Constructionist interpretations of science

In its broadest sense, the claim that scientific knowledge is constructed amounts to saying that it is not simply drawn from nature.  According to a minimal definition of constructionism, what counts as knowledge is contingent on the scientific method or framework used.  A more inclusive, social constructionism views knowledge as contingent on the scientists establishing (or disputing) the knowledge and then, through them, on their social context (see Collins’ 1981 “stages in the empirical programme of relativism.”)  During the 1980s, social constructionism (or constructivism) became the major perspective in social studies of science.  Active debate ensued about different interpretations of construction, the degree to which it is a social process, how much that process affects what counts as knowledge in the long run, the emphasis on knowledge alone or as integrated into scientific activity more generally, and whether social studies of science now needs to move beyond constructionism.  See, e.g., the exchanges among Collins, Yearley, Latour, and Woolgar in Pickering (1992) and between Sismondo (1993a, 1993b) and Knorr-Cetina (1993); Smith’s (1997) discussion of Kitcher (1993); and other exchanges reviewed in Hacking (1999).

The sense of construction as building—the process, not the product—remained underdeveloped through these debates (as noted also in Hacking 1999, 49ff).  If the project of interpreting science is construed very broadly as addressing what it means practically for agents to modify scientific activity, then the term construction has the apt connotation of a process of agents building from a number of different components.  This is the sense I explore under the label heterogeneous construction.  A similar term, heterogeneous engineering, was introduced in Law (1987).  Indeed, since the middle 1980s the literature interpreting science has included many rich descriptions of the diversity of things scientists do and use in the process of making science: scientists employ or “mobilize” equipment, experimental protocols, citations, the support of colleagues, the reputations of laboratories, metaphors, rhetorical devices, publicity, funding, and so on (Latour 1987; Clarke and Fujimura 1992, 4-5).

Nevertheless, in descriptions—even the least colored ones—there are causes or “becauses” implied in the selection and juxtaposition of different factors.  At this level of explanation heterogeneous constructionism has not been well developed.  Taylor (2005, Chapter 4) explores heterogeneous constructionism as an explicitly explanatory project, one that addresses the challenge of analyzing which of the diverse things mobilized make a difference and how they are combined to do so.

Constructionists of various stripes (Sismondo 1993a; Hacking 1999) have offered explanations of scientific developments.  Most explanations have, however, tended to move away from heterogeneity and from the implications that construction is a process (Taylor 1995).  Both these tendencies are especially evident when discussions associate social constructionism with society, context, ideology, and so on—something external to science—determining, penetrating, or being reflected in the content of accepted scientific theories.  (The diagrams in Wise 1988 provide an explicit instance of this.)  The resulting science then corresponds to the society in which it is generated or accepted.  Conversely, when “realists” or anti-relativists dispute that the outcome of scientific activity—established knowledge—corresponds to society, they hold that it must then correspond—at least, generally or eventually—with nature or reality.  The agency of scientists is not significant in these correspondence relationships.  In the former, scientists can be seen as ciphers for society or dupes for interests; in the latter, they can be forgotten once they have helped establish the knowledge.

Admittedly, published work is usually subtler than seminar or bar room discussions of social construction.  The literature generally presents the society-science relationship as refracted and allows for the observation that not all of social group X believe Y and not all believers of Y come from social group X.  In this vein we can see, for example, that scientists produce and judge knowledge mostly according to how it furthers goals of their social group (Shapin 1982).  In short, agents are quite active and practically engaged.  Nevertheless, construction in the simpler, correspondence sense has not been banished in such accounts.  If we ask how these accounts explain why this knowledge was accepted and not that, and how this knowledge was generated in the first place, the implicit “because” seems more often than not one of correspondence between knowledge and interests (Woolgar 1981; Pickering 1993).

The conceptual resources needed for heterogeneous constructionist explanations should be sought in thinking about process and practice, and not drawn from discussions of a reflection or correspondence relationship, however refracted or approximate that relationship is (Taylor 2005, chapter 4).  Moreover, so as not to perpetuate the privileged status established knowledge has had in science studies, the separation of knowledge from scientific work and activity needs to be dissolved (Clarke 1991).  Finally, the actions of agents who heterogeneously construct can never be governed solely or predominantly by the pursuit of any unitary goal, whether that goal is revealing the nature of some underlying reality (truth), establishing instrumentally reliable knowledge (Boyd 1991, 207; Hacking 1983), furthering the interests of the agent’s social group, or maximizing and concentrating the agent’s social resources (Latour 1988a, 160).  The challenge—one shared with social theory—is to develop accounts of agency in terms of widely distributed causality (see Taylor 2005; Chapters 4-6).

Extracted from Taylor, P.J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press).


Boyd, R. (1991). “On the current status of scientific realism,” in R. Boyd, P. Gasper and J. D. Trout (Eds.), The Philosophy of Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 195-222.

Clarke, A. (1991). “Social worlds/arenas theory as organizational theory,” in D. R. Maines (Ed.), Social Organization and Social Process: Essays in Honor of Anselm Strauss. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 119-158.

Clarke and J. Fujimura (1992). “What tools? Which jobs? Why right?,” in A. Clarke and J. Fujimura (Eds.), The Right Tools for the Job: At Work in Twentieth-century Life Sciences. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 3-44.

Collins (1981). “Stages in the empirical programme of relativism.” Social Studies of Science 11: 3-10.

Hacking, I. (1983). Representing and Intervening. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hacking (1999). The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kitcher, P. (1993). The Advancement of Science: Science without Legend, Objectivity without Illusions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Knorr-Cetina, K. (1993). “Strong constructivism – from a sociologist’s point of view: A personal addendum to Sismondo’s paper.” Social studies of science 23(3): 555-563.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Latour (1988). “The politics of explanation: an alternative,” in S. Woolgar (Ed.), Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Sage, 155-176.

Law (1987). “Technology and heterogeneous engineering: The case of Portugese expansion,” in W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes and T. J. Pinch (Eds.), The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 111-134.

Pickering, A. (Ed.) (1992). Science as Practice and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shapin, S. (1982). “History of science and its sociological reconstructions.” History of Science xx: 157-211.

Sismondo, S. (1993a). “Some social constructions.” Social Studies of Science 23(3): 515-553.

—— (1993b). “Response to Knorr Cetina.” Social Studies of Science 23(3): 563-569.

Smith, B. H. (1997). “Microdynamics of incommensurability: Philosophy of science meets science studies,” in B. H. Smith and A. Plotinsky (Eds.), Mathematics, Science, and Post-classical Theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 243-266.

Taylor (1995). “Co-construction and process: a response to Sismondo’s classification of constructivisms.” Social Studies of Science 25: 348-359.

Wise, N. (1988). “Mediating machines.” Science in Context 2(1): 77-113.

Woolgar, S. (1981). “Interests and explanation in the social study of science.” Social Studies of Science 11: 365-394.


5 thoughts on “Constructionist interpretations of science

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