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Review: Merton's Sociology of Science: The First and the Last Sociology of Science?

Author(s): Karin Knorr Cetina Source: Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Jul., 1991), pp. 522-526 Published by: American Sociological Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 02/08/2011 11:24
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about the aspects of the social world it is traditionallyconcerned with. Middle-range theoryis effectively indispensable means the to reach thisgoal, while broad-range theoryis the main source of the thirdculture.

contemporary works on magical beliefs (Boudon forthcoming; 1990). In otherwords, the validityof the MRT behind the interpretation of a social phenomenon is what makes this interpretation strongor weak. This latterexample shows also thatmiddlerange theorizingis crucial not only as far as the progressof sociology itselfis concerned; it can also-as in the natural sciencescontribute federatingfindings and theories fromvarious disciplines, as fromeconomics, political theory,cognitive psychology,or the sociological theoryof ideologies. It produces interdisciplinarity naturally,so to say.

Other Literature Cited

Boudon, Raymond. 1977. Education, Equality and Social Opportunity. New York: Wiley. . 1982. The Unintended Consequences of Social Action. London: Macmillan. . 1988. "L'acteur social est-il irrational (et si conformiste)qu'on le dit?" Pp. 219-44 in Individu et justice sociale. Paris: Seuil. . 1989a. "Subjective Rationalityand the Explanation of Social Behavior." Rationality and Society 1:173-96. . 1989b. The Analysis of Ideology. Cambridge: Polity Press. . 1990a. "Les Causes de linegalite des chances." Commentaire 51: 533-42. . 1990b. L'Art de se persuader. Paris: Fayard; in Cambridge: Polity Press (forthcoming English). . forthcoming. "European Sociology: The Identity Lost." In European Sociology at the Turn of the TwentiethCentury,edited by BirgittaNedelmann and Piotr Sztompka. Mainz: Unwin Hyman. Hirschman, Albert 0. 1980. "The Changing Tolerance for Income Inequality in the Course of Economic Development." Pp. 39-58 in Essays in Trespassing: Economics to Politics and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress. Katz, Elihu and Paul Lazarsfeld. 1955. Personal Influence. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. Lepenies, Wolf. 1985. Die drei Kulturen. Munich: Carl Hanser. Merton, Robert K. 1957. Social Theory and Social Structure.Glencoe, IL: Free Press. Pawson, Ray. 1989. Measure for Measures. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Simon, HerbertA. 1982. Models of Bounded Rationality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

A brilliant,but strangeand defeatistbook (Lepenies 1985) recentlytried to show that sociology should be considered a third and science, withculture,between literature out raising the obvious question as to why, if a new continent between art and science existed really, we would have had to wait so long to become informedof such big news. What is true is that many sociological productscan-effectively and unfortunatelybe considered both bad science and bad literature.But why should the sociological productsof the bad literature-bad philosophybad history-badscience kind be assumed to define the essence of sociology? As Merton suggests, after Weber and Durkheim, who agreed on this point, sociology can also be good science; it can, as well as any other scientific discipline, help explain puzzling phenomena and create new solid knowledge

Merton's Sociologyof Science: The Firstand the Last Sociologyof Science?


University Bielefeld of

Merton the founder of the sociology of science

dance of programsof instruction and centers of research in social studies of science and technologycan be found in the United States Even his enemies admit thatMerton is the and Europe, and the status of sociology of founderof the sociology of science. When he science as an academic subdiscipline is published his classic Science, Technology, beyond question. To be sure, therewere other and Society in Seventeenth-Century England books produced on science, technology,and in 1938, the sociology of science was not a society at the time of Merton's publication, recognized field. Fiftyyears later, an abun- most notably Bernal's famous The Social



