Tag Archives: heterogeneous construction

Reasons for science studies scholars to use critical judgement in engaging with the content of science

As I brushed off a 2011 talk “What to do if we think that researchers have overlooked a significant issue for 100 years?” to give again to philosophers of science and biologists together, a colleague mentioned the work of philosopher-historian of science, Hasok Chang, on complementary science.  So I watched his 2013 Presidential Address to the British Society for History of Science.  In this post I note that his list of reasons for science studies scholars to use critical judgement in engaging with the content of science could be expanded. Continue reading

“Democratic” control of science?

During the first live session for the Collaborative Exploration case about making an e-trail on the Democratic control of science (http://sicw.wikispaces.com/CEFeb14), the meaning of the term “democratic” arose.  This has led me along two paths: Continue reading

Political ecology—Further complexities and a schema to address them

(Continuing a 1998 draft paper on Political ecology–a fertile site for development of social theory [rough notes])

Further complexities and a schema to address them

Methodological choices are decisions made by analysts; the choices may be conditioned, but are never dictated by the nature of the situation studied.  Political ecological accounts ought, therefore, be considered not only in relation to the social-environmental situation they are representing, but also in relation to the wider influences shaping those methodological choices.  (This broad heuristic is informed by social studies of science; Hess 1997).  A direct sense of influence is involved in interests explanations, in which someone interpreting an analysis shows in whose interests it is to address problems, say, without attending to differentiation among unequal agents.

A more complex sense of influence—one that parallels the multiplicity and heterogeneity of elements in political ecological accounts—is the goal of “heterogeneous constructionism” (Taylor 1995).  This approach to interpreting the course of science seeks to expose the diverse practical, as well as conceptual, resources and interactions through which these researchers shape their work.  For example, Taylor (1992) analyzed research undertaken at MIT in the mid-1970s concerning the future of nomadic livestock herding in sub-Saharan Africa.  The computer models produced were shaped by the main modeler employing a range of resources, which included: the available computer compiler; published data; the short length of time both in the field and for the project as a whole; the work relations within the MIT team; the relationship of the United States and USAID to other international involvement in the region; the terms of reference set by USAID and the agency’s contradictory expectations of the project.[1]

Heterogeneous constructionism has a number of implications for thinking about political ecology: 1) An expanded sense of methodology is involved.  The choices are made not only in relation to representing the situation faithfully—the conventional goal attributed to research—but also in relation to the agency of the analysts.  The choices concern the influence they are having, or intending to have, in the intersecting social arenas in which they work, from the situation studied to the analysts’ scholarly communities.  Methodological choices are practical as well as theoretical matters. (Taylor 1992, 1995, 1998).

2) In contrast to the broad heuristics identified in this essay, in any particular study the researchers make much more specific decisions about funding sources, audience, research location, length of time in the field, informants, available and reliable sources of data, equipment, daily program of measurements, interviews, observations, and so on.  To identify the specific heuristics used, detailed empirical research observing and interviewing the analysts would be necessary.

3)  Heterogeneous construction adds considerable complexity to the project of political ecology.  Representing or theorizing the complexity of social-environmental situations is connected to negotiating the complexity of the social situations that enable different researchers to do their research.  And such complexity only increases when researchers promote change in either or both of these situations.  Let us, therefore, introduce our proposed schema for negotiating the interconnected complexities.

We contrast simple formulations with accounts that attend to the dynamic relations among unequal agents in particular situations.  As scholars we are drawn to more complex analyses, but, when it comes to social change—and here we include change even as small as influencing students and colleagues—we have to recognize that simpler themes are easier to communicate and appear to have more effect on political mobilization.  To address this tension we a) insert a position of intermediate complexity consisting of a larger, but potentially manageable number of characterizable processes; and b) apply heuristics that disturb simple analyses, open up questions, and point to the need for further work to address the complexities of particular cases.

For political ecological accounts of social-environmental situations, the simple formulations correspond to system-like conceptions, in which boundaries are clearly defined, and coherent dynamics or causal relations produce generalizable trajectories or phenomena.  The broad heuristics of the previous post point us to intermediate complexity, intersecting processes accounts.  Such accounts share, however, many features with unruly complexity and thus remind us of the need for further work to address the complexities of particular cases.

Another simple formulation is the scientific convention that foregrounds research into some situation while backgrounding inquiry into the situation of the researcher.  This foregrounding/backgrounding is disturbed by the broad heuristic that, because methodological choices are decisions made by analysts in social settings, scientific accounts need to be considered in relation to both the situation researched and the social situation of the researcher.[2]  The positions of intermediate and unruly complexity remain to be specified.

