Sociology of science, for scientists (with a note on going up bottoms)

Yesterday, in the middle of a twitter-debate about Steve Fuller, I was asked a question by Edmund Harriss: “Do you have book suggestions for scientists who want to understand science better through modern science studies?”

I gave a slightly rubbish answer at the time. It was a good question and deserved better, and this is my attempt at one.

Before I start, I should note that although I use a lot of sociology of science, my expertise is studies of science when it gets outside the scientific community. I’ve read Laboratory Life, but it’s my copy of Science in Public that is falling to pieces. My everyday work considers science as it exists in popular books, education, museums, the web, the telly, etc. If in my ignorance I’ve missed something brilliant, please do share it in the comments.

The first response is simply to say “it really depends on the scientist”. This isn’t just a cop-out. If my experience of the field has taught me anything, it’s that generalising about the big whole thing we call, for convenience, “science” is just plain silly. Generalising about “scientists” doubly-so. It’ll depend on individual taste, of course, but the larger point is that some of the best sociology of science focuses on very specific case studies. Still, there are a few general publications in this area:

  • Collins and Pinch’s Golem books (on science, technology and medicine). These are written specifically as accessible introductions to the social studies of science and feature a set of neatly written case studies. Personally, I find the attitude that you “need to know” their content to be “scientifically literate” somewhat patronising, but they are a good read if you are interested to know more.
  • The CBC series “How to Think About Science” (podcasts). This was my initial response to the question, and I’d stick by it. Though, as I said at the time, they are a mixed bunch and worth listening to sceptically. I should also note it is focused on ways to think about science, though there are some discussions of empirical reserach into science too.
  • An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, Sergio Sismondo. In some respects this is an undergrad introduction book (which will either appeal, or grate. It’s very clear though).
  • Making Sense of Science, Steven Yearley. Again, a bit of a textbook, but pitched a bit higher than Sismondo, with an emphasis on policy. It isn’t the most gripping read, but clear with some super case studies. For a slightly more cultural studies approach, see also Science, Culture and Society by Mark Erickson.
  • Science in Society, Massimiano Bucchi. Probably the shortest of these recent intro guides, but it covers all the key points. Some people find Bucchi’s style hard to follow, personally I think it’s very fluid in this text.
  • If it’s philosophy you really want, Alan Chalmer’s What is This Thing Called Science? is justifiably the one everyone suggests. If you’d like a more empirically-based answer to the “what is science” question, try Thomas Gieryn’s Cultural Boundaries of Science with its well throughout theoretical discussion and set of historical case studies.

Those are all very broad general sources though, trying to say things about science as a whole (even Gieryn, who’s book is largely a treatise on why you can’t easily do this). A few more specific works:

  • Firstly, I can recommend a couple of recent Nature articles about sociologists studying scientists at the LHC and biology.
  • My boss will kill me if I don’t mention his biology book, Thinking About Biology (more philosophy than sociology, but recommended, and not just because it’s by my boss).
  • If you are interested in environmental science, I think Mike Hulme’s recent Why We Disagree About Climate Change provides a very clear run through the social studies of the subject. I also really like Alan Irwin’s Sociology and the Environment, but it’s a bit heavier going.
  • I’ve generally avoided history of science here, because that’s a whole other long list (plus, much more accessible literature) but it’s worth mentioning the Revolutions in Science series.
  • If you are interested in science’s relationships with the public (especially policy), it’s worth having a look at the think-tank Demos. Their reports aren’t academic papers, but they do apply academic ideas and research and they are much easier to read than most sociology articles. They are also free to download. The classic is probably See Through Science, but The Public Value of Science and The Received Wisdom are heartily recommended.
  • If you have access to a decent academic library, have a browse of journals like the Social Studies of Science, Isis, Science as Culture, or Science, Technology and Human Values to see if any of the articles look interesting. Some will be hard to understand without an advanced degree in the subject, some will probably be, frankly, a bit crap, but they are probably worth a glance.
  • ADDED 2/7/10: Steven Epstein’s (1996) Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Simply, a really good case study. You’ll learn a lot about the history of AIDS, but also about the politics of knowledge in contemporary life. (I was reminded of it by this page of “science and democracy” book recommendations. All the others are worth a read).

Finally, I would like to defend what it sometimes seen as the crazy postmodern end of science studies. I read the Epistemological Chicken debate, where sociologists played a game of trying to out-relativist each other (and then discussed, at length, whether this was a good idea). I’ve even read the paper Trevor Pinch co-authored with himself (probably best not to ask about this). Both took a lot of concentration and prior-reading, and I doubt it’s worth the bother for most people. They aren’t going to be to everyone’s taste, but that doesn’t mean they are worthless. In fact I’d say my life and, moreover, my understanding of science, was enhanced from the experience. There are many other comparable life and science-understanding enhancing experiences available, and no on needs these specific ones. If you’re pressed for time, there are better ones. My point is that this is one of them. Moreover, my mind was not ruined by reading such works. I didn’t suddenly start to hate or distrust science (if anything, I like and trust it more). I’m not a climate denier, I don’t believe in homeopathy, I don’t stare at dogs. This is a larger issue topic than this blogpost though. If you’re interested, try chapter seven of Alan Irwin’s Sociology and the Environment, mentioned above. For now, I’ll just say yep, that Pinch and Pinch paper probably marks the point where science studies did disappear up it’s own bottom, but there are some absolutely fascinating things to be studied up bottoms for those willing to take a look.

6 thoughts on “Sociology of science, for scientists (with a note on going up bottoms)

  1. Chris Stokes

    I came to science and technology studies (STS) from a background in engineering, which is sadly overlooked in STS. But it does get a look-in in the body of work known as 'actor-network theory' or ANT. Latour's Science in Action conveys the basic ideas brilliantly. I wouldn't touch it, though, if I were already a dyed-in-the-wool realist or sceptic (in the Randi mould) or follower of Karl Popper.There's also the much gentler and older The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by historian of science by Thomas Kuhn. It's often credited as being the source of the phrase 'paradigm shift' (though John Horgan cryptically denies this in this Scientific American profile of Kuhn.

    Reply
  2. Alice

    Good suggestions Chris, thanks!I got the impression that @gelada wanted new pieces, so avoided Science in Action and Kuhn's Structure, but they both good reads. I find Latour really easy to read, don't why he has a rep as difficult.

    Reply
  3. Kieron Flanagan

    A great list and Massimiano's book is new to me, so I'll look out for that. The Golem books are a bit cheesy but they have the virtue that they get some of the key insights of STS across with the use of interesting cases and without using jargon that is easily misinterpreted and which sometimes provokes the ire of scientists. Amid the synthetic science wars debates, it's easily forgotten that most of the founders of STS were scientists and engineers, and that the post-'50s study of the social, economic and political dimensions of science and technology, in the UK and elsewhere, has its early origins in a scientist-driven movement to produce science graduates that were more aware of the social, economic and political dimensions of S&T.

    Reply
  4. Paul.baer

    It’s thick and 40 years old, but a second edition of Jerry Ravetz “Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems” was very enlightening for me – helped me understand “results” in a way I previously hadn’t.

    Reply

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