Strong Programme

Sociology of science

The strong programme or Strong Sociology is a variety of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) particularly associated with David Bloor, Barry Barnes, Harry Collins, Donald A. MacKenzie, and John Henry. SSK is the study of science as a social activity, especially dealing with ‘the social conditions and effects of science, and with the social structures and processes of scientific activity.’

The strong programme’s influence on Science and Technology Studies (the study of how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these, in turn, affect society, politics and culture) is credited as being unparalleled. The largely Edinburgh-based school of thought has illustrated how the existence of a scientific community, bound together by allegiance to a shared paradigm, is a pre-requisite for normal scientific activity.

The strong programme is a reaction against previous sociologies of science, which restricted the application of sociology to ‘failed’ or ‘false’ theories, such as phrenology. Failed theories would be explained by citing the researchers’ biases, such as covert political or economic interests. Sociology would be only marginally relevant to successful theories, which succeeded because they had revealed a true fact of nature. The strong programme proposed that both ‘true’ and ‘false’ scientific theories should be treated the same way. Both are caused by social factors or conditions, such as cultural context and self-interest. All human knowledge, as something that exists in the human cognition, must contain some social components in its formation process.

As formulated by David Bloor in ‘Knowledge and Social Imagery’ (1976), the strong programme has four indispensable components: Causality (it examines the conditions — psychological, social, and cultural — that bring about claims to a certain kind of knowledge); Impartiality (it examines successful as well as unsuccessful knowledge claims); Symmetry (the same types of explanations are used for successful and unsuccessful knowledge claims alike); and Reflexivity (it must be applicable to sociology itself). Because the strong programme originated at the ‘Science Studies Unit,’ University of Edinburgh, it is sometimes termed the Edinburgh School.

However, there is also a Bath School associated with Harry Collins that makes similar proposals. In contrast to the Edinburgh School, which emphasizes historical approaches, the Bath School emphasizes microsocial studies of laboratories and experiments (microsociology studies the nature of everyday human social interactions and agency on a small scale). The Bath school, however, does depart from the strong programme on some fundamental issues. In the social construction of technology (SCOT) approach developed by Collins’ student Trevor Pinch, as well as by the Dutch sociologist Wiebe Bijker, the strong programme was extended to technology. There are SSK-influenced scholars working in science and technology studies programs throughout the world.

In order to study scientific knowledge from a sociological point of view, the strong programme has adhered to a form of radical relativism. In other words, it argues that – in the social study of institutionalized beliefs about ‘truth’ – it would be unwise to use ‘truth’ as an explanatory resource. That would be to include the answer as part of the question, not to mention a thoroughly ‘whiggish’ approach towards the study of history – that is an approach seeing human history as an inevitable march towards truth and enlightenment. Alan Sokal has criticized radical relativism as part of the ‘Science wars,’ on the basis that such an understanding will lead inevitably towards solipsism and postmodernism. Strong programme scholars insist that their approach has been misunderstood by such a criticism and that its adherence to radical relativism is strictly methodological.

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