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Authority and Objectivity in Science Studies

Author: Lars Frers (2000)

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Develop a theoretical explanation for the historical rise in the epistemic authority of modern science.

My goal here is mainly one thing, to throw out a net that can capture as many influences on the rise of the epistemic authority of science as possible. The seas that provide the habitat for these influences are deep and murky, and I guess that part of the catch will be curios and strange. Other parts will be well-known and quite hard to overlook. However, as fishing goes, some things will slip through the net and you never now what else might roam the seas and never show up in your net. Notwithstanding the charm of metaphors, this one only serves to frame the rest of the story. I will leave it for now, perhaps to pick it up later in this text.

For the purposes of answering this question, the term ‘modern’ science will encompass the empirical sciences in contrast to what is known as the ‘Geisteswissenschaften’ or humanities. Therefore, at least a large part of the social sciences is included in this definition. Not covered are areas like philosophy and history.

Modern science and its authority arose in the course a of long process; it went through several transformations as itself and its environment changed repeatedly. Modern, or empirical, science was located in different places. Experiments were conducted in the mansions of seventeenth century gentlemen (see Shapin, A Social History of Truth), it was part of expeditions to foreign places (see Latour, Science in Action, 215-235), was practiced and generated in hospitals, asylums and prisons (see Foucault, History of Sexuality I, Discipline and Punish); it was brought from the laboratory to the farm and back again (see Latour, Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World), it entered the factory (Marx, The Capital vol. I & vol. III) and the classrooms (Foucault again); it entered public places and was set up against religion and engineering and it generated frustration in the recent science wars in the United States; the list could go on and on, but the last item in this list should be beauty: Science was brought into museums, art and theaters, thereby connecting it to aesthetics or, describing it in a less sophisticated way, to entertainment.

Objects/Nature Doing science is a practical activity (praxis). This has certain consequences: on the one hand, actors use science to shape the world, and on the other hand, (doing) science is influencing the way actors experience the world. To put it differently, science gives its practitioners power over objects, but it also empowers objects in two ways: (a) machines and instruments shape our interaction with the environment[1]; and (b) the objects (re-)act in certain ways allowing some observations and modifications and resisting others. I will return to this relation between science (or scientists) and its objects at a later point, for now let me point out some other entities than ‘nature’ that are connected to science and are participating in the generation of its epistemic authority.

Enlightenment Redefining scholastic ideas and step by step constructing a rationality detached from god, the philosophy of the enlightenment was developed in parallel with empirical science. The enlightenment could also be seen as detaching philosophy from the body, focussing solely on the mind and how it would and could observe the world around it (see Latour, Pandora’s Hope[2]) and – itself. This stepping away from the body, away from it’s involvedness in the production of knowledge, and the stepping away from god could be described as a process of purification. THis kind of purification was central component in the design of a new model of the (scientific) mind. The scientific mind sat above its material surroundings, it is a type of mind that, through logical reasoning, establishes control over matter and men alike (see Adorno&Horkheimer, Dialectic of the Enlightenment). However, these moves away from the body and away from god established something which was quite unique to the agenda of the enlightenment – universality. Seemingly freed from the constraints of matter and belief, the Occident proceeded to treat all objects equally. Logics and mathematics are essentially decontextualizations of language, allowing a reconstruction of relations in an abstract and universal way. If one knew how to deploy the tools provided by this abstract language, if one could produce knowledge that was regarded as proven, one could produce truth.

State The forms of government were changing. It was not a lord or king who concentrated all executive and legal power in his person anymore. Instead, administration got more complex and a bureaucracy slowly began to establish itself, spreading and distributing the power of a government over a wider field and relying on a large body of people and instruments for the registration and regulation of the people populating the freshly established nation states.

Capitalism In this context, I only want to point out two aspects of the rise of capitalism that will tie into the rise of the epistemic authority of science. One is the change from production in the manufacture to production in the factory, with all the organizational changes that eventually accompanied that shift. The other is the establishment of a middle class in the industrialized countries, a middle class that fills the universities and that is the main consumer of the products and by-products of modern science.

Education Schools were becoming more and more common, and the content of what was taught in school changed from basic training in reading and writing, morals and calculations to more and more sophisticated programs that included many aspects of the empirical sciences, even bringing experiments and laboratory equipment into the hands of children and adolescents.

