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3.2.a-The Social Context of Science

3.2.a-The Social Context of Science

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Published by: jrynld on Aug 10, 2011
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bySusantha Goonatilake ... Science since the 17th Century... has been dominated by the exponential growth of a virile,later science emanating from the European cultural area (meaning Europe and its settler bastions in the US, Australia and elsewhere.)But science does not grow in a social vacuum. The growth of science in the last few centuriesis intimately bound to the specific socio-economic development of the European culturalregion. This development has included such key events as the transition from feudalism tomercantile capitalism then to industrial capitalism and, more recently, to a global transnationalcapitalism. It was accompanied by deep social and economic changes in the European culturalregion, which changes were in turn to have an impact on the development of science withinEurope.The development of science within the European socio-economic context may beperceived at three levels: a) the long-range historical level, where deep historical changes suchas the change from feudalism to mercantile capitalism, mark their imprint on the nature,content and direction of science, b) the middle level of economic and political forces wheremore immediate social and political forces at the national level, for example, have an impact onthe direction of science; c) the micro social community of scientists within which science developsand the main scientific debates take place.There is a considerable amount of literature which describes the impact of these three broadcategories of social forces on the direction of science. In this chapter, I will draw on thisliterature to describe the broad manner in which science has been influenced in its developmentwithin the European cultural region. The literature I use therefore varies from large-scalehistorical analysis to detailed studies of the behaviour of scientists as members of socialgroups. 
Long-range Historical Forces on the Development of Science
Studies of the relationship of science to long-range historical changes have, for example, attempted to relate the development of science to the transition to capitalism. Some of these studies are derived from the broad Marxists view of societal change which describeshistory as a flow of changes in the mode of production. Many of the penetrating analyses of science and technology have been within this Marxist framework and have included suchinfluential worker as those of Bernal which we sketched in an earlier chapter. __________________ 
: Susantha Goonatilake, Aborted Discovery: Science and Creativy inthe Third World (Zed Books: London, 1984), Chapter 4, pp. 66-90.
The broad Marxian framework attempts to insert science and technology as variables withinits categories of socio-economic base and superstructure. The socio-economic base, together with the relations of production, constitute the forces of production of a given society, while thesuperstructure comprises social relationships, as well as political and cultural manifestations.The superstructure in the Marxian scheme reflects the production relations of the base and helpsto keep the base intact.There are certain difficulties inserting science and technology as variables within thesecategories of base and superstructure. For example, are science and technology to beconsidered as part of the productive forces or part of the superstructure? Marxist writersthemselves differ strongly on these issues.Thus, during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, China viewed science and technologyimplicitly as subject to class forces and consequently part of the superstructure. This viewhas, however, changed dramatically in the last few years. Thus the 1979 official view (PekingReview 1979 p. 9) looks at the problem as follows: 'Science and technology have no classnature and belong to the realm of productive forces and we badly need them in our efforts toaccomplish the four modernisations.' (I should here note that the Western tradition, bothMarxist and non-Marxist, has over the last few decades increasingly accepted the view thatscience and technology are strongly influenced by the social context.) Some Western neo-Marxists have recently examined the same question of whether science and technology formpart of the base or the superstructure and have come to the conclusion that 'science spansboth the base and superstructure and has an ideological role' (Lewontin and Levins 1976 p. vii).The classical view of science as part of the superstructure and reflecting the infrastructure wasprovided by Soviet writers of the 1930s. Boris Hessen's crucial paper 'The Social andEconomic Roots of Newton's Principia' presented at the 1931 International Congress of theHistory of Science and Technology in London was a landmark here. This paper influencedmany British writers on science such as Bernal, Joseph Needham and J.G. Crowther.Borris Hessen's paper focused on the relationship of Newtonian science to its broadhistorical context. Hessen's view was that Newton's discoveries--whether in optics or the laws of motion--were intimately