Science Studies

laboratory life

Science studies is an interdisciplinary research area that seeks to situate scientific expertise in a broad social, historical, and philosophical context. It is concerned with the history of scientific disciplines, the interrelationships between science and society, and the alleged covert purposes that underlie scientific claims. While it is critical of science, it holds out the possibility of broader public participation in science policy issues.

The word ‘science’ is used in the sense of natural, social and formal sciences – areas of research that tend toward positivism (‘all true knowledge is scientific’). The word ‘science’ thus explicitly excludes the humanities and cultural studies, which tend toward relativism (‘the truth of a statement is based on conditions’). Thus, while the topic of research in ‘science studies’ is the sciences, the main approaches to research come from the humanities (e.g. history) (hence the word ‘study’ in the title, rather than for example ‘theory’). Science studies scholars study (investigate) specific phenomena such as technological milieus, laboratory culture, science policy, and the role of the university.

Science studies can be understood as a moment in a steadily widening conversation, in which scholars with interests in the social, historical, and philosophical analysis of science and technology have achieved a succession of wider integrations. Numerous disciplines have contributed to this conversation, but two stand out: the history and philosophy of science and the sociology of scientific knowledge. Drawing on the work of Thomas Samuel Kuhn, especially his ‘Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (1962), history and philosophy of science united scholars in both disciplines who shared interests in not only the history of science, but also its philosophical underpinnings. Kuhn’s work established that the history of science was not necessarily a linear succession of discoveries, which bring us closer to the truth, but rather a succession of paradigms, which are broader, socio-intellectual constructs that determine which types of truth claims are permissible.

Meanwhile, the sociology of scientific knowledge developed at the University of Edinburgh, where David Bloor and his colleagues developed what has been termed the ‘Strong Program,’ which was based on what Bloor called the ’empirical program of relativism and the principle of symmetry.’ In brief, the Strong Program, holds that science studies scholars should remain neutral with respect to the truth claims science makes: they should explain the success or failure of a scientific theory in the same terms. According to the Strong Program, the outcome of all scientific controversies—successful or not—should be explained by social factors.

In the 1980s, a turn to technology occurred as science studies scholars such as Trevor Pinch and Steve Woolgar argued that technology could be examined using the principle of symmetry. As a result, many science studies programs added ‘technology’ to their names, and started calling their field ‘Science, technology and society.’ This ‘turn to technology’ brought science studies into communication with academics in science, technology, and society programs. More recently, a novel approach pioneered by French anthropologist Bruno Latour and known as ‘Mapping controversies’ has been gaining momentum among science studies practitioners, and was introduced as a course for students in engineering, and architecture schools.

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