disciplines than others, following the spending priorities. Science requires resources, and one of the duties of a democratic government is to decide about priorities in the expenditure of public moneys.

What this kind of influence does not do, is to dictate the content of the findings. Once the resources are committed, it is essential that the normal processes of science — empirical study, peer review, experimentation, theory development — should take place without interference from political or social pressure.

So we might say that the “priority-setting” influence of politics on science is benign from the point of view of scientific rationality. The political decision-makers decide what scientific problems are most important from the public’s point of view; and the scientists, following the funding sources, then do their best to understand and solve those problems. But this means that one of our crucial political goals ought to be to create and defend institutions that assure the political independence of scientists, so their research findings are the result of empirical investigation and theory formation rather than pressured conformance to the state’s expectations.

Now let’s bring these ideas back to the social sciences. Social science research has been subject to both kinds of political influence in American history. There have sometimes been intense pressures on social scientists and historians about the content of their research — for example, the field of China studies during the period of McCarthyism. When social scientists arrive at unpalatable truths, they are sometimes subjected to shameful political pressures. But second, the social sciences have certainly been shaped in the past forty years by the spending priorities of federal and non-profit funding agencies. This influence isn’t necessarily bad, or anti-scientific. In fact, it is unavoidable. But, in the social sciences especially, it may have the insidious effect of pushing social science research away from some difficult or controversial topics; and this may be so, even when those topics turn out to be particularly important for arriving at a better understanding of where our society is going.

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