For analyzing the complexity of the social situations that enable different researchers to do their research, the simple formulation would be that scientific analyses reflect some mixture of the reality studied and the influences of society on the researchers.  This is disturbed by trying to expose the diverse practical, as well as conceptual, resources and interactions through which researchers shape their work.  The categories “reality” and/or “society” are too big to be useful when we consider what it means practically to conduct science.  The resulting heterogeneous constructionist accounts tend to produce idiosyncratic accounts, leaving the position of intermediate complexity to be specified.

Finally, another simple formulation is to foreground research into either (or both) the social-environmental situations and the situation of the researchers, while background efforts that change them.  The disturbing heuristics and the positions of intermediate and unruly complexity remain to be specified.



Hess, D. J. (1997). Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction. New York: New York University Press.Taylor, P. J. (1992). “Re/constructing socio-ecologies:  System dynamics modeling of nomadic pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa,” in A. Clarke and J. Fujimura (Eds.), The Right Tools for the Job:  At work in twentieth-century life sciences.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 115-148.Taylor, P. J. (1995). “Building on construction: An exploration of heterogeneous constructionism, using an analogy from psychology and a sketch from socio-economic modeling.” Perspectives on Science 3(1): 66-98.

Taylor, P. J. (1997). “How do we know we have global environmental problems?  Undifferentiated science-politics and its potential reconstruction,” in P. J. Taylor, S. E. Halfon and P. E. Edwards (Eds.), Changing Life: Genomes-Ecologies-Bodies-Commodities.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Taylor, P. J. (1998). “Mapping the complexity of social-natural processes: Cases from Mexico and Africa,” in F. Fischer and M. Hajer (Eds.), Living with Nature: Environmental Discourse as Cultural Critique.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1]  An emphasis on what it means practically for agents to modify science makes it appropriate to use the term construction.  The adjective heterogeneous, however, establishes some distance from standard views about social construction, which tend to imply that scientists’ accounts reflect or are determined by their social views.  The aim is to evoke the connotations construction has of a process of agents building by combining a diversity or heterogeneity of components or resources, as in people building a house or a nation rebuilding its economy after a war.  Although some of these resources will be real, material and perhaps unmodifiable aspects of the world, heterogeneous constructionism is not a realist philosophy of science.  The difficulty of modifying science always depends on how such ‘natural’ resources are linked by people in the making of science to other resources, including ‘social’ ones.  For this reason, heterogeneous constructionism is not philosophical relativism either (Taylor 1995).

[2]  Another broad heuristic with the same effect is to notice correlations between different analyses and different conceptions of what social action favored by the analyst (Taylor 1997).

Social Constructions II—heterogeneity and process omitted from accounts of the term (cont.)

(Continued from previous post)  Sismondo’s advice raises issues more serious than our questioning the status of philosophy over (or its separateness from) social studies of science. While he asserts that his constructivisms are separable and claims clarification will result from distinguishing a focus on social objects from a focus on the natural world, his argument, examples and footnotes suggest such separateness cannot be sustained in practice.  Again, taking each of Sismondo’s first three constructivisms (but flipping the order of 2 and 3 for expository reasons):

1) His examples of large social objects (or projects) are ‘genders, power, emotions… cities, economies, legislation and knowledge.’[xiv]   As social objects, cities and economies are clearly very material as well as being actively represented and full of meanings.  The degree to which representations of them render their material aspects more difficult to construct differently (or acrete upon differently), and vice versa, is an obvious question for investigation.  Surely knowledge is not the odd thing out in his list of examples, being the one meaningful thing (social object) that has a relationship only in the direction from material/natural to representation/ social.

3) The ubiquity of manufactured reality in laboratory science confirms that knowledge is not the exception, as Sismondo makes clear in a footnote: The ‘phenomena that science studies are extremely dependent on thoughts and theoretical commitments, for often these would not exist were it not for the experimental development of these theoretical commitments.’  The question then arises, why is it important to try to place a line to keep manufactured reality strictly separate from some deep underlying unmediated reality?

2)  In the light of Sismondo’s expanded lists of ‘fixed’ points, the answer becomes uncertain.  When these points included only data and observations one could argue that some ‘geometrically’ constructed conceptual entities come to be accepted over others because they map reality better, because they are approximately true.  But the ‘because’ is more difficult to sustain when construction builds as well upon ‘resources and the like,’ that is, upon social objects; acceptance of knowledge (or reliability of technological interventions) becomes, instead, a part of a more complex achievement.  (I develop this point further below.)

