Introduction to the Sociology of Science
What are the links between science, knowledge, and society?
Welcome to this month’s edition of the Fancy Comma newsletter! Last month, we talked about using science communication to solve important challenges.
As we’ve previously mentioned, science is a product of society. Scientific and technological breakthroughs can actually change the way we live and relate as humans. It’s important to consider the social context of science. For science communicators, understanding this could help them communicate science with more nuance.
How would an understanding of the sociology of science change the way we think about science? Keep reading for Kelly’s thoughts on this subject.
The field of sociology was born as an extension of the biological sciences. The field of sociology, “the scientific study of society,” was developed by its founders such as Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim as the application of biological methods and principles to the study of society as an organism. In this way, the sociology of science is a study of the field of scientific knowledge, practice, and application broadly. It is as much as study of the “hard sciences” as it is a reflexive investigation of the field of sociology.
What is Science?
According to the Oxford dictionary, science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment; a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject.” Science is a social construct, a social institution, and an organizing scheme for societal structure.
Science provides a way of seeing the world: a way of perceiving the purpose of existence, why things happen, and what to expect. Science is a way of learning about and analyzing the world around us using careful, critical, verifiable, and validated methods. Science is a frame of reference for orienting our place in the world and categorizing things and events. Finally, science is a body of knowledge: facts, observations, conclusions about how the world works, compiled, retested, and reshaped over hundreds of years.
What is the Sociology of Science?
Sociology is the scientific study of society. It is the science of group behavior, social institutions, and social structures. As sociology is a science itself, the sociology of science has a reflexive nature. The sociology of science examines science as a social institution and a field of knowledge informing our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. According to Ben-David and Sullivan, it is a field of study looking at “the social conditions and effects of science” (1975).
The sociology of science focuses both on science as an institution, looking at changes in scientific knowledge, methods, or interpersonal or organizational power dynamics, and on the relationship between science and social structure and human experience. It is concerned with topics such as the construction, maintenance, evolution, and transmission of scientific knowledge and methods within and across generations. It also studies the relationship between scientific innovations and societal change. These changes can range from mundane, individual behavior or lifestyle to large-scale institutional changes such as legal or political shifts.
Knowledge in the Sociological Perspective
Sociology of science grew out of the sociological study of knowledge. In the sociological perspective, knowledge is a construct. Truth is a construct. Validity is a construct. This is not to say that there are not accepted and effective standards to designate what information is true or valid – what is “knowledge” versus falsity or misconception. It is to say that there is, in this perspective, no absolute truth that can be isolated from human perceptions, preconceptions, and biases – at least not one that humans can ever know.
Knowledge is a social construct and that it is constructed and reconstructed through contestation. Scientific research produces knowledge. Whether that knowledge is validated and disseminated depends on three factors. The first factor is whether it follows the “rules of conduct” for the sciences: following from accepted theories and methods. Second is how significantly it challenges commonly held understandings of the world. The third factor is whether it is supported by those who hold power.
Power/Knowledge and the Sociology of Science
Many if not most sociological studies are in fact studies of power distribution and imbalances among groups and institutions in society. These power imbalances exist along racial, gendered, class, age, and political lines. Power imbalances are manifested and maintained through social institutions such as politics, law, education, and even the field of science. The construction of knowledge is a key mechanism for exerting power. Those who establish what truth is govern social reality. The French sociologist, historian, and philosopher Michel Foucault called this “power/knowledge.”
Like science, religion provides a groundwork for understanding the origin, nature, and meaning of existence. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim, during the Industrial Revolution, predicted that modern society would see a significant shift toward secularization and the declining significance of religion as science became the dominant organizing and explanatory mechanism. In other words, shifts in and contestations of the knowledge that informs social structure and daily life from religious to scientific has affected a significant shift in institutional power and social structure toward secularization.
Science provides a cosmology: it explains the origin, purpose, and nature of the universe and everything in it – including humans and human constructs such as societies. Scientific knowledge and innovations have the power to restructure our lives and reinvent our reality. The sociology of science evolved from the sociology of knowledge. Ultimately, sociology of science deals with the construction, maintenance, contestation, and dissemination of scientific knowledge and its effects on societal structure and the lives of individuals and institutions within societies.
Links from around the web (what we’ve been reading and writing)
We’ve been interviewing SciCommers over on our blog — if you’re a SciCommer interested in being featured, get in touch! Check out our interviews with Monisha Arya, Monique Faith Boodram, Adama Saccoh, and Soph Milbourne.
OpenMind Magazine is a new online publication which seeks to tackle misinformation, controversies, culture, and more in science journalism. Learn more here.
Read Jessica Contrera’s story about a carpet cleaner who speaks 24 languages who participated in a research study on multilingualism at MIT.
Check out Sheeva’s first “real” journalism story about Long COVID, racism, and medicine.
Nidhi Parekh wrote a great Twitter thread on consistent in content creation:
That’s a wrap for this month’s edition of the Fancy Comma newsletter. Thanks for reading! If you liked our newsletter, please remember to share it with your friends via email or social media.