Social construction of science

 “The Knowledge Construction Union”, the IoE take to the streets, en mass.

Saying science is a social construction does not amount to saying science is make believe. It puzzles me that this even needs saying, and yet it does, again and again and again.

Just because something is socially constructed doesn’t mean it isn’t also real.

St Paul’s Cathedral was made by more people than Sir Christopher Wren, he relied upon on a social network. And yet there it still stands, all its socially constructed reality. I saw it from the Southbank when I walked down there last week. I’ve sat on its steps, been inside it, climbed it, taken photos there, got drunk outside, argued about it, been dazzled by it. The thing is real. I do not doubt that. I admit I only perceive it limited by my human capacities. I’m quite short sighted, I get distracted by other things and my view of the place is coloured by what other people have said to me about it. But even in my more annoying “hey, what do we ever really know, really, really” philosophical moments, I’m pretty sure it exists.

Indeed, we could argue St Paul’s is only real – as opposed to a figment of Chris Wren’s imagination – beacause it was socially constructed. In order to get it built, he relied upon the labour, ideas, expertise, money, political will and other resources of whole networks of other people. If hadn’t been for this network, I doubt it would have been constructed at all.

We could say the same for any number of scientific buildings or institutions too. CERN’s a good example. It employs nearly 4,000 staff, hosting a further 10,000 visiting scientists and engineers, representing 113 nationalities drawn from more than 600 universities and research facilities. That’s without getting into the large, long and complex networks of broader financial, physical and intellectual resources they rely up to do their work.  Arguably, it’s because we socially construct science that CERN can exist.

We can also apply this point to scientific ideas, the construction of which is also social, as individuals rely on others to check, adapt, support and inspire them. It’s also worth adding that just because people came up with an idea doesn’t mean it doesn’t match reality, it just means people worked together to find the best idea about the world they can. Science isn’t nature, even if in places it might seem to so have closely described the world that we use it as a shorthand. To say science is made by humans isn’t to say the world around them is. (although there is a “social construction of reality” strand to sociology of science, this is only a strand, and it’s a nuanced philosophical debate which, if you want to engage with, it’s worth taking time over).

None of this is to say individuals don’t play a role, just that they rely on others. The fact that we can, at least on occasion, collect together to make stuff like the discovery of the Higgs boson is one of the things that makes me happy about humanity.

Sociology of science simply wants to take a moment to notice science as something that is made by groups of people. I really don’t get why people find it as somehow desiring of undermining science. You could equally see it as a celebration. If anything, the scientific community should embrace such detailed study of the intricacies of their make up, it helps make cases for more rigorous thinking about funding and immigration policies.

Some of these points are echoed in a short piece I wrote for the Guardian at the weekend. If you want to read more, I suggest you try some of the original Strong Programme, as well as Latour on networks and Merton on communalism. Or recent books by Sergio Sismondo and Massimiano Bucchi offer slightly more digestible introductions. I can also recommend Spencer Weart’s Discovery of Global Warming as a good case study in the social structure of science, it’s a slightly more engrossing read than abstract theory, or there was a nice piece about sociologists at CERN in Nature a while back.

13 thoughts on “Social construction of science

  1. Greg Hollin

    Nice article and completely agree. To my philosophical naive eye I think a significant portion of this problem stems from students (inc. me) being told that realism and constructivism are two sides of a dichotomy whereas this clearly isn’t the case, realism and relativism (very broadly defined) are the poles and the form of constructivism being advocated here is a position subsumed within the former category?? Anyhow…

    Reply
    1. alice Post author

      yeah, when I was a student we learnt about a range of realisms, and constructivisms and relativism (and epistemological chickens) and I think we do them a bit fast, so it often got muddled. This is just one take on social constructivism written out to help make a point, academically speaking the idea is a lot more complex (though maybe too complex for its own good…)

      Reply
  2. James Pickles

    You are, of course, right that the social construction of science is uncontroversial, if it’s understood to mean merely that groups of people do the material work that leads to scientific results, or that one can describe naturalistically the social causes that make scientific theories credible to groups of people. This is uncontroversial because it is trivial.

    It’s stronger views than this that are controversial. For example the view that the social acceptance of a proposition constitutes its truth (so scientific facts are like the fact that you should stop at red lights).

    Now those stronger views are worth having a good argument about. However, one needs to be awfully careful that in giving arguments for the trivial claim one doesn’t slip into making the stronger claim; and conversely that in arguing about the stronger claim one doesn’t start relying on arguments supporting only the trivial claim. I think it is _that_ kind of mistake that really causes annoyance about the metaphysics and epistemology of social construction.

    Reply
    1. Simon Rogers

      “and conversely that in arguing about the stronger claim one doesn’t start relying on arguments supporting only the trivial claim”

      ….exactly what I was trying (less successfully) to say…

      Reply
      1. Andy OC

        The description presented here is sensible and concise and consideration of the social dimension of science is important.
        However, this isn’t the way I’m used to having this argument presented. It’s usually couched as a much stronger set of claims about the limits of science and scientific knowledge and the inability of a (“socially constructed”) scientific model to accord with reality in any meaningful way.

        Reply
  3. Simon Rogers

    I think one reason why there is conflict is in the use of terms like ‘constructed’ (what exactly is being constructed?) and ‘science as something that is made by groups of people’ (what is being made?). These are too readily associated with strong constructivism. The analogies with physical buildings don’t help. Which part of the scientific idea/theory corresponds to St. Paul’s in your analogy?

    I suspect that the majority of scientists would self-identify as people who ‘do’ science, rather than ‘make’ it. Few would argue that the process of doing scientific research is, to varying degrees, a social one.

    Reply
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  5. shinod

    Are you speaking about scientific work as a social construct or scientific knowledge as a mere social construct. By mere social construct I mean a system which is constructed on the basis of agreements among people belongs to a particular group and the construction has nothing to do with the external world. Even when the fist claim is true that might not guarantee the second claim. No matter how do we construct science, no human can jump from the top of the Eiffel tower and go up. He will necessarily come down

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