At this point, I want to put what I typed into this (incomplete) list into contact with the people that generate science’s epistemic authority, and for this purpose I will draw heavily on Latour’s actor network theory. Much of the authority of modern science stems from the way in which its practitioners skillfully displace things, retrieving them from a certain context and re-embedding them somewhere else. The other side of the moon has been turned to face us on the pages of books and on TV screens, genes are cut out of DNA strands, pictures of cannibals from the other side of the globe have been brought into the Occident. Things which were not visible before are made visible or even tangible; modern science builds connections between things/actors that were not connected before. In my view, these acts of displacement are so effective in establishing connections or networks because they also have an aesthetic appeal. Sometimes they are spectacular, sometimes they are humbling, sometimes they are flashy and bright, sometimes refined and sophisticated. The arts in the widest sense are in a constant interaction with science. They make creative use of the end products of science and they create images of science, images that range from socialist realism to dada, from Jules Verne to contemporary cyberpunk novels, from Star Trek to the Discovery channel.

Nevertheless, modern science’s epistemic authority probably draws mostly from the power that it obviously gives to those who know how to deploy it effectively.[3] Our environment is re-shaped profoundly, our bodies are miraculously ‘fixed’ by surgeons, a machine cleans our clothes and some of the obstacles of space and time have been overcome – and somehow all of this is connected to research laboratories, tables and people in white coats. Networks which connect all these different experiences, things and people are very strong, they can set many of the parts of the network in action and achieve a multitude of different goals. Building alliances is therefore central to building epistemic authority – contrary to the position of system theory á la Luhmann modern science is, despite of all its internal, specialized codes of communication, fabricated from threads that come from everywhere. The alliances are built with different substances, they are based on trust (see Shapin, A Social History of Truth); they are based on the ways in which science can be used to lower resistances and shape things, e.g. increase production in the factory; they are molded in schools, e.g. through the use of textbooks; statistics ally science and bureaucracy; and pleasure and comfort brings science into our private life.

Finally, science is an exclusive enterprise. The entry requisites are high, and it is necessary to continuously monitor oneself and one’s surrounding to stay in the club. The esoteric nature of scientific knowledge and the elaborate and complex rituals and practices that are necessary to participate in this epistemic culture are marking it as authoritative.

[Addendum: I should maybe add that I did not discuss two eminently important aspects regarding the authority of science: medicine and warfare.]

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How has objectivity been differently defined and deployed by diverse practitioners of the sociology of science/science studies?

The perspectives that I will present in this answer do not have a lot in common. Perhaps they only share a ‘negative’ trait – they are all non-functionalist in comparison to Merton’s model of a sociology of science. Some of them might define their enterprise explicitly as critical of science in its current shape, while others try to be ‘objective’ in a reflexive way. To see if and how these perspectives can be combined so that it is possible to develop a more adequate story of science and objectivity will be the final task in answering this question.

With regard to Bloor’s Strong Programme in the Sociology of Knowledge I want to try to drive home a particular point: Bloor makes an interesting move in by investigating the prototypical realm of the production of objectivity, science, while at the same time claiming to set up a program that would be impartial with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality, success or failure (7) – that is, it deploys one of the most prominent moves towards objectivity: impartiality. To avoid the pitfalls of circular reasoning, Bloor introduces the notion of reflexivity into his program. This frame then allows careful investigations into the realm of the production of scientific knowledge and a refutation of theories that depict science as a privileged realm, the realm in which objectivity is located by grace of the empiricists and Sir Karl Popper. The strong programme with its emphasis on symmetry does not seem to allow room for a specific kind of knowledge production in science, one that is inherently different from the production of knowledge in other realms. Bloor states that naturally there will be other types of causes apart from social ones which will cooperate in bringing about belief (ibid.) This program is very well designed and tightly shut, at least this is the impression that it makes on me – I am not completely comfortable with the way in which he presents the notion of reflexivity. In my view the reflexivity of the strong programme appears to be more of a move to sustain the logical coherency of his model than a move towards opening science studies to self-reflexive practices, i.e. critical reflections on the role of scientific methodology. Bloor seems to use ‘objective’ scientific methods to see how theories/knowledge are generated, instead of getting into the real mess and looking at what he himself does when he dissects science with sciences own tools. I think I miss more emphasis on processes of interaction, instead of being causal, that is, concerned with the conditions which bring about belief or states of knowledge (ibid. my emphasis.)

To be mischievous one could try to apply Porter’s (Quantification and the Accounting Ideal in Science) metaphor of the technology of distance (640-643) to Bloor’s notion of impartiality. Porter makes an investigation into the realm of accounting, and he describes the arguments that were raised in the discourse about how accounting should be practiced: Either as a flexible method suited to the specific requirements of a business or other economical unit, or as a highly regulated and universal method that allows for more (centralized) control of accounting practices. The latter method won, and using this model of accounting was conceived as being a route to a more objective science of accounting. The refined sets of rules that practitioners of accounting had to subject themselves to were co-produces by the setting in which accountants work. Accountants, operating in a highly contentious domain, lack the status and credibility that would permit them to rest their claims mainly on wisdom and insight. (638) Are accountants and practitioners of science studies in a similar position with regard to their lack of status and credibility? This would be a kind of folding back or self-reflexivity that I would like to see in Bloor’s strong programme. Scientific methodology itself should be included in reflexive acts; claiming impartiality is a move that is well suited to certain circumstances…

