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Sociology of Scientific Knowledge

Sociology of Scientific Knowledge

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Published by: neo-kerata on Nov 05, 2009
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Dick Pels*Karl Mannheim and the Sociology of ScientificKnowledge: Toward a New Agenda**
Sociological Theory
Volume 14, Issue 1Mar. 1996, 30-48.
In previous decades, a regrettabledivorce has arisen between two currentsof theorizing and research aboutknowledge and science: the Mannheimianand Wittgensteinian traditions. Theradical impulse of the new social studiesof science in the early 1970s was initiatednot by followers of Mannheim, but byWittgensteinians such as Kuhn, Bloor andCollins. This paper inquires whether thisWittgensteinian program is not presentlyrunning into difficulties that might beresolved to some extent by reverting to amore traditional and broader agenda of research. A social theory of knowledge(or social epistemology) alongMannheimian lines would not onlyreinstate the magic triangleoepistemology, sociology, and ethics, andhence revive the vexed problem o“ideology critique,” but would also needto reincorporate the social analysis of science into a broader macrosocial theoryabout the “knowledge society.”
Two Traditions in the Social Theory oKnowledge
Signalling a regrettable fact and advancingan appropriate remedy are intellectual operationsthat presuppose and codetermine one another in a
circular manner. The unfortunate fact concerns therelative divorce and mutual indifference betweentwo contemporary currents of theorizing andresearch about knowledge and science, which I callthe “Mannheimianand the “Wittgensteiniantraditions. I use these appelations in somewhatambiguous homage to David Bloor, who, in one of the first statements in print of the Edinburgh StrongProgramme, compared the two thinkers with regardto the strategic possibility of a sociologicalexplanation of logic, mathematics, and naturalscience (Bloor 1973). The Mannheimian programfor the sociology of knowledge was considered“weak” precisely for its refusal to explain culturaland natural science symmetrically, and hence toextend causal sociological analysis to the “hardcase” of the natural sciences; and for its coincidentfailure to demand an equally radical symmetry between the sociological explanation of true andfalse beliefs, thus confining the sociology of knowledge to a mere “sociology of error.” In bothrespects, Wittgenstein was celebrated as offering amore attractive starting point: “Wittgenstein solvesMannheim’s problem” (Bloor 1973:173; cf. Bloor 1983).
Accordingly, the spurt of intellectualinitiative that awoke the slumbering sociology of knowledge to the radical impulse of the new socialstudies of science in the early 1970s was notinitiated by Mannheimians, but largely developedwithout Mannheim, if not in conscious opposition tohis work. Although in the discursive ferment of the1960s and 70s the Mannheimian heritage was keptalive by sociologists of knowledge such as Mills,
* University of Groningen and University of  Amsterdam, The Netherlands
** Amsterdam School for Social ScienceResearch, University of Amsterdam,Oude Hoogstraat 24, 1012 CEAmsterdam, The Netherlands; e-mail:dick.pels@philos.rug.nl. Previousversions were read at the Congres ducentenaire of the Institut International deSociologie, June 1993, at the Sorbonne,Paris, and at the XIIIth World Congressof Sociology, July 1994, in Bielefeld. Iam grateful to Werner Callebaut, DavidKettler, Volker Meja, Alan Sica, IrvingVelody, Anna Wessely, Rein de Wilde,
and three anonymous reviewers fohelpful comments.1. Cf. Bloor’s similar approach to the rift betweenWittgenstein and Durkheim. While Durkheim stillopted to except Western scientific culture from thesocial explanations he applied to primitive systemsof classification, Wittgenstein did not “lose hisnerve or betray himself in this way” (Bloor 1983:3).30
Gouldner, Coser, Shils, and Wolff, their efforts didnot provoke a distinctly Mannheimian researchtradition in the 1980s - with the significantexception of the grand editorial project carriedthrough by Kettler, Meja, and Stehr (cf. Goldman1994; Kettler and Meja 1994). For various reasons,interesting in themselves, contemporary socialtheorists such as Elias, Bourdieu, Foucault,Habermas, and Giddens have found only limited usefor Mannheim. Insofar as they have developeddistinct sociologies of knowledge, they have alsooperated in virtual isolation from radicalWittgensteinian science studies.The real action and excitement in thesociology of knowledge, on the other hand, was notgenerated by mainstream sociology but emergedfrom the new philosophy and historiography of (natural) science. The seminal work of Kuhn,insofar as philosophical sources entered into it, took its inspiration not from the sociology of knowledgetradition but from Wittgenstein and Heck, andinitially concentrated not on “soft” sociological, political, or historical thought but on the “harder”sciences of nature and medicine.
Bloor and Barnes,the progenitors of the Strong Programme, as well asCollins, Mulkay, and Lynch, followed aWittgensteinian rather than a Mannheimian track, asdid constructivists such as Knorr-Cetina, Woolgar,and Latour.
Evidently, Bloor’s reproach aboutMannheim’s “failure of nerve” concerning asymmetrical treatment of true knowledge andnatural science was considered sufficientlydamaging to turn his sociological project into a deadhorse. Henceforth, Mannheim was cited solely as atoken predecessor (cf. Knorr-Cetina 1983:115, 136;Law l986:1).
Let me at once enter some specifications thatqualify my claim about a Wittgensteinian turn inscience studies, to avoid the risk of forcefully

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