Linked together in this way, Sismondo’s conclusions invite us to subvert his own distinctions by considering the co-construction of knowledge and material reality, extending from laboratory manufactured reality to larger social projects.  It is true, as he says, that in social studies of science different things have been described as being constructed — the natural world, scientific phenomena and techniques, acceptance of facts and theories, on-going scientific activity, ‘social objects,’ or society or more generally.  At the same time, however, the literature has increasingly described practices in which these things are interlinked: scientific objects appear to be resources for people building networks to support theories; theories resources in the organisation of scientific work; language, tools, and scientific work relations resources enabling particular manufacturings of reality, and so on.  This kind of constructivism shifts perspective not just from separate things to jointly constructed sets of things, but from thinking mostly about the constructed state of the outcomes to examining the processes of their co-construction.[xv]  Of course, from the point of view of the philosophically minded, sociologists of science have provided stories about such complexity, but have yet to tease out the causal or explanatory claims implied in descriptions of such interlinkings.  An examination of the implications of such an explanatory co-constructivist project is beyond the scope of this note.  We can, however, consider how Sismondo’s philosophical and political arguments are limited by his inattention to co-construction and process.  (Continued in the next post)


[xiv]  S1, p.547

[xv]  Sismondo’s focus on the status of outcomes leads him to address Latour’s and Woolgar’s work only in terms of the fourth category of constructivism, the one he rejects.  Both Latour and Woolgar are constructivists also in the sense of co-construction (see note 8).  Cf. Sismondo’s description of Latour’s work on scientists as accumulators of resources (op. cit. note 3) as “not obviously constructivist” (S1, p. 537).

Social Constructions—heterogeneity and process omitted from accounts of the term

The Social Construction of What? (Harvard UP, 2000) by philosopher of science, Ian Hacking, critically reviews the possible meanings of social construction in the context of scientific knowledge and technology.  However, there is one meaning of construction that he does not consider, perhaps the most obvious one to the common person, namely, the process of building a structure from diverse materials, as in the foundations, frames, walls, roof, plumbing and electrical circuits, and so on.  Several years before I had raised this point in “Co-construction and process: a response to Sismondo’s classification of constructivisms,” Social Studies of Science, 25 (2): 348-359, 1995.  (My title was “Heterogeneous construction and process,” but editor insisted on substituting “co-construction” wherever I had “heterogeneous construction.”  Sismondo is another Canadian philosopher of science, at that time a student at Cornell University where I worked.)  I am not aware of other commentaries that examine this omission.  This post and the following, therefore, extract from that paper.


Any classification into types can clarify our view of the whole while, at the same time, distracting our attention from hybrids and the processes by which they are formed and sustained.[i]  In this light, the recent review by Sismondo, which teases out some of the multiple meanings given to the term ‘construction,’ and his subsequent exchange with Knorr Cetina,[ii] should leave us troubled.  Many of us are interested in the processes of science in the making, in which scientific theories, materials, tools, language, institutions, and wider social relations are being co-constructed, and are trying to analyse the diverse ‘resources’ drawn upon by agents in such co-construction processes.[iii]   Sismondo’s classification makes little space for that strand of social studies of science, focussing as it does on the type of thing being produced, not the processes of their production.  Knorr Cetina does not take issue with him on that account.  She applauds his review as an overdue clarification of constructivisms (constructionisms) and, after a brief plug for philosophers to become more sociological, centres her response on defending a conceptual claim about representations preceeding existence (more on that issue later).  If clarification means providing distinctions we should work with, we should be less satisfied with Sismondo’s taxonomy.  I feel like a misfit, and so, I suspect, do the many who have over the last decade been attracted to ideas such as ‘ecologies of knowledge,’[iv] ‘intersecting social worlds,’[v] ‘heterogeneous engineering,’[vi] and actors’ ‘networks’ of resources.[vii]   This note, however, does not criticise Sismondo just for the omission of a major category of constructivism,[viii] but argues that, from the perspective of what is omitted, his classification scheme breaks down.  The distinctions do not hold in practice and Sismondo’s conclusions about reconciling social studies of science with philosophy and about politics are not justified.