Circumstances that Tom Gieryn examines in depth in Cultural Boundaries of Science Studies. From a constructivist perspective Gieryn describes cases that, taken together, constitute a very lively and feature-rich landscape, which is in turn the setting for the shifting boundaries surrounding science. Objectivity becomes a rhetoric tool that is deployed to define the boundaries of science; it might be used to restrain the territorial fusion of science with other realms like indigenous knowledges, it might be marshaled in conquering new territories for a science that is occupied with the shape and dimension of skulls, or it can organize the resistance against a burgeoning social science that is defined as a threat, which could possibly invade the realms of reason. By reconstructing the different contexts in which objectivity is raised Gieryn demonstrates a crucial aspect regarding the embeddedness of objectivity – it is not a static pre-defined entity, instead it is a flexible concept that can be fit into many schemes; it could be deployed from within science and from the outside of what is considered to be science (perhaps it can even be the border itself, the line which different tear and push backwards and forwards.) However, from the constructivist perspective that Gieryn chose it is very difficult to actually conceptualize the ‘substantialities’ that are attached to the term objective. Objectivity becomes a rhetorical practice – flexibly used in the interactions between different groups that shift around boundaries. One might wonder if there is more to objectivity than rhetorics, and if so, what that would be, and in how far that would influence the way in which objectivity is raised. Nonetheless, if there is a concept in science that is tied up closely with the social construction of discourse, it is probably the very abstract idea of objectivity, i.e. it seems to be almost exclusively a discoursive practice, not so much a ‘material’ practice in the sense that experimenting and measuring are material practices.

Haraway (Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of the Partial Perspective) approaches objectivity as a construct – she is conscious of the way it is used and she is not completely comfortable with the way in which it is deployed. She tries to find the precarious balance between a conceptualization of objectivity, which ends up in a cynical approach to truth. All truths become warp speed effects in a hyper-real space of simulations [… But] for political people, social constructionism cannot be allowed to decay into the radiant emanations of cynicism. (184) From this starting point in her critique, she proceeds in an inventive way. Haraway points out that the discoursive games played in science are real practices that are components of the power fields in which human action and science are embedded – they are not ‘just’ rhetorical constructs that float above the problems of real, i.e. political life and problems. However, Haraway still is nervous when she encounters the social constructivist agenda that is represented in the strong programme and its offsprings (185). Her tacit solution is to abandon some of the absolute authority that is connected to the concept of objectivity; instead, she proposes bundles of relative authority, that stem from the self-reflexive positioning of scientists in a highly complex field of power relations, injustices, material practices etc. This sounds somewhat familiar; it resembles the move made by Marx, who claims that the situatedness of his critique of capitalism actually is the source of its power and legitimacy. But this parallel has a very important limitation: Haraway denies Marx’ claim that taking a certain position could allow access to a historical totality – critique is partial and specific and no single position could determine what is truth. She is not looking for the juggernaut or the mob; she is looking for the trickster (199).

Finally, Pickering’s account (The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science) of objectivity is approaching the subject from a different perspective. For him objectivity is produced in ‘mangling’ practices, theories, machines, social relations, measurements etc. It is a result of complex and agentic processes that make up scientific practice. As he formulates it, it is a dialectic of resistance and accommodation, where resistance denotes the failure to achieve an intended capture of agency in practice, and accommodation an active human strategy of response to resistance (22). This dialectic is an effect of the interaction of humans with their environment – an environment that is produced by them, and that is independent of them at the same time. It allows certain practices to achieve certain effects, it can be modified in a multitude of ways, but it will always offer resistances to modifications that science as a practice can try to overcome. To emphasize this point: the ‘environment’ in this context includes nature and society, and this peculiar product of human action, the machine, which in turn mediates between the actors in this field or network. In those acts of mediation, the machine has two sides, it helps in overcoming resistances, but it also generates resistances of its own. Pickering makes another point regarding his conceptualization of objectivity as being the temporary product of multiple practices: he also constructs it as a critique of other, traditional accounts of objectivity, where “objectivity is seen as stemming from a peculiar kind of mental hygiene or policing of thought” (197). He seems to be bolder than Bloor, who defended his strong programme against potential criticism from Popperians; he directly attacks their set of methodological rules that should be used in securing objectivity. His own enterprise seems to be one of subversion or a subtle, skillful and aesthetic practice of redefining what science could be.

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[These two short texts were originally answers to questions posed in a final exam. The exam was part of a sociology of science graduate level class offered by Tom Gieryn at Indiana University Bloomington.]