and Function of Science (1939). Yet none of the failed, it has not failed in recommending professionalsociological research. works examiningthe social aspects of science initiating But has it failed? Many of my colleagues had the range of professional interests,the depth of knowledge, and, later, the strategic today would say yes. There exists today a positionin sociology to help a whole subfield "new sociology of science," also known as offthe ground. Moreover, Merton's achieve- the "sociology of scientificpractice" or the ment in this respect was not just an "sociology of scientificknowledge," which institutionalachievement. The many pro- has become a centralpartof the largerfieldof grams in the area that we have today came science, technology,and society.2 This new brand of social studies of science helped by later,and most were only indirectly Merton. Rather, in finding and motivating has created its research agenda in opposition students, in producing over time a whole to the Mertonian program. The following series of seminal papers on social aspects of concerns itselfwith the criticismthe Mertonscience, and in building his "middle-range" ian approach has attractedin relation to this theories in sociology in general, Merton new development. Stripped to its essentials, of createda framework concepts and tools for this criticism can be divided into two it the sociology of science. Most importantly, categories:first, consists of an attackon the he proposed a programfor research: to trace "normative" and "functionalist" orientation the way the institutional environment of of Merton's sociology of science; second, it science, including its norms and cultural questions any research agenda that saves the of values, impinges on science-not on the effort examiningin detail the substance of nature of science or the substance of its science and of scientificwork. theoriesbut on its progressand development. fleshedout thisprogramby Merton's students emphasizing, in addition, the institutional The critique of Merton structurewithin science-for example, its social structure (e.g., Cole and Cole 1973; Interestingly enough,Merton'soriginalwork Zuckermanand Merton 1971).' on Puritanism and the rise of modernscience This research program set the new field has notattracted attention deservesamong the it apart fromthe conception of science studies sociologists. Sociologists more readilylatched as a pastime for natural scientists-turned- on to his lateressays, particularly work on his of commentators theirfield (a conceptionstill the "ethos" of science (e.g., Stehr 1978, Coldominant in some countries). Merton is lins 1982). Merton's first fullyfledgeddiscussometimes criticized for not producing a sion of thisethosis a paperfrom1942 in which systematictheoryof society or a system of he described"foursets of institutional imperasociology, and forinsteadusing his extraordi- tives": universalism, communism,disinterestnary talents to focus theoreticalpropositions edness, and organized skepticism.These are on empirical research (see Bierstedt 1981). the "guidingprinciples"of scientific work,the must "canons" expressed throughdemands made insistencethattheory Yet in his stubborn have utilityfor research and must adapt its upon scientists: scientific mustbe pubfindings range and conceptions to this role, Merton lished (the norm of communism),knowledge was ahead of his time rather than behind claims mustbe subjectedto impersonal criteria among American sociologists. Certainly, in of evaluation(universalism), personalinterests sociology of science his research orientation mustbe excluded fromproperscientific procehas set a trendthatcontinuestodaywithinand dures (disinterestedness), criticism perand is without the Mertonian program; and in mitted and encouraged(organizedskepticism). systems The criticsarguedthatthesenormsare neither sociology in general, grand,unifying of thoughtare now treatedwith widespread stableproperties exclusivesanctionable idenor suspicion. If the Mertonian program has als of scientific activities.Wherethenormsare also appear which endorsed, "counternorms" to some degree cancel the originalimperative.
l It is only fair to say that Merton's students (those associated with Merton) did not "just" extend his program. See, for example, the most recent book by Stephen Cole (1991).
2 For an overview over this program,see Knorr Cetina and Mulkay (1983) and Zuckerman (1988). For a review fromthe Mertonian perspective see Gieryn (1982).


SYMPOSIUM science. He essentially took science to be identical with its public face, as the embodiment of objective knowledge. Yet an adequate analysis, so Hall argued, would demand better care in establishing the institutional reality of science (and of course of Puritanism). If this care was taken, otherfeaturesof science would emerge (such as mathematization and mechanization) whose congeniality with Puritanismwould have to be proven by Merton. The details of thisdebate are of no concern to us here. What is significant the extentto is which the problemshistorianshad with Merton's approachand theproblemson accountof whichthenew social studiesof science moved are away from Mertonianism identical. The point is thatsocial influencesupon science, and indeed the social makeup of science, cannot be adequately understoodif the "cognitive" beliefs, the methodicalprocedures,the ontological assumptions,and more generallythe technical structure thisinstitution notknown, of are and notaddressedin theanalysis. Merton'sdefinitionof science remainedan outsider'sdefinition.Since then,the sociology of science has emulatedthehistory and philosophyof science by becominga fieldthatincludesthe substance of science. It no longershunstheresponsibility of consideringthe technicalcontentof scientificwork. In fact, it oftenconsiders it in as muchdetailas do thescientists themselves. The resultis thatthesociologyof science has turned intoa sociology of scientific knowledge. It has become internalist well as externalist, as concerned with the contentwithinas well as the contextof scientificwork. To be sure, Merton's thesiswas also a thesiswithin sociolthe ogy of knowledge. In thisrespect,as in others, Mertonanticipated development thefield. the of Yet he did not considerenough the need fora sociology of scientificknowledge to develop not fromexternalinfluences(such as Puritanof ism) upon science, but froma definition the and phenomenalstructures the technicalactivities of its objects.

