Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) Part 2

Written by William Walter Kay BA JD

Sociology’s progenitor, Auguste Comte, considered Sociology the “Monarch of the Sciences” because science itself is a social activity.

Sociology of Science’s progenitor, Robert K. Merton, was a model career academic – a “company man” who augmented his chosen field’s reputation as a valued component of the modern university. From the 1930s to the 1990s Merton mongered Sociology of Science as a sub-discipline of mainstream, (structural-functionalist) Sociology.

An insecure first-generation immigrant, Merton feigned WASPish hyper-correctness to better integrate and earn recognition. Merton’s eulogies to the Protestant work ethic should be seen in this light; as should his attack on Sociology of Knowledge pioneer Karl Mannheim.

Merton criticized Mannheim for being overly speculative, and for underutilizing concrete data. Mannheim’s real crime was his depiction of Sociology as an arena wherein power-seeking external forces sought influence. Such disruptive radicalism engendered a counter-effort, fronted by Merton, to marginalize Mannheim.

Merton did, however, second Mannheim’s motion that sociologists should not augur the innards of scientific fact-making. Mannheim placed the natural sciences beyond Sociology of Knowledge’s scope. He did not want sociologists adjudicating on scientific knowledge claims.

Similarly, Merton considered inquiries into the veracity of scientific facts to be outside Sociology of Science’s purview. Inquiries must stop at the door of substantive scientific knowledge.

To Merton, sociological inspection of the content of science was impossible. “Social,” by definition, excluded intellectual content. Mertonian Sociology of Science confines investigations to the:

“…social conditions and effects of science and the social structures and processes of scientific activity.” (1)

(Pre-1976 sociologists occasionally braved discussions of scientific error; focussing on renowned cases of authorities wandering down blind alleys. Approved topics were: phrenology, homeopathy, Lysenkoism, spontaneous generation, and race theory. Sociology of Error elicited tales of science self-correcting; tales wherein properly applied method righted the ship. This approach was dubbed the “Weak Programme.”)

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Mertonian sociologists restrict investigations to an array of non-substantive science processes such as:

  1. distributions of rewards and resources;
  2. refereeing, publishing and citing of scientific papers; and,
  3. recruitment, training and career trajectories of scientists.

Avoiding substantive science does not mean avoiding controversy. Mertonian Sociologists expose problematic transfers of research funds from non-specialists to specialists, and inordinate funding of prestigious scientists.

Also fair game are inquiries into whether scientists live up to their aspirations of universalism, communality and objectivity. Communality requires discoveries be shared with the whole scientific community. This principal conflicts with needs for secrecy in military, or commercially, funded research. Universalism requires all creeds and colors participate equally in science. Scouring for shortcomings on this front became a prime area of sociological research.

Of great interest to sociologists are the “structures of science.” Structures include journals, societies and congresses. Structures range from tiny labs to large university departments to immense funding agencies like Germany’s Max Planck Institutes, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research and America’s National Science Foundation.

Cutting-edge sociologists explore how the “Mode 1 to Mode 2” transition affects science structures. Mode 1 is a university-centered system depicted as a triple helix, university-industry-government, mega-structure. In Mode 2 universities experience a decline in importance as they undergo decentralization and marginalization.

In Mode 2 (a.k.a. “post-academic” or “academic capitalism”) university departments compete with, and merge with: consultancies, businesses, think tanks, activist groups, and industry associations. Science’s new landscape sprawls across all government levels, organizational types and research disciplines. Global mega-science’s ramified infrastructure showcases super-research universities haphazardly integrated into non-academic research institutes located in military bases, humongous hospital complexes and privately-owned corporate labs.

Mode 2 does not mean shrinking universities. Academia continues to balloon in terms of new universities, student enrollment, and academic paper production. Regarding the latter, the Science Citation Index records that annual scientific research paper production increased from 50,000 papers in 1955 to 1.1 million in 2011. Scopus’s data base presently lists 16,000 peer-reviewed science journals. (2)

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Mode 2 does mean shrinking respect for universities. Mode 2’s starting-gun, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Post-Modern Condition (a 1979 report to Quebec’s higher education council), is dedicated to a polytechnic department within a Parisian university which Lyotard chaired. In his preface Lyotard hopes his department flourishes while the university withers. (3)

Mode 2’s most transformative structures, International Organizations (IOs), experienced salient growth in numbers during the late-1980s. A second surge occurred circa 2000. (Zapp) The Union of International Associations’ 2021-2 Yearbook details 38,000 active, international, not-for-profit, non-governmental organizations. Growth brought an enlarged role for IOs in scientific knowledge production.

IOs are: development banks, trade organizations, environmental agencies, or multi-lateral secretariats etc. Giants among them include: World Health Organization, International Energy Agency, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, World Meteorological Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, UNESCO, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB).

WB’s 10,000 employees annually generate thousands of publications; many with scientific content. Their yearly 500-page World Development Report typically contains several hundred scientific references – many relaying in-house research. WB’s aggregate knowledge impact rivals that of Harvard. (Zapp) (IMF boasts similar impact.) WB outstrips the London School of Economics & Political Science in social science publications.

UNESCO publishes more education papers than London’s Institute of Education.