Sismondo claims that social studies of science can benefit from distinguishing four separable uses of the term construction, differing in the type of thing being produced.  The payoff derives in part from clearing up the confusions that result when different authors (or the same author in different places) are arguing from different interpretations of the term.  The rest of the benefit derives from letting go of the last of the four constructivisms, namely that things do not exist until we represent and make them meaningful.  As Sismondo interprets it, this view is metaphysically untenable.  In his analogy, while the uninhabited Pacific island is only meaningful when it is encountered and charted, it certainly existed beforehand and would not have been found otherwise, so we can now meaningfully invoke its existence-before-encounter in our explanations of its discovery.  The fourth constructivism, in contrast, implies that successful accounts of the world are unconstrained by the underlying nature of material reality.  Such relativism should also be opposed, he adds in his reply to Knorr Cetina, because it is an obstacle to politically valuable analyses of the scientific inadequacy of certain beliefs.  Then, once Sismondo has rid us of this troublesome beast, he is quite relaxed about the other three senses of constructivism he discerns in sociology of science; each can be reconciled with the realist and politically motivated philosophy of science he favours.[ix]

Consider, however, the fine print of the reconciliation that follows rejection of the fourth constructivism.  Sismondo’s three pieces of advice (corresponding to his first three constructivisms) are that we should:[xi]

1) pay attention to the contingent interaction of many agents, possibly in conflict, as they make social ‘objects’ in science (institutions, gender relations, power, and, in particular, knowledge) by acretion from previous social objects;

2) extend our notion of ‘fixed points’ from which conceptual entities are constructed (as in a geometrical proof) to include, not just ‘data and observations,’ but also ‘tools, resources, and the like’[xii]; and

3) explore the conceptual implications of science’s making extensive use of laboratory artefacts, in the production of which (unmediated) nature has been systematically excluded from the manufactured reality.

Given that these are directions already taken in sociology of science, he is, in effect, advising philosophers of science to follow sociology of science’s lead.  If this constitutes a reconciliation it is not one in which philosophy preserves its own terms, the separateness of its turf, and its status as arbiter of ‘plausible positions.’[xiii]

But Sismondo’s advice raises issues more serious than our questioning the status of philosophy over (or its separateness from) social studies of science (continued in the next post).

[i]  Of course, some hybrids disappear when the particular classification can be refined or replaced by one on a different basis.  (Orange and purple are hybrids if colours are divided into red, yellow or blue, but not if we subdivide the colour spectrum further.)  But even when re-classifying is possible, one still has to address users of the original, hybrid-entailing classification.  This note is concerned with just such a situation.

[ii]  S. Sismondo, ‘Some social constructions’, Social studies of science , Vol. 23 No. 3 (1993), 515-554 [S1]; K. Knorr-Cetina, ‘Strong constructivism – from a sociologist’s point of view: A personal addendum to Sismondo’s paper’, Social studies of science , Vol. 23 No. 3 (1993), 555-563 [KC]; S. Sismondo, ‘Response to Knorr Cetina’, Social studies of science , Vol. 23 No. 3 (1993), 563-569 [S2].

[iii]  B. Latour, We have never been modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993) discusses the challenges of hybrids for science studies and social theory, but his book does not deal with the conceptual implications of treating construction as a process.  A recent (post-Sismondo) article by A. Pickering, ‘The mangle of practice: Agency and emergence in the sociology of science’, American Journal of Sociology , Vol. 99 No. 3 (1993), 559-589, shares with this note an emphasis on process and co-construction (his ‘mangle’ and ‘impure dynamics’).

[iv]  C. Rosenberg, ‘Wood or trees?:  Ideas and actors in the history of science’, Isis , Vol. 79 (1988), 565-570.  See also S. Star, ‘Introduction: The sociology of science and technology’, Social Problems, Vol. 35 (1988), 197-205.

[v]  A. Clarke, ‘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, 1991), 119-158.

[vi]  J. Law, ‘Technology and heterogeneous engineering: The case of Portugese expansion’, in W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes, and T. J. Pinch (ed.), The social construction of technological systems: New directions in the sociology and history of technology  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 111-134.

[vii]  B. Latour, Science in Action:  How to follow scientists and engineers through society (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987).

[viii]  We might also use the label heterogeneous constructionism, to capture an emphasis on the heterogeneity of elements or resources drawn into the practice of science in the making.  Under this general label, I would distinguish two strands, the first emphasising rhetorical, interpretive and textual tactics in securing belief, and the second centred on asking what it would mean practically for agents to modify scientific activity.  It is beyond the scope of this note, however, to develop the meaning and implications of heterogeneity, so I use the simpler label, co-construction and will not make anything of the distinction between rhetorical/textual practices and a more general sense of practice.