related to the needs of the mercantile capitalism of the time.Merchants required to knowledge of navigation ('hence' Newton's optics and astronomicaldiscoveries) and of gunnery ('hence ballistics and the laws of motion).In a similar vein, David Dickson (1979) has related the emergence of calculus to the needsof industrial capitalism. He notes that algebra and its dissemination responded to the needs of merchants by making commodity transactions easy to calculate. With the contraction of thepower of the merchant class, new social forces came into play. Especially in the17th Century,control of the labour process itself was found necessary by the emerging industrial capitalists.This new class found the calculus a useful tool for the control of the labour process and thecommodity. (ibid. pp. 23-4).Under Hessen's influence, Needham had also taken a long historical view, dating theemergence of modern science at around the period of mercantile capitalism. Needham (1956 pp.320-43) related the growth of modern science to the marriage of mathematics toexperiment; this is said to have occurred from the time of the Renaissance in Europe.Needham dates the real emergence of mathematized science from the time of Galileo. (Weshould, however, note in parentheses that the mathematization of non-experimental sciencessuch as astronomy had occurred much earlier in both the Western and the Easterntraditions.) Needham's general position regarding the emergence of science was that the periodfollowing the Renaissance saw the emerging capitalist social system affecting the intellectual
climate of the time with the result that there was a qualitative transformation in the practiceof science. Hill (1965) has, in fact, gone almost to the point of interpreting the 17th-Centuryscientific revolution as merely part of an explicit political transformation in which the bourgeoisiecame out on top.This type of long-range analysis has also been done for more recent historical forces and their effects on key theoretical constructs. Thus Forman (1971) has related the emergence of quantum theory to the particular socio-economic configuration of the German Weimar Republic.He has argued that after Germany's defeat in World War I, the dominant intellectual tendencyin the Weimar academic world was a neo-romantic, existentialist philosophy of life characterizedby antagonism towards analytic rationality. Symbolic of the mood of the times was theinfluence of Spengler's book The Decline of the West which documented attacks oncausality, conceptual analysis and physics. The Zeitgeist was averse to positivist conceptions;the quantum theory, according to Forman, was 'Primarily an effort by German physicists to adaptthe context of their science to the values of their intellectual environment' (ibid. p. 7). Forman'spaper has been widely discussed and although it has been sympathetically received (for example Mulkay 1979 p. 109), there is an opinion (Hendry 1980) which believes that theexternal social climate facilitated only the acceptance of quantum physics but not its evolution.Yet whether--as is implicit in Hendry's view--the Weimar social climate helped only to legitimizethe quantum theory, rather than nourishing its creation, as posited by Forman, there seems to beagreement about the intimate connection between the historical moment and the emergence of quantum theory.Long-range historical processes can be discerned more easily--for obvious reasons--inthe social sciences. Thus the shift from mercantilism to industrial capitalism in the late 18th andearly 19th Centuries gave rise to a large number of theories of society, the economy and polity,for example, those of Adam Smith, Ricardo, Comte and Karl Marx. 
The Impact of National, Economic and Political Forces on Science
The effect of long-range historical forces on science is difficult to identify and describe indetail. However, as the focus becomes less global, the social and political influences on sciencebecome more obvious, for example in the middle range, at the national level. The scientificcommunity does not exist in a social vacuum and its therefore not socially autonomous. It isbuffeted by the social, political and economic considerations of the society in which it isembedded.At the time of the birth of modern European science, the impact of politics and the macrosocial context on such key figures as Copernicus and Galileo is well known. These influencesattempted to silence the emerging scientific views, using the powers of the state and religionwhich were committed to upholding existing beliefs. Similar attempts to maintain the simplebelief of a God-governed universe have continued even in this century.Thus in the American Deep South in the 1920s, several states enacted laws which prohibitedthe teaching of evolution in schools. Consequently a young teacher, Scopes, was found guiltyof teaching evolution (Ruse 1982). The same fundamentalist sentiments are being revivedtoday in the United States under the euphemistic title of 'creation science' in biology, a demandbacked by many powerful figures including US President Ronald Reagan. This has resultedin several US states passing laws providing for the teaching of an anti-evolution God-based 'creation science'. (ibid.). 

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