Consequently,both norms and counternorms maybe perceivedas partof a larger(and changto ing) rhetoric science whose relationship of scientificpractice remains an open question. But the criticismruns deeper: it is directed againstany approachthattreatsnorms,or valof explanatory principles social ues, as primary of behavior.The whole movement sociological theory,afterParsons, is a move against such assumptions.Withinthe sociology of science, behavioritthe goal of "explaining" scientific self became a point of contention.Where the model was the goal was maintained, normative conflict,and interacreplaced by the interest, conduct. tion models of scientific In addition to the objections against any "normative" theory,the critique of functionalisms spilled over into debates about "Mertonianism"in science studies,althoughit was directed more against Parsons than against Merton. More interesting perhaps, and more specific to science studies, was the second major objection against the Mertoniansociology of science, an objection directedagainst the originalresearchprogram.Since virtually the same objection has been raised independently by historians of science against the "Merton thesis," let me look at the latter first.The "Merton thesis" is the upshotof his 1938 volume. In essence it says thatPuritanism in seventeenth-century England promoted a favorable attitudetoward science in virtue of the "inner-worldly" activism which it favored as a means to the Puritan's goal of achieving a stateof grace. In modem science, activitytranslatesinto empiriinner-worldly cism and rationalism-the presumed worldly means for revealing God's works. The ensuing debates concerned the question of whether the Puritan or Catholic context that provided the social reinforcement helped science off the ground. seventeenth-century Predictably,theyalso concernedthe question of whetherreligion, commerce, or industry should be taken as the dominant sustaining factorin regard to science (Heilbron, FE, p. 11). Yet the deeper issue, fromthe point of view of recent sociology of science, is a methodological one. Could a thesis such as the Puritanism-sciencethesis even be addressed without adequate analysis of the nature of the new science? From this perspective, predominantlyput forward by Hall (1963; see Rattansi,CMM, pp. 351-79), Merton was cavalier about characterizing

The alternative definitionof social studies of science

The Mertonianconceptionof sociology is a but pure, coherent, exclusionary conception.It is based on thedeployment important of sociological concepts (social structure,function,

norm,value, social actor,social role, anomie, and thelike) as defined theclassic studiesof by the field. These conceptsare tools forclassifying social relations and mechanismsof integration or disintegration. They go hand in hand witha setofpredominantly "quantitative" meththeseconcepts.Yet in ods thatsuitablysupport choosing this paradigm, sociology had proposed a divisionoflaborwithother disciplinesforexample, withhistory, linguistics,ethnography,or philosophy.The cognitive content, discourse,cosmology,and ontologyof modem institutions were leftto thesefields. Stimulated by Kuhn, the new studies of knowledge prodefinition. posed a more inclusionary They rejected the special epistemic status of science and came to believe thatcognition,discourse, cosmologies, and ontologies are also socially The definition mirrors constituted. inclusionary developmentsin sociology in general, where discourse such subfieldsas ethnomethodology, left to analysis, and micromethods, formerly and have takenhold. historians anthropologists, Yet withinsocial studiesof science, the move toward an internalistsociology of scientific knowledge raised further issues, which dominatethediscussionin thefieldtoday.These are and the issues of reflexivity of the redefinition of sociology itself. Firstreflexivity. The conceptiondeveloped by new studies of knowledge sees scientific (and technological) reality and "facts" first and foremostas the outcome of a process of construction. "Truth" is seen as a consequence ratherthan a cause of this process. But if natural scientists' results are not of unproblematic representations naturalreality, what about social scientists' representations? It is easy to see thatthe constructionist thesis applies equally to the "findings" of sociologists of science themselves. This awareness has led to a self-reflexive discussion of the "methodological horror" of reflexivity (e.g., Woolgar 1988), and to its further explorationthroughthe study of the which social scientistslearn methodsthrough about science (e.g., Mulkay et al. 1983). To a certain degree, the explorationof reflexivity has promoted a problem shift in science studies: it has mingled the original problems on the research agenda of the field (e.g., the problem of understandingthe practice of natural science) with methodological and epistemological questions, and has thereby contributedto a further alienation between


sociology of science as it once existed and its current developments.But the point I want to draw attention is the weakening of social to analysis that follows from the discussion of reflexivity. Traditional, Mertonian sociology applied the belief in the edge of objectivity of science to itself.It remainedsecure enough in its knowledge of the positivistfoundationof science to carry the Mertonian research program through until today. The new sociology of scientific knowledge, on the otherhand-since it cannot shirkthe dutyof confrontingreflexivity-more easily lends itselfto discussions that lead away from,or continually redefine, a coherent research agenda. If the turnaway fromthe Mertonian program has contributedto opening up the definition science and natureforsociology, of has contributed opening up the reflexivity to definition sociology itself. of Of course, in a sense thisdefinition been has at issue ever since sociology moved into science. Unlike thehistory science, whichused of to be an intellectual when it was interhistory nalist,the sociology of science has notbecome this "cognitive"or "intellectual" through move. But neitherhas it remainedthe strictly social social institutional relational,strictly sociology thatit had been in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Merton's definition sociology, too, was an of a outsider'sdefinition, definition applied to but not learnedfroma deeperunderstanding the of workingof science. Complex systemsthatare around knowlorganized largebodies ofesoteric edge which theyconstrueusing theirown internalmechanismshave theirown ways of enacting society. They enact society (and other within technicalbodyoftheir the matters) work, not just withintheirorganizationalstructures, financialdepartments, othermore obviously or "social" components.They may, forexample, achieve social goals through theirown "technical" means, or use social means to further scientific goals. Such systemsinclude a whole new level of reality,a whole new categoryof resourcesand mechanisms(the categoryof the "technical" or "scientific"), which they can withmore tradibringto bear on or intertwine tionalsocial categories and resources.Theymay incorporate new definitions the social, and of revisedistinctions sociologistsderivefrom that other, less texturedenvironments.In other a words, theyconstruct culturalorderof their own thatis embedded withinthe technicalities of theirwork.



