This post in the sixth in a series on Science, Technology, and Society. The previous post in the series is here, and the next post is here. All posts in the series have previously appeared on the Partially Examined Life group page on Facebook.
"The aim of physiology is to explain the organism in health and disease; the aim of mechanics is to understand machines which work and machines which fail; bridges which stand as well as those which fall. Similarly the sociologist seeks theories which explain the beliefs which are in fact found, regardless of how the investigator evaluates them."
David Bloor (1942 – ) is a sociologist at the University of Edinburgh and founder of the Edinburgh School in the field of Science Technology and Society (STS.) In Knowledge and Social Imagery (1976) he continued the Scottish tradition pf philosophical skepticism and defined a new and controversial approach to the Sociology of Knowledge, called the Strong Programme.
According to David Bloor, sociologists in the past confined their investigations to the explanation of false beliefs. True beliefs were either self-evident or arose out of a rational process of discovery, and therefore required no explanation. Or, put another way, their truth was their explanation. This habit of deference amounted to a structural lack of nerve within sociology, which he called the Weak Programme. Bloor challenged his colleagues to explain true as well as false beliefs in terms of the same social processes. Just as natural scientists investigate all corners of the physical world, and do not admit that any kind of physical phenomena is beyond their powers of investigation, so too, the scientists of society (sociologists) should be willing to investigate the origins of all kinds of beliefs, whether true and false – especially the hitherto forbidden realm of scientific knowledge.
Bloor defined knowledge as beliefs which people confidently hold to and live by, and the goal of Sociology of Knowledge as the discovery of the causes which produce it. Scientific knowledge, like any other kind, has a social origin. That is to say, it arises out of a particular context, and that context is demonstrably a product of contingent historical and social factors. It follows, then, that scientific theories cannot be understood in separation from that context, any more than a work of literature, art, or music can be.
In consequence, both scientists and philosophers of science misunderstand the nature of scientific knowledge when they attribute the success (or failure) of a theory to its value (or lack thereof) as a descriptor of objective reality. This practice amounts to a Teleology of nature (i.e. a faith that it contains a special purpose for man, and that this purpose can be treated as a causal factor in history.) Because teleological explanations are always invalid in science (if not necessarily in philosophy), these kinds of explanations can and should be rejected out of hand.
Having dispensed with “The Weak Programme,” Bloor went on to outline his own, “Strong” alternative. A scientific (that is, sociological) theory of knowledge should adhere to four principles:
- Causality: the sociologist is concerned to explain how and why beliefs gain currency;
- Impartiality: he does not attempt to distinguish between true and false beliefs – instead of arbitrating truth claims, he investigates their origins and function in society;
- Symmetry: he applies the same causes to true and false beliefs - the same causal mechanisms will explain the success of true and false beliefs alike, just as the same mathematical principles explain the stability or instability of a bridge, and the same physiological principles explain the health and disease of the organism;
- Reflexivity: he applies the same analytical tools to himself and to his work.
These tenets were cast in the manner of methodological assumptions which did not have to be proven before they could be used. Rather, just as in physics, the validity of the approach would be demonstrated retroactively, by evaluating the practical results it produced.
Whereas Thomas Kuhn had suggested that science might not be an entirely rational activity, and Paul Feyerabend had drawn certain philosophical and political conclusions from a rather more strident belief, David Bloor was the first scholar to offer a methodological approach for systematic study. Rather than taking the claims of science for granted, and adopting an internalist view of science that either sought to justify its results or prescribe better practices, Bloor argued for an approach that ignores the truth status of scientific theories and instead concentrates on their social context of production. Needless to say, the idea that truth claims arising out of science can be ignored at all, let alone as a systematic methodological principle, was and is controversial. Between Kuhn, Feyerabend, and Bloor, the anti-realist and critical posture known to its opponents as “relativism” emerged as a serious position within the academy. Attempts to hash out the issues raised by these three, and to incorporate them in some way with the philosophy and actual practice of science, led to the establishment of Science, Technology, and Society departments across the United States in the 1960’s and 70’s. It remains a vibrant, multidisciplinary field of inquiry today.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science, Technology, and Society in nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.