Essay on David Bloor's Social Imagery

Before Thomas Kuhn’s now classical Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn 1962) historians of science had separated themselves from the content of scientific enquiry by a wide moat of apprehension: they assumed that the lives of scientists and the conditions of scientific investigation were legitimate subjects for their study, but the actual product of science was forbidden territory. Before Kuhn’s trespass, historians of science - most notably Robert K. Merton - had restricted their investigations and examinations to the process of scientific evolution, and to the political, social and institutional influences upon it. But this sharp line of demarcation was smudged and then rubbed away by Kuhn’s revolutionary work which showed that the product of science is as legitimate for sociological study as the environment of scientific enquiry itself. To distinguish this new field of investigation from the conventional sociology of science, its new adherents branded it ‘the sociology of scientific knowledge’ (SSK).

It was from this revolutionary milieu that David Bloor’s seminal work Knowledge and Social Imagery (Bloor, 1976) and his idea of the Strong Programme emerged. Bloor sought in this work to fix a base for a sociological and historical investigation of the product of scientific knowledge. Thus ‘Strong’ refers to the examination of the internal laboratorial workings of science, and to its discoveries and beliefs; whereas, a ‘weak’ programme - characteristic of Merton and his predecessors - examined only the lives of scientists and the historical conditions of their work. The Strong Programme seeks, in contradistinction to the older school, to ground SSK on causal and empirical principles - this desire being influenced by Wittgenstein’s philosophy. To these ends, Bloor introduced four principles to establish the Strong Programme: causality, impartiality, symmetry, and reflexivity - ideas derived from Hesse’s Structure of Scientific Inference (Hesse 1974). These terms have since been referred to as ‘epistemological agnosticism’.

These terms require then a little further explanation. Of SSK Bloor says ‘It must be causal, that is, concerned with conditions that bring out beliefs or states of knowledge’ (Bloor, 1976, p7). It is a principal conviction of the Strong Programme then that social and cultural conditions affect and influence the content of science, and, what is more, that it is the duty of socio-historians to show how this influence occurs. The Strong Programme must be impartial because ‘… with respect to truth and falsity, rationality or irrationality’ then ‘both sides of these dichotomies require explanation’ (Bloor, 1976, p7). Not only then is the content of science the territory of SSK: but this content is worthy of investigation whether it is ‘good’ science or ‘bad’. An explanation of this notion of impartiality is found in Bloor’s third, and perhaps most controversial, principle: symmetry. Bloor says ‘It (SSK) would be symmetrical in its style of explanation. The same types of cause will explain, say, true and false beliefs’ (Bloor, 1976, p7). For Bloor then it is the conclusions and beliefs that emerge from scientific investigation that are most interesting sociologically: it does not matter whether these beliefs are ‘true’ or ‘false’, the phenomenon itself and its causes are what count. Reflexivity, Bloor’s fourth principle, suggests that the discipline of sociology itself must be open to the types of investigation that sociology applies to other sciences. Put succinctly then: the Strong Programme is an aggressive appeal for the socio-historical investigation of the content of scientific enquiry.

‘By the late 1980’s, the constellation of ‘science studies’ disciplines
was heterogeneous and riven with arguments, but it was no longer
possible to evade the conclusion that the traditional understanding
of science had been radically undermined’
Golinski 1998, p3)

As these words tell, Bloor’s Strong Programme had a paradoxical effect upon the discipline. His ideas and those of likeminded academics split the discipline into a ‘constellation’ that was ‘riven with arguments’. Bruno Latour, for instance, through his ‘actor network’ and actant theory argues that Bloor’s seemingly comprehensive description of the social and cultural influences inferred by the Strong Programme are unsound and inadmissible criteria for judging the content of science. Similar claims have come from within the SSK movement. And yet the energy released by this disciplinary fission has brought SSK enormous international attention - from historians and scientists in particular. This attention has often been vituperatively and vociferously anti-Bloor and anti-SSK. Karl Popper spoke of ideas such as the Strong Programme as ‘…this despicable perversion of everything that is decent’ (Popper 1966) while David Stone declared it ‘philosophical folly’, ‘a stupid and discreditable business’ whose authors were ‘beneath philosophical notice and unlikely to benefit from it’ (Stove 1991). These scarifying remarks tend to assault the relativistic nature of the SSK doctrine: which denies the absolute validity and truth of even the most sacred tenets of natural science, the laws of Newton or the theories of Einstein, for instance. Thus Latour says that the work of science is ‘the construction of fictions’: it is the construction of sociologically and culturally determined modes of thought. And it is this spectre introduced by Bloor and others of the absolute uncertainty and impossibility of total objectivity in scientific investigation has appalled philosophers and scientists alike.

In any meaningful sense, it is far too soon to conclude as to the validity and importance of Bloor’s Strong Programme or the sociology of scientific knowledge in general. All that can be said now perhaps is that opinions about the discipline are polarized, both from within and without. The unusually bitter and savage tone of the criticisms of SSK, paradoxically, almost have the effect of providing it with some authority. When someone like Laudan berates ‘rampant relativism’ as ‘the most prominent and pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism of our time’ (Laudan, 1990) one hears behind these words the worry and unease caused by the SSK critique. But if this critique has a solid future, it is uncertain as yet in which direction that future lays: whether it is with Bloor and his adherents or with Latour - or, indeed, whether a reconciliation is not possible.

Bibliography

  • Bloor, D (1976). Knowledge and Social Imagery. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
  • Bloor, D (1997). Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions. Routledge, London.
  • Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (2000). Routledge, London.
  • Golinski, J. (1998) Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science.
  • Cambridge University Press Cambridge.
  • Hesse, M.E. (1974) The Structure of Scientific Inference. Macmillan, London.
  • Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd Ed. Chicago University
  • Press, Chicago.
  • Latour, B (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through
  • Society. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Laudan, L. (1981) The pseudo Science of Science. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 11.
  • Popper, K.R. (1966) The Open Society and its enemies, Volume 2, Hegel and Marx.
  • Routeledge, London.
  • Stove, D. (1991). The Plato Cult and other Philosophical Follies. Blackwell’s, Oxford.
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia, (1994). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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