Paris-headquartered, OECD, publishes 400 books a year.

Scientific publishing by IOs was negligible pre-1980. Expansion has been exponential. Annual IO scientific publishing is now measured in tens of thousands of units. Formats include: journal articles, conference papers, book chapters and books. Topics include: climate, energy, resources, water, health, environment, and science education.

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IOs collaborate extensively and strategically with mandarins atop national science foundations and major research universities. IOs possess advantages over most universities, namely:

  1. International Research Institutes are designed and mandated to create industry links and commercial spin-offs;
  2. Inter-Governmental Organisations directly administer government programs; and,
  3. International Non-Government Organisations command legions of activists. (Zapp)

IOs drive scientization of policy-making.

IOs form the vanguard of LGBTQ, anti-racist, environmentalist, de-colonization and globalist initiatives.

Whether international, national or otherwise, science structures are usually incorporated bureaucracies overseen by boards of directors and professional managers. Informal hierarchies, however, also exist within and between science structures. Of particular interest to sociologists are genres of opaque yet powerful informal networks conceptualized as: Core Sets, Invisible Colleges, and Epistemic Communities.

Core Sets seize the initiative during controversies. Scientific communities, by and large, defer to their Core Sets.

Invisible Colleges (a.k.a. Citation Networks) meet regularly to exchange ideas. Members promote one another’s work through mutual citation and “pal-review” agreements.

Epistemic Communities advise policy-makers. Their expertise gives them authoritative claims on specific policy-relevant knowledge. The rise of science-based policymaking in global/environmental governance mirrors the rise of Epistemic Communities.

Sociological “boundary work” unearths the methods whereby scientists circumscribe their elite networks.

Sociologists excavating the sunken base of science’s structural ziggurat draw attention to the massification of higher education that began in the 1960s. French university enrollment, for example, increased 600 percent between 1960 and 1990. The promised “democratization of knowledge work” yielded a proletarianization of PhDs and a further oxymoronization of “academic freedom.”

In Mode 2 a rootless army of PhDs migrates between gigs in non-profit international orgs and temp postings at universities. Here’s Professor Zapp:

“…unstable employment conditions prompt a more competitive and strategic self-perception of academics. A similar rationality might operate at the (International Organization) level and particularly for International Research Institutes where most of the staff might be under some short-term contract restraints.”

Here’s Professor Fuller:

…we are talking about a marketplace environment in which increasing amounts of academic research is done by contract workers whose employment prospects are determined on a grant to grant basis. Under such a regime, if researchers do not provide quality information about their subjects to their clients, they will be quickly replaced by someone more willing and able to do so. Thus, the researchers’ credibility as a witness is always at issue.

Professor Lynch quips: “endemic threat of academic job loss facilitates consensus building.” (4)

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Given Sociology’s baroque reflectivity, scholars cannot avoid commenting on how client-driven academic markets mould a client-centered Sociology of Science. Fuller feels the chill:

“…clients and benefactors can effectively discourage lines of inquiry that threaten their interests.”

Massification of science work impacts the old debate about social-versus-individual scientific knowledge. As history marches on tropes about lone scientific geniuses – Newton under the apple tree – appear increasingly antiquated. No doubt, an innermost core of scientific thought is not social. Scientists do at times solve problems in solitude. Nevertheless, scientific knowledge has always been a collective accomplishment facilitated and shaped by organized educational and scientific institutions. Scientific truths are not personal revelations; they are socially established artifacts. To quote Professor Knorr-Certina:

“…products of science are contextually specific constructions which bear the mark of their situational contingency and interest structure of the process by which they are generated.” (5)

Individual scientists do not personally ascertain every basic fact. They consult reference texts. They trust authorities.

The accelerating specialization of knowledge accompanying the advent of global mega-science has rendered individual scientists evermore dependant on the authorities.

Mode 2 magnifies “normal science.” Massification of science means minionization of scientists. More than ever, scientists lack control over their work. Heretical thinking is bureaucratically pre-empted by informal networks embedded deep into the main science funding agencies.

Joe the Scientist ain’t paid to think.


  1. Ben-David, Joseph & Sullivan, Teresa. Sociology of Science; University of Southampton, 1975
  2. Zapp, Mike. The scientization of the world polity: International organizations and the production of scientific knowledge; International Sociology, 2017, 1-24. All further parenthetic references to Zapp are from this document.
  3. Fuller, Steve. Why Science Studies Has Never Been Critical of Science: Some Recent Lessons on How to Be a Helpful Nuisance and a Harmless Radical; Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 2000. All further references to Fuller are from this document.
  4. Lynch, William & Fuhrman, Ellesworth. Recovering and Expanding the Normative: Marx and the New Sociology of Scientific Knowledge; 1991. All further parenthetic references to Lynch are taken from this document. Actual quote, curious punctuation included: “It is possible to gain consensus by violence or threat of violence. It also is not clear that the threat of job loss (academic?) is any less important than violence.”
  5. Restivo, Sal & Croissant, Jennifer. Social Constructionism in Science and Technology Studies; Chapter 11 from Handbook of Constructionist Research; Guilford Press, New York 2007. All further parenthetic references to Restivo are taken from this document.
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