One consequence of learningfrom complex, OtherLiterature Cited knowledge-based institutions theyrecreate Bernal, J. D. 1939. The Social Function of Science. New how York: Macmillan. the social is thatsociologistshave to begin to rebuildtheirconceptualframework analyz- Bierstedt, Robert. 1981. American Sociological Theory: for A Critical History. New York: Academic Press. ing science. For one thing,the distinction be- Cole, Stephen. 1991. The Sociology of Science. Camtweenthesocial and thenatural order,between bridge, MA: Harvard UniversityPress. social and naturalforces, between the inten- Cole, Jonathan R. and Stephen Cole. 1973. Social Stratification and Science. Chicago: University of tionalhumanactorssociology assumes and inChicago Press. tentionless nonhuman"things" has itselfbeen Collins, H. M. 1982. "Knowledge, Norms and Rules in called into question (e.g., Latour 1991). For the Sociology of Science." Social Studies of Science another, comparisons between different sci12:299-309. Proences suggestthatthereexistsa variety "so- Gieryn, Thomas 1982. "Relativist/Constructivist of grammesin the Sociology of Science: Redundance and ciologies" embodied in the culturalordersof Retreat." Social Studies of Science 12:279-97. these sciences, and thatabstract metaconcepts, Hall, A. Rupert. 1963. "Merton Revisited, or Science will be or alternations between frameworks, and Society in the Seventeenth Century." History of At needed to deal withthissituation.3 thispoint Science 2:1-16. of theredefinition sociological resourcesin re- Knorr Cetina, Karin and Michael Mulkay, eds. 1983. Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of lationto the sciences is in fullcourse. It seems Science. London: Sage. likely,however,thatstudents science in this Knorr Cetina, Karin D. 1991. Epistemic Cultures of area will notrevert Merton'sprogram.With to (forthcoming). regard some questions,his institutional, to pure, Latour, Bruno. 1991. "The Impact of Science Studies on Political Philosophy." Science, Technology and Huuntaintedsociology of science will retain its man Values 16:3-19. value. But forotherquestionswhich the study Merton, Robert K. 1938. "Science, Technology and of science has opened up in recentyears, the Society in Seventeenth-Century England." Osiris few tools. originalsociology of science offers 4:360-632. . 1942. "A Note on Science and Democracy." If the field develops along the presentlines it Journal of Legal and Political Sociology 1:115-26. will continue to blur the familiardivision of Mulkay, Michael, J. Potter, and Steven Yearley. 1983. labor between disciplines and the distinctions "Why an Analysis of ScientificDiscourse is Needed." for thathave been foundational sociology-as Pp. 171-203 in Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science, edited by Karin Knorr Cetina it blurred distinction the betweencognitiveand and Michael Mulkay. London: Sage. social analysis by findingsociety withinthe Nico. 1978. "The Ethos of Science Revisited." technicalpartof science. If thishappens,Mer- Stehr, 172-96 in The Sociology of Science: Problems, Pp. ton's programwill nonethelesshave been the Approaches and Research, edited by J. Gaston. San first trueprofessional sociologyof science. But Francisco: Jossey-Bass. perhapsit will also remainthe last truesociol- Woolgar, Steve, ed. 1988. Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiersin the Sociology of Knowledge. London: ogy of science.

3 For an elaboration of this point, see Knorr Cetina (1991).

Sage. Zuckerman, Harriet. 1988. "The Sociology of Science." Pp. 511-74 in Handbook of Sociology, edited by Neil J. Smelser. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Zuckerman, Harriet and Robert K. Merton. 1971. "Patternsof Evaluation in Science: Institutionalization, Structure and Functions of the Referee System." Minerva 9:66-100.

Science,Religion,and BoundaryMaintenance
University Pennsylvania of
Bernard Cohen, occupying Merton's old desk in Widener Library 189, "literally pounced upon the firstavailable copy of . . . Merton's monograph,and so musthave been one of the firstreaders of STS in print." As this fledgling historian of science read Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth-Century England (1938), the monograph that launched the American sociology of science, "therecame the flashof revelation that my chosen subject of the history of science could be a grandadventurein which I NATHAN SIVIN