[ix]  In S1, note 6, Sismondo states a “minimalist” definition of realism: “scientific terms often refer to antecedently existent entities in the world,” and, by implication, our explanations of science can refer to the (pre-)existence of such entities prior to our accounts of them.  In practice, his (and other realists’) arguments use a stronger version, namely, that this fact is central to making sense of science’s successes.  It is this stronger version that I call into question here.

[xi]  S1, pp. 547-8.

[xii]  Cf. S1, pp. 516 and 547 in S1.

[xiii]  S2, p.566

The Fifth Branch: Description, prescription, explanation

Notes from 9 Feb. 1993

1.  In The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers (Harvard UP, 1990) Sheila Jasanoff (SJ) indicates that she desires stable regulatory outcomes.  She observes that this has been achieved most readily when scientists and policymakers negotiate rather than rigidly demarcate in advance the boundaries of science and policy.  At the same time, “science” and “policy” are used as boundary markers to prevent the negotiation going “too far,” that is, the issue getting opened up to wider political dispute and the public or branches of government derailing the regulatory procedures.

2.  No principles are derived to explain what amount of boundary blurring/crossing vs. demarcation is likely to produce stability vs. instability.  (SJ’s descriptions of the deconstruction of science and policy in cases in which negotiation went too far simply establish the existence of the problem of de/stabilization.)  Explanatory principles would require some framework/ theory of changing economics, politics, and communication in the USA.

3.  Deconstruction of the political dimensions of science should be possible in all cases, not just those in which the parties do so, nor just on their terms.  Ideas of social action, big and small, are built into science through the problems identified, categories chosen, relationships investigated, data collected, degree of confirmation sought, audiences addressed, and so on.  To explain the content and dynamics of science, including science in the regulatory domain, we need to expose this (heterogeneous) co-construction of science and social action.

4.  Exposure of such co-constructedness is potentially destabilizing, but, unless one shares SJ’s commitment to stabilized regulatory results, this is not a problem.  In fact, in the absence of such exposure and destabilization, the discourse about science and policy is likely to remain on the level of science vs. policy (albeit with a negotiated or contested border zone), and technocratic vs. democratic politics.  These categories are too gross to be insightful about the dynamics (see 2) that are producing the science/technology, regulation, and participation in question.

5.  Despite these criticisms, I do not agree with some prominent sociologists of science who dismiss science and policy as boring, that is, overladen with bureaucratic acronyms, swayed by obvious political maneuvring, and breaking no new ground theoretically (i.e., for Sociology of Scientific Knowledge).  We should examine science in the regulatory arena because

a) it differs from both marginal science and basic science on which sociology of science has concentrated; and

b) cases of the closure in regulatory science challenge sociology of science to go beyond micro-studies of interpretive flexibility and tackle the difficulties of explaining closure.  In regulatory science it would be hard to find cases in which influences shaping closure are not drawn from multiple levels, spanning individuals and political economy.

The conflation of family and population helps explain why the Nature vs. Nurture formulation persists IV

This series of posts casts doubt on the idea that there are genes for most traits and that genetics or genomics will be able to identify those genes.  Of course, genetic and environmental factors are involved in the development of traits, but heterogeneity means that these factors need not be the same across all families within a population.  Yet claims that researchers are now finding, or can be expected to find, genes for X and Y abound without reference made to the problem that heterogeneity poses for their claims—a problem that can be understood without any technical specialization.  My argument in these posts has been that the blindspot about finding genes for traits comes from a persistent conflation of family and population.

Let me put forward a conjecture:  The conflation derives from people being readily able to envisage family-level care and support, but not so readily able to envisage social-level support.  People can see that social institutions “care more about” (i.e., operate so as to ensure) their own perpetuation than they do about individuals.  People have a stronger sense that being cared for is possible at a family level, even if their own family falls short of their ideal.

The challenge that follows from this conjecture is not only to expose the limitations of gene for X thinking and research, but to contribute to a sense that social institutions can be supportive and caring.  Moreover, they can do so in ways beyond treating each individual simply as a member of a population, all subject to the same, say, fluoridation of water supply, seat belt laws, and so on.   To meet this challenge is to address the different pathways, each consisting of heterogeneous factors, that lead to any outcome in the world, from our heights to our income, health,and happiness.  Somehow a caring society has to support each of us in all our heterogeneous constructions.